Marcus Valerius Martialis

Martial (ca. 38-ca. 104), whose full name was Marcus Valerius Martialis, was a Roman epigrammatist. The development of the epigram as we know it was largely due to Martial's influence. His works give one of the best pictures of life in ancient Rome.

Martial was born at Bilbilis in Spain on March 1 (his cognomen was derived from the date) of a year probably between 38 and 41. He was a Roman citizen, although of Celtic and Iberian stock, and was given a good literary education by his parents, Fronto and Flaccilla. He left Spain for Rome in 64, "a fellow citizen of the Tagus, with bristling Spanish hair," determined to make his fortune as a verse writer, and soon placed himself under the powerful patronage of his fellow Spaniards Seneca and Lucan and was received with friendship by Calpurnius Piso. In 65 Piso's conspiracy against Nero was discovered, and Seneca and Lucan were implicated and met their deaths.

For the next 33 years Martial lived in Rome solely as a writer. An author could sell his original manuscript to a bookseller-publisher, although the sums involved were usually quite small, but he then had no claim to royalties whatever, and unless he had a private fortune (and Martial seems to have had little if any), or a separate career, he was dependent for his livelihood on the patronage of the rich and powerful. This could be a happy relationship, with a generous and tactful patron, but it usually, as in Martial's case, led to servility. It is painful to read some of Martial's begging epigrams, whining, impudent, and ungrateful as they seem (his adulation of the tyrant Domitian, who apparently paid little attention, is especially sickening), but the distress must have been real, and he must have been genuinely dependent on the daily visits at dawn to the houses of the great, to pay attendance and in return to receive a basket containing a little food or a few coins, according to the customs of ancient Rome.

Those years were not, however, without success. Martial had a small and barren farm near Nomentum in the Sabine country, that may have been a bequest from Seneca, and after years of living in a backroom of a fourthfloor tenement he had acquired a small house in Rome by 94. He received from Titus, with a later confirmation from Domitian, the rights (of inheritance and so forth) accorded to parents of three children, although he was apparently never married. He was also made an honorary military tribune, thereby being admitted to the equestrian order, although he did not have the necessary financial qualifications. He was thus in the curious situation of being on good terms with the Emperor, many great nobles, and the great literary figures of his day, including Frontinus, Juvenal, Pliny the Younger, Quintilian, and Silius Italicus (but not Statius, whose Silvae are on many of the same subjects covered by Martial's epigrams and who was probably a rival), and of also being acquainted on a day-to-day basis with the lowest level of Roman life. After the death of Domitian in 96 and the succession of the moral and benevolent Nerva, Martial realized that the climate of opinion in Rome would no longer tolerate indecency and servility in verse, and in 98, helped by Pliny the Younger, he returned to Spain, where he settled on a farm given him by his patroness, Marcella. A letter of Pliny's, of about 104, speaks of his recent death with real regret.

His Works

Martial's first extant work was a book of epigrams on the shows presented at the opening of the Colosseum in 80. In 84 and 85 he issued the Xenia and Apophoreta (now books 13 and 14, respectively), mottoes for gifts given to guests at banquets and for gifts in general. From 86 to 98 he issued about a book (averaging 100 epigrams a book) a year (books 1 to 11). Book 12 was completed about 3 years after his departure from Rome.

The over 1,500 epigrams of Martial are of the most bewildering variety. Romans of every sort and condition appear in his pages, engaged in every conceivable activity. He was the ideal spectator, amiable, witty, at times tender and sentimental. His flattery of great persons can be forgiven; his scurrilous abuse (never, however, directed at persons under their own names), sometimes marked by the most graphic and imaginative obscenity, is usually amusing; and at his best Martial is unsurpassed for wit, elegance, and point. It is this last which has proved his most lasting contribution: the epigram before Martial was characterized by a high lapidary polish but seldom by the wit and satirical point which he gave it.

Further Reading on Marcus Valerius Martialis

A comprehensive survey of Martial as poet and satirist is still lacking. Works on Martial include Kirby Flower Smith, Martial the Epigrammatist and Other Essays (1920); T. K. Whipple, Martial and the English Epigram from Sir Thomas Wyatt to Ben Jonson (1925); Paul Nixon, Martial and the Modern Epigram (1927); and A. G. Carrington, Aspects of Martial's Epigrams (1960). Martial figures prominently in H. E. Butler, Post-Augustan Poetry from Seneca to Juvenal (1909), and in two works by J. Wight Duff, A Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age from Tiberius to Hadrian (1927; 3d ed. 1963) and Roman Satire (1936).