Brighton Museum and Art Gallery

Drawing by Aubrey Beardsley for The Yellow Book, 1895

Lord Byron lavished four memorable stanzas on the classical education of Don Juan in the first canto of his epic satire. After cataloguing authors such as Catullus and Ovid, whose indecencies served to corrupt his adolescent hero, the poet asks:

And then what proper person can be partial
To all those nauseous epigrams of Martial?

The following stanza describes an expurgated edition of Martial, from which “the grosser parts” had been removed, only to be put in an appendix, “which saves,” says Byron, “the trouble of an index.” Prurient youths in the first half of the twentieth century had access to Martial through the Latin-English version in the Loeb Classical Library, which in the English text scrupulously rendered the numerous obscenities into Italian and thereby made them no less conspicuous than all the verses conveniently assembled in an appendix in Byron’s day.

Garry Wills has made a small selection of Martial’s virtuoso poetry and translated the pieces with the brio and skill of the accomplished classicist that he is. His readers will be pleased to find at the end of the book a useful index that will direct them immediately to poems on recurring themes, such as adult homosexuality, baldness, body odor, cunnilingus, fellatio, misogyny, and pederasty. Herewith a choice example, registered under misogyny:

Her breasts unwieldy so obstruct her path,
She buys two extra tickets at the bath.

Traditional but more innocent epigrammatic themes—wine, the simple life, homage to the dead—look almost out of place in the index. It is obvious that Wills has vastly enjoyed creating these lively verses in an age that is willing to publish them. As he tells us, he prepared his versions during leisure hours in hotel rooms in Siena and Rome.

Although Martial (circa 40–103) made writing epigrams into a career, many eminent and respected persons in antiquity did exactly what Wills has done. They composed smart and often obscene little poems in their idle moments—in public baths, at meals, and during travel. If we find a distinguished translator of Saint Augustine and a major expositor of Catholic theology, who is also a Pulitzer Prize winner for Lincoln at Gettysburg, amusing both himself and us with a slender volume of epigrams, he is doing exactly what Cicero, Brutus, Julius Caesar, the emperor Augustus, and even the wise old emperor Nerva did. These are all among the numerous predecessors invoked by another ancient epigrammatist, who was one of Rome’s most sober and irreproachable writers, the younger Pliny.

Pliny was a wealthy landowner and nephew of the elder Pliny, a polymath who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD as he was making observations on the event. The nephew was a loyal civil servant whom the emperor Trajan sent as governor to Bithynia in northwest Asia Minor, where he found himself required to persecute Christians even though he could find no fault in them. This conscientious and not noticeably humorous person left behind a series of letters justifying the pleasure he took in composing frivolous and indecent poetry during his leisure hours. He did not hesitate to offer these poems to his friends as serious tokens of his regard.

Literary diversion of this kind is much less common today than it was then, and so we have to be grateful that a writer of Garry Wills’s stature has taken up the cause. In one of his letters Pliny cites Catullus in support of writing light and indelicate verse, and well he might, since Catullus was as skillful in writing metrical obscenities as he was in writing the melting lyrics for which he is far better known. “Although a decent poet ought to be pure himself,” wrote Catullus, “there is no need for his verses to be.” This was a sentiment echoed by Martial over a century later when he famously wrote, in Wills’s translation, “My poetry is filthy—but not I.”

Pliny’s taste for such clever verse could well have been acquired in the world of power and moneyed elites in which he grew up, but we happen to know that he took a particular interest in Martial, who actually favored him with a poem (not included in Wills’s selection). When Martial died, Pliny wrote to his friend Priscus that he felt deeply upset. This was, he said, a man “who was talented, sharp, and keen, who combined immense wit and bile in his writing, and no less candor.” In a brilliant conclusion to his letter, Pliny wrote, “His writings will not perhaps last forever, but he wrote as if they would.”

Time has refuted Pliny’s prediction and confirmed his generous assessment. Proof of the enduring fascination of Martial’s epigrams can easily be seen in the abundant attention given to his work by the two greatest Latin scholars of the twentieth century, A.E. Housman and D.R. Shackleton Bailey. It is to the memory of the latter scholar that Wills dedicates his translations, for it was Shackleton Bailey who provided a wholly new and badly needed edition of Martial for the Loeb Classical Library, complete with unblushing versions of all the lascivious poems. Here is Martial’s tribute to a dancing girl from Cádiz in Shackleton Bailey’s prose: “Her waggles are so tremulous, her itch so seductive that she would make a masturbator out of Hippolytus himself.” Wills has now transformed this into snappy verse:


Such sexy dances does she innovate
That purity itself must masturbate.

Just how scabrous or unacceptable Martial’s epigrams are depends on the culture within which they are read. Pliny’s eloquent defense of his own verses as an after-hours diversion leaves no doubt that at least some of his contemporaries would have frowned upon such salacious trifles. Although Johannes Burmeister in the early seventeenth century refashioned every one of Martial’s poems into pious Christian epigrams, he nevertheless conveniently printed his sacred versions opposite the originals.

My own copy of the old Oxford Classical Text edition of Martial belonged to the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, whose brother Zeph, my colleague at Harvard, gave it to me. Since Justice Stewart is perhaps best known for remarking of hard-core pornography “I know it when I see it,” I have often wondered what he thought of the poems of Martial that were once in his hands. Did he know pornography when he read it, or did the brilliant verse and wild imaginings of the poet make up for the unquestionably sordid episodes in the epigrams? Perhaps the greatest writer of explicitly sexual poetry since Martial’s own day was John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, in the seventeenth century. Alexander Pope admired him, but Samuel Johnson execrated him.

The paradox of Martial as both court poet and pornographer infected his entire career. He was not really a “gossip columnist,” as Garry Wills claims in his introduction, because many of his most outrageous poems were fantasies, and the poems addressed to recognizable persons were, more often than not, sycophantic. Martial had his patrons to please, and none of them was more important to him than the emperor himself. After all, others might while away their leisure hours in composing indecent verses, but for Martial epigrams were his life.

He had come to Rome from his native city of Bilbilis in northeastern Spain in the footsteps of such eminent Spaniards at Rome as the philosopher Seneca and the poet Lucan. But no sooner had Martial arrived in the city than these worthy compatriots were implicated in a conspiracy against Nero, and so he learned his first and most important lesson in accommodating himself to a tyrannical emperor. He wrote most of his poetry in the reign of another imperial tyrant, Domitian, and the embarrassing flattery that he lavished upon this oppressive ruler explains his success. If he could hail Domitian as “Lord and God,” just as the emperor wanted, he obviously had no need to worry about offending him in his role as perpetual censor.

Martial was not the only writer to prosper under Domitian. The great historian Tacitus openly acknowledged after the reign of terror was over that he too had advanced significantly in his career during those terrible years, and so had that paradigm of probity, the younger Pliny. When the prefects of the praetorian guard succeeded in arranging the murder of Domitian in September 96, the aged Nerva was brought in to replace him, and everyone breathed an audible sigh of relief. The more compromised anyone had been, the more audible the sigh of relief. Tacitus wrote that it was at last possible to think what one wished and to say what one thought, and Martial declared, “Unswerving honor, cheerful clemency, circumspect power now return. The terrors that were with us so long have taken flight” (not in Wills). Martial tried to recover his place at court by shamelessly flattering Nerva as well as Nerva’s successor, a Spaniard like himself, the emperor Trajan. But, unlike Tacitus and Pliny, he was unable to reignite his career, perhaps because what he had to offer was fundamentally so trivial. He returned to Bilbilis, where he became progressively depressed and soon died.

Wills is quite right to say that Martial had to crawl for his fame under Domitian, but he is probably wrong to say that he “dodged and flattered well enough to get safely back to Spain.” It is more likely that his dodging and flattery were precisely what drove him out of Italy once Domitian was gone. He had lost his audience and had no resources to rebuild his reputation. What he had to offer was not what Nerva and Trajan were seeking to adorn their age of felicity. By contrast, Martial’s friend, Juvenal, learned to transmute Martial’s epigrammatic wit into savage satire. Juvenal’s fierce, if occasionally obscene, tirades against immorality fit easily into the propaganda of the new era. In this way Martial’s themes lived on. Wills plausibly suggests a connection with modern America:


Like the Romans, we Americans celebrate rural virtue while wallowing in urban vices…. Romans ostentatiously disavowed the depravity, real and supposed, of Greece, of “Oriental” cults and fads, while jostling each other to get at that forbidden fruit.

Wills reasonably argues that to convey the wit and bite of Martial’s epigrams in English calls for the rhymed meters of Alexander Pope and Joseph Addison. He might also have mentioned the Earl of Rochester, whose muse thrived on sex. It is inevitable in rendering even a small selection of Martial’s more than 1,550 epigrams that a translator would be unable to sustain the same level of brilliance throughout. This is certainly true of the present collection. But Wills’s best versions can be even more effective than the originals.

In one of Martial’s innocuous poems, he touches, not for the only time, on preservation in amber. Here a drop of it falls on an ant. In Shackleton Bailey’s deadeningly literal translation, we have:

As an ant was wandering in Phaethontic shade, a drop of amber enfolded the tiny creature. So she that was despised but lately while life remained has now been made precious by her death.

You could hardly tell that the Latin consists of two elegantly phrased elegiac couplets. But Wills outdoes them:

A drop of amber hit an ant, While crawling past a tree,
A brief and trifling thing preserved For all eternity.

Equally well done, if less touching, is a couplet on a smile with abnormally bright teeth. In a literal translation: “Thais’ teeth are black. Laecania’s snowy white. What is the reason? One has those she bought, the other her own.” Here is Wills:

Her teeth look whiter than they ought.
Of course they should—the teeth were bought.

But on occasion something alien to Martial intrudes, even where Wills’s lines are successful on their own. For example, he writes:

Why should his ear so smell of shit?
Because you whispered into it.

The rhythm and rhyme work well, but the original lacks the scatological element, and indeed filth of that kind is generally absent in Martial. What the poet says here, using proper names that Wills has wisely filtered out, is “You’re surprised that Marius’s ear has a terrible smell. That’s your doing. You chatter, Nestor, into his ear.” Again Wills offers a version that he uses, with evident pride, as an example in his introduction:

A bent huge nose, a monstrous cock to match
Curved each into the other, what a snatch!

Scholars including both Housman and Shackleton Bailey have discussed this epigram extensively. The Latin is a smart elegiac couplet:

Mentula tam magna est, tantus tibi, Papyle, nasus,
ut possis, quotiens arrigis, olfacere.

In plain English prose, “Papylus, your penis is so big, and your nose is so big that whenever you have an erection you can smell it.” The fantasy calls to mind some of the more indecent drawings of Aubrey Beardsley. Again Wills has reasonably eliminated the proper name, but the evocation of a “snatch” fails here. Nothing of the sort is in Martial, nor is it suggested that the two bodily parts are “curved each into the other.”

Wills’s less successful versions sometimes result from an excessive abbreviation of the original, as in his six-line paraphrase of thirty-four lines, or from the absence of a context that would have been familiar to Martial’s readers but is not to us. A fine epigram presupposes knowledge of the noble deaths of the conspirator Caecina Paetus and his wife—a famous event from early in the reign of Claudius. The wife Arria stabbed herself and then handed the blade to her husband with the immortal words Paete, non dolet (“Paetus, it doesn’t hurt”). Although Wills prefaces his translation with the words “Arria’s Sword,” no one could appreciate the following lines without knowing the story:

She said, “This hurt not when it ran me through,”
And gave it him: “I die when it kills you.”

But any reader who knows the story will certainly applaud this version.

On very rare occasions Wills misapprehends what Martial was actually saying. The most noticeable case illustrates the extraordinary richness of Latin sexual vocabulary. Martial addresses someone who has cut off the nose and ears of a man whom he discovered to have had sex with his wife. The poet asks:

Credis te satis esse vindicatum?
erras: iste potest et irrumare.

This means, “Do you think you have been avenged enough? You’re wrong: the man can also irrumate,” but Wills writes:

Have you deprived him of a screw?
Just ask his mouth what it can do.

Wills seems to imply that the mutilated adulterer will offer oral sex—a dreadful thought in view of the condition of his face. But what Martial is saying is that the man still has a penis, and he can therefore also present it for fellatio. In other words, it is not what his mouth can do, but what someone else’s mouth can do. Latin has its own special word ( irrumare) for providing the penis and another for taking it into the mouth ( fellare ). Housman observed long ago that the Romans considered the former act a strongly virile gesture. As a metaphor it could be invoked abusively in threatening other men.

In his introduction Wills takes note of a certain number of “softer or more lyrical epigrams,” although he is right to say that Martial “will always be best known for his insult poems, the dirtier the better.” There are some genuinely tender love poems, but they are exclusively directed to young boys. This prompts Wills to make another comparison with our own time: “We accept gay sex between consenting adults, but treat sex with minors as child abuse. But the latter was the ideal for moralists of Martial’s time.” That it was an ideal goes too far, but that it was an accepted rite of passage for young men cannot be doubted. There were clear limits, and Martial can have great fun with suggestions that a pederast is in fact the one on the receiving end. Here, for example, is Wills’s stylish rendering of a single Latin couplet:

The boy has got the active penis,
And you an ass smooth as a Venus.
I need therefore no hidden clue
To figure out just what you do.

Among the relatively small number of deeply affecting poems in Martial is one addressed to his parents about the death of a five-year-old slave girl. Shackleton Bailey oddly wondered whether the invocation to the parents meant that they had moved to Rome to be with Martial. But Wills understands perfectly why they appear in the poem and renders the lines with consummate skill. As is his customary practice, he omits the proper names, and he also adds an explanatory gloss to the opening address to the parents. The result is a poignant lament that shows Wills at the top of his form:

My parents in the Underworld! I send
This servant girl—take care and gently tend,
Conduct her past the terrifying shade.
Keep her of circling horrors unafraid,
For she, alas, was only six days shy
Of six years when too soon she came to die.
Protect her as she plays her childhood games,
And lisps, as shyly she was wont, our names.
Earth, sadly mounded on this gravesite new,
Press lightly on her, as she did on you.

Devotees of Martial will be surprised to find that although Wills translates poems from every one of Martial’s fourteen numbered books, only in his introduction does he provide versions of poems in the so-called Liber Spectaculorum (Book of Spectacles). This collection survives in one branch of the Martial manuscripts and celebrates various entertainments in the newly opened Flavian Amphitheater, which we know as the Colosseum. Most of the poems probably date from the reign of Titus, who inaugurated the building in 80. Under the title of “Fatal Charades,” Kathleen Coleman has called attention to Martial’s descriptions of live enactments of mythological scenes, such as the intercourse of Pasiphae with a bull or the grisly evisceration of Prometheus, and she has recently published an important commentary on the entire Book of Spectacles.* Although Wills offers two translations from this book in his introduction, some of the pieces on mythological exhibitions would have greatly enriched his elegant selection.

It is not easy to see Martial whole, because the unquestionably obscene material, however witty, tends to cloud the reader’s vision. But Wills has done him proud with English renderings that consistently sparkle, and from them Martial’s variegated muse emerges triumphant.

This Issue

February 26, 2009