Locating the Text: Walking Martial Around Rome

Hello, long time no see! I’m afraid I’ve been kept busy finalising my thesis (which I submitted just under a month ago, now. Hurrah!), which left less time for this blog than I’d hoped. I do have a few ideas going forward, though, so let’s see if this can become a bit more regular again.

As part of my post-submission relaxation period, which happily co-incided with my university’s reading week (i.e. no classes to teach!), I spent a few days in Rome with a colleague, whom I merrily dragged around the Eternal City. What I hadn’t been expecting was that the trip would put some of my own conclusions within the thesis into sharper focus. In short, the world of the text because more physical for me. One small example is when I discovered that the poet Martial had become monumentalised in the form of the Via Marziale (Martial Way):


But that’s not all that surprised me.

It is a common criticism of us literary types that we do not ‘get’ the wider context of the literature that we are studying, that we are so buried in our books (and our theory) that we cannot accurately understand the world in which our authors worked. This is, perhaps, an oversimplification, but it is worth acknowledging. I personally try my best to work between various sub-disciplines in Classics (Latin philology, historiography, and archaeology (the latter to a lesser extent)) to reconstruct the most accurate picture of the ancient world that I can. That said, you’d be surprised how much the physical world that the text describes comes back to life when you walk around the modern city of Rome.

Part of the argument in my thesis about Martial’s treatment of Domitian in book 7 is that the poet continues heaping panegyric upon his emperor to create the image of a divine figure (whom the populace fiercely misses) as a thematic hub around which the rest of the books’ themes orientate themselves. One crucial poem is the penultimate epigram in a programmatic series that praises the emperor for his expected triumph over the Sarmatians on the empire’s north-eastern border. The language is hyperbolic, but the central idea is that Domitian is away from the city and sorely missed:

Though the wintry Bear-star and wild Peuce,
And Hister warming to hoof-beats,
And the Rhine now broken by a thrice shameless horn
Hold you, mastering the kingdoms of a perfidious race,
You, the greatest commander of the earth and parent of the world,
You, however, cannot be absent from our prayers.
There with our eyes and minds are we, Caesar,
So utterly do you alone hold the thoughts of all,
That the very crowd of the great Circus [Maximus] knows not
Whether Passerinus or Tigris runs. (Mart. 7.7)

There is a strong emphasis here on the distance of the emperor from his city, and the fact that the chariot-races that normally fill the populace with joy seem meaningless without the princeps‘ presence. I had previously noted that the poet’s decision to focus on the city as one large multitude emphasises this point all the more, but my recent visit to Rome made another point click into place: the proximity of the Circus Maximus to the Palatine palace.


The Circus Maximus (centre), overlooked by the Palatine Palace (right)

The palace itself overlooks the Circus Maximus, meaning that those attending the races there would be dominated by its presence, and have the emperor’s influence physically constructed before them. When reading this poem, we should imagine a dejected populace sadly reminded of Domitian’s absence by the imposing structure on the Palatine – instead of watching the horses Passerinus and Tigris, the poet suggests, the populace are instead gazing dejectedly at the palace above them and praying for the emperor’s return. For a Roman reader, one used to the city, this backdrop to the poem is a lot more obvious than to someone idly flipping through a Loeb in south-west England.

I realise that this is a bit of a minor point that serves to reinforce my wider argument about Domitian in this poem, but I wonder what else we miss by not reading the physical city into the poems themselves. Martial’s Epigrams are firmly rooted in the city, and at times I feel very divorced from the world that the poet creates for me. I suppose this means I might have to force myself to wander Rome’s streets again in the future, which isn’t the worst thing in the world really, but for now I’ll try to think more carefully about the physical locations within the textual world the poet creates.

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.

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.