Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.07

P. Howell (ed.), Martial: The Epigrams Book V. Warminster: Aris and Phillip, 1995. Pp. 172. $19.95. ISBN 0-85668-590-9 (pb).

Reviewed by Matthew Leigh, University of Exeter.

In 1980 Peter Howell published an extremely learned and entertaining commentary on Book One of Martial's Epigrams. The scale of the work which he now presents is considerably smaller than that of his previous study but, within the limitations imposed by the series in which it appears, this is a very valuable contribution and one which will encourage school and university teachers to find a place for Martial in the curriculum.

Howell's Preface explains that this commentary began as a project sponsored by the Joint Association of Classical Teachers. Book Five is therefore an apt choice, for as we are repeatedly reminded, it is an unusually chaste collection by the standards of Martial's oeuvre. Scholars and pedagogues whose youth was worn away in learned notes and emendations need no longer set their virginal stammering before students whose sexual education is considerably more advanced than their own. If you know rather more about kingship theory than the clitoris, Howell's Martial may be just the thing for you.

And yet this text is not to be approached without the utmost moral vigilance. Martial is a decidedly slippery character. At 5. 2. 3-4, those readers who favour nequitiae procaciores and sales nudi are urged to try the first four books instead. Howell offers no commentary on these lines but it is worth observing that Martial nowhere resigns the right to offer naughtiness which is rather less forward and wit which is somewhat more veiled (Plin. Ep. 4. 14. 4 and Quint. Inst. 8. 3. 38 may use nudus for language which is obscene because relating to the uncovered body, but see also Hor. Carm. 1. 24. 7 nuda veritas with N-H ad loc., Ov. Am. 1. 3. 14 nuda simplicitas, and Tac. Germ. 22. 4 detecta et nuda omnium mens). 5. 18 and 84 liken Book Five to a poetic Saturnalia; Greek prostitutes turn up at 5. 4 and 5. 43; passive homosexuals are mocked at 5. 41, 5. 46, 5. 61; the dancing girls of Cadiz will [not] give you a post-prandial hard-on at 5. 78. This much is plain for even the matronae puerique virginesque to see. For those who know some Greek, there is a more fun still to be had. The conspicuous delay in the address to the man spadone eviratior fluxo of 5. 41 as Didymus effectively exploits the testicular resonance of his name; Diadumenos at 5. 46. 3 is another eloquent name and one particularly well-adapted to the sexual role Martial designs if, as Howell notes, this is also the name given to the feminine statue-type which forms the counterpart to Doryphoros (cf. Plin. HN, 34. 55). Other covert obscenities are surely there to be excavated. Emily Gowers has made an honourable start in The Loaded Table and her interpretation of 5. 78 deserves better than the surprisingly graceless observation that it "may be found appealing by those who consider it unimaginative to take an author at his own words."

Howell's commentary otherwise retains many of the characteristics of his previous work. It is lively and informative, especially on Roman social life and the topography of the city; it points out Martial's relationship with previous poets, most importantly Catullus and Lucillius; and it is alert to the status of the book as an ordered collection in which juxtaposition and repetition are exploited to the full.1 As in Book 1, the linked poems on the theatre and the amphitheatre offer a fascinating commentary on imperial spectator society.2 Another essential feature is Howell's engaging interest in the reception of Martial's poetry and his occasional readiness to draw more unexpected modern analogies. In the space of one page of commentary on 5. 23, one finds both "Compare W. S. Gilbert's "greenery-yallery" young man (the aesthete Bunthorne in Patience)" and "Compare the prize-giving scene in the film If, where the knighted guests turn up in armour." At times, this quirky frame of reference even involves the sort of delicious disingenuousness which the commentary is occasionally reluctant to detect in Martial. At 5. 61. 6, for instance, Howell offers a detailed note on the connection at Rome between depilation and passive homosexuality and adds that "It is curious that in the modern world it is habitual with macho bodybuilders." The incontrovertibly heterosexual Schwarzenegger has certainly moved a long way from the early glories of Pumping Iron but that milieu was perhaps not as straight as the parallel implies.

Howell's Introduction is brief but contains much valuable information on the life and times of Martial, his relations with Domitian, the genre of the epigram, the metres adopted and the manuscript editions. The bibliography is similarly brief but directs the reader to more detailed collections. The work is well presented and the translations helpful. I noted only the following errors: merumquc for merumque at 4. 3; "reader" as a translation for causidicum at 16. 16; primuspilus for primipilaris in the introduction to 4. 48.


1. Howell notes the connections between 5. 15 and 16 and 5. 18 and 19, but does not comment on the impact of placing 5. 20 (on the misery of being a client) straight after 5. 19 (a plea for imperial patronage). Note that 5. 19. 13 and 5. 22. 16 both use the term rex for a patron.  

2. 5. 8, 14, 22, 25, 27, 35, 38, 41 all concern the theatre edict guaranteeing the rights of the equites, but note also 5. 3. 5-6 and 5. 5. 2 on the joy of seeing the god Domitian face to face.