1902 Encyclopedia > Martial (M. Valerius Martialis)

(M. Valerius Martialis)
Latin poet
(between 38 and 41 AD - between 102 and 104 AD)

MARTIAL (M. VALERIUS MARTIALIS) is a writer to whose merits it is difficult to do justice in the present day. His faults are of the most glaring kind; they are exhibited without the least concealment; and they are of the sort of which modern feeling is most intolerant. Living as he did under perhaps the worst of the many bad emperors who ruled the world in the 1st century, he addresses him and his favourites with the most servile flattery in his lifetime, reviles him immediately after his death (xii. 6), and offers equally fulsome incense at the shrine of his successor. No writer of equal genius has ever shown such an absence of dignity and independence of character in his relation to his richer friends and patrons. He is not ashamed to be dependent on them for gifts of money, for his dinner, and even for his dress. We cannot feel sure that even what seem his sincerest tributes of regard may not be prompted by the hope of payment. Further, there is no book in any literature which, both in expression and in the tilings treated of, sins so flagrantly against all instincts of propriety. A certain proportion of the epigrams in every book—perhaps one-fifth or one-sixth (in some books the proportion is much larger)—can be read by no class of readers with any other feelings than those of extreme distaste.

These faults are so unmistakable and undeniable that many readers of ancient literature have formed their whole estimate of Martial from them, and have declined to make any further acquaintance with him. Even those who greatly admire his genius, who find the freshest interest in his representation of Roman life and his sketches of manners and character, and who, after admitting the un-favourable first impression which he is bound to make, believe that they still can discern sufficient indications of the better nature which made him a popular and likeable man in his day, do not attempt to palliate his faults, though they may partially account for them by reference to the morals of his age and the circumstances of his life. The time when " the last of the Flavian line was tearing in pieces the half-lifeless world, and Rome was a bond-slave to a bald Nero," was one when literature had either to be silent or to be servile. Martial was essentially a man of letters; there was no other metier for which he was fitted; he was bound either to gain favour by his writings or to starve. Tacitus and Juvenal might have chosen the latter alternative, but they were fortunately spared the necessity of making the choice by the pos-session of independent means. Even Statius, the contem-porary of Martial, whose writings are in other respects irreproachable, is nearly as fulsome in his adulation as Martial. The relation of client to patron had been recognized as an honourable one by the best Roman traditions. No blame had attached to Virgil or Horace on account of the favours which they received from Augustus and Maecenas, or of the return which they made for these favours in their verse. That old honourable relationship had, however, greatly changed its character betweeu the era of Augustus and that of Domitian. Men of good birth and education, and sometimes even of high official position (Juv., i. 117), were not ashamed to gain or increase their living by the acceptance of money doles to provide their daily meal. " Atria magna colam " is the resource of a man who was too lazy or too incom-petent to become an advocate, aiid who thought himself too much of a gentleman to adopt any mechanical trade. Martial was merely following a general fashion in paying his court to "a lord." " Rex " is the common term used for a patron. He made the best of the custom. In his earlier career he used to accompany his patrons to their villas at Baiae or Tibur, and to attend their morning levies. Later on he went to his own small country house, near Nomentum, and sent a poem, or a small volume of his poems, as his representative, at the early visit. If his patron was courteous and liberal, he became his friend and entertained him with his wit and social vivacity. If he was mean and exacting, he found in him a subject for his epigrams. The fault of grossness Martial shares with nearly all ancient and many modern writers who treat of life from the baser or more ridiculous side. That he offends worse than perhaps any of them is to be explained, not, apparently, on the ground that he was more of a libertine in his life, but on the ground that he had to amuse a public which had become more corrupt than in any other civilized era. Although there is the most cynical effrontery and want of self-respect in Martial's use of lan-guage, there is not much trace of the satyr in him,—much less, many readers will think, than in Juvenal. Neither is it at all true, as is said by historians of Roman litera-ture (W. S. Teuffel, vol. ii. 317, 5), that his epigrams mostly deal with this side of life. At least four-fifths of them are unexceptionable in subject and treatment.

Our knowledge of Martial's life is derived almost entirely from himself. His writings do not, like those of Horace, supply materials for a continuous biography, nor do they lay bare every secret of his heart with the self-absorption of Catullus. But, as he writes frankly about everything that interested him, he has not only painted a very life-like picture, or rather drawn a multitude of very life-like sketches of Roman society in his time, but he has clearly marked his own position in and his own relation to that society. His criticism of men and manners enables us to judge of the standard which he applied to life, of the things which he liked and disliked, and of his own temper and disposition. Reference to public events enables us approxi-mately to fix the date of the publication of the different books of epigrams, and from these dates to determine those of various important events in his life. Thus, as in book x., which was published in 97 or perhaps 98 A.D., he is found celebrating his fifty-seventh birthday (x. 24), the date of Ills birth may be assigned to the year 40 or 41. The place of his birth was Bilbilis, or Augusta Bilbilis, in Spain, in a " barren and rugged country " near the sources of the Tagus. His name seems to imply that he was born with the rights of Roman citizenship, but he speaks of himself as "sprung from the Celts and Iberians, and a countryman of the Tagus"; and, in contrasting his own masculine appearance with that of an effeminate Greek, he draws especial attention to " his stiff Spanish hair "—

"Hispanis ego contumax capillis" (x. 65).

In an epigram written nearly thirty years after his removal to Rome he piously commends the soul of a little child, Erotion, to whom he was much attached, to his parents Fronto and Flaccilla, who had gone before to the world of shades (v. 34). Their position in life seems to be indicated by such references to his former home as the phrase " saturaa sordida rura casae " (x. 96). His home was evidently one of rude comfort and plenty, sufficiently in the country to afford him the amusements of hunting and fishing, which he often recalls with a keen sense of pleasure, and sufficiently near the town to afford him the companion-ship of many comrades, the few survivors of whom he looks forward to meet again after his five and thirty years absence (x. 104). The memories of this old home, of Bilbilis on its mountain site, of the shallow, rapid Salo flowing round the base of the hill (" fluctu tenui sed inquieto "), of " Gaius hoary with snow and sacred Vadavero with its broken cliffs, " of the ilex-grove of Burado (iv. 55) " which even the laziest traveller walks through," and of other spots the rough names and local associations of which he delights to introduce into his verse, attest the enjoy-ment which he had in his early life, and were among the influences which kept his spirit thoroughly alive in the midst of the deadening routine of social life in Rome. But his Spanish home could impart, not only the vigorous vitality which was one condition of his success as a wit and poet, but the education which made him so accom-plished a writer. The literary distinction obtained by the Senecas, by Lucan, by Quintilian, who belonged to a somewhat older generation, and by his friends and contem-poraries Liciuianus of Bilbilis, Declaims of Emerita, and Camus of Gades, proves how eagerly the novel impulse of letters was received in Spain in the first century of the empire, just as a similar impulse had been received in Cisalpine Gaul in the first half of the first century before our era. The success of his countrymen may have been the motive which induced Martial's parents to prepare him for a literary career,—

" At me litterulas stulti docuere parentes" (ix. 73, 7),

and which induced Martial himself to remove to Rome when he had completed his education. This he must have done some time before the fall, in 65 A.D., of Seneca and Lucan, who were probably his earliest patrons. He speaks of the halls of the Pisos and of Seneca as having been opened to him when he first went to Rome (iv. 40); and in epigrams, addressed to his widow nearly thirty years after the death of Lucan, he speaks of him with grateful admiration, and applies to her the word " Regina," "his lady patroness."

Of the details of his life for the first twenty years or so after he came to Rome we do not know much. He published some juvenile poems of which he thought very little in his maturer years, and he laughs at a foolish book-seller who would not allow them to die a natural death (i. 113). Martial had neither youthful passion nor youth-ful enthusiasm to make him precociously a poet. His faculty ripened with experience and with the knowledge of that social life which was both his theme and his inspiration; and many of his best epigrams are among those written in his last years. From many answers which he makes to the remonstrances of friends,—among others to those of Quintilian,—it may be inferred that he was urged to practise at the bar, but that he preferred his own lazy Bohemian kind of life to more settled and remunerative modes of industry. He made many in-fluential friends and patrons, and secured the favour both of Titus and Domitian. From them he obtained various privileges, among others the" semestris tribunatus," which conferred on him equestrian rank. He failed, however, in his application to the latter for more substantial advantages, although he commemorates the glory of having been invited to dinner by him, and also the fact that he procured the privilege of citizenship for many persons in whose behalf he appealed to Mia. The earliest of his extant works, that known by the name of Liber Spectaculorum, was first published at the opening of the Colosseum in the reign of Titus; but the book as it now stands was given to the world in or about the first year of Domitian, i.e., about 81 A.D. The favour of the emperor procured him the countenance of some of the worst creatures at the imperial court,—among them of the notorious Crispinus, of Parthenius, Earinus, Begulus, and probably of Paris, the supposed author of Juvenal's exile, on whose death Martial afterwards wrote a eulogistic epitaph. The two books numbered xiii. and xiv., and known by the name of Xenia and Apophoreta,—inscriptions of two lines for presents,—were published between 81 and 86 A.D. In that last year he gave to the world the first two of the twelve books on which his reputation rests. From that time till his return to Spain in 98 A.D. he published a volume almost every year. The first nine books and the first edition of book x. appeared in the reign of Domitian ; and book xi. at the end of 96 A.D., shortly after the accession of Nerva. A revised edition of book x., that which we now possess, appeared in 98 A.D., about the time of the entrance of Trajan into Rome. The last book was written after three years' absence in Spain, shortly before his death, which happened about the year 102 or 103 A.D.

These twelve books bring Martial's ordinary mode of life between the age of five-and-forty and sixty very fully before us. His regular home for five-and-thirty years was Rome. He lived at first up three pair of stairs ("et scalis habito tribus sed altis," i. 117), and his rooms over-looked the laurels in front of the portico of Agrippa. He had a small and not very valuable country house near Nomentnm, in the Sabine territory, to which he occasionally retired as a refuge from the bores and noises of the city (ii. 38, xii. 57). In his later years he had a small house on the Quirinal, near the temple of Quirinus. At the time when his third book was brought out he had retired for a short time to Cisalpine Gaul, in weariness, as he tells us, of his unremunerative attendance on the levies of the great—

" Non poterat vanaj tadia ferre toga? " (iii. 4).

For a time he seems to have felt the charm of the new scenes which he visited, and in a later book (iv. 25) be contemplates, probably with a reminiscence of Horace (Od. ii. 6), the prospect of retiring to the neighbourhood of Aquileia and the Timavus in his old age. But the spell exercised over him by Rome and Roman society was too great to permit of a prolonged absence; and even the epigrams sent from Forum Corneli and the iEmilian Way ring much more of the Roman Forum, and of the streets, baths, porticos, and clubs of Rome, than of the places from which they are dated. So too his motive for his final departure from Rome in 98 A.D. was a weariness of the burdens imposed on him by his social position, and, appa-rently, the difficulties of meeting the ordinary expenses of living in the metropolis (x. 96) ; and he looks forward, with a kind of " nostalgia," to a return to the scenes familiar to Ins youth. The well-known epigram addressed to Juvenal (xii, 18) shows that for a time his ideal was realized; but the more trustworthy evidence of the prose epistle prefixed to book xii. proves that his contentment was of very short duration, and that he could not live happily away from the literary and social pleasures of Rome (" bibliotliecas, theatra, convictus "), which supplied both the impulse to his genius and the material on which it could exercise itself. The one consolation of his exile was the society of a lady, Marcella, of whom he writes rather as if she were his patroness,—and it seems to have been a necessity of his being to have always a patron or patroness,—than his wife or mistress. His delight in her society arose from his finding in her one who, though born and bred in this remote province, yet by her natural grace and accomplishment revived for him the charm of Rome.

During his life there, although he never rose to a position of real independence, and had always a hard struggle with poverty, he seems to have known every-body, especially every one of any eminence at the bar or in literature. In addition to Lucan and Quintilian, he numbered among his friends or more intimate acquaintances Silius Italicus, Juvenal, the younger Pliny; and we find a number of other names, such as those of Julius Martialis, Faustinus, Bassus, Decianus, Melior, Stella, &c, of men holding a high social, legal, or literary position, whose society and patronage he enjoyed. The silence which he and Statius, although authors writing at the same time, having common friends, and treating sometimes of the same subjects, maintain in regard to one another may be explained by mutual dislike or want of sympathy. Martial, in many places, shows an undisguised contempt for the artificial kind of epic on which Statius's reputation chiefly rests; and it seems quite natural that the respectable author, of the Thebaid and the Silvx should feel little admiration for either the life or the works of the Bohemian epigrammatist.

The personal faults of Martial, which deny to his writings, notwithstanding their vivacity, truth, and brilli-ancy, a place among the best poetry of antiquity, have been sufficiently indicated. It remains to ask, What were those qualities of nature and intellect which enable us to read his best work—even the great body of his work— with the freshest sense of pleasure in the present day 1

He had the keenest capacity for enjoyment, the keenest curiosity and power of observation. The ordinary spectacle of Roman life, as it passed before his eyes, was thus vividly apprehended and reproduced by him in all its details ; and the many varieties of character which an over-ripe and decaying civilization produces were quickly seized and graphically sketched. He had also a very just discern-ment. It is rare to find any one endowed with so quick a perception of the ridiculous who is so little of a carica-turist. He was himself singularly free from, cant, pedantry, or affectation of any kind. Though tolerant of most vices, he has a hearty scorn of hypocrisy,—of the combination of outward austerity with secret profligacy,—of the man who, while he wears

" Fnscos colores, galbinos liabet mores."

There are few better satirists of social and literary pre-tenders either in ancient or modern times. Living in a very artificial age, he was quite natural, hating pomp and show, and desiring to secure in life only what really gave him pleasure. To live one's own life heartily from day to day without looking before or after, and to be one's self without trying to be that for which nature did not intend him, is the sum of his philosophy. It is the philosophy of a man who has passed the middle of life, who has outlived any illusions he may ever have had, and who is quite content that whatever remains to him in the future should be like his present. Further, while tolerant of much that is bad and base,—the characters of Crispinus and Regulus, for instance,—he shows himself genuinely grateful for kindness and appreciative of excellence. He has no bitterness, malice, or envy in his composition. He pro-fesses to avoid personalities in his satire ;—" Ludimus in-nocui" is the character he claims for it. Pliny, in the short tribute which he pays to him on hearing of his death, says, " He had as much candour as wit and pungency in his writings " (Ep. iii. 21).

Honour and sincerity {fides and simplicitas) are the qualities which he most admires in his friends. Though many of his epigrams indicate a cynical disbelief in the character of women, yet others prove that he could respect and almost reverence a refined and courteous lady. His own life in Rome afforded him no experience of domestic virtue ; but his epigrams show that, even in the age which is known to modern readers chiefly from the Satires of Juvenal, that virtue was recognized as the purest source of happiness. The tenderest element in Martial's nature seems, however, to have been his affection for children and for his dependants. The pathos with which he has recorded their premature death, combined with his fresh enjoyment of outward nature, give to many of his pieces a rank among the serious poetry of the world—"inter sanctiora carmina,"—to use a phrase of his own.

The permanent literary interest of Martial's epigrams arises not so much from their verbal point or brilliancy, though in these respects they are unsurpassed, as from the amount of human life and character which they contain. There is no truer painter of social manners in antiquity. He enables us better than any other writer to revive the out-ward spectacle of the imperial Rome which we see in its ruins, and to repeople its streets, shops, porticos, baths, and amphitheatres. If Juvenal enforces the lesson of that time, and has penetrated more deeply into the heart of society,

Martial has sketched its external aspect with a much fairer pencil and from a much more intimate contact with it. It is from the immediate impressions and comments of the epigrammatist that the satirist has taken the suggestion of many of his more elaborate pictures and more stern denunciations. But it is not only the peculiarities of Roman customs that live in the writings of Martial. His page, to use his own phrase, "has the true relish of human life" in every age—" hominem pagina nostra sapit." He was to Rome in the decay of its ancient virtue and patriotism what Menander was to Athens in its decline. They were both men of cosmopolitan rather than of a national type, and had a closer affinity to the life of Paris or London in the 18th century than to that of Rome in the days of the Scipios or of Athens in the age of Pericles. The form of epigram was fitted to the critical temper of Rome as the comedy of manners was fitted to the dramatic genius of Greece. Martial professes to be of the school of Catullus, Pedo, and Marsus, and admits his inferiority only to the first. But, though he is a poet of a less pure and genuine inspiration, he is a greater epigrammatist even than his master. He has indeed made that form of art peculiarly his own. He has applied it to the repre-sentation of a very much greater number of situations, incidents, and characters, and he has done this with the greatest clearness, terseness, and vivacity of style, and with a masterly command over all his metres, except the pure hexa-meter, in which no other writer has been able to treat the familiar matters of the day with the light touch of Horace. Martial, except where he is flattering the emperor,—and then we may sometimes suspect an undercurrent of irony, —is one of the most natural and sensible as he is one of the wittiest and most brilliant of writers. He fails, per-haps, more often in his wit than in his sense. He is full of the happiest phrases, which express admirably for all times, without over-subtlety and without triteness, the judgment and impressions of life formed by direct contact with it, and taken neither from books nor from the opinions of other men, of a thorough man of the world, who had yet some feelings and sensibilities to which men of the world are generally strangers. He wrote naturally because he was completely in harmony with the life of his age. As this is the explanation of his grave offences, it should also be recognized as contributing to his merits as a writer.

Owing probably to the reasons which have excluded his writings from school education, little has been done for the criticism or explanation of Martial for about two centuries. There is a good edition of the text by Schneirtewin in the Teubner series of classics. For English readers the Selected Epigrams of Martial, by H.H. Stephenson, and the Martialis Epigrammata Selecta, by Messrs Paley and Stone, may be recommended as a good introduction to the study of this poet. An edition of book i., with a Latin com-mentary by J. Flach, has lately appeared at Tubingen. Further information about him may be obtained in a work by A. Brandt, De Martialis poetie vita ct scriptis (Berlin, 1853), and in Friedlander's Sitteiigeschichte Horns ; and an excellent criticism on his writings is to be found among the prose works of Lessing. (W. Y. S.)

The above article was written by: Prof. W. Y. Sellar.

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