Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A question to Martial's readers: how much of it is true?

Serious question - I would like to know what people think.

As an academic as well as a translator, I'm reasonably well up on bits and pieces of the scholarship on Martial and on ancient Latin satire generally. Scholars long ago took on board the idea that satire is a kind of performance (perhaps of masculinity), and that the speaking "I" presented by satirical texts is a character, a mask, or, to give 'mask' its Latin name, a persona. I am personally comfortable with, and in, this idea.

From the 1990s onward, in the wake of important work by (in particular) Susanna Braund pushed this idea forward and explored new implications. Looking at Juvenal, Braund observed that the "I"s presented in the various Satires are not just mutually inconsistent but self-undermining. The satirical persona, in other words, was among other things a focus of humour -- a running joke that the satirist's more clued-up readers were in on.

This is an idea that seems to work for Martial wonderfully well, in all sorts of ways. Older scholarship got hung up on questions like, Is Martial married? to which the answer now would probably be, If it works for the joke in that poem; but also perhaps, Yes and no, and his inability to pin himself to a position is part of what makes him deliberately unreliable and thus good comic value (perpetually, piquantly, pleasantly surprising). In his statements of personal taste and principle, Martial is consistent only insofar as he consistently undermines what he has said or will say somewhere else...

But is that all there is to him? What do you find in Martial (whether you take 'Martial' to mean the text or the person) that strikes you as real, not just some witty literary game of masks? Is his 'Rome' a mere La-La Land or  LA Story, or is it the real deal (to the extent that we can speak of such a storied place being real)? His anecdotes, his friendships -- how really real do you take it all to be?

I'd gratefully welcome comments and promise to reply to them.


  1. "His Rome" feels very real to me! But of course it's his Rome - gossipy, hypocritical, hard to stay afloat in. A lot like LA Story which is my favourite movie! I do get some sense of Rome as a whole from Martial, but only obliquely.

    As for the "real Martial", that's much more nebulous. I don't get any sense of the man from the work. He's all about his personas. But I like it that way.

    1. There's a very real sense in which his-and-Juvenal's 'Rome' may be the best we'll ever get - almost regardless of its factual relation to "what actually happened". Not necessarily true, but truthy?

      So much happens to LA in movies, doesn't it? And particularly LA things - often reflexively commenting on and celebrating its unique nature as, among other things, America's home of film-making itself. There have perhaps only been a handful of cities that, through pervasive mediation, have successfully turned themselves into legends in their own lifetimes in this way: Alexandria, Rome, Paris, London, New York, LA...

    2. I also very much like your characterisation of Martial as 'nebulous': there is a cloud-like aspect (in the distributed and bitty sense) to his self-representation, which is here-and-there in a qualitative as well as a material sense. It must, I think, be part of his comic-satirical schtick; but is it more than just a running gag? Is Martial-the-megatext saying something, through 'Martial' the recurring but inconsistent persona, about - for instance - what big-city living does to the individual sense of self?