BMCR 1993.01.20

Martial: the Unexpected Classic. A Literary and Historical Study

, Martial, the unexpected classic : a literary and historical study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. xxv, 388 pages. ISBN 9780585272153 $74.95.

Sullivan has set himself the ambitious task of writing the first comprehensive study of Martial in English. His aim is “to help the reader to understand the work, its social and political context, and the literary tradition from which it emerges” (p. xiv), and to survey its Nachleben among poets, scholars, and translators from antiquity to the present. For the most part he has succeeded, giving a useful and informative account, and marshalling his many facts in a straightforward and orderly fashion.

The merits of Sullivan are many and may be most readily appreciated by anyone who has tried recently to find some information on Martial among the elegant and opinionated pronouncements of the Cambridge History of Latin Literature. I suspect, however, that this book will be consulted more often than read, for it is both too detailed and too general to make good reading, and its relevant information can be extracted easily enough without much danger of misconstruing the context or missing the point of a subtle or complex thesis. Sullivan’s arguments, in fact, are both general and unexceptionable: that Martial is a classic (i.e., that he has had “literary reverberations”, providing “inspiration for European vernacular writers”, p. 252) and that his work is unified by its hierarchical view of society.

There are seven chapters: 1) “Martial’s Life and Times”, 2) “Martial’s Apologia pro opere suo“, 3) “The Epigram Tradition: Martial’s Greek and Latin Models”, 4) “The Coherence of Martial’s Themes”; 5) “Martial’s Sexual Attitudes”, 6) “Humanity and Humour; Imagery and Wit”, 7) “Survival and Renewal”.

In the first chapter Sullivan presents a book-by-book summary of Martial’s 15 books, juxtaposing contemporary political events and the events of Martial’s own life with the topics of the epigrams. The format places each book, and nearly each epigram, in its historical context. Thus, for Book 7:

Book VII, published in December 92 (cf. 7.8), again focuses on the court. Appropriately, it concludes with a request (7.99) to the trusted Egyptian praetorian prefect Crispinus … to put in a good word with Domitian. The first three epigrams are devoted to Domitian’s military leadership. The Sarmatians (i.e. Iazyges and Roxolani), often allied with German tribes, and the Scythian Alani are mentioned several times (7.2.1; 7.30.6). Against this constant threat to the long Danube border Domitian had stationed about a hundred thousand troops. Similar measures were taken against the Danubian Getae (7.2.2). Domitian is away from Rome from August to December 92, since he was conducting campaigns in Pannonia against the Sarmatians and Suebi. Martial speaks of the supposed longing of the Roman people and of the senate for his return (7.5-7). Naturally further triumphs are predicted (7.6.7-8; 8.7-10). His consular friend Faustinus may even acquire a captured boy from the Ister to tend his sheep at Tibur (7.80.11). (p.39)

The historical survey is generally but not invariably followed by a listing of epigrams under various rubrics (like these for Book 11: “fame and hard fortune”, poetry and its practitioners”, “works of art”, “perverse sexual practices,” “old women”, p. 47). Both the historical surveys and the classifications by topic are undeniably dry, but they do not seem equally useful. Knowing that Domitian’s campaigns in 92 are the backdrop for Book 7, for example, could be important to any number of studies, but the subject classifications have less point, especially since they tend to be vague, and the lists are incomplete.

In Chapter 2 ( Apologia pro opere suo), Sullivan discusses the ways in which Martial justifies his choice of genre, use of obscenity, uneven quality, realism, and flattery of Domitian. These are topics others might have treated under the headings of Martial’s literary program and persona—or rather heading, since for Martial persona and program are so closely linked. The persona is brash, crass, and popular, an artist who not only conceals but denigrates art, and the literary program is the production of art for fun and profit, whose avowed aesthetic is the denial of aesthetic as opposed to commercial values. But such an approach would not suit Sullivan’s straightforward presentation, which emphasizes the historical and factual rather than the literary.

The avoidance of literary discussion and analysis becomes increasingly apparent as the book proceeds. Sullivan classifies, summarizes, and paraphrases Martial, but he does not analyze so much as a single poem—perhaps because he conceives his work as literary history rather than as literary criticism. Thus, he tells us that 1.35 is “the most convincing and sophisticated defence of Martial’s use of obscenity” (p. 65). But he demonstrates this proposition only by quoting the poem and its translation, for his discussion is essentially a paraphrase:

Here Martial responds to the claims of Roman dignitas and severitas by arguing that his obscenity is appropriate, even required ( lex), for the genre of epigram, just as the protector of orchards, Priapus, must be given his menacing tool, just as crass sexual material is a legitimate part of hymeneal songs…. (p. 66)

In “The Epigram Tradition” (chapter 3) Sullivan surveys all of Martial’s possible models, both Greek and Roman. This chapter contains much useful information on Martial’s Greek contemporaries or near contemporaries, Lucillius, Nicarchus, and Strato, as well as on his immediate Roman predecessors in epigram, Domitius Marsus, Albinovanus Pedo, and Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus. But it also presents a history of Greek epigram and a not obviously relevant account of the Garlands of Meleager and Philip, neither of which (as Sullivan acknowledges, pp. 83, 84) seems to have exerted much influence on Martial. Sullivan juxtaposes a few of Martial’s epigrams with their models and takes us one by one through Martial’s Latin sources (such as Catullus, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Tibullus, Propertius, and Seneca), but he seems very little interested in the workings of imitation and allusion or in such questions as how Martial’s imitation of Catullus might differ from his borrowings of Vergil’s diction or of themes from Seneca’s prose works. There are no references in this chapter to the essential works on imitation by Pasquali, Conte, or Thomas Greene, though we hear of Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” (mentioned and dismissed as an explanation for Martial’s failure to credit his Greek models, p. 92) as well as the theories of Jacques Lacan, invoked here as one explanation of Martial’s relationship to Vergil:

A Lacanian interpretation of Martial would postulate that the poet has only one goal and one anxiety that he wishes his readership to share: to take the place of the father, to become himself the master. A tempting idea since Virgil is clearly the father assumed in the emulative rivalry of so many of the epic poets of the early empire: Lucan, Silius Italicus, Valerius Flaccus and Statius. (p. 103)

In chapters 4 and 5 (“The Coherence of Martial’s Themes” and “Sexual Attitudes” Sullivan treats the epigrams by topics (e.g. “Patronage and Poetry”, “Imperial Victories”, “Martial’s Home Town”, “Martial’s Misogyny”, “Boy Love”), using as his thesis the idea that “almost all of Martial’s work is focused by a unified and hierarchical vision of imperial society as it should be, which inspires the eulogist with the ideals against which the satirist judges and condemns the failings.” (p. 115). The treatment by topics inevitably produces a sense of dejà vu and overlap with the similarly organized chapter 1, and allows us to forget about Martial’s “hierarchical vision” for long stretches, but it provides invaluable social, political, and personal context.

Chapter 6 (“Humanity and Humour; Imagery and Wit”) surveys Martial’s use of literary techniques, taking us over too much familiar ground (e.g., the objections critics have had to Martial’s misogyny, obscenity, and flattery—themes treated in chapters 2, 4 and 5, and another list of the themes of Book 11, pp. 219-20). The most interesting section is to be found on pp. 240-9, in what Sullivan calls “a somewhat heuristic classification of Martial’s humourous techniques.” (p. 240). Here, for once, classification pays off; for Sullivan is able to show the techniques by which Martial manipulates his material to make us laugh.

In the last chapter (“Survival and Renewal”) Sullivan documents Martial’s claim to be a classic by presenting his Nachleben from Pliny and Juvenal to the twentieth-century Polish writings of Hanna Szelest. The scope and detail of this chapter—and the sheer labor it represents—are amazing; and its information and the wide-ranging bibliography cited in its footnotes will surely be an aid to researchers, although for the period before 1600 it adds little to the essential articles by F.-R. Hausmann, especially “Martialis”, in Catalogus Translationum et Commentariorum 4 (Washington, D.C., 1980).

Inevitably there will be some (forgivable) errors among as many facts as Sullivan presents in this chapter, although I did not find any. More serious, however, and perhaps equally inevitable in such an encyclopedic endeavor, is the absence of essential details that would link apparently unconnected facts and give shape to the argument. For example, among the late antique and mediaeval writers cited as readers of Martial, how many are reading Martial himself rather than quoting extracts from grammarians and the like? Is there a pattern in their citations (i.e., are they quoting some poems more than others)? What is the evidence that Boccaccio’s credit for discovering Martial at Montecassino is “not entirely deserved” (p. 263)? This is a very important point and deserves some discussion—or at least a footnote.

The Italian humanists not only rediscovered Martial, but also determined the ways in which he would be read for the next six hundred years. We need much more information on their intellectual and personal connections with each other, as well as on the influence that their Latin poetry would have on subsequent vernacular treatments. One cannot separate the Latin and vernacular strains so easily in this period, and one cannot assume that poets in any language had a direct and unmediated encounter with their ancient model. One example. Antonio Beccadelli (“Panormita”) certainly imitated Martial in his hair-raising Hermaphroditus, as Sullivan tells us (pp. 263-4). He also exercised great influence on his friend and protégé, the far more important poet, Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, whose Latin poetry, mentioned by Sullivan only in a footnote (p. 267), was widely read and imitated by both Latin and vernacular poets all over Europe. Pontano’s friends, Jacopo Sannazaro (mentioned in the same note on p. 267) and Michele Marullo (not mentioned at all) were heavily indebted both to Martial and to Pontano, and engaged with their friend in some interesting poetic debates on the question of obscenity; like Pontano himself, they influenced both Latin and vernacular epigrammatists. All of these poets were based, either permanently or temporarily, in Naples; all but Marullo enjoyed the patronage of the Aragonese kings of Naples. None of this is to be found in Sullivan’s account.

Perhaps one could note similarly important omissions for other periods, but the difficulties are those of Rezeptionsgeschichte generally, and not only of Sullivan—the difficulties being both that to produce more than a catalogue of imitations, translations, editions, etc., one must know as much about the receivers as about the received, and that the intellectual climate can change dramatically from decade to decade and city to city. No one scholar should be expected to control all the eras and cultures represented in Sullivan’s summary; his considerable achievement in this last chapter, as throughout the book, is to have surveyed and assembled the material so that it will be easily available to other scholars.

Until now there has been no standard work on Martial in English. Now there is, and students of the Silver Age, Martial, and the history of epigram have Sullivan to thank.