BMCR 2005.09.22

Retorica e poetica nei proemi di Marziale

, Retorica e poetica nei proemi di Marziale. Studi latini ; 51. Napoli: Loffredo, 2003. 134 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 8875640254 €15.00.

At first glance, the subject matter of this book seems rather thin. Although we have no less than fifteen books of epigrams by Martial, with an impressive total of over 1500 poems, only five of these books (1, 2, 8, 9, 12) come with prose prefaces, and B. herself describes the fourth of these as little more than “un breve bigliettino di presentazione” (p. 68). So it comes as no surprise that B.’s book is itself small, even though its scope is somewhat broader than the title suggests: the final chapter is dedicated to Martial’s “introductory epigrams” and “epigrams of farewell,” and earlier there is discussion of prose prefaces in other Latin writers, with particular attention to Statius and Pliny the Elder.1

Yet B.’s book begins with an apt quotation from Calvino: “L’inizio è il luogo letterario per eccellenza,” and Martial’s prefaces, brief as they are, offer rich material for discussion. Here we are given glimpses at a poetic genre promoting and defending itself (Book 1); at light-hearted reflection on the very practice of prefacing a book of epigrams with an epistola (Book 2); at possible relationships between poet and emperor or emperor and reading public, as well as at the notion of emperor as reader (Book 8); at a poet’s response to the placement of his portrait bust in the library of a wealthy supporter (Book 9); and at his reflections on the impact that a move from Rome to the provinces has had on his activity as writer (Book 12).

Interesting observations are to be found throughout B.’s book, but its at times loose structure will distract many readers. Rather than presenting the prefaces at the beginning, for example, it scatters them over the course of the first four of its five chapters, in this sequence: “Le epistole prefatorie” (despite its title, this chapter discusses in detail only the preface to Book 12); “I topoi proemiali” (Books 8 and 2); “Altri temi delle prefazioni di Marziale” (Book 1); “L'(apparente) abbandono del modulo prefatorio” (Book 9); “Gli epigrammi proemiali (e qualche congedo).” And discussion of the key term libellus (pp. 52-53) is found in the midst of the section on the preface to Book 2, where Martial subscribes to the principle of brevity — yet the word libellus does not actually occur in this preface!

B.’s treatment of the preface to Book 1 illustrates both the looseness of organization and a deeper problem. It is a much-discussed possibility that Book 1 as we have it, including its preface, might belong to a revised edition of his works that the poet brought out a number of years after the first acts of publication. B. alludes to this only in passing (p. 61 with n. 5), elsewhere proceeding as if what we have in front of us is unquestionably and unproblematically the “first” of Martial’s prose prefaces. The claim made on p. 61 itself is especially striking: the preface to Book 1, being addressed not to any single individual but rather to the readership at large, “permette al poeta di soffermarsi sulle ragioni della sua poesia con una libertà che nelle altre prefazioni non riuscirà più a conquistarsi.” In addition to the chronological assumption, the implication that Martial somehow lost his ability to speak freely about his poetry is in need of further explanation.2

B. argues that in his prefaces Martial is concerned to introduce and advertise his poetry and that, as part of a program of shaping the epigrammatic genre, he here establishes a special kind of direct communication with his readership in which he engages in self-defense, self-promotion and literary polemic (see, e.g., pp. 12, 36-37). This is certainly convincing. As she explores this point, however, B. fairly often alludes to the financial aspects of Martial’s self-promotion implied by his protests of poverty. Yet how might Martial have expected to make a living from his poetry? Surely not from proceeds from book sales: pace B.’s claim that in the imperial period the book functioned as “oggetto di acquisto e a volte di regalo, fonte di sussistenza per l’autore” (p. 7), by all accounts ancient authors had very little control over what was put on the market and sold in their name, and there was nothing like copyright. We recall, in short, Martial’s claims that literature and the arts in general are not lucrative (1.76; cf. 5.16, 5.56, 10.76). The only way in which someone in his position might possibly have hoped to make a living from poetry is an indirect one: by attracting wealthy supporters like the widow Marcella of Book 12.

In any case, how seriously should we take Martial’s claims of poverty? After all, he represents himself as owning slaves and an estate (however modest) near Nomentum, and as having the status of eques and consequently being worth at least 400,000 sesterces. Scholars have contextualized his claims of poverty in various ways, not least by approaching them as a traditional feature of poetic self-presentation which may or may not directly correspond to his real circumstances. One finds little or no hint of this possibility in B. Next: even if we assume that financial need really did to some extent drive Martial’s advertisement of his work, what function could a prose preface possibly have had in this process? Surely it is the poetry itself, with all its variety, wit and skill, with which Martial would hope to attract and keep the interest and support of certain readers, far more than with these five brief prose prefaces.

Another question raised but insufficiently explored in B.’s discussion concerns the named addressees of the prefaces. That of Book 2 is addressed to Decianus, that of 9 to Toranius, and that of 12 to Priscus — in each case, Martial specifies only nomen or cognomen. Drawing on other epigrams in the poet’s corpus, we are able to piece together some further facts about these men, but how likely is it that those who bought a copy of a book of Martial’s epigrams at Secundus’ stall behind the Forum Pacis would have recognized the referent of the simple heading MARTIALIS PRISCO SVO SALVTEM? B.’s summary remark that, as opposed to many of the addressees in the epigrams, those of the prefaces are “reali, romani e immediatamente riconoscibili” (p. 81) requires qualification: immediately recognizable to whom?

“L’epistola,” B. observes with regard to the preface to Book 12, “costituisce una forma di meta-inizio, una sorta di vera e propria ‘prefazione’ in senso moderno” (p. 33). This is an important point. Yet one misses further discussion of what precisely the “modern” sense of the term “preface” is – not a minor omission in a book on this subject, and symptomatic of its limitations.


1. This brings me to my first reservation. B. never explicitly discusses the bases on which we might compare a prose introduction to a prose text with the much more striking phenomenon of such an introduction to a collection of poems. Reading B. one almost has the impression that Pliny’s and Martial’s prefaces are to the same kind of text.

2. Elsewhere we read that Books 1 and 2 “costituivano per Marziale i primi tentativi di vera letteratura dopo quella prodotta per puro intrattenimento” (p. 92). Can one really describe the Liber de spectaculis, Xenia and Apophoreta as “puro intrattenimento” rather than “vera letteratura,” and what does the latter phrase mean anyway?