Friday, October 9, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Peter Howell, Martial. Ancients in Action. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2009. Pp. 126. ISBN 9781853997020. £11.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Shannon N. Byrne, Xavier University

Peter Howell brings a lifetime of expertise to bear on this new addition to the Ancients in Action series, whose target audience mentioned on back cover of this and all the other volumes I have seen1 is 'the modern general reader.' The book includes a preface, seven chapters, a section entitled 'Further Reading,' and an index.

In Chapter One, 'The Life of Martial,' Howell introduces us to the poet, his city of origin, and other famous literary men from Spain. We read about Martial's choice to write epigrams, leaving loftier genres to others. Howell uses Martial's poems to highlight his life and thought, e.g. 5.20 outlines the sort of life Martial would like to enjoy in Rome with Julius Martialis; 10.47 describes Martial's idea of the simple life; 1.49 extols the virtues of his homeland in Spain. Howell also cites Pliny on Martial's death (Ep. 3.21), and Martial's farewell to Julius Martialis (12.34). Howell notes (p. 9) that we know Martial better than most other ancient poets because he tells us so much about himself, but warns we should be careful not to take everything the poet says at face value or confuse the personal and authorial first person singular (p. 9, 73). Howell does not always follow his own advice, e.g. he states that Martial became conflicted between city and country life as seen in the 'mixed feelings about the city' expressed in 10.47 (p. 21ff); and that, despite initially enjoying retirement in Spain (12.18), Martial came to regret the move and longed to return to Rome (p. 31). Howell knows 'the contrast between city and country life was one of the corniest topics of the rhetorical schools' and cites Horace's parody of the theme (Epode 2), yet somehow in Martial's case the contrast 'represented a real dilemma, which he hoped to solve by leaving the city' (p. 60-1). This may or may not be a correct way to read Martial's poems, but Lindsay and Patricia Watson in their introduction are more circumspect regarding this sort of information.2

Chapter Two, 'What Is an Epigram' fulfills its mission of setting forth a definition of the genre as it applies to antiquity. Howell starts with Archilochus and moves quickly to Callimachus, the Garlands of Meleager and Philip, and the arrangement of poems in the Greek Anthology, including the recently discovered poems of Posidippus and Nicarchus. A look at the history of epigram in Latin follows, swiftly moving through Ennius, Lucilius, Catulus, etc., and stopping for a closer look at Catullus as Martial's 'most significant predecessor' (p. 42). The chapter concludes with a quick mention of Lessing's division of epigrams into 'Erwartung' and 'Aufschluss' and, to counter Lessing, Klopstock's prefatory poem on the nature of epigram (in German and English).

Chapter Three, 'Martial and the Epigram,' focuses on the poet's use of the genre. Martial refrains from naming real people not merely to avoid trouble, but because '[i]t was also alien to Martial's fundamental good nature' (p. 50). Among other things briefly discussed in this chapter, Howell mentions Martial's obscenity (which isn't nearly as pervasive as many may think and mostly involves using vulgar language), the arrangement poems (to which Martial paid special attention), meter, rhetorical tropes and commonplaces (which can be too clever in Martial's or anyone's hands), the tradition behind the Xenia and Apophoreta, and Martial's focus on real life.

In Chapter Four, 'Martial and Domitian,' Howell tackles the problems Martial created for himself by flattering Domitian when the emperor was alive and in a position to render favors, then blasting him after his assassination in an attempt to get in well with the new administration. The charge of hypocrisy is not easily overcome, and Howell strikes a reasonable balance between apologist and realist, wisely eschewing the notion that Martial's flattery was meant to be ironic and observing that Domitian was not quite the monster ancient biographers like Suetonius made him out to be.

Chapter Five, 'Martial and Roman Life,' is especially useful for the range of subjects covered. Many of Martial's attacks on types (e.g. old women, doctors, lawyers) are mentioned alongside similar attacks found in Greek epigrams. Other elements or activities connected with daily life gleaned from Howell's selection include children, for whom we are told Martial had 'genuine affection' (p. 77), bathing, public lavatories, and dinner parties. Food and drink receive a good deal of attention, complete with criticism that Martial launches against the cheap host who dines on better fare than his guest. Certain ancient sexual practices are mentioned, in particular Martial's apparent likes and dislikes. Howell's treatment of gruesome spectacles in the amphitheater, gladiators, and chariot racing is informative, as is the account of legacy hunting. There is much in this chapter to pique the modern general reader's interest and encourage her to learn more about daily life at Rome in Flavian times.

Chapter Six, 'Martial and Patronage,' is a solid introduction to a topic, which, Howell explains, is both unfamiliar to modern sensibilities and not well understood as a social phenomenon despite its deep roots in Roman culture. Howell outlines that patronage between free individuals of unequal status engaged the language of friendship, involved reciprocity with the greater burden of giving on the patron, and ran the risk of making the less well-off client feel like a slave. The strange practice of salutatio is treated along with the sportula and changes to the dole over the years. The praise a literary client was able to offer his patron adds a new layer to this already confusing mix. It is unclear whether the general reader will have learned enough about the salutatio or sportula to agree with Howell that neither probably much affected Martial, who makes them common themes, we are told, because they affected others less well off than he was.

The final chapter, 'Martial and Posterity,' is a pleasant run through of admirers and poets of epigrams in Latin, English, and European vernaculars that show Martial's influence on poets from Juvenal, Ausonius, Luxorius, Godfrey of Winchester, Henry of Huntingdon, Italian humanists and so on straight down the ages to Byron, Robert Louis Stevenson, and A. E. Housman. Howell supplies the date of the first printed edition of Martial (1470-1), the first printed commentary (1474), the first bowdlerized edition of his poems (1568) by two French Jesuits, and his role in the use of the word 'plagiarism' (< Latin plagium) to refer to literary theft. Much attention is devoted to the rise and fall of Martial's popularity as a result of changing perceptions of obscenity, a charge that hounds Martial over the centuries.

One of the benefits of Howell's solid translations is that they include information in brackets to explain concepts and define people, places, and things, e.g. 5.20.7: 'proud busts [in the entrance-halls of the powerful]' (p. 20); 10.4.1 'You who read about Oedipus and Thyestes, lost in darkness [in the eclipse after his brother Tereus served up his children for him to eat]' (p. 57); 8.3.19: 'Roman salt [i.e. wit]' (p. 60); 9.68.6 'as the smith fits the lawyer to the middle of a horse [an equestrian statue]' (p. 77). However, I am not sure why the modern general reader needs all the Latin. Other authors covered in the Ancients in Action series do not contain the original language for block translations, and the few that include Latin (e.g. Godwin's Lucretius and Hill's Horace) do so only sparingly. Howell's text already has smaller margins (3 3/4') and larger spaces between lines.3 In fact, at 126 pages Howell's is the shortest of the seven authors that I have seen in the series.4 All that Latin is unnecessary and takes up space that could have been used for further discussion.

Howell's writing is engaging and he is good at informing the reader about the times, the poetry, the author, and antiquity in general. This book provides a solid introduction for undergraduates taking a course on Martial in Latin (which I am fortunate to be teaching this semester and for which I ordered this book). It will probably work in a civilization or literature course in translation. Readers already familiar with early imperial Rome will enjoy this book. The modern general reader with no previous experience in the area might not appreciate everything here, but she will undoubtedly enjoy the read.


1.   Rhiannon Ash, Tacitus (2006); Sarah Annes Brown, Ovid, Myth and Metamorphosis (2005); Anne Pippin Burnett, Pindar (2008); John Godwin, Lucretius (2004); Philip Hills, Horace (2005); Amanda Kolson Hurley, Catullus (2004); Genevieve Liveley, Ovid, Love Songs (2005).
2.   Lindsay and Patricia Watson, Martial: Selected Epigrams (Cambridge 2003), p. 3-5.
3.   E.g. margins in Brown's Ovid, Myth and Metamorphosis and Hurley's Catullus are just over 4'; margins in Burnett's Pindar are not quite 4', but that book is 175 pages long and contains no ancient Greek for the numerous passages in translation.
4.   Catullus, 158 p.; Ovid: Myth and Metamorphosis, 159 p.; Horace, 160 p.; Ovid, Love Songs, 141 p.; Tacitus, 159 p.; Lucretius, 141 p.; Pindar, p. 175.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.