Through his Epigrams, Martial has come down to us as a Roman rap star, an Empire gangsta who tweaked the noses of all around him - unless you were pretty and had sexy naughty bits, in which case the odds were even as to whether he’d sing your praises or declare you a whore.
Born in Spain in the year 40 A.D., Martial was a poet who lived much of his life in Rome, dying just after the turn of the first century. His mastery of raunchy innuendo (not to mention outright declaration of skankiness) may well be unsurpassed in the history of literature. He’s certainly in the ninetieth percentile.
Fortunately, Wills doesn’t attempt anything so anachronistic as presenting Martial as a rapper, but his translation of these selected epigrams is lucid and juicy, tender and lyrical - they pop as the occasion requires. For Martial wasn’t all raunch and roll. He once, for instance, wrote a poem about a dead slave girl,
“six days shy /
In the next paragraph, though, Wills must inform us that “the only tender love poems are pederastic, like this”: “Your hint of beard just barely is… a fizz …. / And when you give me kisses free, / Your shadow beard dusts off on me.”
Of six years…/
Earth, sadly mounted on this gravesite now, /
Press lightly on her, as she did on you.”
In our time, I expect Martial would, under the best of circumstances, be a poet chained to a post, with a ten-foot-radius of freedom, a registered sex offender in some Midwestern village bazaar. We could bring him bread and wine, feel good about our kindness to a monster. Martial is shockingly useful—I mean to say, he’s useful precisely because he can shock us after two millennia. We think we’ve got problems with popular culture? These neglected Roman writers can be helpful reminders of the boom box of history.
Martial brings into public discourse what for us are mostly private matters, and that so even with “reality TV” and Google’s impending artificial intelligence conspiracy. Of a female acquaintance he asks, “Your face entices, and your thighs - / Why are you shunned by all the guys?” This is grudge rap, bitch slapping, the trading of street-corner dozens (“yo mamma fatter than…”) and just generally upping the animosity ante: l’art pour l’art, and the art of insult has always been pretty cool. It’s not tender and loving, but it may be nonetheless healthy.
Along with standup comics, skanky bitches from across the gender and political spectrum will admire Martial (and Wills’ translations) for his audacity and originality. Only the sick and twisted, however, will admire (much less study and emulate) the skill with which Martial cuts throats with mere words. For that would be bad.
NB: Also available on Kindle.