Who: Marcus Valerius Martialis was a Latin poet born between 38 and 41 CE and who died between 100 and 104 CE.
What: His literary legacy is comprised of books of epigrams, that is, short witty poems. Some of them are quite beautiful, describing the deaths of friends or reflecting on the grace of the hare as it swiftly flies across the arena, but the majority are focused on the lives of Rome’s elite offering praise and scorn (mostly the latter). He has a reputation for writing explicit poems, but most of the time he is simply rude rather than ribald.
Why: Like Lucian, who was discussed last week, Martial is an important source of information on the social engagements of the Greco-Roman world. Several epigrams speak directly both to the conditions Martial endured as a client to a wealthy patron and Martial’s expectations (often unfulfilled) of the benefits he would reap from the arrangement. Since Martial often situated his epigrams within the daily affairs of affluent Romans, he provides insight into a wide variety of subjects. For example, his epigrams describing the arena offer interesting background relevant to the Christian martyrs. He describes instances where prisoners are made to dress up as figures from myth or from theater and act out the stories for the amusement of the crowd. Martial describes a prisoner forced to play the part of a robber, Laureolus, about whom there was a popular mime:
As, fettered on a Scythian crag, Prometheus fed
the untiring fowl with his too prolific heart, so
Laureolus, hanging on no unreal cross, gave up his
vitals defenseless to a Caledonian bear. His mangled limbs lived, though the parts dripped gore, and in all his body was nowhere a body’s shape. A punishment deserved at length he won he in his guilt had with his sword pierced his parent’s or his master’s throat, or in his madness robbed a temple of its close-hidden gold, or had laid by stealth his savage torch to thee, O Rome. Accursed, he had outdone the crimes told of by ancient lore ; in him that which had been a show before was punishment. (On the Spectacles, VII)
This habit of using the arena to play out legendary stories may be behind an enigmatic passage in 1 Clement:
1CL 6:1 To These men with their holy lives was gathered a great multitude of the chosen, who were the victims of jealousy and offered among us the fairest example in their endurance under many indignities and tortures.
2 Through jealousy women were persecuted as Danaids and Dircae, suffering terrible and unholy indignities; they steadfastly finished the course of faith, and received a noble reward, weak in the body though they were. (Lake)
“Danaids” probably refers to the fifty daughters of Danaus who were forced by their uncle to marry their fifty male cousins and who subsequently murdered their husbands on their wedding night. How the women were made to play out this story is hard to decipher, but the other example, “Dircae,” requires little imagination. Dirce was killed by being bound to the horns of a bull.
Martial also sheds light on another difficult historical subject: the development of the codex form of the book. It will not be news to most of you that books used to be written on scrolls, but you might not know that the transition from scroll to bound leaves is not well understood. From what we can tell, the success of the book as we know it today is largely due to the influence of Christians. It is clear that the codex format had predecessors in the wax tablets and parchment notebooks used by businessmen and government officials to take notes and compose documents. Less clear is how we got from these reusable notebooks to papyrus codices. Given the scant nature of the evidence, it is somewhat surprising that Martial contains one of the only explicit mentions of the use of a codex for a literary work in the first century CE.
You, who wish my poems should be everywhere
with you, and look to have them as companions on a
long journey, buy these which the parchment confines
in small pages. Assign your book-boxes to the great;
this copy of me one hand can grasp. Yet, that
you may not fail to know where I am for sale, or
wander aimlessly all over the town, if you accept
my guidance you will be sure. Seek out Secundus,
the freedman of learned Lucensis, behind the entrance
to the temple of Peace and the Forum of Pallas. (Book I, II)
So early is Martial’s reference that the Latin word “codex” was apparently not yet in use. Instead, Martial uses the phrase “membrana tabellis” translated somewhat loosely above but literally meaning parchment tablets. The reference to grasping one-handed amply demonstrates that Martial describes a small codex. In addition to this helpful clue about the development of the codex, Martial also sheds light on the book trade in general. Notice in the above quote he directs readers to a book seller in Rome. The normal method of book propagation involved borrowing a copy from a friend and hiring a scribe to produce a copy, so it is interesting to get a peek into the world of book dealers. (See Harry Gamble’s recent article in Hill and Kruger (eds.), The Early Text of the New Testament) Martial is an important source for both Roman life and for the development of the codex, one of Christianity’s most enduring legacies. Not bad for a bawdy poet who spends most of his time gossiping about his peers.