BMCR 2008.01.23

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.

Coming on the heels of Bruce Swann’s recent BMCR review ( 2007.12.08), the following observations will not address individual points in William Fitzgerald’s (hereafter F.) latest study of Martial’s epigrams. To avoid repetition, it will not reproduce chapter- and argument- summaries, which may be found in the above-mentioned review. Rather, it will explore general questions issuing from the arguments F. advances in his book. In this reader’s view, F.’s volume is valuable no less for the wealth of individual interpretations of Martial’s poems it proposes than for its theoretical corollaries. In the increasingly crowded critical space of Martial’s scholarship, The World of the Epigram comes to address in new ways the central hermeneutical question of interpretation: how to close the circle between texts and their context.1 F.’s study of Martial’s poetry is exemplary in the way it virtuously negotiates the hermeneutic circle: the meaning retrieved from individual epigrams (and from the larger clusters that juxtaposition creates) is at once rooted in the textual fabric of the poems and resonant with their “world,” the social and economical circumstances from which they stem and for which they were produced.

In F.’s work, intra- and extratextual considerations come equally to bear on the interpretation of Martial’s poetry. A discussion of two terms, “world” and “juxtaposition,” to which the book entrusts some of its key conceptual innovations, may bring us closer to the core of F.’s argument. The terms F. introduces are not homogeneous, but they are not unrelated. F. defines world as “the most general term for the form in which an environment makes sense, for the way in which its components relate” (p. 3). The world of the epigram is first of all what lies outside the boundaries of the work, “that in which it is embedded,” the “virtual society” of his readers (ibid.). Martial’s epigrams treat their world as an unpredictable series of disconnected encounters with, and opportunities for, their readers (different kinds of readers) and owners (different kinds of owners). To this world, F. argues, the book of epigrams reacts by offering itself as a paradoxical object in several ways: Martial’s book is the impossible collection of self-enclosed unities, each of which is also a fragment in a larger whole; all of its components have been produced in very precise circumstances, to which only initial addressees had access, and yet they now address readers who are cut off from the original set of spatio-temporal determinants; finally, epigrams are themselves a literary form that oscillates between a claim to permanence, each poem being the inscription on a durable support of a distilled moment in time, and a destiny of ephemerality, each poem being associated with the occasion on which it was first produced or, for that matter, consumed (p. 4). In the continuous negotiation of these paradoxes, lies the art of Martial the epigrammatist—his way of moving through the same field of cultural tensions that his readers experience in their life.

Throughout the book, F.’s analyses outline Martial’s (serious) play with language, his attention to the “cognitive disconnection” required by using the key words of associated life in Rome. Accordingly, F. singles out ambiguity as the crucial quality of Martial’s epigrams (a theme introduced quite often, and always convincingly—see, for instance pp. 74, 95, 97, and 104). In general, ambiguous texts force readers to pause and reflect before making specific hermeneutic moves. Texts open to interpretation take the automatic responses embedded in socially constructed language and subject them to an instant of hesitation. The alternative hermeneutic possibilities that are raised to the level of consciousness produce a momentary delay in the seamless social exchange of meaning on which any cohesive society is supposed to rest. The central item on the list of lexical items for which the possibility of a disconnected perception is most on hand is Caesar —”a family name that had become a title” (p. 51). Caught in the historical disconnection between the first and the second dynasty of Rome, the word is the marker of the politics of the Flavian age. For F., who devotes a dense chapter to the theme, this is the word that anchors the philological argument to the historical context. In its celebration of the presence of the spectacle to the detriment of the aura of historical or mythological narratives, Martial’s Liber de spectaculis embodies and performs the same devaluation of the past and creation of a simulacrum that was critical to the success of Flavian culture.2

In addition to the political sphere, F. identifies several broad areas of Martial’s collection in which ambiguity is strategically allowed to occur. Martial’s own poetic persona offers itself as both satirically immune to the most deleterious effects of the patronage system, and inescapably caught in it: not unlike the poet of Roman satire, Martial is the epigrammatist “of his world” and at the same time able to write “on it” (pp. 13-18). His books of epigrams are no less ambiguously positioned on the dangerous threshold between ownership and alienation, having too many owners laying competitive claims to them. The author of the epigrams, their original dedicatee, the dedicatee of their collected form, the bookseller, and all of us anonymous book buyers, are equally sharing, albeit in different ways, in the same ownership of what always is, or at least should be, the same object. Our contrasting claims over “Martial(‘s book),” the object of the second half of Chapter 3, do more than just attest to the versatility of the epigram book; they question what “possession” is, test the limits of the lexical precinct of ownership and evoke the figure of the slave (pp. 93-105). To the contrasting models of ownership touched upon in the context of his analysis of Martial 1, in Chapter 5 F. joins an exploration of the different kinds of readers that the book envisions and constructs for itself. Here too the readership is both varied and insubstantial: from the enthusiastic and anonymous lector repeatedly addressed by the epigrammatist to the ultimate dedicatee of the poetry, the Emperor; from the patrons who have no time to read frivolities to the matrons who read only the dirty bits of his poetry in secret (both traditional, Ovidian types); from the critics who have different taste in poetry to those readers who are always liable to become characters in the individual epigrams (Horatian characters par excellence). Martial’s books squarely face all types of readership and question the meaning that each different reader will produce.

A series of identities for readers is the object of the first typology that Martial articulates in the sequence of poems that open Book 1: the initial array of poems introduces in turn the lector studiosus, the Roman critical audience (1.3), the Emperor (1.4 and 1.6), and distinguished patrons (1.7 and 1.8). These poems also represent the first field of application for a study of juxtaposition. Juxtaposition is a term that F. introduces in order to characterize the intratextual relationship of neighboring individual epigrams in a collection. The term juxtaposition is a much more docile tool than Claes’ concatenatio, less constrictive than Holzberg’s parade-epigrams, and definitely an improvement on the good-for-all notion of varietas, too often taken as the unspecific organizational principle overseeing the aesthetics of collecting and arranging texts in post-Augustan literary culture.3 Designed to be applied to an object as multiform and varied as a book of epigrams, the term preserves an essential ambiguity. As F. notes, it “suggests both closeness and separation” and represents “the zero degree of authorship” (p. 5). F.’s choice of terminology is apt. Juxtaposition is a label that advances no ontological claims for the surplus of meaning that the collecting of epigrams is designed to produce. It well reproduces the situation of the book of scattered poems, a collection that allows individual units to be arranged in a potentially meaningful (often witty) order, while preserving for the author a margin of deniability.

The first corollary of F.’s argument is that authorial self-eclipse is directly proportional to readerly engagement with the text: thanks to Martial’s strategic downplaying of his authorial persona, his readers are left with the task of producing the semiotic effects that juxtaposition allows. They, not the author, are also called upon to shoulder responsibility for any interpretive move they make. In Martial’s collection, juxtaposition of unrelated and yet potentially related poems forces readers to take an untenable position. They are asked to refrain from being ingeniosi in alieno libro, and yet they are left with exercising the decisive interpretive power of ingeniously seeing connections between individual poems. The paradoxical quality of the reader’s position is balanced by a similarly ambiguous self-casting of the authorial persona. Not unlike the persona of the satirist (of Horace more than the contemporary Juvenal), the epigrammatist is as much part of the world he attacks and praises as he is removed from it (p. 110). What is more, poet and reader experience the same authorial or interpretive hesitation, the same moment of “cognitive disconnection,” that keeps the meaning of the poem from being resolved and exhausted.

F.’s book offers several case-studies of juxtaposition, starting from the reading of 1.7 and 1.8 as two mutually contrasting epigrams (reinforced by 1.9) revolving around punning on the word magnus (pp. 79-80). In this case, as in later ones, readers are asked to make an interpretive choice: either resist or indulge in the infection of the suspicious reading. Other sequences that come under F.’s scrutiny are 1.20 through 1.22, in combination with 1.42 through 1.45 (all concerned with the constellation of themes of republican exemplary history, hosting a dinner, and the imperial arena, pp. 81-89); 1.17-1.18 reinforced by 1.53-1.54 (on mixing wines in a dinner, poems in a book, friends in an entourage, pp. 90-91); 4.71-4.72 (reciprocally illuminating by virtue of an elaboration on the verb dare); 8.78-8.79 (a contrasting pairing on beauty and splendor, p. 110); 8.31-8.32 (on exiles petitioning the emperor); 5.3 through 5.5 (punning on the effects of closeness to the emperor, with a panegyrical tone that courts insult, p. 114); 6.12 -6.16 (on beauty and artifice, pp. 115-121); 11.56-11.57 (a diptych on Stoic lexical tics, p. 123). In F.’s argument, juxtaposed poems dealing with slaves assume a particular relevance, for they evoke by proximity and opposition the figure of the emperor. The book devotes ample space to the recognition of this motif (pp. 123-138): F. brings together 12.96-12.97 (a commentary on the relations between wife, delicati, and husband); 11.90-11.91 (on orality and sexuality); 8.23-8.24 (on the proximity of slave and emperor as liminal figures, human and more—or less—than human); 9.24-9.25 (on slave and emperor as objects of an admiring gaze); 8.39-8.40 (on the emperor’s power, and that of the poet); 2.91 through 93 (on the ius trium liberorum, and book production); 7.88-7.89 (on spatial and temporal extension of Martial’s readership, p. 148); and 5.15-5.16 (on paradigms of readership and petition, p. 160). Disagreements, of course, may arise on individual points of F.’s argument, in terms both of the connections and the interpretations he advances. The general argument, however, maintains its hermeneutic force, all the more so because F. interprets with restraint his role of explicator. Both in his treatment of Martial’s micro- (lexical) ambiguities and in his proposals to read macro- (cultural) ambiguities in his poems, F. allows meaning to exist in and emerge from the cohabitation of multiple possibilities in the interstices of the text.

In conclusion, F.’s monograph is unique for the way in which it balances close readings of individual poems with larger analyses of Martial’s semiotics of structure and for its ability to see the interweaving of the poems and their “world” as a dynamic two-way process that brings together historical, socio-political, and cultural questions. Rome—Martial’s Rome—is the point onto which F.’s various strains of analysis converge. Intratextual literary features such as the ordering of poems in a collection or their mutual verbal echoing, and extratextual socio-historical considerations, such as the class or caste status of their protagonists and addressees, come together under the overarching metaphor of the urban. In this case too, F. shies away from suggesting an easy way to close the hermeneutic circle: Martial’s epigrams are an urban artifact, one that replicates (rather than reproduce) the experience of life in the Rome of the end of the first century CE. “Rome” is never offered as the object that epigrams allegedly reflect. The social and historical reality of the city is convincingly presented as an analogue to the poetry with one essential provision: that we understand it as being as much filtered by the epigrams as it is determining their meaning.


1. My focus on F.’s methodological contributions prevents me from dwelling on F.’s final intertextually-oriented chapter on Catullus, Ovid, and Burmeister. F.’s argument on Martial’s re-shaping of his predecessors is certainly valid, but the critical tools, even if deftly used, are in essence traditional.

2. F.’s choice of the theoretical grid offered by Guy Debord’s Society of the spectacle, to analyze the workings of spectacle in Flavian Rome, may raise some doubts, not so much for the natural suspicion which arises every time tools designed to interpret modern phenomena are redeployed for the understanding of ancient ones. More problematic is F.’s (qualified) adoption of Debord’s theory of diffuse spectacles, which are related to individual consumerism, in order to treat Rome’s concentrated spectacle, one designed to produce magical identification with the leader in the amphitheater. In addition to the arguments F. preliminarily outlines, one may defend the choice by arguing (as Debord did) that the concentrated spectacles of totalitarian regimes are the final stage that diffuse ones eventually reach. The other way out would be to argue (as F. does not, or perhaps only implicitly on p. 77) that the conditions for the fruition of Martial’s epigrams by atomized, absent, and only remotely connected readers produced the diffusion of surrogates rather than the dissemination of the centralized spectacle of the Roman arena.

3. Cf. P. Claes ( Concatenatio catulliana, 2002), and N. Holzberg Martial und das antike Epigramm, 2002), 33-39.