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).

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.

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!

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.


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


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:


“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.

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.