Thinking Trifling Thoughts

In my last post I mentioned the conference that one of my good colleagues, Paul Martin, and I are organising for the 2nd and 3rd of May. As I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about that conference, especially what I’m going to be saying at it, I thought it’d be nice to put some of those initial thoughts to paper.

The conference itself is titled Trifling Matters: Nugatory Poetics & Comic Seriousness. In a nutshell, the conference aims to examine a variety of literature from across antiquity and into its reception that brazenly broadcasts its pointlessness to the reader/audience. These texts, which Paul and I have termed “nugatory” from the Latin term nugae (trifles/rubbish), are particularly interesting because, while they profess their lack of quality, they often hint at a level of self-importance or realism that trumps those texts that frequently win the title of the Best-Genre-Of-All-Time (e.g. history, tragedy, epic poetry, oratory). So what do these texts have to gain from defining themselves as trifling matters while also claiming that, to some extent, trifling matters?

Rather unsurprisingly, I’ve come towards nugae from Martial, whose first preface is an exercise in literary pointlessness. After warding off malign readers who would write the wrong kind of meaning into the poet’s work, Martial explains how he can get away with writing nasty, rude, and crude little epigrams:

I would excuse the playful truth of my words (i.e. epigram’s tongue) if the paradigm was mine: but thus wrote Catullus, thus Marsus, thus Pedo, thus Gaetulicus, thus whomever is read through. Yet if anyone is so ostentatiously severe that it is not sanctioned to speak Latin on any column in his presence, he can be content with the letter or rather the title. Epigrams [or “The Epigrams“] are written for those who usually watch Flora’s games… (1.praef.9-15)

So Martial pretends to be writing silly little poems that shouldn’t have people reading too much into them, but in these lines he specifies that he belongs to a long pedigree of other nugatory writers. For Martial, Catullus et al. represent a chain of succession to be joined, a canon to be written into. The epigrammatist emphasises that these poets are read all the way though as a mark of the readers’ respect for them, a respect that he desires for his own poetry elsewhere in the Epigrams (such as in book 2’s preface and opening poem). To Martial there is a long list of pointless paradigms who exemplify all that is good about epigram. On the one hand this offers him the chance to pass the buck for writing rude poems (“don’t blame me, blame that famous love poet, Catullus!”), but on the other it also lets him suggest that he too can be deemed part of this canon. Martial is pointing out his own (self-)importance even as he deprecates his own literary worth.

It’s probably not for nothing that in the first numbered poem of the collection that he then proceeds to announce his worldwide renown. Elsewhere he puffs that while readers claim to prefer lofty epic its his little epigrams that they always love. It’s a cheap shot, but when you write something that the nobles of literature sneer at it’s the cheap shots that count. Despite writing poems of a low genre, Martial claims an astonishing level of self-worth.

I could ramble on about Martial for quite some time, but for the conference I thought I’d move into pastures new (not least because two other people want to discuss my favourite poet at the conference…). While Martial might focus on flipping genres in his own poetry for his own work’s benefit, I decided to turn towards prose authors for my own paper. In particular, I want to look at Pliny the Younger, the well-known letter writer and orator, and see what he has to say about trifling poets. Pliny is interestingly situated in this mess of genre-interplay, as he writes little hendecasyllabic poems on the side (which no longer survive), but he also has a very important day job as a lawyer.

What I’m interested in exploring further, once I’ve found the time to look into it more deeply, is how Pliny characterises his own poetry given its complicated relationship with dialogues of literary worth in contemporaneous Latin prose. It’s one thing for a nugatory poet to make claims about nugatory worth, but how does a self-respecting senatorial orator get away with it? Both Quintilian and Tacitus (in his Dialogue of the orators) stress that oratory is the most important thing for a senator to involve themselves with at Rome. Poetry is for boys and people with too much time on their hands, while manly orators serve the state by doing something useful for a living. (It all sounds a bit like the sciences versus humanities debates we hear so often…).

So how does Pliny reconcile these generic differences? My initial thoughts are that he writes himself into both canons, while emphasising his own (self-)importance as an orator; his poetry is written in times of leisure, which lets him relax enough to be an effective statesman. By pondering on Pliny’s pointless poetry, I hope to pry apart these generic games a bit further and demonstrate how self-serving the discourse is on the higher and lower ends of the generic ladder. I’m also keen to talk to other disciples of the nugatory, and see how Pliny, Quintilian, and Tacitus slot into the broader discourse of nugatory poetics across antiquity (and beyond).

Post-Viva Update

Confession: it’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog. Sorry! I successfully passed my viva with minor corrections in early January (woohoo!), and bizzarely I’ve been kept busier than I was before submission with a mixture of article writing, teaching, job applications, and part time work. On the side I’ve also begun to organise a conference with a colleague that will take place in early May entitled “Trifling Matters: Nugatory Poetics and Comic Seriousness‘ (for which a rudimentary website can be found here, and which will be updated as plans progress). In fact, I’ve effectively become a part time researcher, which feels very strange (I have half a day here and there, a few hours between teaching, that sort of thing), and makes it difficult to feel like I’m getting much ‘work’ done.

But anyway, today I thought I’d discuss the viva itself and how to approach life post-viva.

The viva itself is an arcane beast. After three (or more) years of hard research, thinking, and articulation of those thoughts through writing, the finished piece of work is subjected to two (or more) hours of oral examination. There are lots of self-help guides out there, but it’s hard to know what to prepare for and how. (I read How to Survive your Viva by Rowena Murray on a friend’s recommendation. It’s a bit basic at points, but it does take you through every possible stage of the process, and gives some food for thought.) I think the key issue I found was that I wanted to know what the exam would be like, and how I could ace it – essentially, I wanted to treat it like I’ve treated every other [written] exam I’ve ever taken.

But the problem of the viva is that it’s impossible to prepare for. To an extent, at least. Just as everyone’s PhD is a different entity, everyone’s viva voce involves a different subject and different examiners. Because of this I overprepared in some areas and underprepared in others, as I realised pretty soon into the process! While I had focused quite a lot on rereading the chapters and stitching together the overall argument of the thesis (an important thing to do, of course), my examiners were more intent on teasing out some of the bigger picture/blue skies thinking. And that made things quite uncomfortable at times. That’s not to say I hated the viva – I found it very discomforting emotionally as I dislike being put in the spotlight and poked and prodded at, but I also had the brilliant opportunity to discuss my work with a captive audience (and a very captive me).

In particular my examiners were interested in my methodological chapter, and some of the issues in how I drew several theoretical approaches together. There were disagreements, works I hadn’t read before came up (but I was honest about this), and by the end of the detailed discussion of this section I felt pretty thoroughly worn out. My examiners had told me at the start of the viva that they reckoned I would pass, but I was beginning to panic about major corrections (heaven forfend) by this stage. But everything was fine, and now the corrections have come back the majority of what we discussed is potentially shelved for ideas about The Book (cue dramatic music), which I think is a discussion for another day.

I think the main issue with the viva is that it can feel like a massive anticlimax. Three years of blood, sweat, and tears is compacted into two hours of non-stop discussion. It’s draining. I felt like an idiot for being so nervous I could barely string a complex sentence together. And when I found out it was minor corrections I thought “wait, really? After all that?” But it is what it is, and it should be celebrated for what it represents. It’s the end of a very long road, or at least a major stopping point along the road, because it’s important to note how much work there is still to do to turn the thesis into articles and/or a book project.

So life post-viva has been relatively idyllic. To an extent. I’ve taken up more hours at my part time job, and I teach more often now, and I can focus on other bits and pieces that I’ve neglected (like this blog, *cough*), so I’ve been kept happily busy. I’ve also taken the time out from the thesis to ‘recover’ from the viva, and to get my thoughts into order about the job market, book projects, what to do with this year. That sort of thing.

I think as a final note it’s important to reflect on what the PhD journey has been like. Like many, I was pretty naive when I entered the PhD programme. I thought it’d be like the MA, but more “PhD-y”, whatever that means. It’s been hard. I felt like quitting I don’t know how many times. Most of all it’s felt like I’ve been pulled apart and put back together again multiple times, but with (mostly) positive results. I always give a quick “warning Spiel” to wannabe PhD students about how difficult and isolating a PhD can be, but the positives far outweigh the negatives.

So while the PhD has been up and down I’m looking forward to the road ahead, and where it leads. Fingers crossed someone will pay me to teach and research Latin literature, and soon I’ll be published (woohoo!) in a few places. Here’s to making it this far, and to wanting to carry on.

Is it a PhD…or not a PhD? Unpacking the viva.

I’m currently preparing for the viva, and this post has really helped me think through some of the broader questions that might get asked. It’s aimed at a social science audience, but many of the prompts apply for humanities students too.

Stuff About Unis

[There’s a sister blog to this one – a few tips on how to avoid failing your viva.]

A doctorate is a peculiar thing: there’s an indistinct finishing line, it’s hideously complex, and far more difficult than you probably imagined when you started; mine certainly was. You spend years reading, thinking, planning, worrying, collecting data, analysing and writing up, rethinking, re-editing, re-editing, and then re-editing again. By the time you get to the end, one question remains:

Is it good enough?

This is the acid test. There is no grade, it’s a pass or fail: you’re either a doctor or you’re not (yet). Within the pass, though, you have different degrees of corrections that the examiners want you to undertake: none, minor, major, resubmission. It seems that most people get minor corrections, although major corrections and resubmission do happen. Either of the latter will involve months or maybe even years of work, so you don’t want…

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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):


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.


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…


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!