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.