The epigrams of Martial provide a vivid immersion into life in Rome in the reign of Domitian, the smells and sights and sounds of a man living in that environment. As such they are of the highest value as a source, not least for what they tell us about the Roman publishing industry.
One feature of each book is the introduction of obscene epigrams part way through. This must have been to increase ratings, as with some modern films; indeed Martial at one point jeers at a reader who has got so far, presumably on the look-out for smut. Sodomy, paedophilia, and the crudest vice are included to tickle the reader’s fancy (and sell books).
What do we do about this stuff? I don’t want this sort of stuff in a book myself, and I can’t think of many cases where I need to know about (e.g.) the five vices of one epigram. Yes, I would like to walk along the streets of ancient Rome, but does that mean that I want to drown my soul in its sewers? Do I have to visit the red-light district if I go on holiday to Bangkok? If not, do I have to do the same when I take a trip to ancient Rome?
The Bohn translation, which I am scanning, takes a sensible approach. It softens the stuff where it can be softened and still leave most of the meaning, adding a footnote in Latin where misunderstanding might occur. But some epigrams are just pure filth, and these it leaves in the original Latin. Nothing is omitted, but the reader is protected. Of course this practise provided an incentive for generations of schoolboys to look up “Naughty Words”, but that is neither here nor there. Since scanning Latin is hard work, I’ve so far mostly simply omitted these with a note.
But what should we do with this stuff? To whom is it of value?