BMCR 2020.10.35

A prosopography to Martial’s epigrams

, , , A prosopography to Martial's epigrams. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. viii, 706. ISBN9783110621358 €129,95.


A prosopography to Martial’s epigrams is a sprawling, laborious — and immensely valuable — resource for the study of Rome’s preeminent epigrammatist. The trio of authors have tackled an ambitious (and perhaps at first blush daft) project of producing “a dictionary” comprising data about every character mentioned by name or implicitly referenced within the entirety of Martial’s epigrammatic oeuvre and explicating “the literary implications of their presence in Martial’s work” (1). Without question they have succeeded in their first aim: their prosopography will serve as a foundational reference work for any serious reader of Martial, whether on the micro- or macro-scale.[1] The explication of each name’s full literary implications is, unsurprisingly, more uneven: some minor characters emerge much richer; some familiar figures a bit wan. Nevertheless, the overall approach to Martial’s poems is judicious and they authors temper the speculation necessary to produce a prosopography for a literary world with suitable prudence. Only on the value of a prosopography to Martial are the authors polemical, as they stake out an interpretive posture antithetical to the skepticism about coherent character/types in the Epigrammaton Libri articulated by e.g., Shackleton Bailey.[2] The authors, therefore, pick up the torch of onomastically-inclined Martialian scholars like Giegengack, Pavenello, and Vallat.[3] With this work, they have succeeded in their aim “to guide the reader through this tangled web of characters, acknowledging the limitations of this kind of research, but convinced that every new reading of the epigrams uncovered unexpected layers of meaning” (4).

The core of the dictionary is the more than 1150 individual entries (including not-infrequent cross-referential stubs) across 613 pages. Each entry follows a more or less fixed pattern. A character is named and the passages in which the character appears are listed. Onomastic information is adduced, with useful etymological meanings noted as well as the popularity of the name in antiquity as seen in epigraphical sources. The character’s personality and actions in the epigrams are sketched. For historical, mythological, and legendary characters, a brief biographical sketch is included, with reference to relevant literary and epigraphic testimonies. Entries conclude by noting relevant textual variants, as well as cross-references and a brief bibliography.

Each of the individual entries (e.g., Accius, Accera, Achillas) has been composed by one of the work’s three authors. Nevertheless, the style is admirably consistent, and differences are mostly slight — for example, in the decisiveness when assessing whether a character is “real, in the amount of context beyond Martial that is supplied, and stylistic minutiae (e.g., whether complete sentences are used uniformly or a more syncopated style rules). The authors deftly weave entries from primary and secondary literature for familiar giants in the Epigrams (e.g., Domitian, Stella, Zoilus) but they also explicate figures who reside mostly or entirely in allusion and periphrasis (e.g., Andromache). The authors do vary the standard pattern to reflect the nature of their material. So, in some entries, epigrams are treated sequentially as they appear in the Libri; in others, they are grouped by topic or approach. Given the varied and heterogenous material, this approach may sometimes miss (e.g., Bacchus) but is more often felicitous — e.g., grouping epigrams mentioning Diana by her appearance as goddess of the hunt, as sister of Apollo, in connection with the Aventine, etc.

For such a vast undertaking, the introduction runs a lapidary 5 pages. These adequately lay out the work’s goals, the methodological problems associated with the undertaking, and the authors’ vision for how to manage these challenges. The challenges in creating a prosopography for a collection of literary epigrams are not slight and, to the authors’ credit, they acknowledge these fully and are clear-sighted about the difficulties and limitations their project faces. Most previous attempts at categorization divided Martial’s population into two groups: real and fictional, based largely on the sole criterion (articulated, somewhat dubiously, in e.g., praef. 1 and 10.33) that real (living?) persons will not be targeted. But, as Moreno Soldevilla states, while such binary judgements have some utility, they are also excessively limiting for the literary universe created by Martial. Martial’s real and invented characters “coexist with characters from history, literature, myth and legend, with whom they even interact in the fictional milieu of the book of epigrams” (1). In satiric contexts, some scholars have suggested that “fictional” characters may be thinly-veiled pseudonyms for real contemporaries; even “real” characters “enter a new literary dimension” when inhabiting Martial’s epigrammatic world. Indeed, Moreno Soldevilla observes, there are times when real and fictional homonymous characters exist within the same book, fashioning “a seemingly real character” into “a masterfully crafted trompe l’oeil” (4).

So, the Prosopography is explicitly not another in the line of works that attempt to reconstruct the life of the poet or discrete historical personages from the evidence of the epigrams.[4] Rather, the project takes seriously Lorenz’s call to “abandon the historian’s perspective and accept our role as members of Martial’s anonymous readers.”[5] Thus, the authors propose a more nuanced classification of characters into one of five categories: (1) fictional or “invented by Martial”; (2) literary or “created by other authors”; (3) real, who “’seem’ to have existed in real life”; (4) historical, who are “attested elsewhere in literature or epigraphy”; and (5) mythological and/or legendary — the difference between these final terms is left implicit. The authors acknowledge that “this division poses many difficulties, inasmuch as it is based exclusively on the interpretation of the epigrams themselves, which is sometimes elusive” (3). The authors also signal their intention to leave debates open, saying that “rather than a proof of a mistaken or failed approach, this testifies to the interpretative richness of the epigrams” (4). In general, they are true to their word, leaving threads for their readers to follow as they form their own judgements about the unity or multiplicity of characters/types (e.g., Galla).

The liberating potential of this approach is at times realized; but the old ways are tenacious and frequently characters targeted for criticism are designated as fictional — or at any rate sub-“real”. This is tricky, perhaps impossible, ground, and while the authors properly avoid dogmatism or reductionism in analyzing characters, one does wish they would more frequently peel back the curtain on their deliberative process so that the reader could see how scholars steeped in the problem approach the trickier calls. For example, Aelianus is classified as a “Real Character” despite the fact that previous identifications (e.g., Kay) have granted him reality “without any strong basis” and he “could just be a fictional character, with the name chosen at random” (17). Or again, why is Sempronius Tucca classified as a “Real Character?” despite an apparent punning imputation of an os impurum but Tucca is a “fictional character” who nevertheless “might be the same person” (549)? One shrugs at a further proliferation of categories, but examples like these point to the possible advantage of a headline category of “ambiguous” or “uncertain” — or more regular use of a strategic “or” (e.g., Atestinus, who is designated “real or fictional”).

Consolidating prosopographical information can elicit unanticipated connections. For example, Fernández Valverde expertly traces Martial’s dual deployment of Priam in the context of longevity — and sometimes senescent impotence (505–506). So too absences: Aeneas, for example, is gestured to only twice via periphrases and both times in reference to the ruling emperor (19); Dido appears only in 8.6.13 (in a Vergilian periphrasis). The decision to focus exclusively on proper names in the dictionary creates some tensions. For example, the entry for Pompeius Magnus (494–496) includes, as expected, all mentions of the historical figure but begins by summarizing the several references to the Theater of Pompey, which obscures somewhat Martial’s use of the physical monument in his construction of Rome’s semiotic topography (the index of “Places, buildings, geographical features,” however, offers a valuable tool for such inquiries).

It should be stressed again just how much valuable and accurate information abounds on every page. A work of this kind, of course, is not designed to be read sequentially from Accius to Zoilus and a reviewer who engages in this form of reading risks inadvertent conversation in a dread malignus interpres. Nevertheless, there are quibbles. Connections can sometimes be tenuous (e.g., the admonition to Laeotria et al. to marry and enjoy reputable love in 6.45 with the imputation of the os impurum to Sotades in 6.26). Sometimes the separate identification of characters can lead to repetition; e.g., Sotades1 and Sotades2. Sometimes seemingly marginal (but intriguing?) characters receive significant entries (e.g., Somnus). At times, the catalogues that open an entry are inconsistent with the epigrams cited in the entry proper (e.g., the extensive entry on Domitian, whose catalogue omits 1.70, 2.92, 6.4, 6.83, 8.2, 8.30, 8.31, 8.32, 8.78, 9.5, 9.23, 12.15). Some decisions, while perfectly defensible in a work of this kind, may cause difficulties for less experienced readers. Original languages tend not to be translated, including modern languages (e.g., the entry for Sotades1, a quarter of which comprises an extended quotation in Italian). The naming in headers is not always consistent (thus: Livy, Titus). More substantively, since the work is intended as “a basis for new research” (5), the bibliographic focus on the literary — at the occasional expense of the cultural, historical, and archaeological — may hobble some promising forays.

The fluency of the English is high and one very rarely encounters an unidiomatic expression (e.g., “dead-bed” for deathbed (613). In a work as technical and dense with data as this, errata are practically inevitable.[6]

The work concludes with several useful appendices: a bibliography and list of works cited that is itself a valuable compilation of Martialian scholarship (624–64); an Index Nominum whose section on “Characters and personal names” is somewhat redundant but does permit easier cross-referencing and whose section on “Places, buildings, geographical features” that is a helpful supplement (658–83); an Index rerum memorabilium (684–94; e.g., “abortion, adultery, adynaton, Aethiopians…); an Index verborum Latinorum (695–703); and an Index verborum Graecorum (704–06). The book is durably bound and seems likely to withstand decades of flipping forward and back. Given the valuable mass of data contained within the book’s handsome covers, one can hope for a digital version or supplemental database. But this should not detract from the achievement of the authors, who are to be heartily commended for the foundational work they have created.


[1] The review team was assembled with the goal of representing the likely audience for this work: advanced undergraduate students, graduate students, and professors.

[2] Shackleton Bailey, D.R. 1993. “Appendix B: Fictional Names” in Martial. Epigrams. Volume III, Loeb Classical Library: 333–36.

[3] Giegengack, J. 1969. Significant Names in Martial (diss.). Yale University Press; Pavenello, R. 1994. “Nomi di persona allusive in Marziale,” Paideia 49: 161–78; Vallat, D. 2006. “Bilingual Word-play on Person Names in Martial,” in: What’s in a Name, Booth, J. and Maltby, R. (eds.), Swansea: 121–43; Vallat, D. 2008. Onomastique, culture et société dans les Épigrammes de Martial, Bruxelles. These works are acknowledged in the “Introduction” and frequently referenced in entries, but one wishes that the authors had articulated more precisely how their project builds from, complements, and diverges from these earlier studies, esp. Vallat 2008.

[4] E.g., White, P. 1975. “The Friends of Martial, Statius, and Pliny, and the Dispersal of Patronage,” HSCPh 79: 265–300; Nauta, R.R. 2002. Poetry for Patrons: Literary Communication in the Age of Domitian. Leiden.

[5] Lorenz, S. 2006. “Martial and the writer Canius Rufus,” in: Flavian Poetry, Nauta, R.R., van Dam, H.J., Smolenaars, J.J.L. (eds.). Boston: 328.

[6] The list below is provided both to aid in revision and to illustrate how minor most errors tend to be:
17: 12.24.2 should read 12.24.3.
57: errs in summary of 14.85, saying that the peacock “used to belong to Argus” but in the poem, sed prius Argus erat (2).
75: 8.50.11 should read 8.50.12 (the correct line number is mentioned later in the entry).
88: reference to Book 8 of the Aeneid missing “(Verg. A. 184–275)”.
107: “Canace died at seven…of a horrible decease” [sic].
108: “He was [a] friend or client….”
119: “[an] ‘isolated vocative’.”
187: “a husband who has punished her [sic] wife’s lover….”
199: 9.1.2 should read 9.1.1.
223: “he imposed [on] the hero…”
227: citation for Fabricius2 correct in preliminary list (“7.68.4”) but reversed in discussion (“7.64”).
491: Polyphemus1 is missing its categorization, sc. “Mythological character”.
511: “…shave the miserable Prometheus, this [man / barber] would ask…”
548: 12.56.3 should read 12.52.3