Stella’s Silvae? Hints at Martial’s Lost Contemporaries

This post is a bit more conjectural than usual, but as a Martial scholar I have a mind fine-tuned towards identifying metapoetic markers in poetry. Making allusions to contemporary poets and predecessors was a standard feature of ancient poetry (and modern music too, if you follow court cases about whether or not Stairway to Heaven’s intro riff was plagiarised), but the level of Martial’s allusivity is problematized by the fact that many of his contemporaneous authors are no longer extant. I’ve already written before how one poem in book 7 could be an epitaph for Valerius Flaccus, but it seems to me that Martial could also be making reference to the work of another contemporary poet: Arruntius Stella.

Stella was an important figure in Domitianic Rome, and was one of Martial’s leading patrons from the first book of the Epigrams. In book 7 Martial pays special treatment to his wife Violentilla, whom the epigrammatist gives the pseudonym Ianthis (providing a Greek variant of the etymology of her name from ‘violet’ – her name is actually more like ‘violent’, but that’s not so pretty…). In particular, in book 7 Martial focuses on a fountain in her back garden in poems 15 and 50 which apparently had a series of statues clustered around it that evoked the mythical rape of Hylas, with Hercules watching over the fountain protectively from a nearby grove. It’s this grove that particularly grabs my attention.

Here, at 7.15.3, Martial notes that “the Tyrinthian [i.e. Hercules] is worshipped in that wood” (silva colitur Tirynthius ista). Groves are places of significant importance in Latin poetry, in particular for staple tree-felling scenes in epic and the so-called loci amoeni (beautiful places) of idylls, but it is the word silva that attracts my interest. The word means both wood (the material) and wood (a forest), and carries the same metapoetic potential as the Greek term hulē for the very stuff that poetry is made of. At the same time as this poem was being written, Statius was writing short ex tempore poems entitled the Silvae, whose title could be translated as “Drafts” or just “Stuff.” It might be a long shot, but I believe that when Martial states that Hercules is worshipped/cultivated in a specific silva, when ostentatiously talking to Stella’s wife Ianthis (in a poem referencing the journey of the Argonauts), he could be making reference to an elegiac poem written by Stella that uses Hercules as a character.

Bear with me a moment.

It is clear that Stella wrote elegiac poetry – Martial introduces us to this fact the very first time that Stella appears, and frequently returns to this whenever his patron features in the Epigrams. In 7.14 for instance, the poem immediately before the first fountain poem with its silva, he describes a scene where Ianthis weeps at the death of Stella’s ‘dove’ immediately after referring to Catullus’ famous sparrow. Canny readers might well know that Catullus’ sparrow poems which remark on how Lesbia (his elegiac girlfriend) plays with the poet’s ‘sparrow’ in his lap has long been interpreted as the poet’s penis, and swiftly became an elegiac trope imitated by (amongst others) Propertius and Ovid. Indeed, when Martial first introduced Stella at 1.7 he did so stating that “my Stella’s ‘dove’ is greater than Catullus’ ‘sparrow.’” The poet’s potency is, well, reduced to a pun on the poet’s potency. At any rate, Stella is constantly introduced with references to his poetry, so the introduction of a silva, a place of strong metapoetic potential, in 7.15 makes it very tempting to read another sidelong glance at Stella into the book.

One further clue is how elegiac 7.15 is. By this I mean how much 7.15 reads like a love poem. The elegiac theme of milita amoris (military service of love) appears in this poem in the transformation of the overly-macho demigod Hercules into a lovesick guardian, tempted by the pangs of his own lust. Check out the full poem:

Which boy here stands by Ianthis’ shining waters?
Does he escape, a Hylas from his Naiad mistress?
Oh it is well that the Tirynthian is worshipped in that wood
And protects the amorous waters so near!
Although you tend these fountains secure, Argynnus,
The Nymphs will do nothing: beware lest he wants something!

Hercules stands guard in this poem, trying to protect another potential Hylas (the statue Argynnus) from being stolen away by nymphs. The waters are threatening, aroused by the potential rape (“amorous waters”), and even Hercules is pricked by desire (“beware lest he wants something”). The attention focused on the statues around the fountain recalls that of Propertius’ desire for Cynthia’s statuesque form in elegy 1.3, with the desired person utterly objectified. Finally, given Ianthis’ role as Stella’s elegiac girlfriend in his own poetry, this poem drips with elegiac markers. In Martial’s own short draft (silva) there are so many allusions to elegiac tropes and Stella’s poetry in particular that it seems unlikely that the poet would not be referring to a similar scene in his patron’s work.

But then again, maybe a wood is sometimes just a wood…


Wray, D. (2007) ‘Wood: Statius’ Silvae and the Poetics of Genius’ Arethusa 40, 127-43.

This article gives a brilliant rundown of the metapoetic potential of silva in Latin poetry, and explores how Statius tries to characterise his poetry by its innate genius.

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.