Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.05.53

Victoria Rimell, Martial's Rome: Empire and the Ideology of Epigram.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  Pp. viii, 231.  ISBN 9780521828222.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by John Alexander Lobur, University of Mississippi (

Table of Contents

[The reviewer apologizes to the author and the press for the lateness of this review.]

Ideology is a slippery yet indispensable concept for understanding the role of ideation in the formation, interaction and interdependence of social, cultural and political constructs. Focusing on the role of literary production in the Roman imperial system can lead to fuller understandings of that system's cohesiveness, the sense of legitimacy it engenders and success. The role of epigram, and more specifically the evidence of Martial, can be particularly illuminating, inasmuch as the genre is politically loaded.1 Moreover, there is something self-consciously imperial and Roman about the universalizing miscellany of Martial's collection that attempts to capture everything it touches in perfectly crafted turns of phrase, reflecting an the inclination for expressing things in sententiae that very much grew in popularity (and not accidentally) in the early imperial period. Judging from the title of Victoria Rimell's book, one might expect the concept of ideology to be at the core of her study. This is not the case, as her work demonstrates no critical familiarity with the term, does not use it to flesh out any line of inquiry, and is primarily literary in scope.

This book comes closely after William Fitzgerald's realignment of Martial's oeuvre that stresses the interaction and reception of the book(s) of epigrams with (and within) a field of literary production as it is presented by the collection itself.2 While there is some overlap in the material covered, the vision of Rimell's work is different, particularly with respect to Martial's relationship to prior, and especially Augustan poetics. A preoccupation with allusion and intertext tends to predominate.

Rimell begins by outlining Martial's self-conscious literary strategy. In presenting several collections of poems individually diminutive in scope and prestige, the poet intends to surpass epic predecessors like Silius Italicus and Valerius Flaccus. Moreover, the collection in its multiplicity of individual units, presents a variety of standpoints that "rub shoulders" and so imitates the turba of the urbs. At the core of Rimell's argument is the notion that in each book, Martial "pressures various kinds of boundary policing and collapse," and that the dynamic core of this phenomenon is the fact that "social and literary activity/interpretation overlap and infiltrate one another, so that we must talk about the sociality of the poetic book, and the poetics of the textual city" (pp. 12-13). While attention to this conceptual slippage enriches one's appreciation of the text, this reviewer feels that from time to time a little more restraint could have been shown, both with regard to the allusions and intertexts assumed, as well as with the implications drawn therefrom.3

In the first chapter of her book, Rimell explores the imagery of bodies, contact, contagion and the interpenetration of social boundaries in public places and the like, confining herself to Book 1. Concerns with sexual and non-sexual bodily contact in the text conceptually slip into metaphorical notions of contact between author, subject (or target), reader and reciter (or plagiarist). Rimell also utilizes the metaphor to explore how words and potential readings in one poem "infect" the interpretations of others, providing a new take on the well-trodden discussion of juxtaposition and variatio in the oeuvre. Martial's famous epigram 1.16, declaring that a collection of epigrams can only come together through a collection of good and bad poems is related to the nearby 1.18, where Martial complains that Tucca destroys his Falernian by mixing it with Vatican must. Rimell then relates this to other poems in book one concerning, in a very broad--perhaps too broad--sense, mixtures, drinking and comparisons in general, and potential complications of their intertextual antecedents. Rimell demonstrates that particular readings and interpretive carryovers from one poem to others are tempting, and perhaps deliberately invited, but unstable and potentially contradictory. Contrary to scholarly attempts to divine thematic or structural order (however complicated), Rimell concludes that "the interplay of ideas, poems, imagery and vocabulary in Martial often fails to add up to a comforting sense of wholeness and artistic rationale. . . Martial's project takes the difference-in-sameness of variatio and pushes it to . . . muddling extremes" (p. 50).

Chapter two centers around the concept of death in epigram (tying into its epigraphical and funerary roots), the related concepts of the persistence and decay of memorialization, and "the web of associations between writing poetry and (transcending) death in Roman culture" (p. 57). Epigram, paradoxically, is rooted in monumentalization and the poet's desire for literary immortality, yet represents itself as tossed off and not to be taken seriously. Rimell then investigates the problematic nature of book 10 (edited after Domitian's death), especially the extensively envisioned intertextual possibilities of the opening poem, as well as those between 10.5 (cursing someone circulating slanderous verses in his name against an undisclosed target) and Ovid's Ibis. The intertext of Ovidian exile then receives attention, especially with regard to 10.104, where the poet considers returning to Bilbilis after 30 years in Rome. The chapter shifts to a discussion of the freezing and preserving qualities of amber as a metaphor for epigram (e.g. 4.32, 59) then the complex imagery of water as liquid and solid. Rimell concludes by looking at the intertextuality of 1.88 (a poem to Martial's deceased slave Alcimus), and claims rather boldly (though not atypically) that the poet: "bends into these trim ten lines the whole of Roman history and Augustan poetry, from the beginnings of Aeneas' voyage to Italy and the epic Aeneid to Ovid's. . . letters from exile, while also . . . warping the initial seductions and the thrilling new Augustan city of . . . the Ars Amatoria."

Chapter three explores the nature of number and calculation, especially with regard to the materialistic underbelly of social reciprocity that Martial lays bare with such glee. It then turns to the Flavian amphitheater and the complex associations between ideas of empire, the representational totality of the crowd in attendance, the synecdochic notions of one and/for many, as well as the effacement of Nero's Golden house, where Rimell suggests an overcomplication of Flavian propaganda just shy of subversion. The chapter concludes with a lengthy section on book two, "where Martial begins to count. Its where one becomes two, where unus liber begins to grow into the turba . . ." This final section covers a range of numeric notions such as one-ness and two-ness, along with its intertextual play.

Chapter 4 takes the dominant Saturnalian mood of the epigrams to structure investigations thematically informed by inversion and license. The Xenia (book 13) are a collection of epigrams purporting to accompany gifts, and Rimell primarily looks at how these poems reflect the relationship between Martial's oeuvre and the world through what they say about exchange and food. The final section deals with book 11, published on Nerva's succession, where, it is argued, the poet pushes the envelope of Saturnalian license and obscenity while remaining anxious about his position and opportunities at a time of political transition. The main intertextual theme engages the politically recalcitrant Catullus.

The last chapter (perhaps the most successful), explores the spatial dynamics and ramifications of Martial's epigram in an empire more Romanized than ever before; his portable books are thumbed everywhere. Rimell picks up on and complicates Fitzgerald's thesis that the poet reverses the direction of Ovid's exile poetry, and extends it to posit a commentary on the theme of exile in Latin tradition and literature writ large. The world is smaller due to Rome's civilizing process and this plays into epigram's "magnifying/miniaturization project." The sense of separation between rus and urbs, center and periphery, becomes blurred as epigram itself "becomes" Rome.

Rimell's study is sophisticated, yet much of the time the reader feels a bit dizzied by the swarm of references and allusions posited and the conclusions drawn from them. While good poetry--and especially a large collection of poems that interacts with a long established poetic canon--invites the reader to identify and investigate intra- and extra-textual dynamics, one cannot help but feel that R tends to be too sensitive in detecting these things (though this is not always the case).4 Martial's collection is admittedly complicated, and at times contradictory in an interpretive sense, yet the picture Rimell paints of this complexity, especially in rejecting the larger structures other scholars see in the work, could be due to the impressive familiarity Rimell possesses, both with Martial's work and the canon it engages, tempered with too little restraint. In addition, the work meanders a bit and could be more tightly written.5 Rimell also makes the claim (p. 14) "I am interested in the fundamental question of why exactly Martial chose to write epigram and (apparently) epigram alone." One wishes this line of inquiry received more attention and resolution.

There are very few misprints or errors of the editorial type.6


1.   Eg. Suet. Tib. 59.
2.   Fitzgerald, W. Martial and the World of Epigram, Chicago, 2007. For reviews, see 2007.12.08 and 2008.01.23.
3.   For the limits of intertextuality, see Hinds, S. Allusion and Intertext, Cambridge, 1998 pp. 47-51. While Rimell does not go so far as to "wish the alluding author out of existence altogether," she does tend to privilege readerly reception (her own) to an extent that does not inspire confidence.
4.   E.g. On p. 49 Rimell takes issue with numerous recent attempts to make order of variatio "in terms of 'thematic structures', 'intricate designs', 'cycles' and 'interacting motifs', which unify or set the 'tone' for a book." To cite two representative examples of interpretive excess, p. 59ff. attempts to draw intertextual parallels about poets achieving immortality and thus "flying through the air," (a well worn trope) and Martial's description, in the De Spectaculis of dangerous animals in the arena tossing things through the air; on pp. 157-9 the author explores the contradiction between the Saturnalian prohibition on war and punishment and her assertion that "many of the foods on offer in the Xenia come tagged with hints of torture and violence. . . "
5.   E.g. one reads on p. 75 (with reference to the intertext between 10.5 and Ovid's Ibis) words such as "Of course, the case [Rimell's own] is weak and unconvincing: time to move on," only to devote more time on it: "But before we do. . . "
6.   E.g. p. 31 "Cestos" should be "Cestus;" on p. 75 the English translation for the Latin is lacking; p. 121 n. 56 "fulmina" should be "flumina;" there is a misspelling of the Greek on p. 149.

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