Court Poet & Pornographer

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…

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