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.

Bibliography

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.