Marcus Valerius Martialis (c. 38 and 41 AD – c. 102 and 104 AD) who was known in English as Martial, was a Roman poet from the Spanish town of Bilbilis, famous then for its iron mines and for the manufacture of steel, and a center of Roman culture. He journeyed to Rome at the age of 26 during the reign of the emperor Domitian. He is best known for his 15 books of poems, primarily epigrams In these short, witty poems he cheerfully satirises city life and the scandalous activities of his acquaintances, and romanticises his provincial upbringing. He wrote a total of 1,561 poems, of which 1,235 are in elegiac couplets. The longest poem is a mere forty-two lines; most are shorter than a dozen, and many consist of a solitary couplet. He is considered to be the creator of the modern epigram, a short poem where the main point is revealed in its conclusion. His influence continues to be pervasive after twenty centuries. Perhaps U2 had him on their reading list when they translated a line from XII.46, Nec tecum possum vivere nec sine te, as I can’t live with or without you.
According to Steve Coates in his New York Times review of Garry Wills selection of Martial’s Epigrams: While first-century Rome was hardly the decadent city it would become some centuries later, it must have had a sizable population of prurient readers who made Martial the rough equivalent of a best seller. His subjects were sex, money, dining, the baths, the emperor, the Circus Maximus, weekend retreats—all the venues Romans frequented and all their foibles, including envy, gluttony, laziness and its counterpart, excessive ambition, and that old staple of the satirist, vanity. These subjects continue to attract readers today.
MARTIAL AND OBSCENITY
Martial knew what he was doing: Lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba. (My poems are filthy, but my life is pure.) Some of the epigrams are notorious. As Garry Wills puts it, …for all his softer or more lyrical epigrams, Martial will always be best known for his insult poems, the dirtier the better. Martial recognised as much himself: I write, I must confess, for dirtier readers, / My verse does not attract the nation’s leaders. If modern translators are drawn to these “dirty” poems or, at the very least, don’t shirk from including them, this has not always been the case. The Elizabethans recognised the problem Martial posed, and still poses. Timothe Kendall, in his 1577 anthology, Flowers of Epigrammes, addressed that problem: Martial is touche mislikt and lothde / of modest mynded men: / For leude, lascivious wanton woorkes / and woords whiche he doeth pen. Many earlier translators of Martial into English have declined to translate the sexually explicit epigrams, either leaving those particular epigrams in Latin or else giving them an Italian translation. Henry G. Boehn in his 1897 edition of the epigrams had this to say on his omission of some of the epigrams: I do not believe that most people who read Martial will feel any sorrow at these omissions. To read Martial is to walk with him along the streets of ancient Rome; but few of us need accompany him when he bathes in the sewers.
The moral landscape is constantly changing. The sycophancy and grubbing for patronage, which was so much a part of Martial’s age and of his English translators during the Renaissance, is viewed with disdain today as a form of brown-nosing or lickspittling. The proclivities which saw Oscar Wilde jailed in Victorian times were as normal in Martial’s era as they are nowadays. But the paedophilia and the interest in underage sex would be viewed as reprehensible at a time when child abuse by celebrated film directors is the subject of scandal and speculation; it was not so to Martial. His poems express a classic misogyny and his railing against lesbianism would not find favour in a liberal state. Consequently, even in our age, many of his epigrams are grotesquely obscene and sleazy. They are also witty in the classical sense of that often abused word. You can make your own moral judgement on the poems printed below, bearing in mind the comment of the late Charles Tomlinson, Some of the obscene poems are downright funny, others—despite their metrical expertise—of a schoolboy crudity.
Finding an English equivalent for Martial’s Latin is not an easy task. While there are many prose versions of the epigrams, the more interesting translations derive from those who have attempted to find a formal, traditional English metrical and rhyming form to convey the verbal architectonics of Latin poetry. The most common form applied is that of the traditional iambic rhyming couplet. At times the brevity of the Latin proves too constricting. Colley Cibber turns a one line epigram (VIII.19) into a couplet. Gary Schmidgall translates a Martial couplet (I.110) into a triplet with an Ogden Nash style multisyllabic rhyme. Joseph Addison, writing in the Augustan era, turned a poignant couplet (XII.46) into quatrain. Rolfe Humphries, whose quirky sense of humour saw him barred from contributing to Poetry magazine, used that most traditional comic verse form, the limerick, to translate, successfully in my opinion, a ribald couplet (IX.33). Tony Harrison, an English poet visiting New York, animates the traditional English couplet with an American idiom when he comes to translate (III.71), a poem he calls “Twosum”. In Martialed Arguments in his collection Slander & Sleaze, the American poet A. M. Juster translates seventy-one epigrams by the Roman poet, utilising the “bile and bluster” that is common to both poets. In some instances below I have used multiple translations of the same Martial poem to show how the approach to translation differs from poet to poet. Enjoy.
Brief Poems by Martial
from BOOK ONE
Sunt bona, sunt quaedam mediocria, sunt mala plura
quae legis hic: aliter non fit, Auite, liber.
Good work you’ll find, some poor, and much that’s worse;
It takes all sorts to make a book of verse.
J. A. Pott
Some good things here, and some not worth a look.
For this is that anomaly, a book.
Chirurgus fuerat, nunc est uispillo Diaulus:
coepit quo poterat clinicus esse modo.
Once a surgeon, Dr. Baker
Then became an undertaker,
Not so much his trade reversing
Since for him it’s just re-hearsing.
T. W. Melluish
Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare:
hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te.
I do not love thee, Dr Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr Fell.
The Truth at Last
I do not love thee, Dr Fell;
The reason why I’m going to tell
Although your lawyers threaten suit.
For I’m too sick to give a hoot.
I don’t love you, Sabidius, no, I can’t say why:
All I can say is this, that I don’t love you.
A. S. Kline
Mister Sabidius you pain me.
I wonder (some) why that should be
And cannot tell—a mystery.
You inexplicably pain me.
Quem recitas meus est, o Fidentine, libellus:
sed male cum recitas, incipit esse tuus.
To an ill reader
The verses, Sextus, thou doost read, are mine;
But with bad reading thou wilt make them thine.
Sir John Harington
That verse is mine, you know, which you’re
Reciting, But you quote it
So execrably, that I believe
I’ll let you say you wrote it
The poems thou are reading, friend, are mine;
But such bad reading starts to make them thine.
Ut recitem tibi nostra rogas epigrammata. Nolo:
non audire, Celer, sed recitare cupis.
Read you my epigrams? No I decline!
You want me to read yours, not hear mine.
Hubert Dynes Ellis
Bella es, nouimus, et puella, uerum est,
et diues, quis enim potest negare?
Sed cum te nimium, Fabulla, laudas,
nec diues neque bella nec puella es.
You’re beautiful, oh yes and young, and rich;
But since you tell us so, you’re just a bitch.
‘Liber homo es nimium’ dicis mihi, Ceryle, semper.
In te quis dicit, Ceryle:’Liber homo es?’
You often say my work is coarse. It’s true,
But then it must be so – it deals with you.
J. A. Pott
Os et labra tibi lingit, Manneia, catellus:
non miror, merdas si libet esse cani.
I muse not that your Dog turds oft doth eat;
To a tongue that licks your lips, a turd’s sweet meat.
Your little dog licks you from head to foot
Am I surprised, Manneia?
Not a bit.
I’m not surprised that dogs like shit.
Your little puppy licks your mouth and lips—
Manneia, I no longer find it strange
That dogs are tempted by the smell of turds.
Joseph S. Salemi
Your lapdog’s licking your lips and chin:
no wonder with that shit-eating grin.
A. M. Juster
Cum tua non edas, carpis mea carmina, Laeli.
Carpere uel noli nostra uel ede tua.
You don’t write poems, Laelius, you criticise
mine. Stop criticising me or write your own.
A. S. Kline
You won’t reveal your verse,
but whine that mine is worse.
Just leave me alone
or publish your own.
A. M. Juster
Scribere me quereris, Velox, epigrammata longa.
Ipse nihil scribis: tu breuiora facis.
My epigrams are wordy, you’ve complained;
But you write nothing. Yours are more restrained.
“Write shorter epigrams,” is your advice.
Yet you write nothing, Velox. How concise!
“Much too long” you say, Velox, censorious,
Of my epigrams—that’s quite uproarious.
You write none. Your brevity is glorious.
You call my epigrams verbose and lacking in concision
while you yourself write nothing. Wise decision.
from BOOK TWO
Sexte, nihil debes, nil debes, Sexte, fatemur:
debet enim, si quis soluere, Sexte, potest.
Sextus, you keep on saying
You’re not in debt. I know.
Without the means of paying
One can’t be said to owe.
Sextus, you have no debts – no debts I say
for one cannot have debts who cannot pay.
Quid mihi reddat ager quaeris, Line, Nomentanus?
Hoc mihi reddit ager: te, Line, non uideo.
You wonder if my farm pays me its share?
It pays me this: I do not see you there.
What, Linus, can my farm be minus,
When it successfully lacks Linus?
Zoile, quid solium subluto podice perdis?
Spurcius ut fiat, Zoile, merge caput.
Zoilus, if you want to pollute the public bathing place,
Don’t stick in your ass first; stick in your face.
Zoilus, why do you pollute the bath
By plunging your ass into it? A tip—
Want to make it filthier? Do this:
Submerge your head within the bath as well.
Joseph S. Salemi
Your ass in the sink
is making it stink.
For a fouler smell,
dunk your head as well.
A. M. Juster
Uxorem nolo Telesinam ducere: quare?
Moecha est. Sed pueris dat Telesina: uolo.
“I won’t marry Betty; she’s too fond of men.”
“Well, boys find her charming.” I’ll marry her then.
F. A. Wright
Nil recitas et uis, Mamerce, poeta uideri:
quidquid uis esto, dummodo nil recites.
Arthur, they say, has wit. “For what?
For writing?” No – for writing not.
from BOOK THREE
Versiculos in me narratur scribere Cinna:
Non scribit, cuius carmina nemo legit.
Cinna attacks me, calls me dirt?
Let him. Who isn’t read can’t hurt.
A silent critic
They say Cinna writes little poems about me.
He’s no writer, whose verse nobody reads.
A. S. Kline
His verse was meant to strike me low
But, since he wrote it—who will know?
They say that Cinna slams
me in his epigrams.
A poem no one has heard
has really not occurred.
A. M. Juster
Irasci tantum felices nostis amici.
Non belle facitis, sed iuuat hoc: facite.
The rich feign wrath – a profitable plan;
’Tis cheaper far to hate than help a man.
J. A. Pott
‘How explain why the conspicuously rich
are so easy to offend? Ask their accountant.
He probably won’t tell you but he’ll know.’
Veientana mihi misces, ubi Massica potas:
olfacere haec malo pocula quam bibere.
You serve me plonk, and you drink reservé.
My taste-buds back away from mine’s bouquet.
You pour me Blue Nun, while you drink Brunello wine.
I’d rather smell your glass, than take a sip from mine.
Mentula cum doleat puero, tibi, Naeuole, culus,
non sum diuinus, sed scio quid facias.
Your lad is sore in front
And you itch at the rear;
I’m no clairvoyant, but
I see things crystal-clear!
Add one and one together and make TWO:
that boy’s sore ass + your cock killing you.
He has a sore cock, you have a sore arse.
I’m no psychic, but I can also put these two things together.
The boy has got the active penis
And you an ass as smooth as Venus
I need therefore no hidden clue
To figure out just what you do.
Sit culus tibi quam macer, requiris?
Pedicare potes, Sabelle, culo.
You know how thin your ass-hole’s gone?
You could stuff it, Sabellus, up another one.
J. P Sullivan
You want to know how bony your arse is?
So bony, Sabellus, you could bone someone with it.
from BOOK FOUR
Nulli, Thai, negas; sed si te non pudet istud,
hoc saltem pudeat, Thai, negare nihi.
To everyone, Thais, you say Yes –
Where’s the blame?
But never a No to anything –
Have you no shame?
J. P. Sullivan
There’s nobody who you won’t screw,
but if that can’t embarrass you,
feel shame at least for what is true:
Thais, there’s nothing you won’t do.
A. M. Juster
Nullos esse deos, inane caesium
adfirmat Segius: probatque, quod se
factum, dum negat haec, uidet beatum.
That in the Heavens no gods there be
Selius affirms, and proves ‘cause he
Still thinking so lives happily.
“The skies are empty,
and the gods are dead”,
says Segius, the proof of which
is that he sees himself made rich.
Galla, nega: satiatur amor nisi gaudia torquent:
sed noli nimium, Galla, negare diu.
Galla, say No, for Love will cloy
Without some torments mixed with joy.
But, Galla, do not get me wrong –
Please don’t say No to me too long.
Galla, Refuse me!
Without a wait
or some hard trial,
love won’t amuse me.
(just for a while…)
A. M. Juster
Non est in populo nec urbe tota
a se Thaida qui probet fututam,
cum multi cupiant rogentque multi.
Tam casta est, rogo, Thais? Immo fellat.
Men seek Thais
From North and South,
And she’s a virgin—
All but her mouth.
from BOOK FIVE
Laudatus nostro quidam, Faustine, libello
dissimulat, quasi nil debeat: inposuit.
A man I published in a little book
Acts like he owes me nothing.
He’s a crook.
Thais habet nigros, niueos Laecania dentes.
Quae ratio est? Emptos haec habet, illa suos.
Thais has black teeth, Laecania’s are white because
she bought ‘em last night.
Her teeth look whiter than they ought.
Of course they should — the teeth were bought.
Non donem tibi cur meos libellos
oranti totiens et exigenti
miraris, Theodore? Magna causa est:
dones tu mihi ne tuos libellos.
You ask for my verse, so here. This even scores:
I had kept mine in hopes you would keep yours.
James M. Young
A Good Reason
You wonder why I never ask you if you’ve read my book?
I’m not one of those narcissistic bores
who fishes around for praise with such a thinly baited hook.
Besides, I’m worried you’ll ask if I’ve read yours.
Insequeris, fugio; fugis, insequor. Haec mihi mens est:
uelle tuum nolo, Dindyme, nolle uolo.
I run, you chase; you chase, I run.
I love what’s cold: what’s hot I shun.
You chase, I flee; you flee, I chase; it’s how I am:
what you wish I don’t, Dindymus, what you don’t I wish.
A. S. Kline
from BOOK SIX
Iurat capillos esse, quos emit, suos
Fabulla: numquid illa, Paule, peierat?
The golden hair that Galla wears
Is hers: who would have thought it?
She swears ’tis hers, and true she swears,
For I know where she bought it.
Sir John Harrington
Stare iubes semper nostrum tibi, Lesbia, penem:
crede mihi, non est mentula quod digitus.
Tu licet et manibus blandis et uocibus instes,
cte contra facies imperiosa tua est.
You want my cock at full attention
If sex you casually mention?
No matter how you coax men’s tools,
Hand “makes a motion” face overrules.
Mentula tam magna est quantus tibi, Papyle, nasus,
ut possis, quotiens arrigis, olfacere.
His tool was large and so was his nose,
Papylus could smell it whenever it rose.
With your giant nose and cock
I bet you can with ease
When you get excited
check the end for cheese.
Papylus, your nose and your dong are both so long
that when your dong grows,
your nose knows.
A bent huge nose, a monstrous cock to match—
Curved, each into the other, what a snatch!
Cur tantum eunuchos habeat tua Caelia, quaeris,
Pannyche? Volt futui Caelia nec parere.
Your Celia keeps company with eunuchs:
Pannychus, do you find this odd?
It’s the child she hopes to be spared,
Pannychus, not the rod.
Tristis es et felix. Sciat hoc Fortuna caueto:
ingratum dicet te, Lupe, si scierit.
Lucky yet sad? My friend, should Fortune find
You lacking gratitude, she’ll change her mind.
from BOOK SEVEN
Cur non mitto meos tibi, Pontiliane, libellos?
ne mihi tu mittas, Pontiliane, tuos.
Why don’t I send you my little books?
Pontilianus, lest you send me yours.
A. S. Kline
You ask me why I have no verses sent?
For fear you should return the compliment.
Why don’t I send my books to you?
For fear you’d send me your books, too.
I never send my books, it’s true.
Know why? You’d send me your books too.
You wonder why my little book is overdue,
It’s just that I don’t want to look at one from you.
A. M. Juster
from BOOK EIGHT
Pauper videri Cinna vult; et est pauper.
When humble Cinna cries, I’m poor and low,
You may believe him – he is really so.
Cinna, who makes a show of poverty,
is just as poor as he pretends to be.
He claims rich status, bur with straitened means
The last point is more honest than it seems
Munera qui tibi dat locupleti, Gaure, senique,
si sapis et sentis, hoc tibi ait “Morere.”
If you were wise as well as rich and sickly,
You’d see that every gift means, “Please die quickly.”
Gaurus, you’re old and rich. Those who stop by
with gifts (could you but know) are saying, “Die.”
With wheedling gifts, with hoverings-by
your heirs all say, in dumb show, “Die!”
Scribit in auersa Picens epigrammata charta,
et dolet auerso quod facit illa deo.
Because the muses turn their backsides on Aper
He writes his poems on toilet paper.
Miraris ueteres, Vacerra, solos
nec laudas nisi mortuos poetas.
Ignoscas petimus, Vacerra: tanti
non est, ut placeam tibi, perire.
You puff the poets of other days,
The living you deplore.
Spare me the accolade: your praise
Is not worth dying for.
Vacerra, you admire the ancients only
and praise no poets but those here no more.
I beg that you will pardon me, Vacerra,
but pleasing you is not worth dying for.
You praise long-dead authors rapturously;
the living ones you savage or ignore,
but since your praise can’t grant immortality
I really don’t think it’s worth dying for.
You pine for bards of old
and poets safely cold.
Excuse me for ignoring your advice,
but good reviews from you aren’t worth the price.
A. M. Juster
from BOOK NINE
Audieris in quo, Flacce, balneo plausum,
Maronis illic esse mentulam scito.
If you’re passing the baths and you hear,
From within, an uproarious cheer,
You may safely conclude
Maron’s there, in the nude,
With that tool which has nowhere a peer.
If from the baths you hear a round of applause,
The giant prick of Maron is surely the cause.
When the bathhouse breaks into loud applause,
you will know that well-hung Mario is the cause.
A. M. Juster
Ad cenam invitant omnes te, Phoebe, cinaedi.
mentula quem pascit, non, puto, purus homo est.
You’re asked to dinner, Phoebus, by every queen.
I’d say one fed by a cock is none too clean.
Phoebus, all faggots ask you home to dine—
Who feeds on dick is dirty, I opine.
Joseph S. Salemi
Duxerat esuriens locupletem pauper anumque:
uxorem pascit Gellius et futuit.
Feignlove, half-starved, a rich old hag has wed –
Poor Feignlove, doom’d to earn his board in bed.
Nathaniel Brassey Halhed
A starving pauper wed a wealthy crone.
Gellius feed his wife and gives her the bone.
from BOOK TEN
Nubere Paula cupit nobis, ego ducere Paulam
Nolo: anus est. Vellem, si magis esset anus.
Paula would wed: I pray to be exempted.
She’s old. Were she but older I’d be exempted.
Paula wants to wed me;
I don’t want to wed her.
She is old. But if she
were older, I’d agree.
Paula would marry me, I’m disinclined.
She’s old. If she were older, I’d change my mind.
Dotatae uxori cor harundine fixit acuta,
Sed dum ludit Aper: ludere novit Aper.
Aper the expert archer accidentally shot
His rich wife in the heart.
He was lucky. She was not.
Aper shot his wealthy wife – an arrow through the heart
during a game of archery. At gamesmanship, he’s smart.
Infantem tibi vir, tibi, Galla, remisit adulter.
Hi, puto, non dubie se futuisse negant.
Your husband rejected your child; your lover has too:
Galla, they clearly deny laying a finger on you.
J. P. Sullivan
from BOOK ELEVEN
Quaeris cur nolim te ducere, Galla? Diserta es
saepe soloecismum mentula nostra facit.
Why don’t I marry you, Galla?
Because you’re a prude,
and my cock’s uppity, ill-bred
and shockingly rude.
Lesbia se jurat gratis numquam esse fututam.
Verum’st. Cum futui vult, numerare solet.
On the nail
Lesbia swears she’s never been fucked for free.
True. When she wants to be fucked, she has to pay.
A. S. Kline
Intactas quare mittis mihi, Polla, coronas?
A te vexatas malo tenere rosas.
Dearest, send no fresh flowers! I love best
The roses that have died upon your breast.
Hubert Dynes Ellis
Why send me pristine wreaths? I’d rather wear
the rumpled roses, Polla, from your hair.
from BOOK TWELVE
Quare non habeat, Fabulle, quaeris
Uxorem Themison? habet sororem.
Of course we know he’ll never wed.
What? Put his sister out of bed?
Ut pueros emeret Labienus vendidit hortos.
Nil nisi ficetum nunc Labienus habet.
Labienus sold an orchard
to buy some slave boys:
he traded fruit trees
for real live fruits.
Difficilis facilis, iucundus acerbus es idem:
nec tecum possum vivere nec sine te.
In all thy humours, whether grave or mellow
Thou’rt such a touchy, testy, pleasant fellow;
Hast as much wit, and mirth, and spleen about thee,
There is no living with thee, nor without thee.
You are difficult and easy. you are pleasant and harsh;
I can’t live with you and I can’t live without you.
from BOOK THIRTEEN
Quamvis lata gerat patella rhombum,
rhombus latior est tamen patella.
However wide the plate that holds the fish
The flat-fish is still wider than the dish.
Ebria Baiano veni modo concha Lucrino:
nobile nunc sitio luxuriosa garum.
Tipsy from Baiae’s stream but lately sent,
This wanton bi-valve thirsts for condiment.
from BOOK FOURTEEN
Dulcis conscia lectuli lucerna,
Quidquid vis facias licet, tacebo.
A lamp am I, aware of your joy in bed:
Do what you will, not one word will be said.
A Bedside Light
I show but do not countenance what you do.
Douse me. The only record is in you.
A Bedside Lamp
To me are bedroom joys revealed,
Enjoy at will, my lips are sealed.
Ancillam tibi sors dedit lucernae,
Totas quae vigil exigit tenebras.
A lantern’s handmaid, I who stay
Awake to keep the dark at bay.
Many of the poems chosen above, along with the original Latin text, are culled from a book I was given recently as a Christmas present, Epigrams of Martial Englished by Divers Hands, Edited by J. P. Sullivan and Peter Whigham. (See cover image on right.) This substantial collection of epigrams, mainly from writers of the twentieth century, is supplemented by an appendix of older versions. The introduction is particularly illuminating. I first came across a selection of Martial’s verse in English when, many years ago, for the modest sum of one pound, I purchased a copy of Tony Harrison’s pamphlet of poems called US Martial, which was published by Bloodaxe Books in 1981. (See image on left.) Living in New York at the time, Harrison deftly translated some of the epigrams into a jazzy American idiom. I also came across more Martial in the concluding section of the Oxford University Press edition of Peter Porter’s Collected Poems, although most of his fascinating selection is longer than the tweet size necessary for inclusion in this post.
If I have infringed anyone’s copyright in printing any of the above epigrams, please let me know in the comment box below and I will remove the translation. If, on the other hand, you would like a translation included, fill in the same comment box.
The Wikipedia page on Martial
The Latin text of the epigrams at Bibliotheca Augustana.
The Latin text of the epigrams at the Latin Library.
A selection of the epigrams compiled by Michael R. Burch.
Selected Epigrams of Martial translated by SusanMcLean.
Gary Wills writes about translating Martial.
10 Reasons You Should Be Reading Martial by Brooke Clark.
David Barber’s Parnassus Review essay on the epigram in English contains a review of two books of Martial in translation.