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]


Martial’s Audiences: Ancient Fans?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

Martial’s Audiences: The General Reader

What really makes Martial stand out for me from other Latin authors is the way in which he directly addresses us, the general, unknown reader of his poetry. This wasn’t entirely innovative – Ovid had done something similar in the Tristia nearly a century beforehand (which Martial alludes to more than once) – but what makes Martial special is the lengths to which he goes to speak directly to his reader, breaking the fourth wall, in a bid to control our approach to the text.

As I hinted last week, Martial privileges his general reader as much as he praises the emperor, but just as praising Domitian was all about control, so too does the epigrammatist try to encourage his reader’s towards a specific style of reading. Let’s begin with the first poem in Martial’s corpus of the Epigrams. After a relatively lengthy preface to his lector studiosus (eager/studious reader) setting out his poetic programme (I will no doubt return to this preface another day), Martial offers a snappy poem in praise of them (and himself):

“Here’s that one you read, whom you need,
Known throughout the whole world, Martial,
For his sharp little books of epigrams:
To whom, studious reader, the glory which
You gave him while alive and sensing it,
Few poets have after they are ashes.” (1.1)

So there we have it, the first poem of his collection. Here Martial establishes his own position of poetic authority, as he’s known throughout the world (or so he claims…). His reader is thanked graciously for providing the poet with his great success, and we are instantly flattered by the poet. As we read we feel gratified, and this is exactly the poet’s tactic here – he’s getting on our good side, trying to be our friend, and acting as a guide to his Epigrams. Naturally we can accept what he says about his poems – he’s so famous, and that has to be a reason. Of course he’d never lie to us – he’s so nice!

It has been argued that Martial is doing the ridiculous here in stating his own literary success in the first poem of the Epigrams before he’s shown us that his libelli (little books) are so sharp and witty. The argument runs that this must be evidence of a re-released book 1 (the special edition, if you will), or a joke at the audience’s expense, or Ovid’s – Ovid famously ended the Metamorphoses and his exilic poetry with claims of literary immortality. By claiming this same immortality in similar language Martial puts himself into the same position as a literary classic, but supersedes his elegiac predecessor by not needing to prove beforehand his worth (these arguments have been made by Patricia Larash in her PhD thesis, but also come out in William Fitzgerald’s book on Martial). But I wonder if something else is going on here.

For one, we know that Martial wrote a few other books of poetry before he began the Epigrams. There’s his Xenia and Apophoreta, two books of epigrams that read a lot like Christmas cracker jokes, and his Liber Spectaculorum, which celebrates the inaugural games for the Colosseum. By this stage, if we agree with this ordering of Martial’s books, he is already a somewhat established author. But this poem also acts as an introduction to the poet and his work. Martial is an incredibly arrogant poet, always telling us how good he is at what he does, trying to wrestle control of his own poetry, and herein lies the reality of his relationship with the general reader, his unknown audience members – he can never truly control them.

Martial is astonishingly open about how much he sells his work at the bookshops scattered throughout Rome and the provinces. True he had patrons (including the emperor), but his work was read by more than the narrow elite literary culture he performed in. In the world before publishers and copyright, an author’s work was sold directly to a bookshop to be copied and sold on. Once out of the author’s hands his work was literally out of his hands. He could not recall it, and he could not change how people interpreted it.

Indeed, Martial often moans at how his words are misrepresented by others (whom he dubs maligni interpretes – malignant interpreters), especially when the emperor is involved:

                              “What worse than Nero?
What better than the Neronian hot-baths?
Straight away, look, one of the malignants does not fall short,
Who speaks thus with somewhat rancid mouth:
‘Why do you prefer them to so many
Gifts from our Lord and God [Domitian]?’ I do prefer
The Neronian hot-baths, compared to the baths of a cinaedus.” (7.34.4-10)

(cinaedus was an insult against men who engaged in a passive sexual role with other men).

Even as Martial speaks someone misrepresents him, and it’s up to his lectores studiosi, his beloved general readers, to defend his honour. One such reader is asked to defend the poet in the courts with the cry of “my Martial never wrote that stuff!” In Martial’s world, then, it paid to have your readers on side, and he would pay the ultimate penalty if he misspoke.

But ultimately, it seems that Martial wanted to reach as many people as possible and let them enjoy his poems as much as he enjoyed writing them (and watching them be enjoyed):

“My Rome praises, loves, sings my little books,
And everyone holds me in their laps, everyone holds me in their hands.
Look! Someone blushes, pales, is stunned, yawns, is disgusted.
I want this: now my songs please me…” (6.60)

[There is much more I could say on the general reader in Martial, and more that I intend to say in my thesis. This won’t be the last blog post on the topic, I swear! This blog post also includes some thoughts I presented in a research paper at AMPAL  – the Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in Ancient Literature – at Cambridge in September 2014]

Further Reading

Patricia Larash submitted a PhD on the general reader in Martial at Berkeley, California in 2004 – it’s not widely available, unfortunately, but you can buy it from ProQuest if your university gives you access.

William Fitzgerald covers Martial’s treatment of Ovid and compares it to Burmeister’s treatment of Martial in a chapter of his 2007 book Martial: The World of the Epigram.

Martial’s Audiences: Domitian

Last week I briefly covered how Martial’s poems can be both occasional and specific to the book, using Lucan’s birthday as an example. I also introduced Polla, a patron shared by both Martial and Statius, but she is not the only example. Indeed, Martial’s Epigrams are riddled with references to important men and women in the city of Rome, many of whom can be seen as the poet’s primary audience members. Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be exploring these audiences a bit further, focussing on specific groups and what we can say about them in terms of poetic and real-world impact.

This week I thought I’d go straight to the top. By Martial’s day the principate (emperorship if you will) was firmly established, and the emperor was the most important patron of the arts. If a poet had the emperor’s favour he’d well and truly made it, and if he hadn’t he could be exiled to the Black Sea like Ovid was, forgotten in the bargain bins of the local bookshops, or worse. Keeping the emperor on side was crucial, and Martial paints a picture of numerous important figures he charms in a bid to ensure continued support (Crispinus, Earinus, and Apollinaris to name a few). At times, though, Martial directly addresses the emperor and grossly flatters him.

Some of you may remember from my first post that Martial has had a difficult relationship with modern critics who hate the extent to which he flatters a totalitarian tyrant. Domitian was damned as a tyrant and seen as one of the ‘bad’ emperors by history, but this is largely due to the damnatio memoriae (having his memory surgically removed – statues torn down, edicts destroyed etc) that accompanied his assassination and the tactis of Nerva and Trajan (his two successors).

Generally speaking, if an emperor was ousted from power his successors would naturally emphasise how much better they were, generally in terms of restored liberty. The same thing happened, to an extent, to the emperor Nero. Neither of these men can or should be exonerated for their actions (Nero is notorious for persecuting Christians for example), but we should try to remember that these men dild not always act in the Disney-villain-esque manner that we are always told by the sources. Martial himself reports in book 9 that one of Domitian’s moral reforms ended the practice of child prostitution. As with most reviled political figures there are shades of grey at work rather than just black and white. Which of us is always perfect?

Be that as it may, some of the stuff Martial says about the emperor frequently makes me want to hurl. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Get a bucket ready:

“You, the greatest commander of the earth and parent of the world…” (7.7.5)
“Worthy of reverence, ruler of the Tarpeian palace [i.e. Jupiter],
Whom as Thunderer we believe our leader [Domitian] safe,
Each of us wearies you with their own prayers
And demands you give what you gods can:
Do not be enraged with me seeking nothing
For myself as if I were arrogant.
About Caesar I ought to ask you;
About me I ought to ask Caesar.” (7.60)

It’s ok. Take a moment to recover.

As you can see, Martial doesn’t pull any punches with his praise of Domitian. He turns him into a Jupiter-on-earth, an entity of limitless power, in his poems. We might find these flatteries too much to bear, but modern sensibilities rarely line up with ancient ones. Nowadays the idea of watching two men fight to the death (or near death) for our entertainment is broadly seen as revolting, for example, but this was just another way of relaxing for the average Roman. In the UK the age of consent in 16 and an age gap of 20 years between partners would raise an eye. In Rome, girls were frequently married off as young as 14 to men three times that age. With these huge differences in our societies at play we should be very wary about casting any judgements. To my mind, these gross flatteries can be understood in the realm of panegyric.

Panegyric was a genre of praise that grew in strength along with the principate. There are several examples of panegyric that survive to the modern day, one of which is Pliny’s Panegyric of the emperor Trajan. What is most striking about this piece is, as remarked upon by Susanna Morton Braund, that Pliny uses very similar phrases to Martial to glorify the new emperor despite damning Domitian. Those that have trouble reconciling Martial’s praise for Domitian should bear the example of Pliny’s Panegyric in mind – even ‘good’ emperors were praised to a sickening (by modern standards) extent. Far from being the only way of appeasing a horrible tyrant, then, Martial’s statements about the emperor seem to be more a part of the tone required for Roman panegyric to be successful.

Nevertheless, some see this overblown flattery by Martial as an attempt to be politically subversive. This line of argument usually stresses that the praise is too much to be taken seriously, and that a secret message must be buried within it. Most prominent amongst those that consider Martial to be politically subversive is John Garthwaite, who has written several articles on the topic.I won’t go into the nitty-gritty here, but we should always consider ancient literature in its context. By Domitian’s day imperial panegyric was reaching new heights, and not conforming to an expected level of praise could result in execution – Dio Cassius records one such case during Domitian’s reign for us. Whether or not Martial believed what he was saying is irrelevant (and ultimately impossible to reconstruct) – his ‘excessive’ praise should be considered in terms of expectations of the genre he was writing in. Not to conform and praise the emperor was a death sentence.

What is interesting about Martial is the way he presents himself as a part of Domitian’s world, praising himself by extention to the emperor. Note the final poem of book 7 where Martial wants Domitian to listen to his poems – Martial puts words into the emperor’s mouth and grants himself an imperial seal of approval:

“If my poems are read in the Parrhasian palace
(for they too are used to enjoying the sacred ear of Caesar)
Dare to say about me, as a candid reader:
‘That one stands out somewhat for your times,
And is not too much worse than Marsus and learned Catullus.’
This is enough: the rest I entrust to the god himself.” (7.99.3-8)

Domitian is turned into a god in Martial’s poetry, but at the same time Martial gives himself divine favour. While this is unsavoury to modern audiences, it reveals a power dynamic of praise and approval for Martial’s poetry. For those of you who remain unconvinced, consider this: Martial did not write every one of his poems as a florid expression of adoration for the emperor. Although he was a crucial figure to have on hand, he was not the be-all-and-end-all. In fact, as we will see next week, Martial privileges another figure with as much (if not more) power in his verse.

Further Reading

The article I mentioned above about Pliny’s Panegyric was written by Susanna Morton Braund in Praise and Protreptic in Early Imperial Panegyric: Cicero, Seneca, Pliny, a volume edited by M. Whitby.

John Garthwaite has written much on Martial, but a good introduction to reading Martial subversively is ‘The Panegyrics of Domitian in Martial Book 9’ in Ramus 22.