Ezra Pound wrote epigrams. William Carlos Williams wrote epigrams. e. e. cummings wrote epigrams. Margaret Atwood writes epigrams. Even so, if you browse anthologies and literary journals, it seems as though the genre of the epigram has fallen quite out of favor, except perhaps among so-called “neo-formalists.” But epigrams are fun. Even the most occasional or purpose-driven, like epitaphs and gift inscriptions, can challenge a writer and surprise or delight a reader. What more do we ask of literature?
An antique genre of literature ready-made for Facebook and even Twitter, the pithiness of epigrams fits neatly into social media. (If you want to tweet in Latin, you can pipilare.) In the long run, many of Marcus Valerius Martialis’s first-century BCE verses are trivial and repetitive. He knew it: “Never mind if you seem to sing with a narrow pipe, so long as your pipe outmatches many people’s trumpets” (VIII:3), as the prose translation of D. R. Shackleton Bailey has it. Martial fits right into the blogosphere. If he were writing today, he would go viral from time to time. While whole marching bands of ancient poets have passed into dust, Martial’s piccolo obbligato continues to float merrily above the solemn parade.
In brief, witty poems, written in mostly accessible, uncomplicated Latin constructions, Martial wrote about the everyday concerns of Roman cultural daily life that first-year Latin textbooks revel in, from dinner parties to patronage to family relationships. His vocabulary is earthy and elemental. Why isn't he the darling of beginning Latin classes attuned to the attention spans of the electronic age? VI:40 could be taught as a grand declarative exercise in the manipulation of verbs:
Femina præferri potuit tibi nulla, Lycori:
præferri Glyceræ femina nulla potest.
hæc erit hoc quod tu: tu non potes esse quod hæc est.
tempora quid faciunt. hanc volo, te volui.
The little barb at VIII:5
Dum donas, Macer, anulos puellis,
desisti, Macer, anulos habere.
not only illustrates basic grammar and vocabulary but also introduces the social context of a particular class privilege, to wear gold rings, and a loss of status when someone associates with the wrong element. O tempora! O mores!
Alas, the very quality that makes Martial tasty meat for eighth graders learning a new language makes him poison for teachers. He’s scatological and obscene in ways that everyday Roman life apparently found comfortable enough, but that curl the toes of any public school bureaucrat leafing through a high school textbook. Sure, Martial’s vocabulary and syntax may be ideal for learning purposes, but somehow inappropriate. Do you want to clarify for children that the gender of a word does not correspond precisely to the gender of a human being? What better examples than those obsessively frequent words in Martial's verse, the feminine noun mentula (cock) and masculine cunnus (cunt)? Class, let us conjugate today the verb fello fellare fellavi fellatum—a conjugation indeed!
Not that Martial isn’t often clean and tender. Latin literature provides few epitaphs as touching as VII:96.
Conditus hic ego sum Bassi dolor. Urbicus infans,
cui genus et nomen maxima Roma dedit.
sex mihi de prima deerant trieteride menses,
ruperunt tetricæ cum male pensa deæ.
quid species, quid lingua mihi, quid profuit ætas?
da lacrimæ tumulo, qui legis ista, meo:
sic ad Lethæas, nisi Nestore serior, undas
non eat, optabis quem superesse tibi.
Shackleton gives this as,
Here am I buried, Bassus' sorrow, Urbicus, an infant, to whom most mighty Rome gave race and name. Six months were wanting to my first three years, when the stern goddesses unkindly broke my threads. What availed me my beauty, my talk, my tender age? You that read these lines, give tears to my tomb. So may one whom you wish to survive you go not down to Lethe's waters save past the age of Nestor.
An accurate enough English, but wooden and unnecessarily convoluted. From this you cannot know that what Shackleton translates as “buried”—the word Martial begins with, conditus—is conventionally linked to Rome itself (ab urbe condita, “from the founding of the city”), so that the interment of a child takes on civic, even cosmic, irony with a buried pun: the everlasting urbs and the all-too-ephemeral Urbicus under its foundation, a contrast that gets recapitulated in the last lines.
Putting Martial’s simplicity into English can be a tricky matter. In prissier times, the raunchiest epigrams were left in the original, or by some weird logic, translated into something like Italian, to keep from frightening Victorian horses.
Translators have tended to adopt the tactics of the most famous of all Martial translations, the seventeenth-century Tom Brown’sversion of I:32. Challenged by a nasty professor, Dr. John Fell of Christ Church College, Oxford, to put this epigram into English, Brown quickly improvised,
I do not love thee, Doctor Fell.
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well:
I do not love thee, Dr. Fell.
Looking with an eye to translation technique, we see that Brown changed the form of the original metric distich into one more conventional in his own time, the tightly rhymed quatrain. He kept the repetition of the target’s name, but updated that into his own society. We don’t give a hoot who the Sabidius of the original Latin epigram was, all that matters is how the speaker felt about him. Brown felt the same way about Dr. Fell. The schoolboy translated the occasion even more closely than he translated the words. J. V. Cunningham in the twentieth century—no mean epigrammatist in his own right—did exactly the same thing, with less animosity, to II:4, domesticating the name and verse:
Bert is beguiling with his mother,
She is beguiling with her Bert.
They call each other Sister, Brother,
And others call them something other.
Is it no fun to be yourselves?
Or is this fun? I'd say it’s not.
A mother who would be a sister
Would be no mother and no sister.
Cunningham’s Bert is an artificial name, and it is likely that Martial’s Ammianus was equally fictitious. It is also possible he was a real person, another poet and Martial’s contemporary. We should not take all the scabrous doings in Martial’s literary Rome too literally, any more than we take our own television scandals. Many of the verses that look flabby and pointless in the twenty-first century likely gained their wit from topical references lost to us two millennia ago.The poet did address real people, from close friends through the emperor Domitian, especially when he was angling for a good dinner or a cash donation, but he also populated his verse with all kinds of probable and improbable characters. What’s remarkable is not what has been lost, but how much still comes through, strong and salty.
We should not waste our breath asking for a literary translation of the complete works of Martial. A lot of the epigrams, quite frankly, aren’t worth the candle now, except as academic curiosities. (Generally speaking, the longer the piece, the more tedious.) But we can always enjoy a generous, judicious selection in thoughtful English verse.
Or, rather, a great many generous, judicious selections. There’s more than enough in Martial’s fifteen books to answer almost every taste and mood. Let a hundred flowers bloom. Given the linguistic simplicity and the wide varieties of sophistication in the poet’s content, Martial is the ideal poet for amateur translators, for those who love literature, remember more or less of their Latin, and are up for adventure.
One selection that has turned up on my desk is Laurie Duggan’s Epigrams of Martial, originally published in the 1980s and recently privately published in a new edition.It's properly slight at about seventy pages. In many of these, the Australian poet Duggan either accidentally misreads or, as I prefer to think, deliberately riffs on, the Latin originals. At his best, he takes the conventional way of updating the poems, although some of his Down-Under references may seem as obscure to a casual American reader as the original Latin names.
With my quick feet,Phar Lap? He was born in New Zealand and raced in Australia in the 1930s, an antipodean Man o’ War. I could have guessed some of that because I know the original epigram, but I couldn't have confirmed the details without Wikipedia. I couldn’t find the original animal at all on the internet, but the poet was careful to end the epigram with the explicit punchline that Andraemon is a horse (caballo). In at least one case, Duggan nicely outdoes Martial. “Ventris onus misero, nec te pudet, excipis auro, / Bassa bibis vitro: carius ergo cacas” reads pretty lame, except for the sound play. Duggan turns it into
my nimble syllables,
the bit fast in my teeth,
and an unspared crop,
I, Martial, am a nag
lengths behind Phar Lap.
You drink from crystalThe year I turned forty, a friend of mine related how enthusiastically she had newly rediscovered golf, a passion when she was a teenager. I never cared a whit for golf, but she put me in mind of one of my own long-neglected childhood passions—archery. Before long, I had bought myself a sixty-pound Jeffery recurve bow and a quiverful of target arrows, paced out a range, and was regularly plugging the gold at fifty yards. Reading this right now are some of you who were Latin whizzes in high school, who let the language go when you graduated and entered the real world. I invite you here to take up Martial like a neglected golf club or a bow. And, if you like, post your own translations on the “Marcus Valerius Martialis” Facebook page.
and you piss in brass;
it’s the vessel between
that lacks class.