Ambiguity in Martial

Today I’d like to talk about something that came up in a recent supervision, and has caused me headaches over the course of the PhD. It’s a feature of Martial’s Epigrams that is as fun and interesting as it is difficult to deal with. I am, as you will have guessed from the title of this post, his penchant for ambiguity.

Sometimes this ambiguity is clearly part of the fun – as I discussed in my previous post on Mart. 7.19 the poem both is and is not a poem about a plank of wood. It coexists in multiple states at once – that’s what makes it so neat. A reader can turn a poem over and over in their head for hours (or days… or three years) and always have a slightly different take on it.

Sometimes, however, there is the distinct feeling that something is lost in translation. Or rather, something is lost in the translation from Roman culture to the modern day reading culture. This makes it difficult to decide what Martial actually means in the poem, and leads to a variety of potential interpretations. A lot of Martial’s jokes are implied as well, which adds to the fun (or the difficulty). For example, at 2.21 Martial is offered the choice on greeting Postumus to shake his hand or receive a kiss. Martial doesn’t skip a beat and says “I prefer the hand.” Why? Because Postumus performs oral sex, and as such has a dirty mouth. Hilarious (to a Roman audience at least).

My present issues revolve around one of the poems in book 7 about a young man named Atticus, and whether or not we should praise him or laugh at his expense:

Atticus, you who renew the name of an eloquent family,
And do not allow a huge house to fall silent,
It is you the pious crowd of Cecropian Minerva escorts,
You that a private calm, you that every sage loves.
Yet the trainer with a cauliflower ear cultivates the other youths
And a filthy masseur plunders undeserved wealth.
No ball game, no featherball, no rustic ball prepares you
For the hot-baths, nor the blunted blow of a bare branch.
Nor do you stretch bent arms into sticky wrestler’s mud,
Nor, roving about, do you seize handballs covered in dust.
Instead you run only near the snowy waters of the Virgo,
Or where the bull is hot with his Sidonian love.
Playing through various skills, with which every sportsground serves,
Is laziness when one is allowed to run. (7.32)

There’s a lot going on in this poem. Martial appears to be making a comment about Roman identity and moral virtue (something he toys with frequently in book 7), but it’s unclear whether or not we should be rooting for Atticus.

One angle of interpretation (the one I recently developed in my work) is as follows. No man in Rome is praised more than Atticus, who takes up the very traditional, macho, simple practices that define what it means to be a Roman. He doesn’t engage with the athletes at the Greek sportsground and instead runs past locations on the Campus Martius (where Romans gathered to go to war) – the Aqua Virgo and the Portico of Vipsania (with a depiction of the Rape of Europa by Jupiter as a bull). The youths are grimy with sweat and wrestlers’ mud, but Atticus remains pure and refreshed by the purer, virginal waters of the Virgo.

With this interpretation, there is a pleasing juxtaposition between Atticus’ pure Roman-ness and the un-Roman, Greek practices of the youths at the exercise grounds (the practice of naked exercise was adopted in the mid-Republic from the Greeks). There’s a problem, though – Atticus’ name literally means “the Attic man” (i.e. from the area around Athens, Greece), and he’s praised by the Cecropian (Athenian) mob of philosophers (more Greeks). His name does bring to mind the Pomponius Atticus to whom Cicero wrote, and who was exceedingly well-respected, but the man had no children so he cannot be a direct descendent (hence “you who renew the name…”). With this view, Atticus is the most Roman despite his non-Roman name and following.

The alternative, as discussed by Prior in the article in the bibliography below, is that Martial is actually making fun of Atticus. His argument is that Atticus isn’t actually running, that Martial is referring to his acts of frequenting (anothing meaning of the verb currere, to run) the Portico of Vipsania and the baths of the Aqua Virgo (places associated with laziness elsewhere in the Epigrams). In his eyes, Martial is sneering at Atticus’ false pretences (aided by his un-Roman name and gaggle of Greek admirers). The reference to philosophers reveals that Atticus doesn’t get out much and is more concerned with mental exercise, and is hence lazy.

While I am inclined to disagree with Prior due to a deliberate contrast between the youths at the warm baths and Atticus’ association with the proverbially cold Aqua Virgo, it is hard to choose which reading to champion. Indeed, should we champion certain readings over others? The plot thickens when I see (or want to see) this poem as part of a series of poems in the book that discuss water, morals, and mixing.

I’ll leave this poem and its interpretation open. Ultimately this need to discover the ‘true’ reading of any poem is indicative of classical scholarship – we’re taught to read for what is right and wrong. Perhaps what we should consider is the beauty of poetry that was (perhaps) written in a deliberately ambiguous manner.

Or maybe I’m completely wrong and you’d like to correct me!


Galán Vioque, G. (2002) Martial, Book VII: A Commentary, trans. J. J. Zoltowski, Leiden.

Prior, R. E. (1996) ‘Going Around Hungry: Topography and Poetics in Martial 2.14’ AJPh 117, 121-41.


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