Martial’s Epigrams

Even to those who know Roman poetry, Martial is more often known than read. This may be attributed, as you like, to the lightness of his over 1,500 epigrams, their sheerly daunting number, their honest filthiness, or the dependence for their effect on knowledge of the minute details of Roman culture. Trying to cut through this, Garry Wills presents Martial as the master formalist, honing the attack of his chosen genre the way a fencer perfects his pris de fer. The focus of Wills’s selection is the poetic sport of using a few short lines to set up and then knock down an opponent: “Men flock to Thais / From North to South, / Yet she’s a virgin — / All but her mouth.” Martial makes frequent statements, too, about his own art, whether he is addressing his poems (literally, like children going out into the world) or sneering at his poetic rivals as bad imitators and worse plagiarists. Epigram is a sport, and Wills gets into the game by not taking it too seriously, indulging in rhyme at the risk of sounding old fashioned because linguistic cleverness is as important to its wit as its economy. In the right setting, the most worthless thing becomes artful. Martial often turns to the image of amber:” A drop of amber hit an ant / While crawling past a tree / A brief and trifling thing preserved / For all eternity.” Some readers may be put off by the rather arbitrary translation of Roman names into English ones like “Tom” and “Janet,” but in Martial the details shouldn’t distract you from the slap-down. The pleasure is in the immediacy of the effect: “You make your readers grope and tarry — / Your reader’s not a dictionary /But commentators I make merry/ Who read me with no commentary.”