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]


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.


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.

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.

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.

Martial’s Argonautica: 7.19

This time round I thought I’d share something I’m still working on, partly to work out some of my own thoughts, and partly because this is my favourite poem in the whole of book 7. It’s short, it’s literary, and there’s a lot going on.

On the face of it this is a short six line poem about a tiny fragment of the Argo, the ship that Jason sailed on his quest to recover the Golden Fleece from Colchis (and which inspired this iconic scene in Hollywood history). This poem fits into the broader frame of the book (Domitian is returning from the lands of the Getae, bordering the west coast of the Black Sea where much of the Argonautica takes place), but it also brings up some discussions of genre:

A fragment which you would think a cheap and useless plank,
This was the first keel on the unknown sea.
What neither the Cyanean ruin [the Clashing Rocks] nor the more sullen
Wrath of the Scythian sea could shatter long ago,
The ages have conquered: yet although it has fallen to the years,
The small tablet is more hallowed than the ship unharmed.

The reason I love this poem is that it’s a mise en abyme – epigram 7.19 is a short piece of text, an epigram that might be considered “cheap and useless” (more on nugatory poetics another time…) by some, yet which is considered somehow more precious than an entire lengthy poem on the story of the Argo. For me, epigram 7.19 sums up everything tantalising about studying antiquity: we only have a small fragment of what is left, and what is left is often ruined to an almost complete lack of understanding. All that remains for us are the fragments. Would we value the ancient texts more if we had them all? Perhaps poets like Martial would be consigned to the dustbin of history. (Certainly that’s what Pliny the Younger suggests when he writes the epigrammatist’s obituary at Letters 3.21)

Anyway, to put aside my lyrical waxing for a little while, the text actually encourages us to read the poem like this. As Andrew Zissos and Guillermo Galán Vioque (ad loc.) have both pointed out, the Latin words used to describe the wood of this ‘fragment of the Argo’ are all terms used to describe texts in antiquity. My own translation brings this out the most in the final line – “the small tablet” (parva tabella), a writing tablet or a small piece of wood? This poem constantly teases the reader to ask whether or not this is actually a poem about a piece of the Argo or about poetry itself. Are we discussing a relic of the past or a scrap of poetry?

I’ll only mention the allusion to Callimachus’ poetic aesthetics very briefly. For those unfamiliar with him, this Alexandrian poet had a massive influence on Greek Hellenistic poetry (3rd century BC onwards) and thus upon the later Latin poets – Propertius famously styled himself as the “Roman Callimachus.” To cut a long story short, Callimachus is (to Latinists) mainly famous for the mantra that a big (i.e. long) book was a big evil (mega bilbion mega kakon). Zissos and Galán Vioque have both argued that this poem uses this formula to draw up a parallel between short epigram and long epic. Epic in antiquity was the highest brow poetry around, while epigram was almost as ‘low’ as poetry got (that’s why there’s so much sex and obscenity in it). In essence, Martial is flipping the paradigm here to argue that epigram (that short tabella) is far superior to the larger poem of epic.

In fact, Martial’s Epigrams were predated by a Flavian version of the Argonautica, penned by Valerius Flaccus. Galán Vioque suggests that there could have been a rivalry established here, echoing that that supposedly existed between Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes (the author of the Hellenistic Argonautica). However, I’m interested in the final line: “The small tablet is worth more than the ship unharmed” (i.e. the whole thing). Flaccus never finished his Argonautica – it trails off halfway through book 8 – and he apparently died young (Quintilian, a contemporary of his & Martial’s, bemoans his ‘recent’ death). Could this poem, then, still be engaging in this battle for supremacy against epic, but also standing as a testament to Flaccus? Could Martial be claiming to be Flaccus’ generic successor while also commenting that we are drawn to appreciate texts that are unfinished (that “the ages have conquered”) over those that are completed? Could Martial’s epigram actually be an epitaph for the dead poet?

Think of all those unwritten works, or those works that are over-hyped prior to release. Would we rather they’d never been written? As the joke goes, the Matrix was a great film – it’s such a shame they never made a sequel.

At any rate, this is a line of inquiry I’m currently chasing up in the chapter I’m currently writing (though not with the Matrix allusion… I don’t think that’s quite thesis material). Whatever we think this poem says it’s clear that’s there more to Martial’s Epigrams than first meets the eye.


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

Zissos, A. (2004) ‘Navigating Genres: Martial 7.19 and the “Argonautica” of Valerius Flaccus’, Classical Journal 99, 405-22.

Martial by the Numbers

A lot of what I do for my research is looking into how Martial’s books are structured, looking to argue that you can indeed actually read a book of epigrams as a sequential book, and that the authorial persona encourages you to do so. Whenever I tell people that I’m examining the structure of books of epigrams, though, their eyes tend to glaze over. I get it – structure isn’t a particularly exciting sounding subject, and at times it can be a bit boring… But today, I wanted to spend a little bit of time looking at Martial “by the numbers” (as my blogpost title suggests) to try and show you how structure and numerical approaches to a text can be interesting, or at least furnish some interesting results.

I’m going to share two things with you: firstly, a couple of graphs I’ve mocked up for my own personal understanding of Epigrams 7 (the specific book most of my thesis has focused upon) showing how Martial structures by variation in a diagrammatic manner. Secondly (something I recently spent most of the morning doing), a brief exploration of the booklengths of Martial’s books, and what sort of questions these numbers throw up and/or answer.

So, without much further ado:

Book 7 – Metrical Variation & Poem Line Lengths

Martial is a poet typified by his variatio (variety in English) – he throws a medley of different themes together to create a riot of different associations and juxtapositions. The result is dizzying at times (check out Fitzgerald 2007 on this), but can also be quite pleasing – the sexual depravities (as Martial sees them) of the women Philaenis at 7.67 & 7.70 form a brief frame around a couple of poems on Romans of outstanding morality. After reading these four poems in sequence, however, we might ask ourselves how upright the subjects of 7.68 & 7.69 actually are in the bedroom…

Variatio is a strong feature of light verse, or nugae as the poets had been saying since at least Catullus, and Martial at one point tells the emperor Domitian (tongue-in-cheek?) that

I have indeed tried to vary [my subject matter] through the mixture of jokes, lest every verse should heap up its own praise for your celestial reverence, which could tire you more easily than it would sate us. (8.praef.8-11)

Variation of subject matter, then. But subject matter is not the only kind of variety going on in Martial, and if you look at the Latin you can easily tell that the structure of his poems is different. Martial uses a variety of different metres (most commonly the elegiac couplet, the hendecasyllable, and the scazon – also known as choliambics), and not only do they look different (the second line of the elegiac couplet is slightly indented) they also sounded different. Roman poetry worked through stressing long and short syllables, and certain metres had different associations. (Llewelyn Morgan’s Musa Pedestris book is brilliant on this, by the way.) So not only does Martial’s poetry discuss different things, it also sounds different and evokes a variety of different connotations (scazons, for instance, are often involved with invective humour).

So let’s take a quick look at how Martial spreads out his different metres across book 7:

Metre in Book 7

The file’s come out a bit small (you should be able to enlarge the graph by clicking on it), but you’ll be able to see the variation at work. I gave each metre in book 7 a number, and then plotted the points. The bottom (y) axis is the progression of poems in the book, the side (x) axis plots the metres. These are: 1 Elegiac couplets; 2 hendecasyllables; 3 scazon; and 4 hexameter (there is one single poem of a single hexameter line in the book). Scazonic verse appears the most at the start of the book (getting the ruder poems out of the way faster?), and hendecasyllables punctuate the general flow of elegiac couplets. The hexameter poem precedes the end of the book with a bang.What comes across is that Martial varies up his metre to evoke a different sound and general ‘feel’ (I guess the academic term would be “mood”) as his work progresses.

So far so good. Let’s look at poem line lengths in book 7:

Line length in Book 7

This time the y axis continues to be the progression of poems, but the x axis is each poem’s number of lines. Interestingly, this graph is much more jagged – variation is taking place on a more frequent basis. Indeed, in general Martial seems to juxtapose a long poem with a short one, perhaps giving the reader a chance to rest as they continue through the text. If a book was full of really long poems we’d be more likely to put it down. Is Martial trying to egg his reader on all the way through? He certainly wants his reader to read him all the way through in his second preface (this could easily be another blog post in itself). Once again we see variety in Martial, but not the sort of variety that most people analyse – scholars are generally more interested in thematic interplay (as am I, to be fair). What this analysis here offers, however, is a look at the overall architecture of the book.

Still reading? Let’s move onto a broader overview of the corpus.

Book Lengths

Scholarship on Latin poetry and the ancient book has traditionally focused on the book length. In the Augustan period (usually seen as the “Golden Age” of Latin poetry, which sidelines great authors like Martial to the dustbin of the “Silver Latin” age) a ‘good’ poetry book would not be much longer than 800-1000 lines. If a book doesn’t follow this scheme, or doesn’t display the same structure as Vergil’s Georgics, it is often deemed un-Augustan and thus ‘bad’.

I may have a bit of a bee in my bonnet, but it seems odd to judge works by their overall length. What is more interesting to me, however, is whether or not each book of Martial would have been written out on its own individual scroll. Be warned, reader – a lot of this discussion gets a bit ethereal and speculative. Van Sickle set the bar quite high in the 1980s, at the length of 1000-2000 lines per papyrus scroll of Homer. Each scroll could theoretically continue multiple individual ‘books’ of a work (‘book’ referring to a significant section of an individual work, a bit like ‘chapters’ today but longer).

Where would this leave Martial? Let’s have a quick look at book lengths of Martial (counted up more-or-less by hand by me, so apologies for any minor inaccuracies). Caveat: these lengths do not include prose prefaces with their prefatory epigrams, which precede books 1, 2, 8, 9, and 12.

  • Book 1: 821 lines
  • Book 2: 546 lines
  • Book 3: 644 lines
  • Book 4: 670 lines
  • Book 5: 645 lines
  • Book 6: 615 lines
  • Book 7: 737 lines
  • Book 8: 661 lines
  • Book 9: 910 lines
  • Book 10: 898 lines
  • Book 11*: 809 lines
  • Book 12*: 719 lines

*: Books 11 and 12 both have one poem that is slightly lacunose (i.e. missing lines), so their original length would have been a bit longer.

Alright. First observations: Book 2 is the shortest book at 546 lines, and book 9 at the lengthiest (910+ preface with its own 8-line epigram). In general I’d say that Martial’s ‘standard’ book would have been c. 650-700 lines long. Multiple books could fit on a single papyrus scroll relatively easily (perhaps paired up?) if we follow Van Sickle.

I would like to note, however, that the production of papyri in the ancient world effectively amounted to pasting sheets of papyrus together and then rolling them up, so any book length would theoretically have been possible. Martial frequently refers to his work as libelli (little books) rather than libri (books). While this is a part of his self-deprecation in writing light verse (nugae), this could also reflect the reality that his libelli were shorter papyrus rolls that the libri.

Moving away from speculative analysis, however, it is interesting that book 2 is so short. Arguments for this have been made that the book was a release soon after or alongside book 1, and so book 2 held the ‘overflow’ of extra poems (see Sullivan on this). This may have been the case, but my interest is piqued by the nature of book 2 itself. This book is (more than any other of Martial’s books) rather obsessed with its own length. The prefatory letter and first poem of the book both refer to its size. Here’s a brief extract of 2.1:

Indeed you could bear three hundred epigrams,
My book, but who would bear and read you through (perlegeret)?
[8 more lines]
You consider yourself safe with so much brevity?
Ah me, how long you’ll be to many anyway!

Martial says that his reader should read him all the way through (perlegeret) because the book is so small (the bit I didn’t include says that this libellus is shorter and better for it than a liber), ending on the worry that even though the book is so brief it’ll be considered long at any rate. Given that this is the shortest book of the corpus, could we see a bit of playfulness here? The shortest book of the corpus states its brevity, but chastises the reader who thinks it’s too small. Paying attention to numbers can add some extra nuance to our understanding of the book.

Indeed, the longest book is book 9 – a work obsessed with monuments and fame. This is the last book before Domitian is assassinated, and (perhaps too) fittingly forms the peak of a crescendo of panegyric that began in book 7. What could be more fitting than having the book that exults in the poet’s highest point of literary success also be his longest?

I’m sure there are more observations that I could make about length in Martial (perhaps I’ll write a paper on it someday), but for now I think we can say that by paying attention to the parts of the book that we don’t normally ‘read’ – the length, the variation of metre – we spot some interesting features of Martial’s Epigrams.


Fitzgerald, W. (2007) Martial: The World of the Epigram, Chicago & London.

Morgan, L. (2010) Musa Pedestris: Metre and Meaning in Roman Verse, Oxford.

Van Sickle, J. (1980) ‘The Book-Roll and Some Conventions of the Poetic Book’ Arethusa 13, 5-42.

Further Reading

I cannot recommend enough William Johnson’s 2010 magnum opus “Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire”, which gives a stellar reconstruction of the ancient book roll (p.17ff.) and a careful reading of ancient literary culture in general.