Epigramsby James Michie
Martial, the father of the epigram, was one of the brilliant provincial poets who made their literary mark on first-century Rome. His Epigrams can be affectionate or cruel, elegiac or playful; they target every element of Roman society, from slaves to schoolmasters to, above all, the aristocratic elite. With wit and wisdom, Martial evokes not “the/b>
Martial, the father of the epigram, was one of the brilliant provincial poets who made their literary mark on first-century Rome. His Epigrams can be affectionate or cruel, elegiac or playful; they target every element of Roman society, from slaves to schoolmasters to, above all, the aristocratic elite. With wit and wisdom, Martial evokes not “the grandeur that was Rome,” but rather the timeless themes of urban life and society.
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Hic est quem legis ille, quem requiris,
toto notus in orbe Martialis
argutis epigrammaton libellis:
cui, lector studiose, quod dedisti
viventi decus atque sentienti,
rari post cineres habent poetae.
Argiletanas mavis habitare tabernas,
cum tibi, parve liber, scrinia nostra vacent.
nescis, heu, nescis dominae fastidia Romae:
crede mihi, nimium Martia turba sapit.
maiores nusquam rhonchi: iuvenesque senesque
et pueri nasum rhinocerotis habent.
audieris cum grande sophos, dum basia iactas,
ibis ab excusso missus in astra sago.
sed tu ne totiens domini patiare lituras
neve notet lusus tristis harundo tuos,
aetherias, lascive, cupis volitare per auras:
i, fuge; sed poteras tutior esse domi.
May I present myself—the man
You read, admire and long to meet,
Known the world over for his neat
And witty epigrams? The name
Is Martial. Thank you, earnest fan,
For having granted me the fame
Seldom enjoyed by a dead poet
While I’m alive and here to know it.
Frail book, although there’s room for you to stay
Snug on my shelves, you’d rather fly away
To the bookshops and be published. How I pity
Your ignorance of this supercilious city!
Believe me, little one, our know-all crowd
Is hard to please. Nobody sneers as loud
As a Roman: old or young, even newly-born,
He turns his nose up like a rhino horn.
As soon as one hears the deafening “bravos!”
And begins blowing kisses, up one goes
Skywards, tossed in a blanket. And yet you,
Fed up with the interminable “few,”
“Final” revisions of your natural song
By my strict pen, being a wild thing, long
To try your wings and flutter about Rome.
Off you go, then! You’re safer, though, at home.
Contigeris nostros, Caesar, si forte libellos,
terrarum dominum pone supercilium.
consuevere iocos vestri quoque ferre triumphi,
materiam dictis nec pudet esse ducem.
qua Thymelen spectas derisoremque Latinum,
illa fronte precor carmina nostra legas.
innocuos censura potest permittere lusus:
lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba.
Petit Gemellus nuptias Maronillae
et cupit et instat et precatur et donat.
Adeone pulchra est? Immo foedius nil est.
Quid ergo in illa petitur et placet? Tussit.
Hesterna tibi nocte dixeramus,
quincunces puto post decem peractos,
cenares hodie, Procille, mecum.
tu factam tibi rem statim putasti
et non sobria verba subnotasti
exemplo nimium periculoso:
misàv mn´amona symp´otan, Procille.
Caesar, if you should chance to handle my book,
I hope that you’ll relax the frowning look
That rules the world. Soldiers are free to mock
The triumphs of you emperors—there’s no shame
In a general being made a laughing-stock.
I beg you, read my verses with the same
Face as you watch Latinus on the stage
Or Thymele the dancer. Harmless wit
You may, as Censor, reasonably permit:
My life is strict, however lax my page.
Gemellus wants to marry Maronilla:
He sighs, pleads, pesters, sends a daily present.
Is she a beauty? No, a hideous peasant.
What’s the attraction, then? That cough will kill her.
Last night, after five pints of wine,
I said, “Procillus, come and dine
Tomorrow.” You assumed I meant
What I said (a dangerous precedent)
And slyly jotted down a note
Of my drunk offer. Let me quote
A proverb from the Greek: “I hate
An unforgetful drinking mate.”
Incustoditis et apertis, Lesbia, semper
liminibus peccas nec tua furta tegis,
et plus spectator quam te delectat adulter
nec sunt grata tibi gaudia si qua latent.
at meretrix abigit testem veloque seraque
raraque Submemmi fornice rima patet.
a Chione saltem vel ab Iade disce pudorem:
abscondunt spurcas et monumenta lupas.
numquid dura tibi nimium censura videtur?
deprendi veto te, Lesbia, non futui.
Quem recitas meus est, o Fidentine, libellus:
sed male cum recitas, incipit esse tuus.
Cum dicis “Propero, fac si facis,” Hedyle, languet
protinus et cessat debilitata Venus.
expectare iube: velocius ibo retentus.
Hedyle, si properas, dic mihi, ne properem.
Lesbia, why are your amours
Always conducted behind open, unguarded doors?
Why do you get more excitement out of a voyeur than a lover?
Why is pleasure no pleasure when it’s under cover?
Whores use a curtain, a bolt or a porter
To bar the public—you won’t find many chinks in the red-light quarter.
Ask Chione or Ias how to behave:
Even the cheapest tart conceals her business inside a monumental grave.
If I seem too hard on you, remember my objection
Is not to fornication but detection.
They’re mine, but while a fool like you recites
My poems I resign the author’s rights.
When you say, “Quick, I’m going to come,”
Hedylus, I go limp and numb.
But ask me to hold back my fire,
And the brake accelerates desire.
Dear boy, if you’re in such a hurry,
Tell me to slow up, not to worry.
Nuper erat medicus, nunc est vispillo Diaulus:
quod vispillo facit, fecerat et medicus.
Si quid, Fusce, vacas adhuc amari—
nam sunt hinc tibi, sunt et hinc amici—
unum, si superest, locum rogamus,
nec me, quod tibi sim novus, recuses:
omnes hoc veteres tui fuerunt.
tu tantum inspice qui novus paratur
an possit fieri vetus sodalis.
Bella es, novimus, et puella, verum est,
et dives, quis enim potest negare?
sed cum te nimium, Fabulla, laudas,
nec dives neque bella nec puella es.
Diaulus, recently physician,
Has set up now as a mortician:
No change, though, in the clients’ condition.
If you’ve still room in your affections—
For you have friends in all directions—
For one more, may I occupy
The vacant place? You can’t deny
Me this simply because I’m “new”:
All your old chums were once that, too.
Think, Fuscus: might not in the end
The newest prove the oldest friend?
That you’re young, beautiful and rich,
Fabulla, no one can deny.
But when you praise yourself too much,
None of the epithets apply.
Nullus in urbe fuit tota qui tangere vellet
uxorem gratis, Caeciliane, tuam,
dum licuit: sed nunc positis custodibus ingens
turba fututorum est: ingeniosus homo es.
Pulchre valet Charinus et tamen pallet.
parce bibit Charinus et tamen pallet.
bene concoquit Charinus et tamen pallet.
sole utitur Charinus et tamen pallet.
tingit cutem Charinus et tamen pallet.
cunnum Charinus lingit et tamen pallet.
When you complaisantly allowed
Any man, free of charge, to lay
Hands on your wife, not one would play.
But now you’ve posted a house guard
There’s an enormous randy crowd.
Caecilianus, you’re a card.
He’s healthy—yet he’s deathly pale;
Seldom drinks wine and has a hale
Digestion—but looks white and ill;
Sunbathes, rouges his cheeks—and still
Has a pasty face; licks all the cunts
In Rome—and never blushes once.
Vicinus meus est manuque tangi
de nostris Novius potest fenestris.
quis non invideat mihi putetque
horis omnibus esse me beatum,
iuncto cui liceat frui sodale?
Tam longe est mihi quam Terentianus,
qui nunc Niliacam regit Syenen.
non convivere, nec videre saltem,
non audire licet, nec urbe tota
quisquam est tam prope tam proculque nobis.
Migrandum est mihi longius vel illi.
vicinus Novio vel inquilinus
sit, si quis Novium videre non volt.
Ne gravis hesterno fragres, Fescennia, vino,
pastillos Cosmi luxuriosa voras.
ista linunt dentes iantacula, sed nihil opstant,
extremo ructus cum redit a barathro.
quid quod olet gravius mixtum diapasmate virus
atque duplex animae longius exit odor?
notas ergo nimis fraudes deprensaque furta
iam tollas et sis ebria simpliciter.
Novius is so close a neighbour, I could stand
At my window and touch him with a hand.
“Lucky you,” you say.
“I envy you being able to enjoy at all hours of the day
The companionship of a true brother.”
Not a bit of it. We couldn’t have less to do with each other
If he were Terentianus, Governor of the Lower Nile.
I’m not allowed to dine with him, he won’t vouchsafe a word or a smile.
There’s no one so near and yet so distant in all Rome.
Clearly one of us must find a new home.
If you don’t want to see Novius, you should live next door
Or, better still, in the same house, on the same floor.
Hoping, Fescennia, to overpower
The reek of last night’s drinking, you devour
Cosmus’ sweet-scented pastilles by the gross.
But though they give your teeth a whitish gloss
They fail to make your breath any less smelly
When a belch boils from your abyss-like belly.
In fact, blended with lozenges it’s much stronger,
It travels farther and it lingers longer.
Give up these stale, transparent tricks. A skunk
Must be itself. Why not just be a drunk?
Garris in aurem semper omnibus, Cinna,
garrire et illud teste quod licet turba.
rides in aurem, quereris, arguis, ploras,
cantas in aurem, iudicas, taces, clamas,
adeoque penitus sedit hic tibi morbus,
ut saepe in aurem, Cinna, Caesarem laudes.
Si non molestum est teque non piget, scazon,
nostro rogamus pauca verba Materno
dicas in aurem sic ut audiat solus.
Amator ille tristium lacernarum
et baeticatus atque leucophaeatus,
qui coccinatos non putat viros esse
amethystinasque mulierum vocat vestes,
nativa laudet, habeat et licet semper
fuscos colores, galbinos habet mores.
Rogabit unde suspicer virum mollem.
Una lavamur: aspicit nihil sursum,
sed spectat oculis devorantibus draucos
nec otiosis mentulas videt labris.
Quaeris quis hic sit? Excidit mihi nomen.
You’re always whispering in one’s ear
“Secrets” the world might safely hear.
You crack jokes, grumble, weep, accuse
Your enemies, proclaim your views,
Sing songs and shout and even keep
Quiet in a whisper. It’s so deep
A sickness that you seldom raise
Your voice, Cinna, in Caesar’s praise.
My hobbling metre, if it’s not a task
Too onerous for you, not too much to ask,
Go and drop a few words in Maternus’ ear
Just loud enough for him alone to hear.
He favours drab, dark cloaks, he has a passion
For wearing Baetic wool and grey; the fashion
For scarlet he calls “degenerate,” “un-Roman,”
And, as for mauve, that’s “only fit for women.”
He’s all for “Nature”; yet, though no one’s duller
In dress, his morals sport a different colour.
He may demand the grounds of my suspicion.
We bathe together, and his line of vision
Keeps below waist-level, he devours
Ocularly the boys under the showers,
And his lips twitch at the sight of a luscious member.
Did you ask his name? How odd, I can’t remember!
Saepe mihi dicis, Luci carissime Iuli,
“Scribe aliquid magnum: desidiosus homo es.”
Otia da nobis, sed qualia fecerat olim
Maecenas Flacco Vergilioque suo:
condere victuras temptem per saecula curas
et nomen flammis eripuisse meum.
in steriles nolunt campos iuga ferre iuvenci:
pingue solum lassat, sed iuvat ipse labor.
Issa est passere nequior Catulli,
Issa est purior osculo columbae,
Issa est blandior omnibus puellis,
Issa est carior Indicis lapillis,
Issa est deliciae catella Publi.
hanc tu, si queritur, loqui putabis;
sentit tristitiamque gaudiumque.
collo nixa cubat capitque somnos,
ut suspiria nulla sentiantur;
et desiderio coacta ventris
gutta pallia non fefellit ulla,
sed blando pede suscitat toroque
deponi monet et rogat levari.
castae tantus inest pudor catellae,
ignorat Venerem; nec invenimus
dignum tam tenera virum puella.
Hanc ne lux rapiat suprema totam,
Dear Lucius Julius, you often sigh,
“Write something great—you’re a lazy fellow.” Give
Me leisure, all the time Maecenas found
For Horace and his Virgil, and I’ll try
To build a masterpiece destined to live
And save my name from ashes. When the ground
Is poor, the ox works listlessly; rich soil
Tires, but there’s satisfaction then in toil.
Issa is naughtier than Catullus’ sparrow, Issa is more appealing than any girl,
Issa is purer than a dove’s kiss, Issa is more precious than an Indian pearl,
Issa is—to end this catalogue—
Publius’ doted-on dog.
When she whines, you’d think it was a human voice;
She knows what it is to grieve and to rejoice.
She lies on her master’s lap,
Breathing so softly it’s inaudible, and takes her nap.
When the call of nature can’t be resisted,
She never lets a drop soil the quilt, but wakes you charmingly with a paw and asks to be set down and assisted.
She’s so innocent of the facts of life
That we’re unable to find a mate for such a delicate little wife.
picta Publius exprimit tabella,
in qua tam similem videbis Issam,
ut sit tam similis sibi nec ipsa.
Issam denique pone cum tabella:
aut utramque putabis esse veram,
aut utramque putabis esse pictam.
Occurris quotiens, Luperce, nobis,
“Vis mittam puerum” subinde dicis,
“cui tradas epigrammaton libellum,
lectum quem tibi protinus remittam?”
Non est quod puerum, Luperce, vexes.
longum est, si velit ad Pirum venire,
et scalis habito tribus sed altis.
quod quaeris propius petas licebit.
Argi nempe soles subire Letum:
contra Caesaris est forum taberna
scriptis postibus hinc et inde totis,
omnis ut cito perlegas poetas.
illinc me pete. Nec roges Atrectum—
hoc nomen dominus gerit tabernae—:
To prevent her last dog-day
Taking her altogether away
Publius has had her picture painted. The likeness is so complete
That even Issa herself can’t compete.
In fact, put both together and you can’t tell, which is which—
Painting or bitch.
Lupercus, whenever you meet me
You instantly greet me
With, “Is it all right by you if I send
My slave to pick up your book of epigrams? It’s only to lend:
I’ll return it when I’ve read it.” There’s no call
To trouble your boy. It’s a long haul
To the Pear-tree district, and my flat
Is up three flights of stairs, steep ones at that.
You can find what you want nearer home. No doubt you often go
Down Booksellers’ Row.
Well, then, opposite Caesar’s Forum there’s a shop
With door-posts plastered with advertisements from bottom to top,
So that at a glance you can read
The list of available poets. There I am. There’s no need
To ask Atrectus (the owner’s name) for my scroll:
Before you’ve said a word he’ll whip out of the first or second pigeon-hole
de primo dabit alterove nido
rasum pumice purpuraque cultum
denarîs tibi quinque Martialem.
“Tanti non es” ais? Sapis, Luperce.
Cui legisse satis non est epigrammata centum,
nil illi satis est, Caediciane, mali.
Pumice-stone-smoothed and purple-wrapped, for five denarii.
Do I hear you say, “You’re not worth that expense”?
Lupercus, you’ve got sense.
Caedicianus, if my reader
After a hundred epigrams still
Wants more, then he’s a greedy feeder
Whom no amount of swill can fill.
Meet the Author
James Michie studied classics at Trinity College, Oxford. His other translations include The Poems of Catullus and Horace’s Odes (available as a Modern Library Paperback Classic). His Collected Poems was awarded the Hawthornden Prize.
Shadi Bartsch is Chair of the Department of Classics at the University of Chicago, the editor in chief of Classical Philology, and the author of Decoding the Ancient Novel; Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan’s “Civil War”; and Actors in the Audi-ence: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian.
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This is a selection of about a tenth of Martial's work. Michie's translation is not literal, but his verses sacrifice nothing of the spirit and barb of Martial's pithy Latin, which is on the facing pages.