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‘A girl who made the peacock look ugly, the squirrel unloveable': Martial mourns a lost love

I begin with one of Martial’s more troublesome twentieth-century Avid Fans: the poet, editor, translator, and Fascist propagandist, Ezra Pound:

For the gossip of Naples’ trouble drifts to North,

Fracastor (lightning was midwife) Cotta, and Ser D’Alviano,

Al poco giorno ed al gran cerchio d’ombra,

Talk the talks out with Navighero,

Burner of yearly Martials,

(The slavelet is mourned in vain)

The Fifth Canto: 110-16

‘Navighero, ǀ Burner of yearly Martials’ is Pound flaunting his alpha-nerd credentials in European literary-historical trivia: Andrea Navagero was a Venetian poet who, when fellow poets approvingly ranked his poems with Martial’s for wit, indignantly burned them (according to some sources making an annual ritual of doing so).

Navagero took offence at the comparison because of Martial’s reputation for immorality, but Pound’s bracketed aside – “The slavelet is mourned in vain” – points to a dissonant reception strand. Martial’s three epigrams on the dead slave-girl Erotion, of which 5.37 is the longest (the others are 5.34 and 10.61), have always attracted readers, and counterpoint the prevailing perception of Martial as a mercenary wit and socio-sexual opportunist. Common and scholarly readers alike find in them the key to ‘the true man’ beneath the commercially necessary mask of irreverence and filth; by sharing in his grief for Erotion we come into imaginative sympathy with ‘one of the most human and companionable of Latin authors’ (L. J. Lloyd, Greece and Rome 22 (1953)), 39-41, although he considers this particular poem a mere set-piece).

A girl more sweetly voiced than ageing swans…

This lament for his beloved pet begins like a love poem, with praise so immoderate (not to say clichéd) that some critics have thought it must be wittily ironic. I am happy for these critics if they have never experienced overwhelming loss; like falling in love, bereavement is often hard to put into words, and cliché renews itself as the primal speech of shared extremes. Think of any Valentine’s or “With Deepest Sympathy” card: what else is one supposed to say? Is bereavement a time to be clever? Then again, maybe Martial is artfully simulating; if so, he is an acute observer of the psychology of grief.

Mourning statues at the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa. Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.
Mourning statues at the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa. Creative Commons license via Pixabay.

The multisensory images piled up in the opening lines are certainly heady. Warmed in the hand, amber gives off a pine scent; at 3.65, Diadumenus’ kisses smell as sensuously exotic as “buffed amber,” and it is still used in aromatherapy. The Getty Museum supplies a useful list of ancient uses. Swans were famed for the brilliant purity of their plumage, and pallor made a woman a catch (tanned skin connoted manual labour); at 1.115 Martial is being courted by a girl “whiter than a bathed swan.” But swans also only sing just before they die (Party Favours 77) – hence our ‘swansong’ – and white connoted purity, emphasised by comparing Erotion to the virgin snow and ‘untouched lily’, both images of transient fragility as well as innocence. In an article in Classical Quarterly (42: 253-68 (1992)) Patricia Watson argued that Erotion was not just Martial’s pet but his sex-toy; but the poem’s insistence that she is ‘untouched’ seems to me to count strongly against it.

The roses of Paestum, a Greek colony, were proverbially fine; compare 12.31, “rose-beds that concede nothing to Paestum’s twice-yearly flowering.” Paestum supplied Rome’s perfume trade as well as its garland-makers. Martial’s wording alludes closely to Virgil, whose Georgics wish for space to celebrate ‘the roses of twice-flowering Paestum’ (biferique rosaria Paesti, 4.119); Ovid and Propertius glorify them too, though in terms too general to pin down the varietal, which of course could well be extinct by now. Tantalisingly, in Travels in the Two Sicilies 1777-1780 (1783-5) the travel writer Henry Swinburne attested that in his day a fragrant wild rose still bloomed among the ruins; “As a farmer assured me on the spot, it blooms both in spring and autumn.”

A girl who made the peacock look ugly, the squirrel unloveable…

When in The Praise of Folly (1509) Erasmus insists on the compatibility of flattery with genuine goodwill – ‘Is any creature more obsequious than a squirrel? But is any more friendly to man?’ – he perhaps has Martial’s poem in mind, as the modern commentators note (Erasmus, too, was an Avid Fan). According to the greatest expert on classical fauna I know, Sian Lewis, squirrels are hardly mentioned at all in surviving classical texts. To the standard wish-list of lost classical texts we’d like back – the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics (the McGuffin of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose), Cato’s Origins, the memoirs of Agrippina, and so on – perhaps we should add some hitherto-unknown volumes of ancient squirrel-lore.

And Paetus tells me I’m not allowed to grieve. He beats his breast and tears his hair…

The last seven lines of the poem are typically seen as an abrupt change of subject and tone, from decorous to humorously satirical, and for this reason critics often dismiss 5.37 as a mere rhetorical exercise and a tasteless one at that. Certainly Paetus (a fit name for a stodgy hypocrite if there ever was one) plays to type as the aristocratic abacus-rattler who only married for money; we can compare his showy and empty gestures of mourning to the Saleianus of 2.65, shedding crocodile tears as he counts his inheritance. But I can’t help but read these particular lines as furious. No-one ever knows quite what to say to the heartbroken (though the Romans tried to make a science of it) but there is nothing more calculated to incense the victim of loss than “You’ve no business being so upset, because…”

Anyone who’s lost a beloved pet – and Erotion is no more and no less than that to Martial – will know how he feels.

Featured image: Mourning Angel by Oliver Schmid. Public Domain via Pixabay.

The post ‘A girl who made the peacock look ugly, the squirrel unloveable': Martial mourns a lost love appeared first on OUPblog.


Time and tide (and mammoths)

In July 1867 the British historian Edward Augustus Freeman was in the thick of writing his epic History of the Norman Conquest. Ever a stickler for detail, he wrote to the geologist William Boyd Dawkins asking for help establishing where exactly in Pevensey soon-to-be King Harold disembarked in 1052. Drawing on his own experience of digging the area for fossils, Dawkins explained that the sea had reached further inland in 1052 than it had both before and after that point in time. “Your postscript suggests to me the most amazing picture,” Freeman wrote back: “Harold sailed over those trees, and I found mammoth remains under them.” The resulting sketch shows three layers: on top is Harold in his boat, below it the trees of Freeman’s own day, and below these, at the lowest level, two woolly mammoths (see illustration on right).

Freeman’s ‘amazing picture’ is not the sort of ground section familiar to archaeologists, where the present appears at the top and one travels further back in time the lower down one progresses. Instead present is sandwiched between pasts. Freeman’s relationships with Dawkins and other natural scientists, his close attention to geography as well as his unusual conception of chronological precedence, all formed part of Freeman’s lifelong mission to establish a ‘science of history,’ one that borrowed methodologies and theories from the natural sciences without reducing mankind to so many passive atoms subservient to ‘laws.’ A reviewer and public commentator renowned for his peppery put-downs of rivals such as J. A. Froude and Charles Kingsley, Freeman had little time for what he called ‘picturesque’ history, whether that was the hero-worshipping approach of Thomas Carlyle or T. B. Macaulay’s ‘Whiggish’ focus on the development of political institutions.

Drawing by William Boyd Dawkins in a letter to Edward Augustus Freeman. PP Freeman/Dawkins/1/15 by kind permission of Jesus College, Oxford.
Image credit: Drawing by William Boyd Dawkins in a letter to Edward Augustus Freeman. PP Freeman/Dawkins/1/15. Used with permission from Jesus College, Oxford.

Where Macaulay had proposed that all societies climb up a single ladder of civilization, Freeman saw a much more dynamic, quasi-cyclical process in which past and present, then and now mirrored and echoed each other. Freeman’s love of drawing analogies in his historical writing cause past and present to fold into and onto each other. In this grand historical pageant it can sometimes feel as if we are watching a small troupe of historical actors slipping in and out of different roles, appearing at one instant in a Saxon witenagemot, at another in a New England vestry meeting.

The greatest example of this disappearing-and-reappearing act is Freeman’s account of the Norman Conquest itself. Historians had seen this as the imposition of a feudal ‘Norman Yoke’ on sturdy Saxon shoulders. In Freeman’s hands this becomes conquest in reverse. The Saxons lose the battle (Freeman insists we refer to it, not as the Battle of Hastings, but as the Battle of Senlac), but win the war, as they strip the Normans of their ‘French polish’, exposing conqueror and conquered’s true unity, as fellow members of a great Teutonic race.

While Freeman delighted in such assimilations, it remained clear that in this process one race – the Teutonic one – is uniquely favoured with the power to assimilate other races, without itself being assimilated. Race, apparently, held the key to Britain’s future as well as her past, and Freeman’s vast output of journalism ensured that this key was regularly applied to current affairs, in obedience to Freeman’s most famous dictum, that “history is past politics, politics present history.” Freeman’s role defining the embryonic academic discipline of history left a lasting legacy, shaping (for good and ill) how Britons as well as Americans viewed their shared past. Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That (1930) shows Freeman’s model of history to have been in satirically rude health forty years after Freeman’s death in Alicante.

For us today, Freeman’s racialism is less comic, especially when dressed as ‘science.’ But there is no denying the ambition, scope and imaginative power of his historical vision, which he and his followers applied to the built environment, to constitutional theory and to party politics as well as to England’s medieval past. After Freeman, past and present would, in one sense, remain the same: interlocking with each other, with human society and with the landscape itself. But in another sense they would never be the same again.

Headline image credit: Exterior of the inner bailey of Pevensey Castle, East Sussex by Prioryman. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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‘I get more of a kick out of your bad temper than your good looks': Martial’s guide to getting boys

Martial adores sexy boys. He craves their kisses, all the more so if they play hard to get, “… buffed amber, a fire yellow-green with Eastern incense… That, Diadumenus, is how your kisses smell, you cruel boy. What if you gave me all of them, without holding back?” (3.65) and “I only want struggling kisses – kisses I’ve seized; I get more of a kick out of your bad temper than your good looks…” (5.46). A tactical show of resistance is perhaps part of the erotic script, but certainly all these boys can afford – they are owned, as the continuation of 5.46 immediately makes clear, “I want to beg you often, Diadumenus, so I beat you often. Result: you’re not afraid of me or in love with me.”

Diadumenus’ very name advertises his un-free status – the Diadumenos (a lithe young athlete putting on his victory wreath) was one of the masterpieces of the famed Greek sculptor, Polyclitus of Sicyon (the other was the Doryphoros, a mature male carrying a spear). Polyclitus’ fifth-century bronze original is long lost (bronze is so easily turned into coins to pay troops), but the statue-type was much reproduced for the Roman market; collectors and connoisseurs such as Pliny the Elder and Cicero rated its artist highly. Martial’s Diadumenus is thus a beautiful youth named for the canonical Greek image of beautiful youth (and Kanōn is itself a word we owe to Polyclitus – its first attestation is as the title of his famous lost treatise on statuesque beauty through mathematical proportion, summetria, our ‘symmetry’).

Diadumenos, National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.
“Diadumenos, National Archaeological Museum of Athens” by Ricardo Andre Frantz CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I included several Diadumenus poems in my Oxford World’s Classics edition of the epigrams to help show how Martial breathes unity into his dodecalogy’s miscellany through the use of ‘cycles’ (recurring themes, motifs, and characters). Hyllus is another of the Martialverse’s recurring names and likewise points towards a Greek prototype, in his case a mythical son of Hercules, but his characterisation seems much less consistent than Diadumenus’. At 2.51 he is a formerly wealthy householder impoverished by an addiction to cock; at 2.60, a teenager committing risky adultery with a tribune’s wife (I’ll be posting a translation of 2.60 on my blog). In our poem, 4.7, he is probably a pretty slave with favoured ‘pet’ status – he expects that his passage into manhood will be formally celebrated, and that Martial will no longer pursue him romantically thereafter.

4.7 is good to blog about because it’s one of the few poems where my excellent copyeditor, Jeff New, called me on a choice I made translating it. The Latin of line 4 runs, “o nox quam longa es, quae facis una senem!” Literally, “O night, how long you are, you who by yourself make an old man!” But who is the old man – Martial, or (as Jeff suggested) Hyllus? It was a good question, because either way, we needed to read something into the text that wasn’t there – viz, a personal pronoun.

In the end I stuck with my first impulse: “all by itself, it has turned me into an old man.” Why? The name ‘Hyllus’ evokes a Greek frame of reference, as does the soft-focus eroticism; one could compare any number of epigrams on boy-love from book 12 of the Greek Anthology. The classic Greek template for homosexual love is an asymmetric binary of tops and bottoms. There is the receptive beloved, the erōmenos –young, but not too young, and with an abrupt expiry date when the beard comes; and there is the actively pursuing lover, the erastēs – a fully adult, older citizen male, but not too old. Greek lyric poets are painfully clear on what comes after, and Mimnermus, celebrated founder of love elegy, is pessimistic to the point of fatalism. I quote the splendid version of fr.1 by the late and much missed Martin West, translator for the World’s Classics of Greek Lyric Poetry:

I hope I die when I no longer care

for secret closeness, tender raptures, bed,

which are the rapturous flowers that grace youth’s prime

for men and women. But when painful age

comes on, that makes a man loathsome and vile,

malignant troubles ever vex his heart;

seeing the sunlight gives him joy no more.

He is abhorred by boys, by women scorned…

…Just as Hyllus scorns Martial now. Free or slave, the evidence of his body is incontrovertible: all of a sudden he has outgrown the role of beloved, of the softly yielding erōmenos; and by withholding his no-longer-boyish favours, he edges Martial out of the role of the kiss-hunting lover in his adult prime. At least within so Greek a genre as epigram.

(Did Martial want only kisses from these boys? Far from it; but that is a story for another blog, and one decidedly NSFW, in the epigrammatic parlance of the modern Martialic microblogger.)

Featured image: “Nude Wrestling” by Alex Proimos, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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‘Tomorrow I’ll start living': Martial on priorities

‘Dear Martial’ – what a strange coincidence that Martial’s soul-mate, who leads the life he himself dreams of living, is called ‘Julius Martial’. In our selection we meet him first at 1.107, playfully teasing the poet that he ought to write “something big; you’re such a slacker”; at the start of book 3, JMa’s is ‘a name that’s constantly on my lips’ (3.5), and the welcome at his lovely suburban villa on the Janiculan Hill 4.64 is so warm, ‘you will think the place is yours’. Let’s play along and pretend he’s a wealthy friend and patron (and for all we know, he really was). His resources don’t make the daily rituals of the capital – social calls, legal advocacy – any less wearisome than they are for his favourite client; if only they could live a life of proper leisure, and spend every day “going out for a drive, some plays, some little books, the Campus, the portico, a bit of shade, the Virgo, the baths.”

This catalogue of refreshing amenities presents the imperial capital at its most charming. The Aqua Virgo, built by Augustus’ right-hand man Agrippa, brought water in from ten miles or so to the north; it snaked into town by way of the Gardens of Lucullus on the Pincian and ran overground on arches into the Campus Martius (‘the Campus’). The Campus was outside the city proper and a traditional venue for sport and leisure. Martial’s ‘portico’ is likely the one, begun by Agrippa’s sister Vipsania, where a child was killed by a falling icicle at 4.18; it was near the Virgo, and its stone was ‘slippery-wet from the constant runoff’ where it leaked. By Martial’s time the Virgo mostly served private households, who paid for the privilege (Martial tries to finagle free access to the Marcia at 9.18).

Shade and running water were as crucial to a tolerable life in the Roman summer as they are today, and naturally our poet reckons ‘some little books’ every bit as indispensable (cf. 2.48’s ‘just a few books – provided I get to pick them’); the Latin word, libellus, is what Martial calls his own books, just as Catullus had his.

A map of The Aqua Virgo (in red) transporting water into the city. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Romans enjoyed a carriage-ride, ideally out to their little or not-so-little places in the country (8.62, 12.57; and cf. the loaded SUV of 3.47, faking the good life by stocking up on farm produce at the supermarket on the way). Which of ‘the baths’ one patronised was a matter of individual preference and whim (3.20) – emperors kept building more (Book of Shows 2, 2.48), and there was more to them than simply keeping clean. From the baths one might segue naturally into dinner, perhaps playing it by ear depending on present company (6.53), though tiresome individuals might try to blag invitations from the unwary (11.77, Vacerra in the public toilets).

Martial’s wish that they could step back from the rat-race – ‘What kind of person knows how to live, but keeps putting it off?’ – is echoed later in the book (5.58): “‘Tomorrow I’ll start living’, you say, Postumus: ‘always tomorrow…'”

Postumus is a frequent target of horrible accusations (follow him through the index) but this poem’s conclusion, ‘Anyone with sense started living yesterday’, throws the reader back to 5.20 and Team Martial’s failure to get its own priorities straight.

Image Credit: Roman Bath by crjsmit. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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Seeking the elusive dead

It is a well-known fact of British prehistory that burial monuments, sometimes on a monumental scale, are well-documented in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, but largely absent in the Iron Age, outside certain distinctive regional groups at particular periods. In central southern England, for example, where hillforts and settlements abound, until recently burials were mainly limited to occasional inhumations in pits within settlements or fragmentary human remains, found scattered, apparently arbitrarily, in pits and ditches, but seldom constituting a formal cemetery. Despite abundant settlement evidence, the dead were strangely elusive.

So what has changed? In recent years the cost of excavation, especially technical analyses and post-excavation processing, has far exceeded the resources of most research groups, professional or amateur, so that research excavation is virtually non-existent, except on a very small scale. The great majority of fieldwork is now development-driven, in advance of road building, quarrying or the like, in other words, triggered by no academic rationale whatsoever. In consequence it eliminates the preconceived prejudice of academic strategies. Furthermore, it is undertaken on a scale that far exceeds the areas that could ever have been excavated by older conventional means. These two factors plainly increase the chances of detection of any archaeological feature that leaves minimal surface evidence, unlike hillforts, enclosed settlements or barrow mounds that are visible on the ground or through air-photography and thereby invite investigation. Simple burials without barrow mounds fall into this category, and are now being detected by large-scale area stripping. Unenclosed settlements, previously unrecognized from surface traces, are likewise being uncovered more frequently, significantly shifting the balance of the known database. The fact that archaeological sites exposed by mechanical stripping for development may have been severely damaged in the process, of course, is another issue.

Image credit: The Wandsworth Shield, Iron Age shield boss in La Tène style, British Museum, Room 50 by Johnbod. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Equally important, however, our expectations of the evidence are changing. In the case of burials, Western Christianity and norms of state-level society had conditioned us to expect that the dead would be buried in cemeteries, or at least following regular conventions. Isolated burials were regarded as those of criminals or outcasts, and fragments of human bone found on settlements were described as ‘casual’ disposals, as if discarding odd fragments of human bodies was the ultimate demonstration of nonchalance. Now we are beginning to appreciate that these fragmentary deposits were deliberate attempts to integrate the dead into the community of the living, rather than segregating them into separate cemeteries or communities of the dead. Plainly for Iron Age societies this world and the other world were not rigidly divided, and there is accumulating evidence that bodies or bones of ancestors were curated against the future need to invoke their potency against some impending disaster. Our recognition of settlement remains is equally being changed by the diversity of evidence, for example, of structural remains, not just circles of post-holes or stone foundations but including a much wider range of construction techniques that may leave only ephemeral traces.

So what about the downside of developer-led archaeology? Isn’t it better to discover all these new sites and have a broader picture as a result, even if sites are damaged in the process? In the case of settlement evidence, in lowland contexts centuries of agriculture had often already destroyed the uppermost levels of secondary occupation, leaving only the truncated foundations in subsoil. And developer-led archaeology is not new; as ‘rescue’ or ‘salvage’ archaeology, E. T. Leeds had organized Oxford students to help retrieve evidence from the Thames gravel pits in the 1930s. The difference is that the scale of development is so much greater today, and the response is more professional. But after a century of modern investigation we still have not a single late Iron Age burial of the Welwyn series recovered intact. The problem is that the questions now being asked need careful and reliable excavation to resolve. Questions like:

Were bodies exposed until clean and dry before re-assembly in graves, and were some bones retained for other purposes?
Were bodies re-assembled as composites of different individuals?
Were individuals preserved for prolonged periods before final disposal?
Were graves re-opened and bones or other items retrieved as talismans after burial?
As well as whole objects, were selected fragments of broken objects placed in graves, or are incomplete fragmentary finds the result of subsequent re-opening of the grave or simply of damage in discovery?
Why was only a small proportion of the cremated remains interred in cremation burials, and was the residue deposited elsewhere?
Were inhumations treated in the same way?

Not all of these questions will ever be resolved by excavation, but to stand any chance of resolution they require optimum conditions of investigation.

If fragmented and integrated burial was a normal means of disposal in the Iron Age, could it have been commonplace in earlier periods too? In fact, have we been beguiled in the past by the tombs of the Neolithic and Bronze Age into believing that they represented the burial norm, when perhaps burial was really only incidental to their true purpose? It has long been evident that not more than a minority of the population could have been buried in tombs as monumental as New Grange or Maes Howe, even allowing for satellite tombs. These sites were plainly special, and involved burial in their ceremonial. But regular disposal of the dead in the Neolithic and Bronze Age almost certainly involved other practices that archaeologically have been as elusive as were those of the Iron Age. Modern excavation provides the opportunity to resolve these issues, but not always the conditions to realize that outcome.

 Featured headline image: Moss on the earthworks at Galley Hill Fort, Sandy by Jason Ballard. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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