ca. A.D. 40 -ca. 104
The poet Martial (born Marcus Valerius Martialis) lived in Rome during the reigns of the emperors Nero, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Martial’s fame comes from the numerous short poems and epigrams* he wrote. His epigrams—powerful, often obscene, and generally humorous—reveal much about Roman society, manners, and morals.
Martial was born in Bilbilis, Spain (in the present-day province of Saragossa). His father was a wealthy knight. In A.D. 64 Martial traveled to Rome to seek a career. There he came under the guidance of Seneca the Younger, Nero’s political adviser. Seneca tried to promote the young man’s political career. Martial served as a military tribune, but his political career ended abruptly when Nero turned on Seneca. Cut off from the support of his patron*, Martial turned his attention elsewhere. In his mid-20s, he began to write poems for a living and quickly learned that his favorite mode of expression was the epigram. In the course of his career, he became the greatest writer of epigrams the ancient world would know.
The word epigram comes from the Greek word for inscription. The short statements inscribed on tombstones gradually evolved into short poems marking special occasions in a person’s life, commemorating real and imaginary events, or making a verbal attack on an enemy. The Romans adopted the Greek epigrammatic tradition and turned it into a popular form of satire. The Roman epigrammatists drew attention to human failings and expressed their disapproval of their subjects in language that was often vivid and obscene, and—at its most effective—concise and elegant, with a sharp bite. Catullus, the first Roman poet to write epigrams, was secure enough to poke fun at such famous Romans as Cicero and Caesar. Martial followed Catullus a century later in this same tradition, but his targets tended to be the less powerful people—never the emperor or one of the emperor’s favorites.
Martial’s early works of epigrams are titled Liber Spectaculorum (Book of Public Entertainments), Xenia (Gifts), and Apophoreta (Party Favors). The Liber Spectaculorum was written to celebrate the opening games at the new amphitheater, the Colosseum, built by the emperor Titus. Xenia and Apophoreta are works of short verses to accompany gifts. His chief work is the Epigrams, written in 12 books over a period of 18 years. The Epigrams consists of short poems about all aspects of daily life. They provide a vivid picture of the loves and the follies of Roman society in the first century A.D.
Many of Martial’s poems are addressed to a person, sometimes to the type of individual he liked to poke fun at—a fortune hunter, a glutton, a drunk, a hypocrite, a lawyer, a barber, an innkeeper, or a surgeon. “Dialus had been a surgeon. Now he is a mortician. He has begun again where he left off.” Martial was careful not to use real names in his epigrams, however. His ultimate goal was to attack folly and stupidity as he saw them in humanity in general and to do so in as elegant a way as possible. Martial’s vulgar language may offend some modern readers, but as the poet stated: “Prudish reader, quit this book”—his epigrams are not for everyone. He spent his final days in retirement in Spain, and with few regrets. He had been wined and dined in the greatest city in the world, had met everyone he considered worth meeting, and had recorded his observations with biting wit that set a standard that few satirists and epigrammatists in later literature would equal. (See also Poetry, Roman; Rome, History of.)
* epigram short poem dealing pointedly, and sometimes satirically with a single thought
* patron special guardian, protector; or supporter