Locating the Text: Walking Martial Around Rome

Hello, long time no see! I’m afraid I’ve been kept busy finalising my thesis (which I submitted just under a month ago, now. Hurrah!), which left less time for this blog than I’d hoped. I do have a few ideas going forward, though, so let’s see if this can become a bit more regular again.

As part of my post-submission relaxation period, which happily co-incided with my university’s reading week (i.e. no classes to teach!), I spent a few days in Rome with a colleague, whom I merrily dragged around the Eternal City. What I hadn’t been expecting was that the trip would put some of my own conclusions within the thesis into sharper focus. In short, the world of the text because more physical for me. One small example is when I discovered that the poet Martial had become monumentalised in the form of the Via Marziale (Martial Way):

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But that’s not all that surprised me.

It is a common criticism of us literary types that we do not ‘get’ the wider context of the literature that we are studying, that we are so buried in our books (and our theory) that we cannot accurately understand the world in which our authors worked. This is, perhaps, an oversimplification, but it is worth acknowledging. I personally try my best to work between various sub-disciplines in Classics (Latin philology, historiography, and archaeology (the latter to a lesser extent)) to reconstruct the most accurate picture of the ancient world that I can. That said, you’d be surprised how much the physical world that the text describes comes back to life when you walk around the modern city of Rome.

Part of the argument in my thesis about Martial’s treatment of Domitian in book 7 is that the poet continues heaping panegyric upon his emperor to create the image of a divine figure (whom the populace fiercely misses) as a thematic hub around which the rest of the books’ themes orientate themselves. One crucial poem is the penultimate epigram in a programmatic series that praises the emperor for his expected triumph over the Sarmatians on the empire’s north-eastern border. The language is hyperbolic, but the central idea is that Domitian is away from the city and sorely missed:

Though the wintry Bear-star and wild Peuce,
And Hister warming to hoof-beats,
And the Rhine now broken by a thrice shameless horn
Hold you, mastering the kingdoms of a perfidious race,
You, the greatest commander of the earth and parent of the world,
You, however, cannot be absent from our prayers.
There with our eyes and minds are we, Caesar,
So utterly do you alone hold the thoughts of all,
That the very crowd of the great Circus [Maximus] knows not
Whether Passerinus or Tigris runs. (Mart. 7.7)

There is a strong emphasis here on the distance of the emperor from his city, and the fact that the chariot-races that normally fill the populace with joy seem meaningless without the princeps‘ presence. I had previously noted that the poet’s decision to focus on the city as one large multitude emphasises this point all the more, but my recent visit to Rome made another point click into place: the proximity of the Circus Maximus to the Palatine palace.

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The Circus Maximus (centre), overlooked by the Palatine Palace (right)

The palace itself overlooks the Circus Maximus, meaning that those attending the races there would be dominated by its presence, and have the emperor’s influence physically constructed before them. When reading this poem, we should imagine a dejected populace sadly reminded of Domitian’s absence by the imposing structure on the Palatine – instead of watching the horses Passerinus and Tigris, the poet suggests, the populace are instead gazing dejectedly at the palace above them and praying for the emperor’s return. For a Roman reader, one used to the city, this backdrop to the poem is a lot more obvious than to someone idly flipping through a Loeb in south-west England.

I realise that this is a bit of a minor point that serves to reinforce my wider argument about Domitian in this poem, but I wonder what else we miss by not reading the physical city into the poems themselves. Martial’s Epigrams are firmly rooted in the city, and at times I feel very divorced from the world that the poet creates for me. I suppose this means I might have to force myself to wander Rome’s streets again in the future, which isn’t the worst thing in the world really, but for now I’ll try to think more carefully about the physical locations within the textual world the poet creates.

PhDing in a Foreign Land

Just over a year ago I did something that was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done: I got on a plane and set out to spend three months in another country to continue my PhD research and improve my foreign language skills. This was the longest I’ve ever spent abroad by myself, and I was shocked (and surprised) by how much I learned about myself while out there, and the personal challenges I faced. I thought that in this post I’d share some of those experiences to try and help any other research students out there looking to do some research abroad.

How to Get There

Possibly the most important thing on the list is to get where you want to go. This is a bit more complicated than just hopping on a plane; you’ll need to select a host institution, find a colleague to work with, and try to get any funding to cover your travel costs. This is actually a lot like choosing a PhD supervisor and institution, but with the added advantage that you’ll probably know more about your project at this stage (and you’re not burdened with your choice for the next three years).

I narrowed it down to two institutions, and decided on Munich in the end. This city has produced a bunch of Martial scholars who’ve heavily influenced the field, and the option to meet these people was too good to miss. The person I contacted at Munich also got back to me very quickly and although she couldn’t supervise me due to her being on sabbatical she put me in contact with a late PhD student of hers who was hugely helpful. The other institution… was less helpful, and the scholar I would have worked with was very busy. I went with my gut.

For funding I was lucky enough to have a fund specifically designed for AHRC students to travel with, but there are numerous institutions like the DAAD which regularly advertise this kind of travel scholarship. My advice would be to get everything sorted out a long time before you travel as deadlines can be quite tight (I didn’t apply to the DAAD in the end because of this). It might be worth considering waiting until the next funding round to get everything sorted in time. The Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität also helped source my accommodation for me (which was a godsend), but there are loads of good websites out there to help you out. Make sure to ask your local contact(s) for advice and support.

What to Do When You’re There (Academic)

The number 1 priority for me was to improve my reading and conversational German, but it’s also worth experiencing life and study in another country, as well as seeing what you can while you’re there.

I found improving my conversational German very difficult when I was in Munich because Germans tend to try and practice their (irritatingly good) English on you. If you discover that people find it easier to communicate with you in English I’d suggest finding a couple of people who are exceedingly patient to practice on (elderly landladies are perfect for this). I’d also recommend doing what I didn’t and joining an intensive language programme. They can be expensive, but the results speak volumes. The proudest moment of my stay was going grocery shopping for my landlady and managing the whole trip in German (the frozen red cabbage was particularly hard!). After nearly a month and a half feeling like I couldn’t express myself it was moments like this that really boosted my confidence. My spoken German is still not perfect, but I’m so much faster than when I started, and my reading abilities have sky-rocketed. It’s worth being honest with the levels you can achieve while you’re there as well. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

You should also check out the institution while you’re there. Find out how their research culture works, how their undergraduates learn, and how they socialise. I found it a bit odd that there was a much sharper distinction between work time and free time (lots of very serious German faces 9-5, for instance), but the sense of community was stronger too. The more you can see and do the better. I also gave a research talk (in English) and got to meet several colleagues at this and other events (including those scholars I mentioned earlier). Make sure to make the most of the time you have, too – going over and chatting to some big-shot professor because you may never get another chance is a good idea, and you might well be the most interesting person in the room at this point too so knock yourself out. If all else fails you won’t be there long, anyway.

What to Do When You’re There (Non-Academic)

Don’t forget that this is still a trip. Travel! See the world! What’s the point of going hundreds of miles to simply sit in another dark room reading books and articles? The chances are you’ll have far too much spare time in a strange, new place anyway so you can always catch up on work in the quiet hours. The worst thing to do is just sit around feeling sorry for yourself – force yourself out of the front door and see the local sights, walk the block. See, feel, smell, hear, and taste the novelty. If you don’t when’s your next chance? What stories will you tell your envious friends at home when you get back?

I guarantee that travelling for part of your PhD can be one of the hardest parts of the doctorate, but it’s also been one of the most rewarding for me. I’ve met so many exciting new people, seen and experienced new things, and got to travel a bit more of Europe in the process. This is the most free you’ll ever be in your academic life, so go out there and, as a wise philosopher once put it, just do it.

Stella’s Silvae? Hints at Martial’s Lost Contemporaries

This post is a bit more conjectural than usual, but as a Martial scholar I have a mind fine-tuned towards identifying metapoetic markers in poetry. Making allusions to contemporary poets and predecessors was a standard feature of ancient poetry (and modern music too, if you follow court cases about whether or not Stairway to Heaven’s intro riff was plagiarised), but the level of Martial’s allusivity is problematized by the fact that many of his contemporaneous authors are no longer extant. I’ve already written before how one poem in book 7 could be an epitaph for Valerius Flaccus, but it seems to me that Martial could also be making reference to the work of another contemporary poet: Arruntius Stella.

Stella was an important figure in Domitianic Rome, and was one of Martial’s leading patrons from the first book of the Epigrams. In book 7 Martial pays special treatment to his wife Violentilla, whom the epigrammatist gives the pseudonym Ianthis (providing a Greek variant of the etymology of her name from ‘violet’ – her name is actually more like ‘violent’, but that’s not so pretty…). In particular, in book 7 Martial focuses on a fountain in her back garden in poems 15 and 50 which apparently had a series of statues clustered around it that evoked the mythical rape of Hylas, with Hercules watching over the fountain protectively from a nearby grove. It’s this grove that particularly grabs my attention.

Here, at 7.15.3, Martial notes that “the Tyrinthian [i.e. Hercules] is worshipped in that wood” (silva colitur Tirynthius ista). Groves are places of significant importance in Latin poetry, in particular for staple tree-felling scenes in epic and the so-called loci amoeni (beautiful places) of idylls, but it is the word silva that attracts my interest. The word means both wood (the material) and wood (a forest), and carries the same metapoetic potential as the Greek term hulē for the very stuff that poetry is made of. At the same time as this poem was being written, Statius was writing short ex tempore poems entitled the Silvae, whose title could be translated as “Drafts” or just “Stuff.” It might be a long shot, but I believe that when Martial states that Hercules is worshipped/cultivated in a specific silva, when ostentatiously talking to Stella’s wife Ianthis (in a poem referencing the journey of the Argonauts), he could be making reference to an elegiac poem written by Stella that uses Hercules as a character.

Bear with me a moment.

It is clear that Stella wrote elegiac poetry – Martial introduces us to this fact the very first time that Stella appears, and frequently returns to this whenever his patron features in the Epigrams. In 7.14 for instance, the poem immediately before the first fountain poem with its silva, he describes a scene where Ianthis weeps at the death of Stella’s ‘dove’ immediately after referring to Catullus’ famous sparrow. Canny readers might well know that Catullus’ sparrow poems which remark on how Lesbia (his elegiac girlfriend) plays with the poet’s ‘sparrow’ in his lap has long been interpreted as the poet’s penis, and swiftly became an elegiac trope imitated by (amongst others) Propertius and Ovid. Indeed, when Martial first introduced Stella at 1.7 he did so stating that “my Stella’s ‘dove’ is greater than Catullus’ ‘sparrow.’” The poet’s potency is, well, reduced to a pun on the poet’s potency. At any rate, Stella is constantly introduced with references to his poetry, so the introduction of a silva, a place of strong metapoetic potential, in 7.15 makes it very tempting to read another sidelong glance at Stella into the book.

One further clue is how elegiac 7.15 is. By this I mean how much 7.15 reads like a love poem. The elegiac theme of milita amoris (military service of love) appears in this poem in the transformation of the overly-macho demigod Hercules into a lovesick guardian, tempted by the pangs of his own lust. Check out the full poem:

Which boy here stands by Ianthis’ shining waters?
Does he escape, a Hylas from his Naiad mistress?
Oh it is well that the Tirynthian is worshipped in that wood
And protects the amorous waters so near!
Although you tend these fountains secure, Argynnus,
The Nymphs will do nothing: beware lest he wants something!

Hercules stands guard in this poem, trying to protect another potential Hylas (the statue Argynnus) from being stolen away by nymphs. The waters are threatening, aroused by the potential rape (“amorous waters”), and even Hercules is pricked by desire (“beware lest he wants something”). The attention focused on the statues around the fountain recalls that of Propertius’ desire for Cynthia’s statuesque form in elegy 1.3, with the desired person utterly objectified. Finally, given Ianthis’ role as Stella’s elegiac girlfriend in his own poetry, this poem drips with elegiac markers. In Martial’s own short draft (silva) there are so many allusions to elegiac tropes and Stella’s poetry in particular that it seems unlikely that the poet would not be referring to a similar scene in his patron’s work.

But then again, maybe a wood is sometimes just a wood…

Bibliography

Wray, D. (2007) ‘Wood: Statius’ Silvae and the Poetics of Genius’ Arethusa 40, 127-43.

This article gives a brilliant rundown of the metapoetic potential of silva in Latin poetry, and explores how Statius tries to characterise his poetry by its innate genius.

Happy Birthday Martial!

It would be remiss of me to let the 1st March to pass by unannounced. Partly because it’s my brother’s birthday, but also because he shares it with Marcus Valerius Martialis. The poet lets us know his date of birth in epigram 12.60, and his very name Martial (lit. ‘Of Mars/March’) flags up his association with the month.

I don’t have anything substantial to offer my author as a gift on this birthday, but it’s always nice to mark these very human occasions. Just for one moment I’m happy to let the mask of a persona theorist (see what I did there?) slip and to feel a physical connection to the man whose works I try to clarify on a daily basis.

And to my brother, happy 30th! I certainly hope we celebrate these Kalends for a long time to come!

All the Text’s a Stage: Persona Theory in Antiquity

[Following my last post’s tradition there is some reference below to obscene sex acts, but I treat it as euphemistically as possible]

I’m coming to the end of this year’s seminar teaching, and one of the key issues I’ve tried to ram home to my students is persona theory. Simply put, it’s the act of recognising that the authorial voice in the text is not necessarily the same as the author’s own voice. I could tell a (misogynistic) joke about my wife, for instance, without requiring to be married in the first place.

The key change this makes to us moderns reading an ancient text is how far we trust the authorial I. Not too long ago critics were happy to say, for instance, that Catullus wrote his poems to Lesbia, his lover, who definitely was Clodia Metelli, the sister of Clodius Pulcher. In the wake of viewing all texts as theatres for the author to adopt a role dependent on the specific circumstances of the text (love poem, love poet, elegiac persona) this changes significantly. Catullus is presenting himself as a the lover of a woman named Lesbia, whom we might be invited to read as Clodia Metelli (Lesbius est pulcer c. 79.1), but in the text is nothing more than a textual construct, a fiction. The persona theorist would thus find it more interesting to see how the text acts out this drama, how it affects the reader, rather than reconstructing historical truths based off the text itself.

So far so typical. The only potential issue is that the ancients didn’t necessarily make such a distinction between authorial voice and author. The famous story in Suetonius’s Life of Julius Caesar, for instance, is that Caesar was incensed by some of Catullus’ poems concerning himself and Mamurra (c. 57 is particularly fruity). As Suetonius records it (Iul. 73), these poems left a “permanent stain” upon his reputation, and Catullus had to formally apologise to Caesar over dinner, after which the future dictator exhibited his famous clemency and everything went back to normal. How serious this matter was is indicated by Suetonius’ curt statement at the end of this section – after the apology Caesar resumed all normal business with Catullus’ father. In other words, one of the most politically significant men in Rome took the matter so personally as to break off all dealings with the poet’s family. It looks like Caesar got the last laugh.

There does, however, seem to be some separation between poet and persona. Catullus complains that some people judged him to be a mollis vir (lit. ‘soft/effeminate man’) because he wrote so many poems about love and kissing. His response in c. 16 is to let rip with a threat to anally and orally penetrate his detractors, literally silencing them with the force of his manhood. Similarly, but less obscenely, Martial stresses to Domitian that while his poems are rude and lascivious he himself is not: lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba (1.4.8).

There is a key difference between Martial and Catullus, though. Catullus’ invective against real world figures had real world consequences. By Martial’s day (the end of the 1st century AD) the principate was firmly established, and the poet takes pains not to directly attack real people. As he admits at 2.23, discussing the identity of the pseudonym Postumus, why should he risk legal proceedings by identifying his targets? This then begs the question, when Martial praises Domitian to the skies (with what some would call sickening levels of sycophancy) did the emperor see any potential for poetic exaggeration, or did he actually think he was a Lord and God (dominus et deus)?

I don’t think this is the case at all. The emperor was a supporter of the Arts, and had engaged in poetic composition as a youth (Suet. Dom. 2), and it is highly unlikely that he would publicly proclaim himself to be a god. Indeed, such behaviour was taken as one of the signs of Caligula’s madness (Suet. Calig. 22). As B. W. Jones notes, there is also no real evidence that Domitian ever put titles such as dominus et deus in public practice. It seems that some things were left to the realm of panegyrical poetry.

One nice parallel to the panegyric of Domitian exists in Pliny the Younger’s Letters. Writing to a friend he describes a comic play just performed by a certain Vergilius Romanus in which real and pseudonymous names are scattered throughout. Pliny is able to see through the fiction straightaway and, in a self-aggrandising move, comments that Romanus’ praise of the senator in this play did go a bit too far:

[In this play Vergilius Romanus] honoured virtues, he attacked vices; he made use of fictive names (fictis nominibus) decently, true ones aptly. About me he exceeded such a style with too much kindness but for the fact that it is acceptable for poets to lie (poetis mentiri licet). (Plin. Ep. 6.21.5-6)

Pliny then urges his friend to read the play and see for himself this young poet’s brilliance. So far so Pliny. What interests me, though, is the assertion that it is acceptable for poets to make fabrications in their writing (poetis mentiri licet). The comment is made rather flippantly, but it does show a separation between the world of the text and the real world, between reality and fiction. To Pliny, then, there is an idea of personae in Romanus’ work. Pliny is flattered by his depiction in the work, but he also notes that it is not fully representative of the historical Pliny.

Does this mean that the ancient audiences would have seen through texts? I think this is a far more difficult question than I’ve been able to address here – Apuleius identifies women behind all of the fictional women in love elegy, for instance (Apol. 10.3). It’s certainly a question of what the text is doing – if Romanus had attacked Pliny it is doubtless that the senator would have sued for defamation, but as he is being praised there is a sense of safe exaggeration. At the very least, though, it is worth treating our ancient sources with a wariness that, it seems, men like Pliny were also capable of.

Bibliography

Jones, B. W. (1992) The Emperor Domitian, London. [a well-balanced biography of the last Flavian emperor]

NSFW? Teaching Obscenity in the Classroom

Just a warning that a lot of today’s post is decidedly NSFW – I’ll be scattering obscenities throughout, and focusing on one particularly strong (and offensive) example.

I’m currently TAing on a module called Roman Laughter, a wide-ranging module that moves from Cicero’s in Pisonem and Catullus to Roman verse satire, fable, and epigram. The one glaring gap on the module is Roman Comedy, but the module’s focus on invective and political commentary (combined with the broad range of authors and genres) mean that the gap isn’t too noticeable really. My role is as the seminar leader, running seminars in which students are divided into two teams who debate on a particular motion (is the in Pisonem more occupied with destroying Piso or raising Cicero, is Martial more provocative than Catullus, is Juvenal 6 misogynistic, etc). Students are assigned one side of the argument on arrival to the class, so they have to prepare for both sides of the argument. On the whole it works quite well – the students debate some pretty complex issues and talk with one another more often than at me.

The area where I get the most input, though, is in a 10 minute section at the start of the class for a warm-up session where we work through some of the broader issues of the course. This week I’ve been discussing poetic personae, which might be worth another blog in the future, but in the first seminar I ran I decided to focus on the nature of obscenity.

The exercise was relatively simple: I asked my students to pair up and have a brief chat about what they wanted to get out of the module (pretty normal for my introductory seminars), and also to come up with a particularly good obscenity. I then went round the class and got them to say the offending word to me so that I could put it on the whiteboard for a discussion afterwards on what makes obscenity obscene. The aim was to defuse the power of obscene language in the classroom so that my students would feel more comfortable directly quoting the sources in class and discussing them (Catullus 16 is the most obvious example of this), while also letting me get to know each student’s interests and quirks.

Again, on the whole this worked. At least one student per class was willing to choose “cunt” as their swear word, which then let us discuss what it is about this particular word that’s particularly offensive. Marginalisation of women, societal use (some students were perfectly fine with its use), its relation to sexual organs, and the sound of the word all got a mentioned, and I made some links between ancient and modern views on not discussing female genitalia in polite conversation.

What I wasn’t necessarily planning on was non-sexual obscenity, and that became most apparent in one class where a student rather cautiously said “nigger”. The room instantly grew quieter – it became painfully clear that we were all middle class white students, for instance – and I was briefly taken aback; in all my planning I hadn’t prepared for a word that has such a strong social impact to be mentioned.

After an awkward moment or two, though, we got back into the swing of things – I acknowledged everyone’s discomfort, briefly focused on the fact that this word is particularly intended as a social slur and has a lot of cultural history and importance. Seeing that my students were still feeling a bit cautious during the section discussing what makes obscenity obscene I told the group we’d focus on the sexual obscenities instead, as the “N-bomb” belonged to a separate class of obscenity altogether and had a particularly modern slant (I don’t think the Romans really had a parallel concept).

On reflection I think the situation went well, though I probably stuttered a bit before I found a comfortable way to take the discussion. While I had intended to partly shock my students (I led with a deliberately provocative statement that “If you’re uncomfortable with words like shit, fuck, cunt, and schlong then you need to be able to deal with them in textual analysis…”) I hadn’t expected anything so personally offensive to appear. I definitely feel more equipped to deal with a similar situation if it arises again (though no other class actually used this example), and it’s made me reconsider obscenity in general.

Overall I’ve reinforced my beliefs that teaching a class requires a significant amount of flexibility – no amount of preparation will make you ready for everything, and this is particularly true of obscenities and difficult topics in the classroom. Perhaps I should have opened more cautiously, but these difficult themes need discussing – ignoring these social problems only makes them more difficult to deal with.

I think I’ll close with an observation from one of the lectures I’ve been sitting in on. The module convenor, someone whose teaching I admire greatly, began their lecture on Catullus with a similar attempt to reduce the impact of obscenity in the classroom, but from a different direction. She opened by emphasising that there would be some offensive language and topics in the class (particularly thinking about Catullus’ 16’s “I’ll fuck you in the arse and mouth”) but made sure to stress that there’s a difference between feeling uncomfortable (which can be helpful and formative) and feeling emotionally disturbed (which can prove damaging). If students felt offended in the latter camp they were told that they could leave the classroom without any repercussions. In essence, a safe space was made. Nobody left in the end (possibly partly because they still didn’t want to mark themselves out from the group, possibly because they felt safe), and the lecture went ahead. But I was still struck by the importance of what the lecturer had done – made an environment in which obscenity, and threats of oral/anal rape, could be discussed in an adult, scholarly fashion.

There are a lot of controversial conversations happening about trigger warnings and safe spaces at the moment – one student running for a Welfare position in my university’s recent Sabbatical elections stated that safe spaces were an impediment to free speech (thankfully they didn’t get elected) – but such practices are important, if difficult to implement at times. In the field of Classics in particular, where rape narratives were a formative part of foundation mythology and a harsh reality of ancient life, it can be tough to avoid offending your students in some way.

Personally I find it difficult sometimes, being so used to reading about these topics in the ancient context, to realise how offensive they actually are to a modern ear. But I think it’s enormously important  that we flag up these issues with our students. Safe spaces and trigger warnings can shut down discussion about these important topics, but it’s simply a matter of implementation. If we make students aware that they can engage as much as they are comfortable with these issues then we put the power into their hands, allow for the text to be read (not censored), and have these difficult conversations.Most of all we ensure that our students are always in a nurturing environment and left in charge of their own learning – it’s not about mollycoddling, it’s about forewarning. Turning aside from the NSFW aspects of the classical world would blinker our viewpoint and would ultimately mislead our students. So I’m thankful I got to have a conversation with my students about the word “nigger” and what made it offensive in as careful and non-offensive a manner as possible. Reminding ourselves about the crushing inequality of our own past is far less offensive than ignoring it.

Acknowledgements

I’ve been thinking a lot about acknowledgements sections recently. This is a bit preemptive given that I’m not going to submit the thesis until at least early autumn, but bear with me.

Acknowledgements are essential – we have to credit everyone who’s significantly important in our academic and personal lives, but this doesn’t make it easy. After the funders (thanks AHRC!), supervisors (you’re awesome), and relevant institutions (here’s to you, LMU) there’s not much space left for anyone else. In fact, it can be a delicate balancing act where you don’t want to come across as too embarrassingly effusive (because scholars can’t have emotions) while also wanting to say a few simple thank yous (because we are, after all, human beings).

Nevertheless, because of all of this there’s a traditional format for acknowledgements sections. Important people up front, family and friends towards the rear, and a final statement about any remaining errors being the author’s own. Tradition rolls ever onward.

Anyway, on with the Martial blog. I’ve pondered how I’d write my acknowledgements section, and one idea that’s really stuck with me is Martial’s second preface. It’s a masterpiece that toys with these ideas of tradition and the bored reader who might be tempted to skim over yet another vainglorious prefatory letter of dedication. I like to call it Martial’s anti-preface. Here it is:

VALERIUS MARTIALIS TO HIS DECIANUS GREETINGS.

“What use to me” you say “is a letter? For do we not do enough for you if we read your epigrams? What more will you say here that you could not say in your verses? I see why tragedy or comedy receive a letter, forms which are not allowed to speak for themselves; epigrams however do not need a herald and are content with their own (i.e. bad) tongue. They make a letter in whichever column [of text] suits them. Therefore don’t, if you deem it proper, make the matter ridiculous and introduce the character of a dancer in a toga. In short, consider whether you’d like to go up against a retiarius with a twig. I sit among those who protest straightaway.” By Hercules, Decianus, I think you speak the truth! What if you knew with what and how long a letter you would have had dealings? And so may it be what you demand. If anyone happens upon this book they will owe it to you that they don’t come through to the first column worn out!

In short, this is a preface concerned with why Martial needn’t actually write a preface. Epigram, he says in the mouth of his patron Decianus, speaks for itself – each poem is short enough to contain everything you need to know about it. Further, the epigram isn’t as important as tragedy or comedy, high dramatic art forms, but should be ranked as light entertainment like dancing. To Martial’s ‘Decianus’, a preface to a book of epigrams would be far too pretentious and ambitious. But Martial still writes the preface. Indeed, that’s the whole joke.

Martial – as ever – irreverently challenges the generic preconceptions of his audience (here Decianus, but also general readers like you and me) to make a larger point about his contemporary readers. In the following poem (2.1) Martial bemoans readers who want to skip through his books, and judges them as easily bored and inattentive a few epigrams later (2.6). This preface, then, is a breath of fresh air. It openly acknowledges the problems the poet faces in writing a preface, apologises for the act of writing a preface, and then writes one anyway. Scathing assault on poor readers, jumped-up attempt at achieving higher-genre accolades, and (most importantly of all) comic gold, this preface certainly stands out as an example of Martial’s dry wit.

For me, writing an acknowledgements section in the style of an anti-preface like Martial’s offers a way out from the traditional boring format while still giving the honest thanks to the people who’ve helped me out along the way. But let’s see what actually happens in the end, eh? I might just chicken out at the last moment!

And while I’m here and discussing acknowledgements it’d be remiss of me not to say a quick thank you. To all of you – friends, family, supervisors, even those of you reading this blog – thanks for putting up with me for however long you do/have done, and continuing to support this silly little PhD of mine. I’m absolutely certain I couldn’t have got this far (and won’t get to the end) without you all.

And if you’ve got through all this drivel expecting something worth reading at the end, you can blame Decianus.