For the last few days I have been reading the epigrams of Martial, in the two volume Loeb edition with parallel Latin and English. Many of the epigrams throw a great deal of light on what it was like to live in ancient Rome. Some are intentionally obscene, and done in order to sell more copies, as Martial makes plain. The Loeb rightly gives an Italian version instead of an English one. Others say how copies of the books may be obtained, and so throw light upon the Roman book trade.
Others again describe events in the arena, and give an idea of how its religious purposes had been corrupted. Scaevola burned off his hand rather than betray the Republic; to entertain the crowd, a criminal is forced to do the same, by threats of being burned alive. In the process the value of Scaevola’s heroism is diminished in the eyes of everyone. Likewise other mythological events are re-enacted, and likewise debased. Thus did the Romans lose their own sense of identity.
But one element in the epigrams has attracted comment. Many of the epigrams flatter Domitian. In some cases, they ask the emperor directly for money or favours. In many others they refer to him as Lord and God, in fulsome tones. These grow more numerous and more fulsome as book succeeds book. Book eight, indeed, is dedicated to Domitian and begins with a letter of flattery so thick that we can only associate it with unfree societies.
Rome was a despotism. To incur the ire of the emperor was to risk property and exile, or even your life. In such a society, formal expressions of loyalty become essential. It is telling how these become more frequent as we read through the work. Early expressions of flattery are perhaps no worse than some that Pliny the Younger uses about Trajan. By book five, the servile note is strong. By book six, Martial is obliged to insert epigrams disclaiming any possibility that “poems dipped in venom” against the emperor are his, and repeat it in book seven. Each mention of the emperor is more lush than the last, each book contains more poems of flattery than the last.
Doubtless it was dangerous to do otherwise. But perhaps this too reflects the progress of Domitian’s tyranny. To praise the emperor for his reforms was one thing. Martial has fun with the way in which Domitian’s revival of the lex Julia restricting the first fourteen rows of seats in the arena for the knights has affected Romans who perhaps are not as wealthy as they pretend; and we can all enjoy this. But this note disappears after a while. It might be disrespectful, after all; and disrespect could only be dangerous.
After the overthrow of Domitian, Martial attempts to flatter Nerva and Trajan, but his heart is not in it. Doubtless he found that this was met with mockery. The victors in civil discord are always arrogant, and there was no lack of people with scores to settle. It is telling that he left Rome, and went to Bilbilis in Spain, his native country. Perhaps he feared exile. But he found it a poor substitute for the metropolis, and seems to have been lonely for the City. No doubt he was.
It was Martial’s misfortune to live and write in despotic times, and to find himself in a current of misplaced loyalty that in the end swept him away. Yet, had he not done so, who knows if he would have written anything? Whatever his own misfortunes, he managed to write something that men have not willingly let die.