BMCR 2022.06.14

The art of complicity in Martial and Statius: Martial’s ‘Epigrams’, Statius’ ‘Silvae’, and Domitianic Rome

, The art of complicity in Martial and Statius: Martial's 'Epigrams', Statius' 'Silvae', and Domitianic Rome. Classics in Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 420. ISBN 9780192898111 $115.00.

Introduced in a 1984 article by Frederic Ahl,[1] the notion of “safe criticism” has exerted a particularly strong impact on the subsequent development of studies of Flavian poetry. This line of reasoning seeks to make the nauseating sycophantism of Flavian panegyrics more palatable to modern readers by postulating a semantic tension between their surface meaning and their sophisticated arte allusiva. Erik Gunderson’s excellent new book eloquently argues against seeing in Martial’s Epigrams and Statius’ Silvae any kind of mutually exclusive polarity between aesthetics and politics. Instead, Gunderson interprets the two Domitianic poets as expert practitioners of what he calls “the art of complicity,” in which poetry and power coalesce into a homogeneous single entity: both Martial and Statius portray Domitian’s autocratic rule as an extreme manifestation of poetic license, while their own poetry both emulates Caesar’s absolute power and inculcates in the reader the sense of unconditional submission to that power.

Part I offers a chronological reading of Martial’s Epigrams with particular focus on overtly imperial poems. Gunderson’s Martial performs a delicate balancing act between the Domitian-like posture of a Master Censor castigating any deviations from the sexual norm and the submissive stance of someone who, like a hare that takes no harm while playing in the maw of a tame lion at Domitian’s arena (Book 1), can only enjoy the harmless “freedom to say ‘cock’” (p. 61) because he can rely on the protection provided by Caesar’s absolute power. Another crucial image that Gunderson borrows from Martial to capture the poet’s willful submission to autocracy is that of the imperial eunuch Earinus (Book 9) whom Gunderson casts as an emblem of the notional emasculation of Domitianic poetry. Far from being a politically innocent aesthetic preference, the Callimachean smallness of Martial’s poetry emerges as an encomiastic gesture: as a contrasting foil to the ruler’s incomparable greatness that eclipses any antecedents provided by the Greek and Roman poetic tradition. Metaphorically castrated and consisting of mere glittering trifles that can do the emperor no more harm than a hare can do to a lion, Martial’s “art of complicity” is described as a product of the transformation imposed on the poetic tradition by Domitian’s consummate autocracy: rather than parading itself as a key factor in perpetuating the ruler’s power, this poetry enacts the absolute inviolability of autocracy in that it celebrates its own powerlessness vis-à-vis the emperor and thereby promotes the notion of self-submission as the only thing that ties the autocratic society together (cf. p. 113). The construction of Domitian as the sole Master Signifier informing with meaning imperial time, space, and culture becomes on Gunderson’s reading synonymous with an impossibility of any authentic poetic utterance. This “obsessive inauthenticity” makes the very idea of a match between words and deeds (a match still possible for the likes of Cato and Thrasea Paetus) appear obsolete in the world of Domitianic modernity where the emperor alone enjoys the undivided privilege of making cultural aspirations come true.

Gunderson’s close readings of individual poems capture the schizophrenic anxiety caused by the realization that the highest degree of poetic freedom under an autocratic regime stems from an unconditional submission to absolute power. The chronological arrangement of Gunderson’s analysis is particularly effective in tracing both the timelessness of the deadening effect that autocracy produces on poetic language—once one has reached the state of absolute perfection, there is obviously nowhere else to go—and the sudden rupture within the corpus caused by the Master Signifier’s physical death. Hence the particular attention that Gunderson pays to the transition from Book 9, the last Domitianic book, in which the poet’s status as a surrogate of the Master Censor comes to the fore more forcefully than ever before, and the poetic contortions that Martial performs in Books 10, 11, and 12 written under the Antonines, in which “the art of complicity” is unequivocally revealed to be “the mere kitsch it always was” (p. 183).

In Part II, Gunderson undertakes a similar metapoetic reading of “the high art of complicity” in Statius’ Silvae. Apart from the obvious fact that, unlike Martial who obsessively defends his choice of a “small genre” against the grandiosity of epic, the Statius of the Silvae casts himself as an epic poet at play, the Statius section of the book echoes most of the key issues discussed in Part I: In Statius, too, poetry is cast as “mere trifling play;” the ecstatic “joys of submission” to “Domitianic modernity” serve to reveal a tangible reality that eclipses the immaterial fantasies of classical poetry; poetic “self-diminishment” functions as an encomiastic gesture; the “obsessive inauthenticity” of poetic language hollows out the meaning of such notions central to Roman culture as liberty and faith; the over-the-top exuberance of the panegyric emulates the autocrat’s freedom to do whatever he sees fit; and infinite layers of allusion appear to conjure up depth but in fact fail to conceal the glaring void of the autocratic autopoiesis. These pervasive parallels explain why Gunderson chooses to arrange his discussion of Statius thematically rather than chronologically, concluding it with the two images central to his readings of Martial: the tame lion of Silvae 2.5 and the beautiful eunuch Earinus of Silvae 3.4. This conclusion most effectively fleshes out the commonalities between the two poets’ self-imposed tameness vis-à-vis the autocratic ruler and the “linguistic self-castration” of their poetry (p. 340). As a result, both Martial and Statius emerge as proponents of a totalitarian aesthetics based on the “art of complicity”—an art that consists not only in adapting the traditions of classical poetry to the stifling constraints of autocracy but also in positing an ideal reader who sees in this poetry nothing but harmless wit and aesthetic refinement and who submits to the superior power of both the poet and the prince with the same carefree excitement as a hare frolicking in the tame lion’s mouth. By laying bare the basic grammar of this “art of complicity,” Gunderson does his best to prevent us from becoming such complicit readers.

The only thing that I find underrepresented in this otherwise brilliantly executed study are references to the literary-historical dimension of the Flavian “art of complicity.” At the end of the book, Gunderson remarks that “these works have elected to talk to power” (p. 346) and that “Statius’ poetry did not have to look like it looks. It did not have to be so insistently Domitianic and anchor the project so squarely in a meditation on power/poetry” (p. 362). But could one, as a Greek or Roman poet, really “elect” not to “talk to power”? After all, the poetic tradition inherited by Martial and Statius—a tradition that encompasses Hesiod’s assertion that “kings are from Zeus,” Pindar’s praise of hero-like aristocratic athletes, Callimachus’ and Theocritus’ eulogies of the quasi-divine Ptolemies, and the Augustan poets’ prayers to the soon-to-be-deified princeps—consists for the most part of “talking to power” and, in various ways, anticipates the “high art of complicity” that reaches its apogee under the Flavians when, as Tacitus’ Dialogus eloquently illustrates, a poet refusing to “talk to power” would literally be exposing himself to mortal danger. I think the book would have benefited from more consistently raising the question of the reasons why, and the extent to which, the “art of complicity” practiced by the two Domitianic poets differs from the laudatory techniques of their literary predecessors. But this minor reservation by no means detracts from the multifarious merits of this wittily argued and theoretically informed book, which will doubtless become indispensable reading not only for students of Roman poetry but also for those interested in the inevitable distortions to which poetic language becomes subjected in any totalitarian culture.


[1] Ahl, F. “The Art of Safe Criticism in Greece and Rome.” AJP 105 (1984), 174–208.