BMCR 2001.10.22

Untersuchungen zur Buchgestaltung Martials. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 142

, Untersuchungen zur Buchgestaltung Martials. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 142. München/Leipzig: K.G. Saur, 2001. 136 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3598776918 DM 158.

This, Johannes Scherf’s revised Tübingen dissertation, is the first monograph since Herbert Berends’ Die Anordnung in Martials Gedichtbüchern I-XII (Diss. Jena, 1932) to be devoted exclusively to book composition in Martial. The large number of poems in each of the Epigrammaton libri has obviously always made it difficult to discern any deliberate arrangement of the epigrams. In order to obtain a clearer picture of Martial’s complex works, Scherf employs a set of categories for different structural phenomena, such as cyclic or symmetrical arrangement. He picks out poems which appear to have been positioned deliberately and puts such epigrams into the appropriate pigeonholes. He thus offers a valuable structuring of the material. It is not surprising, however, that his study proves, at times, to be highly formalistic. One wonders whether Scherf’s categorisation paints a complete, let alone an adequate picture of Martial’s compositional practice.

In recent years the question as to how Martial arranged his books has been tackled by a relatively small number of scholars, and these have followed varying methodological approaches.1 Scherf’s book very clearly betrays the influence of the useful surveys of structural principles in Niklas Holzberg ( Martial, Heidelberg, 1988, 34-42) and in Farouk Grewing, whose commentary on Book 6 also includes a detailed examination of the arrangement of this liber (Göttingen, 1997, 26-51). John Garthwaite’s political reading of Book 9 (Ramus 22, 1993, 78-102) differs from most other studies on book composition in that it is concerned less with epigrammatic cycles than with a network of epigrams alluding to other poems of the same book. He believes that such connections between the individual epigrams reveal Martial’s negative attitude towards Domitian. In his 1998 contribution to Grewing’s Toto notus in orbe, Garthwaite suggests a linear reading of Book 5 which yields interesting results as regards the arrangement of this liber. A similar approach is followed, in the same volume, by Elena Merli, who examines Book 3 from the perspective of the recipient reading the book from beginning to end. Finally, Grewing’s collection of essays on Martial contains an article by Scherf himself on the composition of the twelve Epigrammaton libri, and it is this that forms the basis of the book under consideration here.2 The arguments in Chapters 1 (“Ein Sack voll bunter Steinchen?”, pp. 13-26) and 2 (“Formen der Buchgestaltung bei Martial”, pp. 27-70) seem particularly familiar, and it is disappointing to see that the central part of this short book is little more than a padding out of material we have already been given to read.

The book starts with a few preliminary remarks (pp. 9-12), of which some seem so very significant for the theme of the book that one must wonder why they were not then discussed at greater length in the chapters that follow. Scherf follows Holzberg (op. cit., p. 14) in dismissing all previous discussions as to whether some some of Martial’s books may have been transmitted in second, revised editions. He prefers to concentrate instead on the text of the Epigrammaton libri in their extant form. Similarly, he decides that we should leave aside speculative reconstructions of previous ‘libelli’ for private addressees (pp. 10f.).3 All this is justifiable in terms of methodology, but nevertheless it is unfortunate that Scherf has passed up the opportunity to add fuel to the libellus controversy by discussing the integration of those epigrams assumed to be ‘private’ into the context of the Epigrammaton libri.4 Readers might be puzzled to see that this question is apparently given the same prominence as Scherf’s decision to use the abbreviations from the Année philologique and to cite the epigrams according to Shackleton Bailey’s Teubner edition.5

Chapter 1 starts with an assessment of the literary character of the Epigrammaton libri (pp. 13-19). Scherf bases his evaluation of Martial’s principles of arrangement not only on an examination of the structural phenomena but also on Martial’s remarks about his epigrams, and the methodology is questionable here. We know only too well that what Martial tells us about the Epigrammaton libri and about the literary works of other authors is at times contradictory. The same problem occurs in the next section, which deals with Martial’s literary predecessors (pp. 20-6). It comes as something of a surprise when, on p. 22, Scherf concludes from Mart. 10.78.16 ‘uno sed tibi sim minor Catullo’ that Catullus was Martial’s only model (“… ja sogar einziges … Vorbild”). In addition to reporting what Martial himself says about previous poets, Scherf offers some rather superficial remarks on possible pretexts. Reading what he has to say about hellenistic collections of epigrams, one wonders whether Kathryn Gutzwiller’s Poetic Garlands (Berkeley, 1998) appeared too late to have influence on Scherf’s thoughts. Furthermore, his assertion that Albinovanus Pedo and Lentulus Gaetulicus—both are mentioned in the epistle preceding Book 1—composed books of epigrams may be a bit hasty (p. 20). Scherf is equally quick to brush aside the widely debated question as to whether the Corpus Priapeorum was written before or after Martial’s libri:6 a few short words and he is ready to follow Vinzenz Buchheit’s ( Studien zum Corpus Priapeorum, München, 1962) theory that the Priapea are the later work (p. 20 note 42).

Chapter 2 forms the core of the book. Scherf examines modes of arrangement in Martial’s twelve libri and puts the epigrammata into the following categories: introductory and closural poems (pp. 27-34), pairs of epigrams (pp. 35-46), longer groups of epigrams (pp. 46-50), panegyric poems (pp. 50-3), programmatic poems which explicitly refer to the structuring of the book (pp. 53-61), and other formal structural criteria, such as the length of a poem or metre (pp. 62-70). Scherf presents some interesting findings in these sections, especially where the organization of introductory and closural sections is concerned. At times, however, his classifications of the epigrams are doubtful. One might ask, for example, whether the terms “pornography” and “true love poetry”—used by Scherf to describe the pair 12.43/44 (p. 37)—truly reflect ancient Roman ideas of sexuality. In general, Scherf’s assessment of the sexual theme (cf. esp. pp. 53-61) lacks a clear definition of such terms as “erotic” and “obscene”.7 The section on Martial’s panegyric poems is equally unsatisfactory. Scherf discusses Garthwaite’s interpretation of the epigrammata as hidden criticism of Domitian and relates Grewing’s arguments against Garthwaite, but he fails to make clear whether he agrees with Garthwaite (as he seems to do on pp. 52) or with Grewing (cf. pp. 53f.).

The third and last chapter (“Zur Gestaltung der früheren Martialbücher”, pp. 71-105), where Scherf discusses the so-called Liber spectaculorum and the Xenia and Apophoreta (Books 13 and 14), is the most interesting one. Scherf attempts to reconstruct the composition of the Liber spectaculorum (71-6), which so far has not attracted much scholarly attention. His discussion, furthermore, of the Xenia (pp. 76-88) includes some new interpretations of the structure of the epigrammatic cycles in this book. His survey of the arrangement of the epigrams 13.101-126 (pp. 85-8) deserves particular mention. The section on the Apophoreta (pp. 89-105), however, is less original. Scherf follows the earlier literature in accepting the principle of ‘alternae sortes,’ i. e. an arrangement based on the constant alternation of epigrams about cheap and expensive objects (cf. 14.1.5), but such regularity is not apparent in all of the poems in Book 14. Scherf ought instead to have considered whether other principles of arrangement are also at work. Marion Lausberg ( Das Einzeldistichon, München, 1982, p. 246) suggests, for example, that the group of epigrams describing literary works (14.183-196) were arranged according to Martial’s judgement of their literary value rather than the price of the respective editions. Scherf does not mention Lausberg but merely agrees with Theodor Birt’s conclusion ( Das antike Buchwesen, Berlin, 1882, p. 80-7) that certain editions which Martial mentions in the Apophoreta were less available, and thus more expensive, than others (pp. 98-100).

The book finishes with appendices containing statistics about the length and the metre of the poems in the individual Epigrammaton libri (pp. 107-20), followed by indices (pp. 131-6). Unfortunately, the index locorum is arranged according to Scherf’s categories for structural principles. It is more like a summary of the preceding chapters and, for the scholar seeking information about a specific epigram and its placement in the book context, is therefore not easy to use.

It goes without saying that Scherf has collected a wealth of material on Martial’s employment of structural devices, but one still wonders whether he could not have said more on his subject. It would be unfair to criticise the author for not having written the book that the reviewer would have liked him to write. However, I think that some general criticism of Scherf’s approach is justified. There is no reason why he could not have paid more attention to the quite recent attempts which examine the structure of Martial’s Epigrammaton libri from the perspective of the linear reader. He need not necessarily have taken this approach himself, but he ought at least to have discussed it, rather than pass over it in silence. And given that Scherf does refer to Garthwaite’s interpretation of the epigrams as hidden criticism of Domitian, one wonders why he fails to evaluate Garthwaite’s method in terms of its implications for an assessment of structural principles. At one point, Scherf agrees with Garthwaite that some epigrams might acquire a new meaning once they are read in the book context (p. 51). This statement is of such significance for any study of poetic arrangement that one would have wished for a more detailed methodological discussion of the phenomenon.

A linear reading of Martial’s libri reveals, moreover, further structural devices which are not discussed by Scherf. It is, for example, obvious (and mentioned by Scherf on p. 32) that epigrams 2.91 and 92 are related by their subject-matter (Domitian’s gift of the ius trium liberorum) and—together with 2.93, the final poem of Book 2—mirror the arrangement of the epigrams at the beginning of the book, where the metapoetical topic is followed by a poem about the emperor. The theme “family life” in 2.91/92, however, has already been introduced in 2.90. Furthermore, after Martial has mentioned rhetorical exempla in the obscene poem 2.89, it does not seem purely coincidental that 2.90 is addressed to Quintilian. In fact, Martial may be deliberately misleading his audience by pretending that the topic of 2.89 is continued in 2.90. Although the connection between 2.89-91 is not an obvious one, it does seem that their arrangement is not accidental.8 With his categories of structural principles, however, Scherf does not cover this type of book composition. On the whole he is more interested in collecting material than in interpreting the epigrams with regard to their position in the book.

Scherf’s study is certainly not easy reading. It consists of summaries of individual epigrams and long lists of poems which Scherf attributes to different structural categories. Obviously, the book is most useful for the scholar who is interested in a specific structural phenomenon and needs a complete collection of all relevant passages from Martial’s works. But it cannot be recommended to anyone interested in a comprehensive survey of Martial’s different modes of epigram deployment. This latter type of reader would be better advised to return to the much more readable chapters in Holzberg and Grewing.


1. Of earlier publications the articles by Karl Barwick ( Philologus 87, 1932, 63-79; ibid. 102, 1958, 284-318) and Knud Willenberg ( Hermes 101, 1973, 320-51) are the most important contributions to the discussion about the structure of Martial’s libri.

2. Farouk Grewing (ed.), Toto notus in orbe: Perspektiven der Martial-Interpretation. Palingenesia 65. Stuttgart, 1998. The articles by Scherf, Merli, and Garthwaite can be found on pp. 119-38, 139-56, and 157-72 respectively. The structure of Martial’s Books 1, 9 and 11 is examined in the introductions to the commentaries by Mario Citroni (Firenze, 1975), Christer Henriksén (Uppsala, 1998/99) and Nigel Kay (London, 1985).

3. Cf. the publications by Peter White, e. g., JRS 64, 1974, 40-61.

4. As done by Don Fowler, Ramus 24, 1995, 31-58.

5. When quoting the much debated line 1.46.1 (p. 19 note 34), however, Scherf does not follow Shackleton Bailey’s text. For the interpretation of 1.46 which actually hinges upon the reading of line 1, cf. Hans Peter Obermayer, Martial und der Diskurs über männliche ‘Homosexualität’ in der Literatur der frühen Kaiserzeit, Tübingen, 1998, pp. 74f. with note 243.

6. Cf. most recently Herrmann Tränkle, ZPE 124, 1999, 145-56.

7. Cf. J. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary, London, 1985, pp. 1-4.

8. Cf. Sven Lorenz, Erotik und Panegyrik: Martials epigrammatische Kaiser, Tübingen, 2001, pp. 20f. (forthcoming).