Martial’s Audiences: Ancient Fans?

This week’s post is inspired by some research I’m about to look more fully into, and is related to the exploration of Martial’s general reader (as discussed last week). The question I’m interested to explore is whether or not Martial had ‘fans’, and if that term is even applicable in the ancient world. Let’s take a look at one of the poems in book 7 on a certain Pompeius Auctus:

“If it pains you, Urbicus, to purchase my trifles
And yet pleases you to know my lascivious songs,
You should search – and perhaps you know him – for Pompeius Auctus;
He sits at the first shrine of Mars the Avenger:
Drenched in law and refined by the varied uses of the toga,
This man is not my reader, Urbicus, but my book.
Thus he retains and recites my books when they are absent,
So that no letter from my writings perishes:
In short, if he should wish it, he could appear to have written them;
But the fame he prefers to favour is mine!
You can bother him from the tenth hour – for he will not be free before –
A small, little dinner will hold you both;
He will read, you drink; although you won’t want it, he will boom;
And when you say ‘now that’s enough,’ he will read…” (7.51)

What really excites me about this poem is how Martial identifies Pompeius Auctus – he’s not just some normal person, indeed he’s very bizarre. It’s normal for a poet to personify their work by addressing it, but in this poem Martial’s book becomes the living, breathing Auctus. The man is respectable (steeped in the court rooms) but also a bit irritating – he keeps going on and on about Martial even when you tell him to stop. Auctus displays some attitudes of the lector studiosus – he reads Martial all the way through and can recite him from memory – but the reality of this isn’t necessarily the most helpful or fun thing in the world.

On the whole, I think this depiction of Auctus is more positive than negative, and the figure we are most invited to laugh at in this poem is Urbicus, who is depicted as Auctus’ opposite. While Auctus has bought the book (and really has no need for it anymore through constant, amateur recitation), Urbicus does not want to (presumably out of miserliness). This is what irritates Martial, and this is what bids him to send Urbicus to the temple of Mars the Avenger (Martial’s avenger?) for his fit punishment. What gets Urbicus into this mess is his desire to get Martial’s work without spending a penny, but he gets a lot more than he bargains for in the ceasless Auctus. While Auctus might be a bit of a boor, Martial has a use for him just like his other amici, and knows exactly how to use him.

So as well as being an ideal reader for purchasing Martial’s work, Auctus also does something else for Martial – he cites his source. One of Martial’s most hated ‘bad’ readers is the plagiarist (Martial in fact is the earliest source to use the Latin plagiarius in this sense – cf. Epigrams 1.52), and it reveals the very real concern in his day that once a book was ‘published’ (made public) it fully left the author’s direct control. By praising Martial whenever he recites his work, Auctus does the poet a massive favour. Not only is he admitting the poet’s literary authority, he also praises his fame (or fama – a reputation for good words. See Hardie below). This is in direct opposition to another figure we met last week – the malignus interpres, who wants to write attacks into Martial’s poetry that (he claims) aren’t there. Is Auctus, then, one of Martial’s ideal readers? A named lector studiosus? He’s certainly read Martial again and again and praises his work, but he does so at the cost of being an irritation to those around him. This is definitely something I’d like to explore further – does the poet reject his own ideal reader in Auctus?

Another exciting revelation in this poem is the amateur recitation. When scholars talk about the performance context of Roman poets of the 1st century AD they generally assume that recitations by the poet are the most frequent way of receiving their work. But in this poem (and elsewhere), Martial depicts one of his readers doing the performance for him in an amateur setting – at dinner, after the 10th hour. We can imagine a rather intimate setting – a private recitation from one man to another. Indeed, no one else seems to be there to say “that’s enough now” to stop Urbicus. Maybe they’ve given up on him, or maybe, just maybe, these sorts of private recitations of poetry just after dinner were a part of elite pastime. There’s a lot more research for me to do on this, but it certainly opens up the potential for the reality of Martial’s general readership.

Auctus is at once a pain and a devoted fan of Martial’s work. I don’t think we can imagine hordes of screaming men & women charging at him whenever he appeared in public, but his works seem to have been appreciated, and in a variety of settings. Could Auctus be an ancient fan? He enjoys the poet’s work and engages with it frequently, sharing it with anyone who will listen, but the reality of ancient ‘fandom’ would have been very different from modern concepts. I am hesitant to use the term at this stage without a whole host of ‘buts’, but it is a nice idea. Maybe I’ll have more to say in the near future.

Further Reading

The concept of fama is given wide-ranging treatment by Philip Hardie in his book Rumour and Renown: Representations of ‘Fama’ in Western Literature.


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