Thinking Trifling Thoughts

In my last post I mentioned the conference that one of my good colleagues, Paul Martin, and I are organising for the 2nd and 3rd of May. As I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about that conference, especially what I’m going to be saying at it, I thought it’d be nice to put some of those initial thoughts to paper.

The conference itself is titled Trifling Matters: Nugatory Poetics & Comic Seriousness. In a nutshell, the conference aims to examine a variety of literature from across antiquity and into its reception that brazenly broadcasts its pointlessness to the reader/audience. These texts, which Paul and I have termed “nugatory” from the Latin term nugae (trifles/rubbish), are particularly interesting because, while they profess their lack of quality, they often hint at a level of self-importance or realism that trumps those texts that frequently win the title of the Best-Genre-Of-All-Time (e.g. history, tragedy, epic poetry, oratory). So what do these texts have to gain from defining themselves as trifling matters while also claiming that, to some extent, trifling matters?

Rather unsurprisingly, I’ve come towards nugae from Martial, whose first preface is an exercise in literary pointlessness. After warding off malign readers who would write the wrong kind of meaning into the poet’s work, Martial explains how he can get away with writing nasty, rude, and crude little epigrams:

I would excuse the playful truth of my words (i.e. epigram’s tongue) if the paradigm was mine: but thus wrote Catullus, thus Marsus, thus Pedo, thus Gaetulicus, thus whomever is read through. Yet if anyone is so ostentatiously severe that it is not sanctioned to speak Latin on any column in his presence, he can be content with the letter or rather the title. Epigrams [or “The Epigrams“] are written for those who usually watch Flora’s games… (1.praef.9-15)

So Martial pretends to be writing silly little poems that shouldn’t have people reading too much into them, but in these lines he specifies that he belongs to a long pedigree of other nugatory writers. For Martial, Catullus et al. represent a chain of succession to be joined, a canon to be written into. The epigrammatist emphasises that these poets are read all the way though as a mark of the readers’ respect for them, a respect that he desires for his own poetry elsewhere in the Epigrams (such as in book 2’s preface and opening poem). To Martial there is a long list of pointless paradigms who exemplify all that is good about epigram. On the one hand this offers him the chance to pass the buck for writing rude poems (“don’t blame me, blame that famous love poet, Catullus!”), but on the other it also lets him suggest that he too can be deemed part of this canon. Martial is pointing out his own (self-)importance even as he deprecates his own literary worth.

It’s probably not for nothing that in the first numbered poem of the collection that he then proceeds to announce his worldwide renown. Elsewhere he puffs that while readers claim to prefer lofty epic its his little epigrams that they always love. It’s a cheap shot, but when you write something that the nobles of literature sneer at it’s the cheap shots that count. Despite writing poems of a low genre, Martial claims an astonishing level of self-worth.

I could ramble on about Martial for quite some time, but for the conference I thought I’d move into pastures new (not least because two other people want to discuss my favourite poet at the conference…). While Martial might focus on flipping genres in his own poetry for his own work’s benefit, I decided to turn towards prose authors for my own paper. In particular, I want to look at Pliny the Younger, the well-known letter writer and orator, and see what he has to say about trifling poets. Pliny is interestingly situated in this mess of genre-interplay, as he writes little hendecasyllabic poems on the side (which no longer survive), but he also has a very important day job as a lawyer.

What I’m interested in exploring further, once I’ve found the time to look into it more deeply, is how Pliny characterises his own poetry given its complicated relationship with dialogues of literary worth in contemporaneous Latin prose. It’s one thing for a nugatory poet to make claims about nugatory worth, but how does a self-respecting senatorial orator get away with it? Both Quintilian and Tacitus (in his Dialogue of the orators) stress that oratory is the most important thing for a senator to involve themselves with at Rome. Poetry is for boys and people with too much time on their hands, while manly orators serve the state by doing something useful for a living. (It all sounds a bit like the sciences versus humanities debates we hear so often…).

So how does Pliny reconcile these generic differences? My initial thoughts are that he writes himself into both canons, while emphasising his own (self-)importance as an orator; his poetry is written in times of leisure, which lets him relax enough to be an effective statesman. By pondering on Pliny’s pointless poetry, I hope to pry apart these generic games a bit further and demonstrate how self-serving the discourse is on the higher and lower ends of the generic ladder. I’m also keen to talk to other disciples of the nugatory, and see how Pliny, Quintilian, and Tacitus slot into the broader discourse of nugatory poetics across antiquity (and beyond).

All the Text’s a Stage: Persona Theory in Antiquity

[Following my last post’s tradition there is some reference below to obscene sex acts, but I treat it as euphemistically as possible]

I’m coming to the end of this year’s seminar teaching, and one of the key issues I’ve tried to ram home to my students is persona theory. Simply put, it’s the act of recognising that the authorial voice in the text is not necessarily the same as the author’s own voice. I could tell a (misogynistic) joke about my wife, for instance, without requiring to be married in the first place.

The key change this makes to us moderns reading an ancient text is how far we trust the authorial I. Not too long ago critics were happy to say, for instance, that Catullus wrote his poems to Lesbia, his lover, who definitely was Clodia Metelli, the sister of Clodius Pulcher. In the wake of viewing all texts as theatres for the author to adopt a role dependent on the specific circumstances of the text (love poem, love poet, elegiac persona) this changes significantly. Catullus is presenting himself as a the lover of a woman named Lesbia, whom we might be invited to read as Clodia Metelli (Lesbius est pulcer c. 79.1), but in the text is nothing more than a textual construct, a fiction. The persona theorist would thus find it more interesting to see how the text acts out this drama, how it affects the reader, rather than reconstructing historical truths based off the text itself.

So far so typical. The only potential issue is that the ancients didn’t necessarily make such a distinction between authorial voice and author. The famous story in Suetonius’s Life of Julius Caesar, for instance, is that Caesar was incensed by some of Catullus’ poems concerning himself and Mamurra (c. 57 is particularly fruity). As Suetonius records it (Iul. 73), these poems left a “permanent stain” upon his reputation, and Catullus had to formally apologise to Caesar over dinner, after which the future dictator exhibited his famous clemency and everything went back to normal. How serious this matter was is indicated by Suetonius’ curt statement at the end of this section – after the apology Caesar resumed all normal business with Catullus’ father. In other words, one of the most politically significant men in Rome took the matter so personally as to break off all dealings with the poet’s family. It looks like Caesar got the last laugh.

There does, however, seem to be some separation between poet and persona. Catullus complains that some people judged him to be a mollis vir (lit. ‘soft/effeminate man’) because he wrote so many poems about love and kissing. His response in c. 16 is to let rip with a threat to anally and orally penetrate his detractors, literally silencing them with the force of his manhood. Similarly, but less obscenely, Martial stresses to Domitian that while his poems are rude and lascivious he himself is not: lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba (1.4.8).

There is a key difference between Martial and Catullus, though. Catullus’ invective against real world figures had real world consequences. By Martial’s day (the end of the 1st century AD) the principate was firmly established, and the poet takes pains not to directly attack real people. As he admits at 2.23, discussing the identity of the pseudonym Postumus, why should he risk legal proceedings by identifying his targets? This then begs the question, when Martial praises Domitian to the skies (with what some would call sickening levels of sycophancy) did the emperor see any potential for poetic exaggeration, or did he actually think he was a Lord and God (dominus et deus)?

I don’t think this is the case at all. The emperor was a supporter of the Arts, and had engaged in poetic composition as a youth (Suet. Dom. 2), and it is highly unlikely that he would publicly proclaim himself to be a god. Indeed, such behaviour was taken as one of the signs of Caligula’s madness (Suet. Calig. 22). As B. W. Jones notes, there is also no real evidence that Domitian ever put titles such as dominus et deus in public practice. It seems that some things were left to the realm of panegyrical poetry.

One nice parallel to the panegyric of Domitian exists in Pliny the Younger’s Letters. Writing to a friend he describes a comic play just performed by a certain Vergilius Romanus in which real and pseudonymous names are scattered throughout. Pliny is able to see through the fiction straightaway and, in a self-aggrandising move, comments that Romanus’ praise of the senator in this play did go a bit too far:

[In this play Vergilius Romanus] honoured virtues, he attacked vices; he made use of fictive names (fictis nominibus) decently, true ones aptly. About me he exceeded such a style with too much kindness but for the fact that it is acceptable for poets to lie (poetis mentiri licet). (Plin. Ep. 6.21.5-6)

Pliny then urges his friend to read the play and see for himself this young poet’s brilliance. So far so Pliny. What interests me, though, is the assertion that it is acceptable for poets to make fabrications in their writing (poetis mentiri licet). The comment is made rather flippantly, but it does show a separation between the world of the text and the real world, between reality and fiction. To Pliny, then, there is an idea of personae in Romanus’ work. Pliny is flattered by his depiction in the work, but he also notes that it is not fully representative of the historical Pliny.

Does this mean that the ancient audiences would have seen through texts? I think this is a far more difficult question than I’ve been able to address here – Apuleius identifies women behind all of the fictional women in love elegy, for instance (Apol. 10.3). It’s certainly a question of what the text is doing – if Romanus had attacked Pliny it is doubtless that the senator would have sued for defamation, but as he is being praised there is a sense of safe exaggeration. At the very least, though, it is worth treating our ancient sources with a wariness that, it seems, men like Pliny were also capable of.


Jones, B. W. (1992) The Emperor Domitian, London. [a well-balanced biography of the last Flavian emperor]

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.

Updates: Thesis, Conferences, and the Blog

Hi everyone,

So it’s been nearly a year since I updated the blog – I think we can safely say that things are likely to remain sporadic (but hopefully not quite so spread out!), but I’d like to relaunch the blog on a semi-regular basis. My posts will continue to explore some of the ideas I’m having as I research Martial’s book structure & book culture, but I’ll also try to give more of an idea about life as a postgrad as I go on.

Anyway, a few updates people might be interested in:

  1. I’m now in the third year of my thesis. People keep asking “how is the PhD going” and, to be honest, I still have no idea how to begin answering that question. Nevertheless, things seem to be going well, and I have a timeline that looks more or less feasible to adhere to. Can I finish by next September? We’ll just have to see…
  2. I’ve since presented at my first ‘grown up’ (i.e. not solely postgraduate) conference! The Cambridge Triangulationships conference took place in July. The general theme was exploring the relationship between the triangle (hence triangulationships) of author-reader-text. You can check out the website here, which includes a list of the papers presented. I’m hoping to turn my paper (on general readers in Martial and Pliny the Younger) into a published piece within the future. Updates to follow…
  3. I’m booked to talk at two more conferences! The first is the annual Classical Association conference at Edinburgh (6-9th April). I’m taking part in a panel discussing “Audience Interactions” – how audiences are programmed into the text or how authors prepare for their audiences. My paper will consider how the recitatio is programmed into the structure of the Epigrams.
  4. The second conference is June 9-11 in Zurich, and is entitled “The Materiality of Texts between the Lebenswelt and Lesewelt.” I’m very much looking forward to this interdisciplinary event, and I’ll be considering how the shift from ancient form to modern text (i.e. papyrus scroll towards codex and the modern book) radically changes how we interact with the Epigrams. You can find the conference CFP here. Hopefully more updates to follow nearer the time.

So far the upcoming year looks quite busy – I’m teaching in the Spring term on a course on Roman Laughter (which includes Martial – huzzah!), and generally headed towards writing up the thesis. At the moment it looks like it’ll be split into two or three sections, but maybe I can go further into that another time…

At any rate – thanks for dropping by! I hope to upload some more Martial Musings in the near future.