Last reviewed: June 2018
ca. March 1, c. 38–41
Bilbilis, Hispania (now near Calatayud, Spain)
Hispania (now in Spain)
Although Marcus Valerius Martialis, known as Martial (MAHR-shuhl), was born in Bilbilis, Hispania, between 38 and 41 Martial.
Martial was often accused of being a toady to his wealthy patrons; certainly he was often unhappy over the necessity to be witty and entertaining for them, but he was a loyal friend and was generally well liked. He was given an estate in Spain to which he returned in 94 to spend the last few years of his life, dying at Bilbilis about 103.
The epigram was Martial’s poetic specialty, and he wrote fifteen books of largely satiric verse. About 575 of his epigrams have been preserved, and from these it can be seen that he wrote about almost every phase of Roman life, sharply pinpointing the gentle and gracious as well as the false and disgusting. His epigrams, running from two lines to more than thirty in length, are written in a variety of meters, but they have in common a sharp twist of phrase and meaning at the end, a kind of punch line.
Martial’s epigrams are often bitter, but at times, especially when he was writing of country life or his Spanish homeland, they are full of deep feeling. The epigram in English literature owes much to his clear insight and skillful versatility.
Much of Martial's poetry is also sexually graphic to the point of obscenity and was long censored in translation until the late twentieth century when sexual mores loosened in Western countries. Translations have sought to convey either his poetics through rhyming verse or his content through prose, neither of which is completely faithful to the original.