Marcus Valerius Martialis
Relevant Non-Istrians

arcus Valerius Martialis, known in English as Martial, was born March 1, 40 A.D in Augusta Bilbilis, Hispania Tarraconensis (now Calatayud, Spain in the Iberian Peninsula) under the reign of Caligula or Claudius, and he died in Rome ca. 103. 


born in Augusta Bilbilis
40 A.D.

Knowledge of his life is derived almost entirely from his works, which can be more or less dated according to the well-known events to which they refer. His parents, Fronto and Flaccilla, appear to have died in his youth. His name seems to imply that he was born a Roman citizen, but he speaks of himself as "sprung from the Celts and Iberians, and a countryman of the Tagus;" and, in contrasting his own masculine appearance with that of an effeminate Greek, he draws especial attention to "his stiff Hispanian hair" (x. 65, 7).

He was educated in his native Hispania, a country which in the 1st century produced several notable Latin writers, including Seneca the Elder and Seneca the Younger, Lucan and Quintilian, and Martial's contemporaries Licinianus of Bilbilis, Decianus of Emerita and Canius of Gades. The success of his countrymen may have been what motivated Martial to move to Rome once he had completed his education. This move occurred in 64 A.D., in which Seneca the Younger and Lucan may have served as his first patrons.

We do not know much of the details of his life for the first twenty years or so after he came to Rome. He published some juvenile poems of which he thought very little in his later years, and he laughs at a foolish bookseller who would not allow them to die a natural death (i. 113). Martial had neither youthful passion nor youthful enthusiasm to precociously make him a poet. His faculty ripened with experience and with the knowledge of that social life which was both his theme and his inspiration; many of his best epigrams are among those written in his last years. From many answers which he makes to the remonstrances of friends—among others to those of Quintilian—it may be inferred that he was urged to practice at the bar, but that he preferred his own lazy Bohemian kind of life. He made many influential friends and patrons, and secured the favor of both Titus and Domitian. From them he obtained various privileges, among others the semestris tribunatus, which conferred on him equestrian rank. Martial failed, however, in his application to Domitian for more substantial advantages, although he commemorates the glory of having been invited to dinner by him, and also the fact that he procured the privilege of citizenship for many persons in whose behalf he appealed to him.

The earliest of his extant works, known as Liber spectaculorum ("on the spectacles") was first published in celebration of the opening of the Colosseum in the reign of Titus, and relates to the theatrical performances given by him; but the book as it now stands was given to the world in or about the first year of Domitian, i.e. about the year 81. The favour of the emperor procured him the countenance of some of the worst creatures at the imperial court—among them of the notorious Crispinus, and probably of Paris, the supposed author of Juvenal's exile, for whose monument Martial afterwards wrote a eulogistic epitaph. The two books (now numbered by editors as books 13 and 14), and known by the names of Xenia and Apophoreta—inscriptions in two lines each for presents,—were published at the Saturnalia of 84. In 86 he gave to the world the first two of the twelve books on which his reputation rests.

From that time until his return to Hispania in 98 he published a volume almost every year for a total of twelve. The first nine books and the first edition of Book X. appeared in the reign of Domitian; Book XI. appeared at the end of 96, shortly after the accession of Nerva. A revised edition of book X., that which we now possess, appeared in 98, about the time of the entrance of Trajan into Rome. The last book was written after three years' absence in Hispania, shortly before his death, which happened about the year 102 or 103.

These twelve books bring Martial's ordinary mode of life between the age of forty-five and sixty very fully before us. His regular home for thirty-five years was Rome. He lived at first up three pairs of stairs, and his "garret" overlooked the laurels in front of the portico of Agrippa. He had a small villa and unproductive farm near Nomentum, in the Sabine territory, to which he occasionally retired from the bores and noises of the city (ii. 38, xii. 57). In his later years he had also a small house on the Quirinal, near the temple of Quirinus.

At the time when his third book was brought out he had retired for a short time to Cisalpine Gaul, in weariness, as he tells us, of his unprofitable attendance to the wealthy patrons of Rome. For a time he seems to have felt the charm of the new scenes which he visited, and in a later book (iv. 25) he contemplates the prospect of retiring to the neighbourhood of Aquileia and the Timavus. But the spell exercised over him by Rome and Roman society was too great; even the epigrams sent from Forum Corneli and the Aemilian Way ring much more of the Roman forum, and of the streets, baths, porticos and clubs of Rome, than of the places from which they are dated.

His final departure from Rome was motivated by a weariness of the burdens imposed on him by his social position, and apparently the difficulties of meeting the ordinary expenses of living in the metropolis (x. 96); and he looks forward to a return to the scenes familiar to his youth. The well-known epigram addressed to Juvenal (xii. I 8) shows that for a time his ideal was realized; but the more trustworthy evidence of the prose epistle prefixed to Book XII (this last book also mentions Istria) proves and that he could not live happily away from the literary and social pleasures of Rome for long. In 98, helped by Pliny the Younger, he returned to Spain, where he settled on a farm given him by his patroness, Marcella.

During his life at Rome, although he never rose to a position of real independence, and had always a hard struggle with poverty, he seems to have known everybody, especially every one of any eminence at the bar or in literature. In addition to Lucan and Quintilian, he numbered among his friends or more intimate acquaintances Silius Italicus, Juvenal, Pliny the younger (and nephew of Pliny the elder, who died during the Vesivius eruption); and there were many others of high position whose society and patronage he enjoyed. The silence which he and Statius, although authors writing at the same time, having common friends and treating often of the same subjects, maintain in regard to one another may be explained by mutual dislike or want of sympathy. Martial in many places shows an undisguised contempt for the artificial kind of epic on which Statius's reputation chiefly rests; and it seems quite natural that the respectable author of the Thebaid and the Silvae should feel little admiration for either the life or the works of the bohemian epigrammatist.

Under the Flavians, Martial, yet unmarried and without the three children, earned the ius trium liberorum ("law of three children"), which gave him privileges, financial advantages, and the ability to start a political career. He was awarded a military tribuneship and equestrian rank.

He is best known for his twelve books of Epigrams, published in Rome between 86 and 103 A.D., during the reigns of the emperors Domitian, Nerva and Trajan. In these short, witty poems he cheerfully satirizes city life and the scandalous activities of his acquaintances, and romanticises his provincial upbringing. Considered the creator of the modern epigram, Martial wrote a total of 1,561 - 1,235 of which are in elegiac couplets. Romans of every sort and condition appear in his pages, engaged in every conceivable activity. He was the ideal spectator, amiable, witty, at times tender and sentimental. His flattery of great persons can be forgiven; his scurrilous abuse (never, however, directed at persons under their own names), sometimes marked by the most graphic and imaginative obscenity, is usually amusing; and at his best Martial is unsurpassed for wit, elegance, and point. It is this last which has proved his most lasting contribution: the epigram before Martial was characterized by a high lapidary polish but seldom by the wit and satirical point which he gave it.

Pliny the Younger, in the short tribute which he pays to him on hearing of Martial's death, wrote, "He had as much good-nature as wit and pungency in his writings" (Ep. iii. 21). Martial professes to avoid personalities in his satire, and honour and sincerity (fides and simplicitas) seem to have been the qualities which he most admires in his friends. Some have found distasteful his apparent servile flattery to the worst of the many bad emperors of Rome in the 1st century A.D. These were emperors Martial would later censure immediately after their death (xii. 6). However, he seems to have disliked hypocrisy in its many forms, and seems to be free from cant, pedantry, or affectation of any kind.

What was Martial's connection to Istria? It was something he wrote in one of his epigrams.

Latin (original):

Uncto Corduba laetior Venafro
Histra nec minus absolute testa.


English: Oh, city of Còrdoba, you who are more fertile than the city of Venafro famous for its oil, and as perfect as an Istrian amphora;
Italiano: O città di Cordova, tu che sei più ricca della città di Venefro famosa per il suo olio, e non sie meno perfetta di un'anfora istriana; and
Hrvatski: Kordobo, koja si plodnija od Vinafre poznatoj po ulju, a nisi ni manje savrsena od istrarske amfore".)

Liber XII




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Created: Wednesday, May 30, 2007; Updated Monday, November 05, 2012
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