Locating the Text: Walking Martial Around Rome

Hello, long time no see! I’m afraid I’ve been kept busy finalising my thesis (which I submitted just under a month ago, now. Hurrah!), which left less time for this blog than I’d hoped. I do have a few ideas going forward, though, so let’s see if this can become a bit more regular again.

As part of my post-submission relaxation period, which happily co-incided with my university’s reading week (i.e. no classes to teach!), I spent a few days in Rome with a colleague, whom I merrily dragged around the Eternal City. What I hadn’t been expecting was that the trip would put some of my own conclusions within the thesis into sharper focus. In short, the world of the text because more physical for me. One small example is when I discovered that the poet Martial had become monumentalised in the form of the Via Marziale (Martial Way):


But that’s not all that surprised me.

It is a common criticism of us literary types that we do not ‘get’ the wider context of the literature that we are studying, that we are so buried in our books (and our theory) that we cannot accurately understand the world in which our authors worked. This is, perhaps, an oversimplification, but it is worth acknowledging. I personally try my best to work between various sub-disciplines in Classics (Latin philology, historiography, and archaeology (the latter to a lesser extent)) to reconstruct the most accurate picture of the ancient world that I can. That said, you’d be surprised how much the physical world that the text describes comes back to life when you walk around the modern city of Rome.

Part of the argument in my thesis about Martial’s treatment of Domitian in book 7 is that the poet continues heaping panegyric upon his emperor to create the image of a divine figure (whom the populace fiercely misses) as a thematic hub around which the rest of the books’ themes orientate themselves. One crucial poem is the penultimate epigram in a programmatic series that praises the emperor for his expected triumph over the Sarmatians on the empire’s north-eastern border. The language is hyperbolic, but the central idea is that Domitian is away from the city and sorely missed:

Though the wintry Bear-star and wild Peuce,
And Hister warming to hoof-beats,
And the Rhine now broken by a thrice shameless horn
Hold you, mastering the kingdoms of a perfidious race,
You, the greatest commander of the earth and parent of the world,
You, however, cannot be absent from our prayers.
There with our eyes and minds are we, Caesar,
So utterly do you alone hold the thoughts of all,
That the very crowd of the great Circus [Maximus] knows not
Whether Passerinus or Tigris runs. (Mart. 7.7)

There is a strong emphasis here on the distance of the emperor from his city, and the fact that the chariot-races that normally fill the populace with joy seem meaningless without the princeps‘ presence. I had previously noted that the poet’s decision to focus on the city as one large multitude emphasises this point all the more, but my recent visit to Rome made another point click into place: the proximity of the Circus Maximus to the Palatine palace.


The Circus Maximus (centre), overlooked by the Palatine Palace (right)

The palace itself overlooks the Circus Maximus, meaning that those attending the races there would be dominated by its presence, and have the emperor’s influence physically constructed before them. When reading this poem, we should imagine a dejected populace sadly reminded of Domitian’s absence by the imposing structure on the Palatine – instead of watching the horses Passerinus and Tigris, the poet suggests, the populace are instead gazing dejectedly at the palace above them and praying for the emperor’s return. For a Roman reader, one used to the city, this backdrop to the poem is a lot more obvious than to someone idly flipping through a Loeb in south-west England.

I realise that this is a bit of a minor point that serves to reinforce my wider argument about Domitian in this poem, but I wonder what else we miss by not reading the physical city into the poems themselves. Martial’s Epigrams are firmly rooted in the city, and at times I feel very divorced from the world that the poet creates for me. I suppose this means I might have to force myself to wander Rome’s streets again in the future, which isn’t the worst thing in the world really, but for now I’ll try to think more carefully about the physical locations within the textual world the poet creates.

PhDing in a Foreign Land

Just over a year ago I did something that was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done: I got on a plane and set out to spend three months in another country to continue my PhD research and improve my foreign language skills. This was the longest I’ve ever spent abroad by myself, and I was shocked (and surprised) by how much I learned about myself while out there, and the personal challenges I faced. I thought that in this post I’d share some of those experiences to try and help any other research students out there looking to do some research abroad.

How to Get There

Possibly the most important thing on the list is to get where you want to go. This is a bit more complicated than just hopping on a plane; you’ll need to select a host institution, find a colleague to work with, and try to get any funding to cover your travel costs. This is actually a lot like choosing a PhD supervisor and institution, but with the added advantage that you’ll probably know more about your project at this stage (and you’re not burdened with your choice for the next three years).

I narrowed it down to two institutions, and decided on Munich in the end. This city has produced a bunch of Martial scholars who’ve heavily influenced the field, and the option to meet these people was too good to miss. The person I contacted at Munich also got back to me very quickly and although she couldn’t supervise me due to her being on sabbatical she put me in contact with a late PhD student of hers who was hugely helpful. The other institution… was less helpful, and the scholar I would have worked with was very busy. I went with my gut.

For funding I was lucky enough to have a fund specifically designed for AHRC students to travel with, but there are numerous institutions like the DAAD which regularly advertise this kind of travel scholarship. My advice would be to get everything sorted out a long time before you travel as deadlines can be quite tight (I didn’t apply to the DAAD in the end because of this). It might be worth considering waiting until the next funding round to get everything sorted in time. The Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität also helped source my accommodation for me (which was a godsend), but there are loads of good websites out there to help you out. Make sure to ask your local contact(s) for advice and support.

What to Do When You’re There (Academic)

The number 1 priority for me was to improve my reading and conversational German, but it’s also worth experiencing life and study in another country, as well as seeing what you can while you’re there.

I found improving my conversational German very difficult when I was in Munich because Germans tend to try and practice their (irritatingly good) English on you. If you discover that people find it easier to communicate with you in English I’d suggest finding a couple of people who are exceedingly patient to practice on (elderly landladies are perfect for this). I’d also recommend doing what I didn’t and joining an intensive language programme. They can be expensive, but the results speak volumes. The proudest moment of my stay was going grocery shopping for my landlady and managing the whole trip in German (the frozen red cabbage was particularly hard!). After nearly a month and a half feeling like I couldn’t express myself it was moments like this that really boosted my confidence. My spoken German is still not perfect, but I’m so much faster than when I started, and my reading abilities have sky-rocketed. It’s worth being honest with the levels you can achieve while you’re there as well. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

You should also check out the institution while you’re there. Find out how their research culture works, how their undergraduates learn, and how they socialise. I found it a bit odd that there was a much sharper distinction between work time and free time (lots of very serious German faces 9-5, for instance), but the sense of community was stronger too. The more you can see and do the better. I also gave a research talk (in English) and got to meet several colleagues at this and other events (including those scholars I mentioned earlier). Make sure to make the most of the time you have, too – going over and chatting to some big-shot professor because you may never get another chance is a good idea, and you might well be the most interesting person in the room at this point too so knock yourself out. If all else fails you won’t be there long, anyway.

What to Do When You’re There (Non-Academic)

Don’t forget that this is still a trip. Travel! See the world! What’s the point of going hundreds of miles to simply sit in another dark room reading books and articles? The chances are you’ll have far too much spare time in a strange, new place anyway so you can always catch up on work in the quiet hours. The worst thing to do is just sit around feeling sorry for yourself – force yourself out of the front door and see the local sights, walk the block. See, feel, smell, hear, and taste the novelty. If you don’t when’s your next chance? What stories will you tell your envious friends at home when you get back?

I guarantee that travelling for part of your PhD can be one of the hardest parts of the doctorate, but it’s also been one of the most rewarding for me. I’ve met so many exciting new people, seen and experienced new things, and got to travel a bit more of Europe in the process. This is the most free you’ll ever be in your academic life, so go out there and, as a wise philosopher once put it, just do it.