BMCR 2006.11.42

Il ciclo di Postumo nel libro secondo di Marziale. Studi Latini 59

, Il ciclo di Postumo nel libro secondo di Marziale. Studi latini ; 59. Napoli: Loffredo, 2005. 127 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 8875641579. €10.00 (pb).

This slender volume includes prefatory chapters (pp. 7-83) and a line-by-line commentary on five epigrams from Martial’s book 2, namely nos. 10 (pp. 84-89), 12 (pp. 90-94), 21 (p. 95-97), 22 (pp. 98-102), 23 (pp. 103-106). These have been chosen on the ground that they form a single epigrammatic “cycle” within that book. In the view of Borgo (henceforth B.), only these five poems form a genuine cycle among those which contain the name of a Postumus, since they involve one and the same “character”, and have a single recurring theme, “kissing” (see below). Other poems addressed to a Postumus (among which are 2.67 and 72, sometimes thought of as linked in some way to such “kissing series”) are excluded as not belonging to this cycle on the basis that mere identity of name is in not sufficient when other evidence is lacking: cf. the considerations made at p. 20f. with fn. 48. One can definitely agree with this view, despite the contrary opinion expressed by K. Barwick in the study mentioned by B., loc. cit.

Discussion provided by B. on the “cycles question” is well documented and fairly extensive, even though a sharper assessment of all the evidence seems still needed. A recent study by R. Moreno Soldevila,1 for instance, provides a number of careful observations on the structure of book 4 which —whether one thinks they are true in full, or just partially— compel us to re-think the definition of a “cycle” within the structure of an epigram book. Indeed, while few reject the label of “cycle” for Catullus’ Iuventius poems, some scholars have been offering theoretical constructions where the boundary line between simple “intratextual” allusions by Martial to others of his own poems, and cycles, is at least fading, if we accept for a rough definition of “cycle” as follows: ‘a group of two or more poems, which may be recognised as having a certain degree of consistency in terms of theme, or any other kind of notable connection’. Another example: I would rather regard the “greater” and “lesser cycles” singled out by A.L. Spisak as a ‘thematic framework’ (in the author’s own words) than anything else.2 Whatever definition suits better the idea of a cycle, we can undoubtedly so designate the five poems studied in B.’s volume, since they seem to tell a kind of “story”, that is they depict an evolution, or simply variations, within a pattern (or “plot”) that is fairly easy for the reader to follow: there is a Postumus, and he is a basiator, that is, he is addicted to vexing his neighbors by kissing them (as a salute); there are constant hints that his breath is somewhat unpleasant due to his sexual (?) activities. Moreover between 2.21 and 2.22 there is a change in the character’s behavior. In 2.22 Postumus no longer greets Martial in a despisingly haughty way: that reflects a reaction to the previous poems aimed at him. Something similar happens e.g. in 2.57 and 5.26 on Cordus3 or in 3.8 and 3.11.4 It is worth noting that this characteristic is probably unique to epigram collections, which are an opus whose composition always remains “open”, even after the “final” publication, that is its publication in modern sense. Even though B. makes a useful point strongly arguing that ‘l’adattamento e la variazione di uno stesso motivo in serie più o meno estese di componimenti possono essere a buon diritto definiti un tratto distintivo’ of epigrammatic genre, she occasionally finds herself in difficulty when dealing with quasi-cycles, that is, with series of poems which do not fit well the alleged characteristics of cycles. Notwithstanding B.’s valuable survey, the “cycle issue” still waits definition in narrower terms.

In chapters 2 and 3 B. argues for a ‘romanzetto d’amore’ (p. 23) between the persona of Martial and a puer delicatus with the cryptonym “Postumus”. This romance seems to develop throughout four “scenes”, with a final thought by the poet (epigram 2.23). This view allows B. to embark on a discussion about homosexuality in ancient Rome and in Martial’s poetry (pp. 24-42), and a sketch of Catullus’ basia poems. I must say that this view —that Postumus is a former lover of Martial, who chooses to criticize his haughtiness and vanity— seems to me unconvincing, pace the opinion of such a scholar as A. La Penna (mentioned by B. at p. 23).5 In short, the sole hint which can be adduced to justify this view is that a recurrent term, basia, and basiare, appears to be used by Martial in the place of the “correct” osculum (and osculari), which is, according to late grammarians, the noun describing the salutation kiss. The statistics given by Ph. Moreau,6 however, show that, while savium disappears in the Umgangssprache after Cicero (with a few exceptions, notably a “neoteric” poem by Pliny the Younger written in his youth, and some occurrences in the archaizing Gellius and Fronto and in Apuleius, which is no surprise) osculum and basium are used somewhat indiscriminately in the Imperial age. But already Catullus speaks of tria notorum savia instead of oscula in 79.4.

If it is true that osculum retains the original meaning “kiss of greeting” in Martial, this meaning is not exclusive to it: in 7.95.2-4: audes tu tamen osculo nivali/ omnes obvius hinc et hinc tenere/ et totam, Line, basiare Romam the two terms are used as synonyms. The opposite happens in 6.66.4-5: a kiss (more or less passionate) is called basium in v. 4 and osculum in v. 5. In 6.50.6 there is a joke on these two meanings of basia. Indeed, that word must have borne no specific connotation in order to allow the poet to make such a joke. Moreover, in 2.10 and 2.21, and elsewhere, the poet so obviously describes the salutation kiss that any other “concealed” allusion to other kinds of kisses must be discarded.Therefore it seems clear to me that no rule existed, at least in Martial’s time, on this issue of vocabulary, despite the view of some authoritative but later grammarians. Insofar as we confine ourselves to the theme that is prima facie recognizable, that of the annoying basiator and consequent repulsion, criticism and irony of the poet, we have a satisfying explanation without needing to seek further and more risqué reasons for Martial’s skomma. It appears very difficult to reconcile two opposite views, as B. tries to do in several occasions.

A few other points call for disagreement. There is little doubt as to the alternative proposed in 2.21 ( Basia das aliis, aliis das, Postume, dextram): the kissing of the hand could only be performed by a slave towards his master or by a normal citizen towards a priest or a relative of the emperor’s, as it is shown by our primary sources (e.g. Suetonius, Dom. 12.3). Neither Martial nor alii can be thought of as equal to slaves in any respect, not even for the sake of an epigrammatic pun. Friends used to greet each other by kissing, while simple acquaintances did so by shaking the right hand.

As to the alleged reason for the unforeseen developments in Postumus’ behavior as described in 2.22.3f. ( dimidio nobis dare Postumus ante solebat/ basia, nunc labro coepit utroque dare), I believe that one of B.’s three alternative attempts (see p. 98, but cf. p. 102) may well hit the target. As to the first one, I have argued above that the “romance” between the persona of the poet and the character of Postumus is hardly detectable. The second possible explanation put forward at p. 99 (which the author does not see as inconsistent with her first), is not likely even for a Postumus: if he has understood the cause for the poet’s disgust, how could he think he would be able to reconcile Martial by kissing him more often or more energetically than ever?

B.’s third interpretation is more probable, though put forward only en passant at p. 24 and in the last sentence of p. 102: Postumus may be seeking revenge by intensifying the kissing which has proved so repulsive to Martial. However, by comparison with e.g. 5.607 or the somewhat similar 12.61,8 we can in my opinion perhaps grasp an equally “logical”, though more refined, explanation: Postumus has achieved a certain degree of fame through the very mention made by Martial in the poems aimed against him and, as we can expect from such a vain idiot as he is, he chose to reward his newly acquired friend showing publicly that Martial has entered the exclusive élite of those being kissed (that is, greeted) not just perfunctorily, but utroque labro. There are two advantages in this solution: first, this further variation would remain within the theme of the “salutation kiss”, which is the main topic of the Postumus cycle. A secondary, but even firmer hint towards it is provided by the mention of the gods’ patronage of poetry. Even if there is a quite clear Ovidian allusion ( trist. 2.1) I would regard it as less important than sometimes believed, since Martial loves to borrow a “motto” from his predecessors to be used as a starting point for different purposes.

In order to understand correctly the attitude of the gods towards the poet as pictured in 2.22 it should be borne in mind that quid mihi vobiscum has a sense very close to English ‘what’s the matter with you?’, which, in turn, when directed to a person may well mean: ‘why are you angry with me?’ Postumus’ reaction to those skommata shows that Martial’s poems have had a rather different result than that he would have anticipated: and this result is humorously depicted as a punishment or a deception by the very gods of poetry, which becomes fully understandable only if we assume that Postumus has been pleased by the poems which should have put him to shame. We cannot possibly know whether poem 2.23 can be used as evidence for interpreting 2.22. B. is well aware of some implications of poem 12.61 (cf. p. 104f.) but she mentions the latter in her notes on 2.23 rather than as evidence to explain 2.22. Another attractive hypothesis is that “Postumus” in 2.22 is trying to disguise himself: since Martial has been criticizing him for his haughty behavior, he no longer greets the poet perfunctorily so that he can show he is not the character referred to by that nickname and blamed for greeting people only dimidio labro. There are a number of epigrams where the pathicus tries to conceal his vice.9 The phrase toto labro merely describes the right way of performing the salutation kiss and conveys no nuance of “passion”.

With reference to the notes to the same poem, I fail to understand why mention of Apollo together with the Nine Muses should be embarrassing (B. p. 100): Phoebus always represents poeticum ingenium, or poetry tout court, and the Muses are his companions, or ancillae, in almost every excursus on poetic performance found from Vergil and Propertius to Ovid and the Catalepton on.

On the whole, however, B.’s commentary is detailed and shows interesting insight, especially on intertextual issues, so that I am sure readers may well regard many of my remarks as minor quibbles.

A full bibliography occupies pp. 107-118. It is divided in two parts: comprehensive editions and translations of Martial’s oeuvre, and studies of details. It is followed by a (somewhat unuseful but standard in the series) index of cited scholars, and an index locorum.

The number of typos in matters of format (that is, capitals, italics, accents and so on) is slightly above the average, but this poses no threat to comprehension. Besides that, it is perhaps worth noting: p. 8 read ‘Giovenzio’ not ‘Giovenco’; p. 10 n. 10 read ‘perpetua’ not ‘pepetua’. B.’s practice is to give unabridged the first name of female authors. So several first names in the footnotes and in the bibliography ought to be in full: Rosario Moreno Soldevila (‘Rosario’ is a name for a male in Italian); Sonya Lida Tarán (where ‘Lida’ is a surname); Nora Galli De’ Paratesi. Bibliographical items are quoted in abridged form in the prefatory pages but are reported using the surname — year system in the commentary. I would have preferred the latter system throughout the whole book.


1. Available online in pdf form. Another study by Moreno Soldevila, which contains some views convergent with the contemporary, and more quoted, article by S. Lorenz (AJP 125, 2004, pp. 255-278) deserves to be taken account of: see ‘Reflexiones en torno a la disposición del libro de epigramas: el caso del libro IV de Marcial’, in J.J. Iso Echegoyen (ed.), Hominem pagina nostra sapit. Marcial, 1.900 años después, Zaragoza 2004, pp. 157-178.

2. See ‘The Pastoral Ideal in Martial Book 10’, CW 95, 2002, p. 127ff.

3. A real character and a good acquaintance of the poet’s (cf. 5.23.8); many scholars have failed to take this detail into account.

4. See A. Fusi (ed.), M. Valerii Martialis Epigrammaton liber tertius, Hildesheim 2006, p. 172.

5. La Penna wrote a bird’s-eye view essay on sexual attitudes in the Flavian era, commenting on more than one hundred epigrams by Martial, so he may have expressed a single hasty judgment commenting: ‘Marziale, però, sa anche mollare con spiritosa nonchalance, se il puer, dopo aver accordato mezzo bacio, si fa troppo pregare per concedere l’altra metà’. See Eros dai cento volti, Venice 2000, p. 113 (formerly in La storia, la letteratura e l’arte a Roma da Tiberio a Domiziano, Mantova 1992, p. 360).

6. See “Osculum, basium, savium”, RPh 52 (1978), pp. 87-97.

7. Cf. 5.60.1-3, 7-8: Versus et breve vividumque carmen/ in te ne faciam times, Ligurra,/ et dignus cupis hoc metu videri./ sed frustra metuis cupisque frustra/ […] quaeras censeo, si legi laboras/ nigri fornicis ebrium poetam etc.

8. Cf. 12.61.1-7: Allatres licet usque nos et usque/ et gannitibus improbis lacessas,/ certum est hanc tibi pernegare famam,/ olim quam petis, in meis libellis/ qualiscumque legaris ut per orbem/ nam te cur aliquis sciat fuisse?/ ignotus pereas, miser, necesse est etc.

9. See La Penna (above fn. 5), p. 110f.