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!

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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.

Bibliography

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

NSFW? Teaching Obscenity in the Classroom

Just a warning that a lot of today’s post is decidedly NSFW – I’ll be scattering obscenities throughout, and focusing on one particularly strong (and offensive) example.

I’m currently TAing on a module called Roman Laughter, a wide-ranging module that moves from Cicero’s in Pisonem and Catullus to Roman verse satire, fable, and epigram. The one glaring gap on the module is Roman Comedy, but the module’s focus on invective and political commentary (combined with the broad range of authors and genres) mean that the gap isn’t too noticeable really. My role is as the seminar leader, running seminars in which students are divided into two teams who debate on a particular motion (is the in Pisonem more occupied with destroying Piso or raising Cicero, is Martial more provocative than Catullus, is Juvenal 6 misogynistic, etc). Students are assigned one side of the argument on arrival to the class, so they have to prepare for both sides of the argument. On the whole it works quite well – the students debate some pretty complex issues and talk with one another more often than at me.

The area where I get the most input, though, is in a 10 minute section at the start of the class for a warm-up session where we work through some of the broader issues of the course. This week I’ve been discussing poetic personae, which might be worth another blog in the future, but in the first seminar I ran I decided to focus on the nature of obscenity.

The exercise was relatively simple: I asked my students to pair up and have a brief chat about what they wanted to get out of the module (pretty normal for my introductory seminars), and also to come up with a particularly good obscenity. I then went round the class and got them to say the offending word to me so that I could put it on the whiteboard for a discussion afterwards on what makes obscenity obscene. The aim was to defuse the power of obscene language in the classroom so that my students would feel more comfortable directly quoting the sources in class and discussing them (Catullus 16 is the most obvious example of this), while also letting me get to know each student’s interests and quirks.

Again, on the whole this worked. At least one student per class was willing to choose “cunt” as their swear word, which then let us discuss what it is about this particular word that’s particularly offensive. Marginalisation of women, societal use (some students were perfectly fine with its use), its relation to sexual organs, and the sound of the word all got a mentioned, and I made some links between ancient and modern views on not discussing female genitalia in polite conversation.

What I wasn’t necessarily planning on was non-sexual obscenity, and that became most apparent in one class where a student rather cautiously said “nigger”. The room instantly grew quieter – it became painfully clear that we were all middle class white students, for instance – and I was briefly taken aback; in all my planning I hadn’t prepared for a word that has such a strong social impact to be mentioned.

After an awkward moment or two, though, we got back into the swing of things – I acknowledged everyone’s discomfort, briefly focused on the fact that this word is particularly intended as a social slur and has a lot of cultural history and importance. Seeing that my students were still feeling a bit cautious during the section discussing what makes obscenity obscene I told the group we’d focus on the sexual obscenities instead, as the “N-bomb” belonged to a separate class of obscenity altogether and had a particularly modern slant (I don’t think the Romans really had a parallel concept).

On reflection I think the situation went well, though I probably stuttered a bit before I found a comfortable way to take the discussion. While I had intended to partly shock my students (I led with a deliberately provocative statement that “If you’re uncomfortable with words like shit, fuck, cunt, and schlong then you need to be able to deal with them in textual analysis…”) I hadn’t expected anything so personally offensive to appear. I definitely feel more equipped to deal with a similar situation if it arises again (though no other class actually used this example), and it’s made me reconsider obscenity in general.

Overall I’ve reinforced my beliefs that teaching a class requires a significant amount of flexibility – no amount of preparation will make you ready for everything, and this is particularly true of obscenities and difficult topics in the classroom. Perhaps I should have opened more cautiously, but these difficult themes need discussing – ignoring these social problems only makes them more difficult to deal with.

I think I’ll close with an observation from one of the lectures I’ve been sitting in on. The module convenor, someone whose teaching I admire greatly, began their lecture on Catullus with a similar attempt to reduce the impact of obscenity in the classroom, but from a different direction. She opened by emphasising that there would be some offensive language and topics in the class (particularly thinking about Catullus’ 16’s “I’ll fuck you in the arse and mouth”) but made sure to stress that there’s a difference between feeling uncomfortable (which can be helpful and formative) and feeling emotionally disturbed (which can prove damaging). If students felt offended in the latter camp they were told that they could leave the classroom without any repercussions. In essence, a safe space was made. Nobody left in the end (possibly partly because they still didn’t want to mark themselves out from the group, possibly because they felt safe), and the lecture went ahead. But I was still struck by the importance of what the lecturer had done – made an environment in which obscenity, and threats of oral/anal rape, could be discussed in an adult, scholarly fashion.

There are a lot of controversial conversations happening about trigger warnings and safe spaces at the moment – one student running for a Welfare position in my university’s recent Sabbatical elections stated that safe spaces were an impediment to free speech (thankfully they didn’t get elected) – but such practices are important, if difficult to implement at times. In the field of Classics in particular, where rape narratives were a formative part of foundation mythology and a harsh reality of ancient life, it can be tough to avoid offending your students in some way.

Personally I find it difficult sometimes, being so used to reading about these topics in the ancient context, to realise how offensive they actually are to a modern ear. But I think it’s enormously important  that we flag up these issues with our students. Safe spaces and trigger warnings can shut down discussion about these important topics, but it’s simply a matter of implementation. If we make students aware that they can engage as much as they are comfortable with these issues then we put the power into their hands, allow for the text to be read (not censored), and have these difficult conversations.Most of all we ensure that our students are always in a nurturing environment and left in charge of their own learning – it’s not about mollycoddling, it’s about forewarning. Turning aside from the NSFW aspects of the classical world would blinker our viewpoint and would ultimately mislead our students. So I’m thankful I got to have a conversation with my students about the word “nigger” and what made it offensive in as careful and non-offensive a manner as possible. Reminding ourselves about the crushing inequality of our own past is far less offensive than ignoring it.

Intertextuality in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica: Conference Report

Happy 2016 everyone! I always find the Christmas break a bit disorienting – time seems to stop still and then suddenly accelerate just in time for term to start again. That certainly just happened to me when I came to writing this piece and realised that it’s only been 2 weeks since I attended a conference hosted at UCL on Intertextuality in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica. For those interested, a programme of the whole conference is currently available to download here (it’s a safe link I promise). The conference itself was very stimulating, with scholars attending from both sides of the Atlantic and from across Europe to share their thoughts, and has given me a lot to chew over (especially with regards to my own research on Martial).

Although there was no paper specifically focused on the question of what we mean by intertextuality (in general the term refers to any event where one text alludes to another) it was very apparent that scholars have been getting far more sophisticated in recent years. Papers generally moved closer to a “window allusion” model than a standard open quotation model – matching up words that occur in both texts seems less academically interesting these days (still relevant, but sometimes a quercus is just a quercus), and there is a tendency to prefer a model of intertextual analysis that explores how texts evoke a general feeling of the hypertext. In this way I was particularly persuaded by Jessica Blum’s discussion of how Flaccus depicts Hercules in a manner akin to Sophocles’ Ajax (in his eponymous play), of a hero out of place in a more technologically advance world where brains are more powerful than brawn.

Similarly, Antony Augoustakis delivered an exceedingly comprehensive overview of a selection of similar burial scenes in Flaccus’s Argonautica and Silius Italicus’ Punica. Augoustakis’ paper examined episodes where Flaccus and Silius both depict non-Romans burying the dead in decidedly Roman (and not Homeric Greek) fashion. Augoustakis suggested that the similarity probably reflects contemporary ritual and religious practice, offering a promising “why” for this intertext after listing all of the “how.”

Helen Lovatt gave a paper on how faithfully Flaccus adhered to his Alexandrian predecessor, and how and why he departs from Apollonius of Rhodes’ Greek version of the text. Her analysis itself focused on the scenes towards the fragmentary end of Flaccus version (an argument about fides between Jason and Medea), and suggested that Flaccus wrote a “creative misreading” of Apollonius by using what Andrew Zissos terms “negative allusion” (highlighting what the poet is not actually saying). Also of interest was her consideration of how important ancient artwork could have been on poetry, and how much is lost to our understanding through our loss of material evidence.

This argument between Jason and Medea was also discussed by Emma Buckley in a paper on the supplement to the text written in 1519 by Giovanni Battista Pio in order to “finish off” the work once and for all. Buckley showed that Pio actually relied rather heavily on Apollonius’ version to finish off the text, even when it contradicts earlier events in Flaccus’ epic. Some of the deeper questions raised by Buckley’s paper (which unfortunately I couldn’t quite put into words at the time) were how we can understand intertextuality working – once we read Valerius Flaccus, for instance, can we read a temporally previous text like Vergil’s Aeneid or Apollonius’ Argonautica in the same way? With intertextuality there always seems to be a certain amount of writing back to previous times, and changing our own modern understanding of the hypertext with a different interpretation (a projection of the text that exists somewhere between hyper- and hypotext). Naturally we’ll read a series of texts in chronological order, but some texts seem to do their best to disrupt this sequence.

Indeed, this seems somewhat to be the case with Mark Heerink who explored allusions to events and the language of Lucan’s Bellum Civile to suggest that Flaccus’ poem has a far more depressing outlook than is usually associated with it. Heerink did qualify this by stating that he himself may be to blame for this reading, but this is another example of how intertextuality breaks down the borders between texts and seems to twist and change our viewpoints with alarming ease.

Darcy Krasne’s contribution explored how a series of intertexts surrounding the Aeolian Islands serves to underpin the whole text with strong Lucretian undertones. Again, her paper exhibited the rich tapestry of intertexts at play in ancient literature.

Finally, Leo Landrey’s paper on Triptolemus in Flaccus and Ovid’s Tristia offered a much needed cross-examination of the Flavian usage of the Augustan elegist. In particular, he presented the elegiac desire of Ovid, particularly a mournful desire from exile to return, that depicts helplessness in the Argonautica whenever it appears there.

From this brief overview it is readily apparent that for a conference lasting one day there was a huge amount of subject matter packed into the event, but never at a loss to the overall aims of the conference. I sincerely hope that this meeting develops into a book, not only for its treatment of a leading Flavian epicist, but also for the thoughts it provokes about the field of intertextuality in Latin literature and in general. The conference organisers (Gesine Manuwald and Bridget England) should both be congratulated on such a successful and well organised event. I certainly came away thinking a lot more about the wide-ranging intertextuality present in Valerius Flaccus, and I hope this is the start of a series of interesting written pieces on the matter.

Updates: Thesis, Conferences, and the Blog

Hi everyone,

So it’s been nearly a year since I updated the blog – I think we can safely say that things are likely to remain sporadic (but hopefully not quite so spread out!), but I’d like to relaunch the blog on a semi-regular basis. My posts will continue to explore some of the ideas I’m having as I research Martial’s book structure & book culture, but I’ll also try to give more of an idea about life as a postgrad as I go on.

Anyway, a few updates people might be interested in:

  1. I’m now in the third year of my thesis. People keep asking “how is the PhD going” and, to be honest, I still have no idea how to begin answering that question. Nevertheless, things seem to be going well, and I have a timeline that looks more or less feasible to adhere to. Can I finish by next September? We’ll just have to see…
  2. I’ve since presented at my first ‘grown up’ (i.e. not solely postgraduate) conference! The Cambridge Triangulationships conference took place in July. The general theme was exploring the relationship between the triangle (hence triangulationships) of author-reader-text. You can check out the website here, which includes a list of the papers presented. I’m hoping to turn my paper (on general readers in Martial and Pliny the Younger) into a published piece within the future. Updates to follow…
  3. I’m booked to talk at two more conferences! The first is the annual Classical Association conference at Edinburgh (6-9th April). I’m taking part in a panel discussing “Audience Interactions” – how audiences are programmed into the text or how authors prepare for their audiences. My paper will consider how the recitatio is programmed into the structure of the Epigrams.
  4. The second conference is June 9-11 in Zurich, and is entitled “The Materiality of Texts between the Lebenswelt and Lesewelt.” I’m very much looking forward to this interdisciplinary event, and I’ll be considering how the shift from ancient form to modern text (i.e. papyrus scroll towards codex and the modern book) radically changes how we interact with the Epigrams. You can find the conference CFP here. Hopefully more updates to follow nearer the time.

So far the upcoming year looks quite busy – I’m teaching in the Spring term on a course on Roman Laughter (which includes Martial – huzzah!), and generally headed towards writing up the thesis. At the moment it looks like it’ll be split into two or three sections, but maybe I can go further into that another time…

At any rate – thanks for dropping by! I hope to upload some more Martial Musings in the near future.

SAM HAYES AD LECTORES SAL.

Greetings, hello, and welcome! I’ve been wrestling with the idea of coming up with a blog for some time now and finally got down and did it. I just wanted to leave this post here to introduce myself and let you know my plans for this project.

Who I Am

While some of you have no doubt looked at my About page I’ll introduce myself here too. My name is Sam Hayes and I’m a Classicist (hi Sam…). I’m currently a PhD student at the University of Exeter working on the epigrammatist Martial. I look at book structure, book culture, and comic books (it makes sense, I promise). I’ve learned Latin since I was 11 years old and I’d like to have a go at doing something interesting with it (besides pointing out the difference between whose, whom, who, and who’s).

What This Blog is For

I’m going to use this space to test out my research ideas, talk about life as a PhD student in the South-West of England, and post up interesting things about the classical world. I’m not going to say too much about contemporary affairs unless they really matter to me, as I don’t think I have the knowledge or wisdom yet to drop weekly essays condemning the actions of this or that politician (though that may change dependent on how ticked off I get, or if I learn anything in grad school).

At present my plans are to give an idea of the direction my research is taking as well as looking in depth at some of my favourite poems by Martial. The literature of the Flavian period (69-96 AD) has been undergoing a scholarly revival over the past couple of decades, but Martial is still somewhat under-represented when compared with Statius.

There are a few reasons for this…

For a start, Statius wrote more (or, rather, more of Statius survived the test of time) and in a couple of different genres. His Silvae (literally ‘woods’ but with a metapoetic sense of ‘poetic stuff’) gives a sense of the social world of the upper classes by covering notable events amongst the aristocrats. His Thebaid and Achilleid (about the Seven Against Thebes and Achilles respectively, the latter is an unfinished work) are both epic poems – and epic poetry tends to get a better press (unless you’re Lucan, who gets a mixed review even today).

While both poets flourished under the emperor Domitian it’s Martial who most flamboyantly toadied up to him, and many of his Epigrams concern themselves with praising him with great gusto. This causes issues for the reception of a poet who praises one of Suetonius’ famous ‘bad’ emperors. Juvenal went so far as to call Domitian a “bald Nero” in his fourth Satire (read it – it’s great stuff). At any rate, whether Martial liked Domitian or not is irrelevant – he’s had a bad press. One of my favourite quotes is from Byron who quips in his Don Juan “and then what proper person can be partial | to all those nauseous epigrams of Martial.” It really doesn’t help that Martial wrote a lot (sc. a great whopping pile) of obscene epigrams. With this in mind you might begin to get an idea of what it means to try to rehabilitate Martial (which in turn begs the question of whether he should be rehabilitated at all).

So yes, while Martial has had a much better press in recent years (another favourite quotation of mine comes from Gilbert Highet’s Juvenal the Satirist in the 1950s, who names Martial “that nasty little man”) he still has a long way to go. I’d like to be a small part of this re-evaluation of a great and (dare I say it?) funny poet.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey, and that you find it entertaining too.