BMCR 2014.12.02

A Commentary on Martial, Epigrams Book 9

, A Commentary on Martial, Epigrams Book 9. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. xlvi, 440. ISBN 9780199606313. $199.00.

“A commentary,” as Henriksén reminds us, “is never really finished” (v). Readers of Martial can be grateful that Henriksén has embraced this maxim and produced a substantial revision of his commentary on Book 9. Henriksén could happily begin from a sound foundation: the first edition—his doctoral dissertation published in two volumes (1998/1999)—was greeted with widespread appreciation (along with a smattering of mostly minor criticisms) and was even lauded in these virtual pages for its “mind-boggling erudition on any number of aspects of Roman life.”1 To his credit Henriksén has done more than simply add a bibliographic reference here and polish up phrase there, although to be sure he has done this as well.2 Henriksén has reworked much of the introduction and throughout his revised commentary we find more nuanced appreciations of Martial’s poems, their interconnections, and their socio-cultural context. Scholars familiar with the first edition will want to book a return trip; newcomers to these poems will benefit from an even sturdier guide. Although Henriksén’s commentary is pitched to an expert audience, his lucid explications of the poems and his abundance of information about the world of Martial’s poetry will be digestible by advanced students—even if the tome’s somewhat startling cost means they will find it in the library, not the bookstore.

Martial’s ninth book offers fertile ground for the reader and a daunting task for the commentator. It is among the longest of Martial’s books: only Books 1 and 11 contain more poems, and only the revised version of Book 10 contains more lines. We find in Book 9 the familiar panoply of Martialian themes: engagement with patrons and friends; obscene assaults on various miscreants; praise of imperial architecture and courtiers; condemnation of clientage and legacy-hunting; philosophical criticism of luxury, and of course idiosyncratic snapshots of Martial’s world—his mistress (9.32), an astonishing juggler (9.38), a Cordoban plane tree planted by Julius Caesar (9.61). A cycle of poems on the eunuch Earinus creates a tantalizing connection to Statius’ Silvae 3 and the arena of competitive encomiastics. Of particular interest is the Book’s concentrated interest in Domitian (as commander, as god, as demigod), a fitting climax to what Holzberg has deemed the “Kaisertriade” of Books 7–9.3 Nearly a quarter of the book’s epigrams are devoted to the emperor, a density that surpasses even that of Book 8, which was explicitly dedicated to the emperor and which Martial claimed should be approached only by readers religiosa purificatione lustratos (Mart. 8 praef.). Yet if Book 8 has conditioned Martial’s readers to expect a segregation of the imperial from the licentious, Book 9 contains an early shock: there in the Book’s second epigram —sandwiched between two poems in praise of Domitian—epigrammatic licentia returns, replete with programmatic mentulae and naughty pastries.

The second edition resides in a single handsome hardcover book containing legible print on paper of decent quality.4 No longer must a reader awkwardly wrangle two fragile paperback volumes. The top of every page of the commentary proper now lists the poem being discussed, a simple touch that adds significantly to the book’s ease of use. The several Indices (names, mythology, geography, buildings, Latin words, and general) are much improved over the first edition, although one will always wish for greater granularity, especially in a work of this kind. Were these the only changes, they would make the second edition a welcome upgrade over the first. But Henriksén’s revised commentary is more than the same wine in a new bottle. The second edition’s introduction and commentary present Henriksén’s evolving views of Martial, forged through his continued meditation on Martial’s poetry and in response to the burgeoning scholarly conversation about epigram and Martial, whose bibliography, if still not quite as daunting as that for authors nestled more closely near the center of the canon, nevertheless has exploded in the fourteen years since the publication of the first edition.5 We find throughout the new edition, therefore, evidence of a scholar’s maturing views on the object of his expertise. And Henriksén has pursued these lines of reinterpretation even to the contradiction of his prior conclusions. One example will have to suffice. In place of an idiosyncratic punctuation of 9.89 in the first edition, Henriksén now punctuates the epigram so that it is Martial’s friend Stella, rather than Martial, who has the last word. As a result, Henriksén’s interpretation of mali as ‘abusive’ (a view challenged by several reviewers) is now cast as a “possibility” that is consistent with Stella voicing of the complaint, a position that Henriksén had previously rejected. These seemingly slight changes motivate further revisions to the notes about convivial and ex tempore composition. The result is a more nuanced and more illuminating exegesis of the poem.

Henriksén’s introduction demonstrates his apt integration of preserved, revised, and fresh material. The first section—on the publication date of Book 9 (Dec 94–early 95 CE)—is largely unchanged. The thrust of the second section, which is devoted to Martial’s metrics, remains consistent with the first edition, but Henriksén supports his survey of the epigrammatist’s meter and its decidedly Ovidian tenor with evidence drawn from the essential work of Marina Sáez 6. Henriksén’s extensive discussion of “Themes and Motives” is tweaked: out (thankfully) are the description of Martial as a “court jester” and an overreliance on biographical interpretation; in is an elegant consideration of the role of Heraclean imagery in the representation of Domitian, as is a recognition of Holzberg’s seductive theory of a Martialian “dodecalogy” and how the large-scale architecture of the epigrammatic libri might shape the interpretation of Book 9. Henriksén’s treatments of the structure of Book 9 and its poetic cycles have been significantly expanded and improved through consideration of the arguments of Grewing, Scherf, Holzberg, et al. While conceding that not each of the book’s 105 epigrams is an essential component of a clearly-articulated or intentional structure, Henriksén sensibly observes that because “each epigram does occupy a position…it is impossible to read an epigram as entirely separated from those surrounding it,” whether these juxtapositions were intended by the author to be significant or not (xxxiii). Henriksén does, however, highlight certain collocations, arguing that some epigrams “were certainly actively intended to connect to each other” (e.g. the philosopher and the mime in 9.27 and 9.28 or the themes of peace in 9.70 and 9.71). Other poems, Henriksén suggests, are associated by the “”passive ‘intention’ on the part of the author,” who leaves the responsibility for connecting the poems to “the reader’s choice” (e.g. 9.3 and 9.102 on the inability to repay debt, xxxiv). Recent years have seen more aggressive readings of the interconnectivity of epigram (e.g. Victoria Rimell in Martial’s Rome), but Henriksén’s approach strikes me as appropriate for a commentary: survey the field, convey the plausible, and gesture towards the possible.

The commentary on each poem begins with a simple Latin text that follows, in all but a handful of instances, Borovskij’s editio correctior of Heraeus’ Teubner edition. Henriksén rejects most of Shackleton Bailey’s emendations as “unnecessary” (xliv). The text is followed by a brief introduction on the poem’s social, political, and/or literary context, and then a detailed line-by-line commentary. Throughout the second edition, one discovers more and better observations about the humor, diction, style, and structure of the poems (the revisions for 9.41 and 9.80 are especially noteworthy). Significant names are handled with greater attention (e.g. Gaurus in 9.50), although many of these notes could have benefited from engagement with Vallat’s detailed work on Martialian onomastics. A continuous Latin text would be welcome, especially in light of the importance of cycles and juxtaposition for reading the liber; yet its absence is slight: any student of Martial serious enough to pick up this commentary will also have a critical edition close at hand.

Reviews of the first volume pulled at various threads and in many cases Henriksén has adjusted his notes accordingly or at least pauses to acknowledge them. But in other passages, where a critic’s note has left no mark, we are left to wonder: did Henriksén’s pen simply glide past or does the unchanged passage endure as a rejection of the critic’s argument? To take one example: Henriksén suggests that Auctus, whom Henriksén believes to be Pompeius Auctus, is made the addressee of 9.21 as a way of “expressing gratitude for Auctus’ unsolicited services” to the poet. Perhaps so, but the dividing line between significant names of fictional characters (e.g. Cantharus in 9.9) and the pedestrian names of real individuals may be less clear than such a clear-cut interpretation would imply, especially in a name-obsessed epigram like 9.21 (a point made by Lorenz in his review of the first edition).7

Henriksén’s treatment of erotics in the epigrams is much improved, often through give and take with now fundamental works on Roman sexuality (e.g. Williams 1999 on 9.41; Obermayer 1998 throughout and especially on the mysterious conclusion of 9.67). But Henriksén’s stance on Martial’s sexual poetics will still strike many as outmoded and one cannot help but feel the absence of other scholarly voices (e.g. Watson 2005 on the matrona fellatrix on 9.40; Parker’s piece from 1997 on sexual deviance remains noticeable in its absence). This stumble is particularly unfortunate in light of the juxtaposition of imperial praise and licentious verse in Book 9. Nevertheless, since Henriksén’s commentary is no longer the lonely outpost it was in 1998 but one contributor to a vibrant intellectual discussion of Martial and his libri, omissions, where they exist, are less keenly felt. We can instead remain thankful for the commentary’s abundant erudition, Henriksén’s willingness to stake out novel positions, and his refreshing circumspection in face of the ambiguities that are an inherent feature of epigram.

A commentary is a seductive and dangerous form for author and reader alike. It is a work animated by kaleidoscopic detail yet it offers an implicit promise of disinterested completeness. Such a promise is, of course, illusory: a commentary is a decisively personal and selective work and ultimately a commentary should be judged at least as much by what is excluded as what finds its way onto the page. In this regard, Henriksén’s more mature judgment shines through in this edition. To take one telling example, intertextuality is handled with far greater subtlety and sophistication. Lengthy lists of loci similes are used sparingly (expendable in no small part because of the proliferation of digital corpora). In their place we find more selective explanations, interpretations, and contextualizations of significant moments of textual contact that produce valuable insights about Martial’s poetry and his poetical self-fashioning. We can be thankful that Henriksén revisited this material and those reading Martial are richer for his efforts.

Henriksén’s efforts to produce an improved second edition lead me to wonder whether active revision will become more common as digital publishing gains market share and prestige. If technology allows a commentary (or any other work) never to be truly finished, the unbounded digital text could empower future experts to cultivate and refine their work by responding to criticism, introducing new arguments, and adapting to the evolving landscape of scholarly interest. But despite these benisons an expectation of perpetual revision could easily become a stultifying burden if tending our never-past gardens constrains other progress. I will take my leave with an observation that Martial offers towards the end of Book 9, which with true epigrammatic ambiguity might be taken as a rallying cry for partisans of either future:

Multum, crede mihi, refert a fonte bibatur
Quae fluit an pigro quae stupet unda lacu. (9.99.9–10)


1. Peter J. Anderson reviewed the first edition of Henriksén’s commentary in BMCR 2002.05.11.

2. There remain some surprising omissions: e.g. Lausberg 1982.

3. Holzberg, N. 2002. Martial und das antike Epigramm, 136; reviewed in BMCR 2003.07.20.

4. The reviewer laments that the publisher elected to glue the leaves and can only hope they will withstand the rigorous and repeated use to which commentaries are subjected (so far, so good).

5. Already in 2009, N. Holzberg’s “Das Griechische und Römische Epigramm: Eine Bibliographie” ran to over 300 pages, and the flood of scholarship in this field has only accelerated in the last half decade.

6. Marina Sáez, R. M. 1998. La métrica de los epigramas de Marcial.

7. Lorenz, S. 2001. Classical Review 51.2: 262–264. ​