Authors: Martial

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Roman poet

ca. March 1, c. 38–41 c.e.

Bilbilis, Hispania (now near Calatayud, Spain)

c. 103 c.e.

Hispania (now in Spain)


Although Marcus Valerius Martialis, known as Martial (MAHR-shuhl), was born in Bilbilis, Hispania, between 38 and 41 c.e. and did not go to Rome until the year 64, he was completely a Roman; he has given posterity one of the best pictures of Roman life in his time that exists. His arrival in Rome was not ostentatious, and he remained poor for a few years, but he soon became acquainted with the famous literary men of the time—Pliny, Lucan, Juvenal—and acquired rich patrons. He received benefits from the Roman emperors Titus and Domitian. {$I[AN]9810000504} {$I[A]Martial} {$I[geo]SPAIN;Martial} {$I[geo]ROMAN EMPIRE;Martial} {$I[tim]0038 c.e.;Martial}


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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.

Author Works Poetry: Epigrammata, 86–98 C.E. (Epigrams, 1860; Epigrams in Fifteen Books; Completely Translated into English for the First Time, 1921) Bibliography Adamik, T. “Martial and the Vita Beatior.” Annales Universitatis Budapestinensis 3 (1975): 55–64. Martial’s personal philosophy of life seems to be closest to Epicureanism. He satirizes Cynics and Stoics especially. Allen, Walter, Jr., et al. “Martial: Knight, Publisher, and Poet.” Classical Journal 65 (May, 1970): 345–57. Discusses the problem of Martial’s persona and concludes that he was not actually a poor, struggling poet but a reasonably successful writer and publisher. Ascher, Leona. “Was Martial Really Unmarried?” Classical World 70 (April/May, 1977): 441–44. Surveys scholarly opinion on the question of Martial’s marital status and finds the evidence inconclusive. Bell, Albert A., Jr. “Martial’s Daughter?” Classical World 78 (September/October, 1984): 21–24. Suggests that the girl Erotion, who is the subject of several of Martial’s poems, was his daughter by a slave woman. Boyle, A. J. “Martialis Redivivus: Evaluating the Unexpected Classic.” Ramus 24, no. 1 (1995): 82–101. A review of J. P. Sullivan's Martialis Redivivus (1991). Carrington, A. G. Aspects of Martial’s Epigrams. Eton, England: Shakespeare Head Press, 1960. A nonscholarly introduction to selected poems, especially those discussing Martial’s life, Roman history, and the process of creating a book in antiquity. Coates, Steve. "'My Poetry Is Filthy—but Not I.'" Review of Martial’s Epigrams, translated by Garry Wills. The New York Times, 12 Dec. 2008, Accessed 22 Sept. 2017. Discusses the bawdy aspects of Martial's writing and classicist Garry Wills's approach to translating it for modern audiences. Fowler, D. P. “Martial and the Book.” Ramus 24, no. 1 (1995): 31–58. A literary analysis of the importance of book publishing and reading within Martial's epigrams. Martial. The Mortal City: One Hundred Epigrams of Martial. Edited by William Matthews. Athens, Ohio: Ohio Review Books, 1995. Uses modern references and language to show the timelessness of Martial’s epigrams. Mason, H. A. “Is Martial a Classic?” The Cambridge Quarterly 17 (1988): 297–368. A critical response to J. P. Sullivan and Peter Whigham's Epigrams of Martial Englished by Divers Hands that questions whether Martial can be considered a classic writer in the same sense as other writers from antiquity are. Sullivan, J. P. “Martial’s Sexual Attitudes.” Philologus 123 (1979): 288–302. Though graphic by modern standards, Martial was merely expressing contemporary sexual values in his poetry. His explicit language is a convention of the epigram, as seen in Catullus and earlier poets. Sullivan, John Patrick. Martial, the Unexpected Classic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Includes a biography of Martial, analyses his themes and linguistic choices, and assesses his legacy. Swann, Bruce W. Martial’s Catullus: The Reception of an Epigrammic Rival. Hildesheim, Germany: G. Olms, 1994. Compares Martial to the earlier Roman poet Catullus, whom Martial considered a role model, and discusses the Renaissance reception of the two ancient poets.

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