BMCR 2002.05.11

Martial, Book IX: A Commentary. Two volumes. Studia Latina Upsaliensia 24:1,2

, Martial, Book IX: A Commentary. Two volumes. Studia Latina Upsaliensia 24:1,2. Uppsala: Uppsala University Library, 1998-9. 223; 209.

The last seven years have been extremely felicitous for scholars of Martial, who have witnessed the publication of several good commentaries on separate books of the Epigrams.1 These welcome additions to the earlier commentaries by Citroni, Howell, and Kay2 are now joined by Christer Henrikén’s (H.) commentary. Commentaries are strangely difficult to comment upon, since the points under discussion are often obscurely erudite to most and, in an author like Martial, as many and varied as the epigrams themselves. In this review attention will be given to certain practicalities, the author’s stated intent, and some general questions dealing with trends in the commentary.

As for practicalities, this commentary has the great misfortune to have suffered a lack of funds which led to its publication in two parts, the first in 1998, the second in 1999. L’année philologique lists it under 1999. There is an ISBN for a combined edition (ISBN 91-554-4292-7), available from a large web-based bookseller for $87.50. For those who do not have the combined edition, such as myself, the chief disadvantage for the reader is the necessity to skip from volume to volume (a minor annoyance). Since the pagination was not consecutive from first to second part, references must also include the volume (even, presumably, in the combined edition). In addition, the press offers only paperback copies with sewn leaves on a glue binding. I suspect people who buy this commentary will find that the book(s) suffer very quickly from the use they deserve — quite unfair for the price. It is difficult to ascertain whether it was the press’s or H.’s choice to print the text of each poem separately with its commentary. It would have been useful (especially when H. addresses the question of “groups”, “cycles”, and “themes” of poems, for which see below) to have H.’s continuous text at hand. The text itself is largely based on that of Heraeus, with some minor exceptions (one, which I discuss below, is rather more drastic). Volume One contains a full introduction covering the standard topoi (text, metrics, historical background) and some discussions of particular concern to H., as well as the text and commentary for the preface and epigrams 1-47. Volume Two contains text and commentary for 48-103, indices (names of people, places, temples and buildings and a general index), and addenda et corrigenda to Volume One. Each epigram is treated with text, followed by a general introduction, then specific commentary.

H.’s broader intent in this work (beyond commentary on a complex collection of epigrams) centers around the importance of what he calls the “Emperor theme of Book 9” (I, 15f.), not only for the subject of the poems but also the structure of the book. H., noting the high percentage of poems which focus on Domitian (26%, higher even than Book 8) and their placement, suggests that “there can be little doubt the whole book was composed, as it were, ad maiorem Caesaris gloriam” (I, 16). If so, it is a gloria maior significantly different in kind from that offered by Martial in Book 8, which was directly addressed to Domitian and which has a very different character.

Section 4 of the introduction develops in several parts the theme of Domitian (as commander, as god) and contains a short excursus on the Second Pannonian War, but it is H.’s arguments about structure and interpretation in Section 3 which merit a closer look. Rejecting Barwick’s and Garthwaite’s attempts to discern one imperial “cycle” in Book 9 I, 17-18). H. argues for an overall imperial “theme” for the book which manifests itself in two “cycles”, one on the templum gentis Flaviae (9.1,20,34), and one on the eunuch Earinus (9.11-13, 16-17). Furthermore, H. would split the “Earinus cycle” into two “series”. The other poems on Domitian (the majority in fact) are set into smaller “pairs” and groups or left alone. Behind this argument lies the difficulty of determining to what in fact the terms cycle, series, or group of poems should refer, not to mention the added complication of an apparently new division in H.’s “theme”. H. follows Grewing’s prescriptive definition of “Zyklus”3 as a group of at least three poems with a common theme developed linearly or concentrically in which each poem has a distinctive position which cannot be arbitrarily altered.4 At stake here is not simply the definition of terms, but rather how the poems or groupings of poems in Book 9 may be read against each other. H. understands Martial in Book 9 to desire “to appear as mainly a court poet, perhaps in competition with Statius” (I, 18). For H. “cycles” are self-contained, and H. seems to be trying to isolate certain “cycles” of poems from each other in an effort to counter subversive readings such as those offered by Garthwaite on the Earinus poems.5 H.’s arguments (based substantially on Grewing’s definition) for “cycles”, “series”, and “pairs” of poems are convincing and useful to a certain point but do not properly or effectively address the question of how to read poems (individually or as groups) against each other. While it seems reasonable to suggest that poems in a cycle should be read together in a certain way, it is unreasonable to suggest that the interpretation of a cycle cannot be changed when other poems are juxtaposed from without the cycle, especially in the context of a single book.

Commentary on the poems is thorough and competent, ranging from the mind-boggling erudition on any number of aspects of Roman life in the early imperial period required for reading Martial’s Latin to a demonstrated ability to read Martial’s poetry as well. While the commentary is obviously intended for the educated reader of Latin, H. does take pains to include more general notes for the non-classicist, such as one on the social significance of the address vir clarissimus ( praefatio to Book 9), or on sit terra tibi levis as an funerary formula (9.29.11), or bis senos … fasces as referring to the consuls’ fasces (9.42.6), or the translation “the handles of old vessels of Corinthian bronze” provided for ansae veterum Corinthiorum (9.57.2). It has been pointed out in another review 6 that H.’s awareness of recent scholarship on ancient sexuality seems derivative, a criticism with which I concur. It is also almost a decade behind the scholarship, much of which has radically shifted many notions about ancient sexuality. For example, H.’s various comments about oral sex would have been greatly aided by Parker’s 1997 piece in Roman Sexualities on sexual deviance,7 among others in that volume. Obviously, if we were to turn to specifics in a review of a commentary there would be opportunity to agree or disagree on almost every line. H.’s commentary seems to me no less or more open to praise or criticism than most. I shall bring forward only one more criticism to match the deserved praise. At 9.89 ( Lege nimis dura convivam scribere versus | cogis, Stella. Licet scribere nempe malos.) H. suggests an interesting play on malus“bad/abusive”, with Hor. Sat. 2.1.80ff as a parallel, and in giving the final words to Martial seems to be suggesting we read a threat here. But H. surprisingly ignores parallels in Martial’s Epigrams such as 1.16, 1.118, 2.8, etc. which would argue against understanding “abusive” in this context; on H.’s reading the wit of the poem now rests only on the play inherent in malus. In addition, to get this reading H. has here changed the punctuation of Gilbert, Lindsay, Heraeus, and Shackleton Bailey, marking the first sentence as a statement, not a question and giving the final words to Martial, not Stella. With the punctuation adopted by every other editor the poem has more point (and exceptional wit): Stella is casting Martial’s own words at him (cf. Mart. Ep. 1.16 sunt bona, sunt quaedam mediocria, sunt mala plura | quae legis hic. aliter non fit, Avite, liber.).

H.’s readings in general are thoughtfully precise, and this commentary is a valuable addition to a growing body of commentaries (mostly in English) on Martial’s Epigrams. H.’s suggestions about the structure and “theme” of Book 9 will, I’m sure, recharge the debate over Martial’s relationship with Domitian in his final years at Rome and his role in the wider literary culture of the period. Right or wrong on this point, H.’s commentary stands as a competent piece of work, and should be commended to every serious Martial scholar.


1. P. Howell, Martial, The Epigrams Book V. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1995; T.J. Leary, Martial Book XIV, The Apophoreta. London: Duckworth, 1996 and Martial Book XIII, The Xenia. London: 2001; F. Grewing, Martial, Buch VI (Ein Kommentar), Hypomnemata 115. Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997; G. Galán Vioque, Martial, Book VII: A Commentary, translated by J.J. Zoltowski. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

2. M. Citroni, M. Valerii Martialis Epigrammaton Liber Primus. Florence: La nuova Italia, 1975; P. Howell, A Commentary on Book One of the Epigrams of Martial. London: Athlone Press, 1980; N.M. Kay, Martial Book XI. A Commentary. London, 1985.

3. For Grewing’s definition see his commentary on Book 6 (referenced above), 30f.

4. A close paraphrase of H.’s definition (I, 16).

5. For J. Garthwaite’s arguments see “The Panegyrics of Domitian in Martial Book 9”, Ramus 22 (1993) 78-102.

6. By S. Lorenz in The Classical Review 51:2 (2001) 262-4.

7. H. Parker, “The Teratogenic Grid” in Roman Sexualities, edited by Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.