Ancient obscenity and the world-wide web

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?

11 thoughts on “Ancient obscenity and the world-wide web

  1. I do! And so does James N. Adams, author of The Latin Sexual Vocabulary. But I don’t want to just walk through Rome to look at the pretty scenery. I want to understand the Romans, how they thought, why they did what they did.

    Contrary to what you said, if I wanted to fully comprehend the Thai society, I *would* visit the Red Light District, not to engage in prostitution, but rather to study how it works. You don’t have to condone something in order to neutrally evaluate it.

    And who knows what may be found in what looks like “smut”. Surely you must be a little curious why Christians would have preserved Martial? And all of it!

    And who is to say what constitutes “smut”? Is it only sexual? What about non-sexual fluff? What if I find other things offensive?

    You’re not required to put it on your website, but do realize that many people out there do have a valid and legitimate interest in the material.


  2. I don’t enjoy smut, and I never learned how to cuss in English–my mama taught me better. But it is an interesting academic subject–the fact that they had obscenity in the ancient world and how it is identified as such. It doesn’t have the same feel–I never got my mouth washed out for saying pedicabo ego te . . . or boulo binein.
    Jeffrey Henderson wrote the Greek companion to Adams on Latin: The Maculate Muse.

    Chris’s question “who is to say . . .” is a non sequitur. You have just identified who James Adams, who along with Jeffrey Henderson (The Maculate Muse) are the authorities on talking dirty in Greek and Latin. Adam and Henderson are who are to say what obscenity is–and they have objective criteria: vocabulary that only occurs in satire, old comedy–where more “proper” contexts would use either euphemisms or clinical language.

    On the use of obscenity, I have mixed feelings: On the one hand I can see the point of Sister Helen Prejean’s exasperation who went to a killer on death row and asked him “have you had any impure thoughts.” And I wrote a favorable comment on Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies–in spite of her vocabulary and other issues.

    But on the other hand, I ask “Why do gangsters (assuming Tony Soprano is a valid sample–I think real gangsters aren’t nearly as charming or sophisticated, though) have such filthy mouths. The answer is they need to break down their inhibitions and moral restraints. He who has scruples about swearing, cursing, and blaspheming might have scruples about killing.

    As Hank Williams, Jr., told his son, “If you’re gonna be a country singer, you just can’t use the F-word.”

  3. “Chris’s question “who is to say . . .” is a non sequitur.”

    Hello, Mark. Obscenity and smut were not, in fact, defined by Adams. Adams’ book deals with [i]sexual vocabulary[/i], which is not always obscene. For example, the Supreme Court of the United States has broadly defined obscenity, but purposefully kept it vague. “Damn” may be obscene to some people, but you won’t find it in Adams’ book. Nor is it obscene to me.

    And finally, cursing/swearing etc. are societal norms that only harm when one is conditioned to being harmed. It’s no different than the “political incorrect” charges – by itself words are harmless. Take for example how pedicabo vos has no effect on someone who doesn’t speak Latin. Go up to any ancient Roman and “fuck you” has no effect at all. The only “moral” issue is one that is created by the particular society.


  4. “But I don’t want to just walk through Rome to look at the pretty scenery.”

    I disagree. If I wanted to look at filth, I’d just take a look around me. Every society has plenty of filth, and for an average person to advocate that he must look at Roman filth, as opposed to the pretty scenery, is to destroy every reason why he should consider it Classical, or pay any kind of respect to it. If an isolated professional wants to make a study of filth, he may look at ours, at Roman, at Greek and Persian, and put it in an academic book where those people will look who are interested in that sort of stuff. Seeing as how practically every modern depiction of Romans disproportionally focuses on filth to an appalling degree, I suggest that those Epigrams which can be softened, should be, and those which have scant value outside of their filth, be left to a more specialized scholar altogether.

  5. Interesting comment on why criminals swear — thank you. We all become desensitised to things, if we let ourselves be immersed in them. I admit that at least one disgusting image from the court of the Borgia pope will remain with me all my days, and I really wish it wouldn’t. I certainly don’t want to fill my mind with such things, and I don’t have the ability to forget as readily as I would like.

    Good points from both Mark and James.

    The types of arguments Chris mentioned are familiar to us all from the 60’s and 70’s. But those who made them have since gone on to create a vicious censorship, not of obscenity, but of views not Politically Correct, which tells us just how sincere they were. In fact we have discovered that those who do so argue merely enjoy obscenity and have some other set of things that they wish to censor for instead. So I don’t think that we need spend such time on them. (No offence, Chris).

  6. Correction: I did not mean to suggest, as I see that I have inadvertantly, that *Chris* was posting because he enjoys obscenity! (Rather I think that he is repeating a school of arguments). But I don’t seem able to edit the comment.

  7. Honestly I’m horrified at the idea of censoring or even softening this material. This was part of Roman society, and even as an interested non-scholar I want to understand the Romans as they were, not as we would have them be.

  8. Incidentally I would encourage anyone else who would like to come out in favour of the “include it” school of thought; the question really is open, and we’re not discussing whether obscenity is a good thing or not as such.

  9. A professor friend of mine has raised an interesting point (of course I posed our question to him). I told him that translating everything literally would erase any Classicizing value in Martial (essentially my point as per above).

    He made a fair objection, that maybe some authors don’t deserve to be in the Classicizing canon. Martial wasn’t Virgil, and he knew it. Catullus wasn’t Virgil, and Horace says so. Etc.

    My view is slightly different — if someone doesn’t fit the Classicizing canon, let’s just throw him out altogether, for the regular reader. What should a reader read about filth in some other culture? People need heroes, need inspiring and profound writing as can be found in Classical literature (hence the name), so writers which encourage that reverence should be emphasized, writers which don’t, should be left to isolated professionals.

    And yet I keep thinking about Joseph Addison including (appropriate) quotes from Martial in his Spectator. I can’t imagine Martial being thrown out by Augustan British intellectuals (who were the heyday of Classical learning, from my perspective). So I think, if we can’t soften Martial too much, then just disregard those verses of his which aren’t fit for everyday reading. But if he has something powerful or insightful to say, let’s read that and cherish it.

  10. Hmmm. I’m sorry but to me this sounds like censorship. Is our role as editors/translators not to simply make the text available to our readers, not to decide what they should or should not read? And why should the editor/translator’s view of obscenity determine what is obscene to others? And, yes, If we want to understand a culture (whether ancient or not) we should study all aspects of it, even what we consider objectionable.

  11. I am, it seems, a few days late to this discussion, but I find this interesting enough to risk receiving no response.

    Martial is an author I had great difficulty gaining any interest in for some time. I’m now in my 30’s and he has started to interest me for various reasons. Perhaps it is because I now live in DC, which does strongly color how I read him.

    I think of his second epigram from book 1, where he adverstises that his books are for sale by a freedman from Luca near the entrance to the Fora of Vespasian and Nerva, and I wonder how many heard this poem recited to rush off and buy his libellus, even though they couldn’t read it. In DC, there’s a good deal of acquisition of status items like this (I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Mame when Gloria says “I love books. They are such wonderful decorating items” or something like that).

    Martial so often seems to be pointing at the hypocrisies of humans when surrounded by a world that claims to run on goodness but really is obsessed with money. These are so often when the so-called “smut” comes into the picture. For instance, keeping it clean, let’s consider with something where we see that Martial allows no one to escape unmocked:

    Nubere Paula cupit nobis, ego ducere Paulam
    Nolo: anus est. Vellem, si magis esset anus. (10.8)

    I translate:

    Paula desires to be given in marriage to me, but I have no desire to take in marriage Paula. She is an old woman. I would be willing, if only she were older.

    The distinction in the verbs of marrying (nubere vs. ducere) portrays the social exspectation that women are objects of male desire, objects of choice. It is fine for women to make themselves desirable, and part of what makes them desirable is youthfulness, the ability to have children, and (presumably) greater external beauty than what an older woman might have. But to desire could lead to doubts about her femininity (just consult Martial’s 3 poems about the tribas).

    Hence, Paula, an anus hasn’t much luck. Notice a few things that lie beneath the surface: Paula is displaying desire. This is unacceptable, but the impropriety of her desire, in a Roman’s eyes, becomes all the greater with the apparent reason for the speaker’s lack of desire: anus est. Here, Martial is making two arguments. First, Paula is not a very discreet lady, for ladies ought not let their desires be known (such was the Roman ideal). But secondly, she has lost what will make her desirable to a Roman man: her youthfulness and thus her ability to give him both physical pleasure and children.

    So Martial sets himself up as an honorable Roman man: “I do not go for such women,” he seems to be saying. But then, his whole moral edifice comes tumbling down with his sententia: “Don’t get me wrong–she would be desirable, if only she were older. That way, I wouldn’t have to put up with her for very long and I’d make money off of the deal.”

    Of course, he mocks the poor and starving Gellius (the name taken from Catullus) who does marry an anus and she doesn’t die soon enough so he has to “uxorem pascit…et futuit.” (sorry if that offends).

    Sure, this is skoptic (as the fadish term would have it). He’s making fun of people for their inconsistencies, for how their self-seeking lands them in a bind. But this, to me, is a much truer description of humans and our weaknesses. And though I do not subscribe to any religion, I am a fan of that saying that truth sets us free.

    I read Martial and I see our present hypocrisies from Larry Craig to Elliot Spitzer. (The former especially makes me think of Martial 1.24:

    Aspicis incomptis illum, Deciane, capillis,
    Cuius et ipse times triste supercilium,
    Qui loquitur Curios adsertoresque Camillos?
    Nolito fronti credere: nupsit heri.

    I translate:

    Do you, Decianus, see that fellow with his untidy hair,
    whose stern gaze even you fear,
    as he speaks of the Curii and our freedom fighters,
    those Camilli? Don’t trust his brow: he was just handed off in marriage yesterday.)

    All this is summed up rather well in Brecht’s line from the Good Woman of Sezchuan: “People cannot long be good, if goodness is no longer in demand,” spoken by the non-interventionist gods. Martial peels away the truth of how we make goodness something that benefits us rather than seeking it for its own sake. And once he does that, even to himself (or his persona), it doesn’t take long –hopefully– for the reader to start to see his or her own self as the object of mockery. As a Christian friend of mine said: “I read Nietzsche because he poses all the tough questions to Christians.” Martial seems to me like an ancient Nietzsche along these lines: he keeps that supposed seeker of virtue honest.

    Of course, perhaps all of this can be gained from reading the Republic, but I don’t believe it. Those things that lift us up and make us believe we are different often make us blind and far crueler to those who haven’t had the many benefits that our wealthy country or family has provided in the form of so many opportunities to us. That the truth of goodness might need pretty words to uplift and convince people is perhaps something that attests to why somebody like Martial came along.

    Sorry that this is so long. If I post again, I will try to find something of less interest to write on.

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