Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Craig Williams, A Martial Reader: Selections from the Epigrams. BC Latin readers. Mundelein, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2011. Pp. xxx, 185. ISBN 9780865167049. $19.00.

Reviewed by Rosario Moreno Soldevila and Alberto Marina Castillo, Universidad Pablo de Olavide, Sevilla (,

Version at BMCR home site


From our experience in teaching Latin, we have learned that Martial's epigrams are among the most rewarding texts we can offer our students. They are attractive due to their varied themes and flippant nature, to say nothing of their openness in sexual matters. Besides, the logical structure of the epigram transforms the effort of translation into a kind of intellectual pastime. The suitability of Martial's epigrams as a school text is not a recent discovery: as is well known, the Jesuits found them particularly useful, so they undertook the task of expurgating them and provided generations of students with an abridged and bowdlerized Martial. Fortunately there is no need to do so nowadays and Martial retains his allure, renewed and enhanced by new scholarly perspectives.

Bolchazy-Carducci has already published several books in the collection Latin Readers, unadapted texts and useful guides for those who approach key authors and genres of Roman literature for the first time. Craig Williams's A Martial Reader will be a particularly useful book to students of Latin as well as a brief but sound introduction to Martial's poetry. It combines deep scholarly insight with anticipation of difficulties students may find.

This anthology contains 99 unadapted epigrams taken from all of Martial's books,1 which encompass a wide range of different topics, meters, and tones. The book is also furnished with a twenty-page introduction with bibliography, a commentary, illustrations, appendixes (two maps with indication of the geographical names mentioned in the selection), and a full vocabulary section.

The introduction is straightforward and illuminating; its different sections covering all the indispensable information: "Martial's life: Bilbilis and Rome", "Publication", "Epigram before and after Martial", "Themes", "Characters and names", "Poet and reader", "Book structure", "Poems structure and tips for reading", "A note on the text", and "Suggested reading" (in English). However, something more could have been said about the relationship between the epigram and other genres and about the variety of themes: Williams almost solely focuses on satiric epigrams, leaving aside other types such as epitaphs, epigrams on literature, reflections on life and death, homage poetry, etc. The succinct note on manuscript transmission (p. xxviii) leaves out the fact that the three testimonies of family α are florilegia.

The commentary aims to help students in their own reading experience. In Williams' own words: "By deliberately not providing introductory summaries of the epigrams it includes, this edition aims to give readers some experience in the characteristic challenge of reading Martial, and indeed any epigrammatic poetry. You pick a poem and simply begin reading, without any indication of which the topic is: the scenario and themes unfold more or less quickly as you read, and the point or joke emerges by the poem's end. The making of meaning from a brief poem is an important part of the pleasure of reading this genre, and perceiving structure is an important part of the process" (p. xxiii). The notes focus on language and realia in a balanced way: they are comprehensive, but at the same time concise and to the point. Much attention is paid to names, and some notes on them are particularly helpful, but sometimes there seems to be a certain lack of consistency: some notes on names are hardly relevant (about Sextillus in 2.28 "The name occurs only here in Martial's epigrams" [p. 78], or about Gallus: "the name occurs frequently in Martial's epigrams, attached to a variety of characters" [p. 87]), whereas many other names are left uncommented: e.g. Avitus in 1.16, Aegle and Lycoris in 1.72, Labienus in 2.62, Chloe in 9.15, Tucca in 11.70, etc. In any case, subjectivity in the selection of epigrams and in the content of the notes is, of course, the author's prerogative.

The temptation of every reviewer is to establish, as a premise, the profile of the ideal reader of the book. This annotated anthology of the Epigrams has, like Martial's work, an open character, receptive to all sorts of readers, not only from the academic world. It is most desirable that Spanish publishers follow the example of these necessary breviaries of literature and Classical culture (like this collection or the series Ancients in Action of Bristol Classical Press).

In the preface Williams hopes that "this edition will give students a taste of what makes Martial's poetry, Latin literature, and Roman culture so surprisingly vibrant that some of us keep coming back to it; and that, by engaging students in the sometimes challenging but always rewarding processes of reading Latin poetry, it will arouse in some a desire to learn more". It certainly will.2


1.   Liber spectaculorum: 1, 2, 7; Book 1: 1–3, 6, 10, 13, 15–16, 20, 24, 32–37, 47, 72, 93, 109–110, 118; Book 2: 5, 11, 18–23, 26, 28, 30, 37, 44, 62, 80, 82; Book 3: 1, 27, 43; Book 4: 24, 56; Book 5: 58, 81, 83; Book 6: 1, 34; Book 7: 5, 10, 14; Book 8: 12, 17, 23, 55; Book 9: Praefatio, 15, 70; Book 10: 4, 8, 47; Book 11: 13–15, 70, 77; Book 12: 3, 20, 23, 68, 90–93; Book 13: 3–4, 14, 29, 63, 74, 82, 108; Book 14: 73, 134, 188–191, 194–195, 198– 200, 203–205.
2.   This review has been written under the auspices of the project "ProsopografĂ­a de los Epigramas de Marcial" (FFI2009-10058).

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