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.