BMCR 2007.12.08

Martial: The World of the Epigram

, Martial : the world of the epigram. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 1 online resource (258 pages). ISBN 9780226252568 $35.00.

Table of Contents

William Fitzgerald’s new book is a part of the “critical reassessment that is beginning to come [Martial’s] way” (p. 1). F. wants us to consider Martial as “a poet for our time” and his “chosen form, the book of epigrams, as a particular vision or representation of the world” (p. 1). To that end, F. places the epigram in a distinctly Roman context, then provides the reader not only with the texts and interpretations, but also with insights and examples from contemporary thinking about spectacle, and the complex relationships between author, book, and reader. An emphasis on the Liber spectaculorum and Book 1 predominates among individual chapters which emphasize spectacle, the nature of a book of epigrams, its place in society, and juxtaposition as a reflection of Martial’s social world. A final chapter places Martial with other authors: Catullus, Ovid, and Johannes Burmeister, who published in 1612 “a sacred parody of the entire oeuvre of Martial” (p. 190). Throughout the work, a close reading of select poems informs each section of each chapter, and provides for the reader, whether classicist or student of other literatures, evidence in support of F.’s broader themes.

The first chapter presents the poetic persona, Martial, and his chosen form, the book of epigrams in a social world which is characterized by the juxtaposition of unexpected, and often opposite, elements. F. notes several paradoxical aspects of the nature of the world of epigram: Martial is the client-poet who “complains that the demands of client service prevent him from writing poetry” (p. 17) yet who writes poetry which performs that function; he is a “humiliated dependent”, but “his chosen form can hardly avoid projecting mastery” (p. 11); the book of epigrams itself drifts between its occasional nature and its existence as a book for any reader.

Between the first and second chapters an Excursus explains what the epigram meant in a distinctly Roman context. F. traces its development from inscription to collections of Greek epigrams, and details the continuing interplay of Greek and Roman authors in the time of Augustus.

The next two chapters each deal with one of Martial’s books, Chapter 2 with the Liber spectaculorum, and Chapter 3with Book 1. For the Liber spectaculorum, F. refers to modern “spectacologists” and theories of modern spectacle while highlighting the pervasive role of myth. That a book of epigrams is an appropriate representation of a series of events at a spectacle seems certain; that the study of either Roman spectacle or modern spectacle will lead to a better understanding of the other requires reflection. F. is usually convincing, for example in his treatment of the cycle of epigrams about Mucius Scaevola, which extends beyond the Liber spectaculorum to 8.30 and 10.25.

In Chapter 3, “What is a book of epigrams?” F. hopes “to show that the book has a coherence (though not a unity), which emerges from the overlapping themes of the book as they constellate in their shifting configurations” (p. 69). The first part of the chapter compares and contrasts persons from the world of Martial’s reader with figures from the past, with Cato Uticensis as a focus. The second part places the book of epigrams with its author in a wider social context, particularly in terms of ‘possession’. Who owns the book of epigrams, or the individual poems: the author, the reader, the person who buys the book? The question of ownership in turn reflects the consistent theme of slavery, particularly at 1.52. Slavery is familiar to F. (see his Slavery and the Roman Literary Imagination, Cambridge University Press, 2000), and its importance in F.’s understanding of Martial’s works becomes evident in his discussions.

The final three chapters are focused on wider issues within Martial’s works, and his relation to other authors. Chapter 4 explores the technique of juxtaposition. F. calls it “one of the main constitutents of Martial’s epigrammatic world,” (p. 106) particularly in two sets of opposites, the panegyric and the scoptic, and the emperor and the slave. He emphasizes how these opposites reflect aspects of the Roman world, rich and poor, master and slave, and the human/divine emperor. The fifth chapter places the book of epigrams, and its author, among its readers, the lectores whom Martial sometimes addresses. F. explores this society where the addressee of a poem and its implied reader are not always the same, and where slavery and the emperor are ever present. The final chapter looks back to Catullus and Ovid, and forward to Johannes Burmeister’s Martialis renatus. The greatest part of the chapter concerns Catullus. F. notes the instances where Martial names him as well as additional parallels. He discusses how Martial’s use of Catullus is a “banalization” (from the chapter’s title) of the Republican poet who is “urbane” in contrast to Martial’s “urban” social context. Safely in Rome, Martial treats Ovid, in forced exile, similarly. Burmeister on the other hand published all of Martial’s epigrams with facing Christianized versions, at one point turning Thais into Christus. Notes follow a brief conclusion. The bibliography is followed by two indices, one for the poems cited (though not for the Liber spectaculorum), the other general.

The book is addressed to specialist and the more general, literary reader. I noted no typographical errors, so it will read well for all. For the latter group, the words ‘see’ and ‘compare’ smoothly guide them through the notes, so much so that the rare, remaining instances of ‘ad.loc.’ or ‘cf.’ (e.g., p. 232, n. 22, or p. 220, n. 43) are remarkable.

F.’s discussions are engaging as they draw from individual epigrams, or groups of them, and bring aspects of Martial’s world and his epigrammatic technique into the discussion. Paralleling the nature of Martial’s books and the juxtaposition his poems with an analysis of nineteenth century French newspapers is intriguing; but illustrating a point with the introduction of press material for the movie How the West was Won, or the wording from a PBS television credit seems less convincing. On the other hand, in this F. may have adopted Martial’s technique of juxtaposition—in these cases the juxtaposition of the unexpected rather than of the opposite.

F.’s work provides a more intricate view of Martial, a view that is more clearly one of interpretation rather than of philology, as distinguished by Farouk Grewing in a recent review.1 For example, F. identifies the events of the Liber spectaculorum“as those given by Titus in 80” and continues with his extended discussion. Recently, however, Kathleen Coleman in her commentary on the same book can conclude only that “Martial’s ‘Caesar’ starts to look almost like an idealized abstraction, above identification” and devotes almost twenty pages to the evidentiary debate as to whether “Caesar” indicates Titus, or Domitian.2 Rather than the words with which Martial wrote, F. gives us what Martial may have meant, or intended in the Rome in which he lived. This book is well worth the time to read for a wide range of readers.

[For another review of this book by Ilaria Marchesi, please see BMCR 2008.01.23.]


1. Grewing, Farouk; rev. of Williams, Craig A. Martial: Epigrams Book Two. Edited with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) in IJCT 13 (2006) 91.

2. Coleman, Kathleen M. ed. M. Valerii Martialis Liber Spectaculorum (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), xlv-lxiv (see Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.10.48).