Martial’s Audiences: Domitian

Last week I briefly covered how Martial’s poems can be both occasional and specific to the book, using Lucan’s birthday as an example. I also introduced Polla, a patron shared by both Martial and Statius, but she is not the only example. Indeed, Martial’s Epigrams are riddled with references to important men and women in the city of Rome, many of whom can be seen as the poet’s primary audience members. Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be exploring these audiences a bit further, focussing on specific groups and what we can say about them in terms of poetic and real-world impact.

This week I thought I’d go straight to the top. By Martial’s day the principate (emperorship if you will) was firmly established, and the emperor was the most important patron of the arts. If a poet had the emperor’s favour he’d well and truly made it, and if he hadn’t he could be exiled to the Black Sea like Ovid was, forgotten in the bargain bins of the local bookshops, or worse. Keeping the emperor on side was crucial, and Martial paints a picture of numerous important figures he charms in a bid to ensure continued support (Crispinus, Earinus, and Apollinaris to name a few). At times, though, Martial directly addresses the emperor and grossly flatters him.

Some of you may remember from my first post that Martial has had a difficult relationship with modern critics who hate the extent to which he flatters a totalitarian tyrant. Domitian was damned as a tyrant and seen as one of the ‘bad’ emperors by history, but this is largely due to the damnatio memoriae (having his memory surgically removed – statues torn down, edicts destroyed etc) that accompanied his assassination and the tactis of Nerva and Trajan (his two successors).

Generally speaking, if an emperor was ousted from power his successors would naturally emphasise how much better they were, generally in terms of restored liberty. The same thing happened, to an extent, to the emperor Nero. Neither of these men can or should be exonerated for their actions (Nero is notorious for persecuting Christians for example), but we should try to remember that these men dild not always act in the Disney-villain-esque manner that we are always told by the sources. Martial himself reports in book 9 that one of Domitian’s moral reforms ended the practice of child prostitution. As with most reviled political figures there are shades of grey at work rather than just black and white. Which of us is always perfect?

Be that as it may, some of the stuff Martial says about the emperor frequently makes me want to hurl. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Get a bucket ready:

“You, the greatest commander of the earth and parent of the world…” (7.7.5)
“Worthy of reverence, ruler of the Tarpeian palace [i.e. Jupiter],
Whom as Thunderer we believe our leader [Domitian] safe,
Each of us wearies you with their own prayers
And demands you give what you gods can:
Do not be enraged with me seeking nothing
For myself as if I were arrogant.
About Caesar I ought to ask you;
About me I ought to ask Caesar.” (7.60)

It’s ok. Take a moment to recover.

As you can see, Martial doesn’t pull any punches with his praise of Domitian. He turns him into a Jupiter-on-earth, an entity of limitless power, in his poems. We might find these flatteries too much to bear, but modern sensibilities rarely line up with ancient ones. Nowadays the idea of watching two men fight to the death (or near death) for our entertainment is broadly seen as revolting, for example, but this was just another way of relaxing for the average Roman. In the UK the age of consent in 16 and an age gap of 20 years between partners would raise an eye. In Rome, girls were frequently married off as young as 14 to men three times that age. With these huge differences in our societies at play we should be very wary about casting any judgements. To my mind, these gross flatteries can be understood in the realm of panegyric.

Panegyric was a genre of praise that grew in strength along with the principate. There are several examples of panegyric that survive to the modern day, one of which is Pliny’s Panegyric of the emperor Trajan. What is most striking about this piece is, as remarked upon by Susanna Morton Braund, that Pliny uses very similar phrases to Martial to glorify the new emperor despite damning Domitian. Those that have trouble reconciling Martial’s praise for Domitian should bear the example of Pliny’s Panegyric in mind – even ‘good’ emperors were praised to a sickening (by modern standards) extent. Far from being the only way of appeasing a horrible tyrant, then, Martial’s statements about the emperor seem to be more a part of the tone required for Roman panegyric to be successful.

Nevertheless, some see this overblown flattery by Martial as an attempt to be politically subversive. This line of argument usually stresses that the praise is too much to be taken seriously, and that a secret message must be buried within it. Most prominent amongst those that consider Martial to be politically subversive is John Garthwaite, who has written several articles on the topic.I won’t go into the nitty-gritty here, but we should always consider ancient literature in its context. By Domitian’s day imperial panegyric was reaching new heights, and not conforming to an expected level of praise could result in execution – Dio Cassius records one such case during Domitian’s reign for us. Whether or not Martial believed what he was saying is irrelevant (and ultimately impossible to reconstruct) – his ‘excessive’ praise should be considered in terms of expectations of the genre he was writing in. Not to conform and praise the emperor was a death sentence.

What is interesting about Martial is the way he presents himself as a part of Domitian’s world, praising himself by extention to the emperor. Note the final poem of book 7 where Martial wants Domitian to listen to his poems – Martial puts words into the emperor’s mouth and grants himself an imperial seal of approval:

“If my poems are read in the Parrhasian palace
(for they too are used to enjoying the sacred ear of Caesar)
Dare to say about me, as a candid reader:
‘That one stands out somewhat for your times,
And is not too much worse than Marsus and learned Catullus.’
This is enough: the rest I entrust to the god himself.” (7.99.3-8)

Domitian is turned into a god in Martial’s poetry, but at the same time Martial gives himself divine favour. While this is unsavoury to modern audiences, it reveals a power dynamic of praise and approval for Martial’s poetry. For those of you who remain unconvinced, consider this: Martial did not write every one of his poems as a florid expression of adoration for the emperor. Although he was a crucial figure to have on hand, he was not the be-all-and-end-all. In fact, as we will see next week, Martial privileges another figure with as much (if not more) power in his verse.

Further Reading

The article I mentioned above about Pliny’s Panegyric was written by Susanna Morton Braund in Praise and Protreptic in Early Imperial Panegyric: Cicero, Seneca, Pliny, a volume edited by M. Whitby.

John Garthwaite has written much on Martial, but a good introduction to reading Martial subversively is ‘The Panegyrics of Domitian in Martial Book 9’ in Ramus 22.


One thought on “Martial’s Audiences: Domitian

  1. Pingback: Martial’s Audiences: The General Reader | Martial Musings

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