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.