Study Question #3

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    Chose one passage of Martial that you translated this week and one epigram from the Spisak article and argue whether you think Martial was sincere in his praise of Domitian. Does Martial’s authenticity (or lack of it) affect his legitimacy as a poet? How do these questions about authenticity and legitimacy inform our reading of Pliny?

    Be sure to cite three separate Latin words or phrases from the epigrams to support your claim.


    Martial’s blatant flattery of Domitian, although a common practice between poets and persons of status at the time, presents an exceptional case that calls to question Martial’s exact motives.

    Superficially, Martial’s praise is textbook, attributing to Domitian the responsibility for a flourishing Rome. His livelihood was dependant upon these praises, and seeking the sponsor of the emperor was beneficial in more ways than simple wealth. Spisak likens the favors granted in return for the writings as being similar to “a modern poet going through the process of applying for government funding.” (Spisak, 72) It would make sense, then, that in turn for these favors, extravagant phrases may be justified. Even beginning, “Si qua fides veris, praeferri, maxime Caesar, temporibus possunt saecula nolla tuis” (5.19.1-5) Martial gives a formal, official appeal to to the succeeding writing.

    The problem of Martial’s authenticity arises not from the practice of writing these praises, but rather the particular case of whom he is writing. Within his list of praises he claims that Rome’s greatest age under Domitian includes “libertas… tanta,” “so much liberty” (5.19.6) when, in fact, multiple other accounts claim otherwise. In our earlier readings of Pliny, Pliny reveals the corruption and danger of Domitian’s rule. Indeed, Domitian pushed for a totalitarian governmental style, and was generally despised among the Romans. Martial’s heavy praise given where it was so entirely undeserved shows a selfish motivation and hypocritical style if taken at superficial value.

    As Spisak points out, however, it is very likely that Martial’s praise may be meant to be ironic or “figured speech” unbeknownst to Domitian. If written one way and read another, these falsehoods written of Domitian could be portrayed as the truth despite their wording. The arrangement of the poems Martial wrote of Domitian should also be noted, as Spisak observes that Martial has placed poems on Domitian in books with conflicting themes, possibly to raise the suspicion in readers that he was criticizing Domitian’s character. Martial made no show of love for Domitian after his death, writing that under Trajan the Truth could at last be brought back again, implying that under Domitian it could not. “Non est hic dominus, sed imperator, sed iustissimus omnium senator, per quem de Stygia domo reducta est siccis rustica Veritas capillis.” (10.72.8-11) (Spisak, 78)

    It is in this understanding that Martial’s work gains credibility as clever rebellion under potentially dangerous circumstances.



    Martial has many qualities that endear him as a worthwhile poet to read in classrooms today. His poetry, like Catullus, has been self classified as nugae or trifles that do not deal with serious matters like war and epic. Rather than tackle such weighty topics that have already been masterfully expounded upon by the likes of Vergil and others, Martial has decided to craft his own voice in the empire to be remembered for all time. Let’s take poem 10.20 as a testament to this novel voice of Martial’s. In the poem, he instructs the muse Thalia to visit his friend Pliny, whom we have already read (Facundo mea Plinio Thalia | I perfer…). Surely a general audience reading these books of poetry would not care to know about such mundane topics like how to get to Pliny’s house or what he does there; Pliny is becoming a well-respected author in his own right and people who would care likely already know where he lives. Furthermore, the sing-song tone of Martial’s hendecasyllabic verses lends itself to the trivial nature of the nugae as this meter is the same one employed by perhaps the most notable neoteric: Catullus. Although it is the topics of poetry rather than the meter itself that defines nugae, Martial is reckoning back to the golden age of nugatory poetry.
    As a contemporary of Pliny, Martial is also figuring out how to survive and even thrive under the emperor Domitian who will, only after the fact, be publicly ridiculed and bashed for being second only to Nero in his tyranny. Martial must fulfill somewhat of a social contract with Domitian in order to be allowed to write more poetry. If he praises Domitian and does not leave any obvious room for speculation concerning his panegyric writings, Domitian will not euphemistically remove Martial from Rome. Martial decided, however, to be somewhat subversive in his praise of Domitian, I believe. Rather than simply praising the qualities of Domitian and leaving his obligations fulfilled, Martial carefully constructed his poetry in such a way that allows readers to see his true mocking intent. In poem 1.6, he writes Aetherias aquila puerum portante per auras | inlaesum timidis unguibus haesit onus as an allusion to the eagle of Jupiter stealing the Phrygian youth Ganymede from the earth. On the surface, these lines and indeed this whole poem seems to flatter Domitian by likening him to the king of the gods. Upon deeper reflection, however, Martial may intend the audience to question the benevolence of Domitian by specifically choosing this story of Jupiter to liken the emperor to. Jupiter himself plays a role in many stories in which he cannot be construed as the “bad guy” by stealing someone or raping them, yet Martial, in subversive praise of the emperor, likens Domitian to this iteration of Jupiter. There was a rumor in Rome that Domitian was not the greatest at literature and that he had only adopted a literary lifestyle to avoid comparison with his more capable brother, Titus. Therefore, Domitian may have only seen the surface analogy to Jupiter in Martial’s poem. Martial continues in 1.6 nunc sua Caesareos exorat praeda leones | tutus et ingenti ludit in ore lepus. These lines portray the real danger that Martial and other citizens of the empire face in “the lion’s maw.”
    Finally, in poem 9.93, Martial plays with numbers because the name Domitianus does not fit elegaic couplet or any other meter easily. This poem is an exercise in poetics that Martial passes with flying colors. He does not even have to refer to Domitian by his preferred titles Dominus et Deus here because of how he has constructed the poem. He writes Nunc mihi dic, quis erit, cui te Catacisse deorum | sex iubeo cyathos fundere? ‘Caesar erit’ as a set up for the type of wordplay in the poem. Caesar has six letters, six cyathi were poured. Later he writes, Nunc bis quina mihi da basia fiat ut illud | nomen, ab Odrysio quod deus orbe tulit. These ten kisses are supposed to represent the ten letters in Germanicus, but I believe that there may exist other possibilities that fit these same criteria such as dux ineptus or homo fatuus. Of course, Germanicus is the most likely and probable reading. I would just like to consider that there may have been some inside jokes around the literary crowd to make fun of the emperor without him knowing.
    With these poems considered, I believe that Martial has proven himself to be quite the skilled poet through his ability to insult and mock the emperor under the guise of true flattery. He sets himself up to be nothing more than a nugatory poet like Catullus, but uses that false sense of security to tear into the imperial establishment and make his voice heard.


    Just like others throughout history, Marial has found his own unique way to be able to be remembered in history, just as Pliny once did. He uses his words as a way of both deceiving and enticing an audience into reading his work, while trying to stay under the Emperor Domitian’s radar. On the other hand he is also able to paint both Pliny and himself in an almost godlike light. Let’s take 10.20 for example when referring to this way of being. Marial says to one of the Muses in the poem, “libellum facundo mea Plinio Thalia i perfer”. Muses are usually used in poems as things as inspiration or for guidance, the fact that he wishes to use a Muse and not a slave to do his bidding, means that he believes that his work is so outstanding that even goddesses like the Muses are lower then him. Yet he states towards the beginning of the poem “Nec doctum satis et parum severum”. By using those words to describe his little book, but then command Thalia to bend to his will, it calls into question why he would send it to Pliny. Now we do know that Pliny is the reason Marial wrote this in the first place, so perhaps it is a joke between friends. For it is quite humorous to think of a Muse delivering this little book, that is not very accomplished, to “facundo …Plinio”. Almost as if one god is sending mail through a minor messenger to another godly figure. The fact that he later mentions “tetricae dies Mienrvae” further helps the idea of the godlike figure since he associates her with the other poet.
    As stated before, Marial does not wish to anger the Emperor Domitian so he tended to “express praise or approval of the reigning emperor”(69) as long as he was rewarded for it. This is where his true nature is shown as he claims he wants the “ius trium liberorum”(71), the article explains this is the legal right to inherit and that the emperor does indeed grant this wish. To use his works as a form of both blackmail and support towards Domitian, goes towards his idea of being godlike and supports the creativity/importance of his work, for he would not be able to even make such a request if he did not believe that the Emperor or the people would enjoy his work. The authenticity of his writing can surely be questioned for he seems to do it all for personal gain, while having the thought process of making himself well known as a writer. This helps us learn more about Pliny and his readings because it gives us insight on the company that he kept among him. As learned from previous readings, we have learned that Pliny was one to be dramatic and speak of himself, and one could guess that Marial has similar qualities as shown in his poems.



    Spisak brings up several points making a compelling argument that Martial was less than sincere in his praise of Domitian. For instance, he mentions Martial’s specific and unwarranted praise of Domitian in 5.19: “sub quo libertas princepe tanta fuit?” (“under what prince was liberty so great?”). Reports of the oppressiveness and tyranny of Domitian’s rule, and criticism of Domitian such as Pliny’s “sub quo non minora flagitia commiserat quam sub Nerone sed tectiora” (1.5) suggest that Martial is not speaking genuinely when he extols the virtues of Domitian. Furthermore, Martial later writes that under Trajan “de Stygia domo reducta est / siccis rustica Veritas capillis” (10.72), implying that the truth was not always spoken during Domitian’s reign, and consequently that what Martial said in public about Domitian did not always correspond with how Martial actually felt about him.

    If Martials’s insincere praise of Domitian is meant merely as flattery with the intent of advancing Martial’s material interests, we would have reason to question Martial’s legitimacy as a poet. However, Spisak offers a few reasons why we might give a favorable assessment of Martial’s legitimacy despite the apparent insincerity of his writings about Domitian. For example, Spisak mentions a few places where Martial appears to subtly criticize Domitian, such as by juxtaposing epigrams in support of Domitian’s legislation on adultery and poems alluding to an affair Domitian supposedly had. While it might be dangerous for Martial to openly voice his discontent, by instead subtly expressing unfavorable opinions of Domitian through so-called “figured speech,” Martial can make a claim to legitimately address Domitian’s faults without incurring the risk of doing so explicitly. Another way Spisak explains Martial’s flattering but untrue praise of Domitian is through a sort of “secondary exchange,” whereby Martial’s praise expresses his support for Domitian’s leadership in exchange for Domitian’s fair application of his power. Spisak suggests that Martial’s praise is not meant to constitute an accurate description of Domitian himself, but rather to communicate the expectation that Martial (along with, perhaps, the people of Rome) has for anyone holding the position of emperor.


    Jake Stagner

    Many aspiring writers must praise the authority in place in order to succeed. Often this praise is not really genuine, as is the case with Martial in his Epigrams. His praise for Domitian goes against historical evidence that tells readers that life under Domitian was not pleasant. Also, Martial had other reasons for wanting to stay on the emperor’s good side than just being a flatterer. For example, Martial asks for Domitian to grant him the Ius Trium Liberorum, even though he did not qualify for it at the time: “Permitte Videri… ut esse Trium” (Martial, 2.91, ll 5-6) (Spisak, 71). the Ius Trium Liberorum granted special privileges to those who had the opportunity to have it granted to them. Spisak mentions that Martial and those granted with the Ius Trium Liberorum often were looking out for the prosperity of the higher class, and therefore did not have any ulterior motives in asking for it. However, I wholeheartedly disagree with his assumption. Human nature dictates that we are almost always self-serving, even if we do not realize it. Whatever good things for the empire and the aristocrats might’ve come from Martial being granted with the Ius Trium Liberorum, they take a backseat to the personal privileges that come with the grant. Furthermore, Martial straight up asks for it to be granted to him, not waiting for it to be granted to him like everyone else. This implies that Martial knows he will get it if he gives Domitian the right thing in return.

    Martial’s credibility as a writer is damaged by the fact that, in sucking up to Domitian, he pretty much straight up lies about the conditions of Domitian’s empire. In Epigram 5.19, he says that Domitian is responsible for the flourishing of Rome and Rome has never seen so much liberty before: “pulcherior et maior… tanta fuit” (Martial, 5.19 ll 5-6). Martial is either lying to the reader, or to himself, as almost every other source tells us that Domitian’s Rome was one of persecution and oppression. Even our semi-reputable Pliny the Younger calls out the corruption and oppression of the Domitian regime. Spisak even admits that it is “impossible to take Martial’s Poetry in praise of Domitian as absolute praise” (Spisak, 74). Martial later admits in one of his epigrams to the new emperor Trajan that under previous emperor’s people said things they did not really mean, and that Trajan banished that idea: “Sed iustissimus… Veritas Capillis” (Martial, 10.72 ll 8-11) (Spisak, 78). Martial by saying that Trajan brought truth back into the public sphere, he implies that under Domitian, many writers would lie and appease Domitian to get on his good side.

    Knowing these things, it makes us question what we know about Pliny’s correspondences. It is important for us to realize that his letters were later compiled by himself into a collection. This allowed him, theoretically, to edit his letters or others’ (i.e. Trajan’s) letters to him and make them appear more pro-Pliny. For all we know, Trajan could have hated Pliny and we only think they were friends because of Pliny’s self-aggrandizing. We must ask ourselves how legitimate of an author is Pliny?


    Rachel Tong

    In regards to the Spisak article, it is clear Martial praises of Domitian were only composed because he had to write pleasantly about the current emperor. Everything the citizens say about the emperor must be positive, and excessively so. This arises possibly not because of a warranted social exchange, but simply because you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. For this reason, Martial openly speaks out against Domitian only after his death. With the phrase “Dicturus dominum deumque sum” or “I am not going to say Lord and God” (Spisak 78), Martial contradicts his earlier self. Before this, Martial refers to Domitian as god, master, and compares him to gods time and time again. Specifically, He compares Domitian to the gods in 9.1 when he writes, “Dum Janus hiemes, Domitianus automnos, Augustus annis commodabit aestates…” / “As long as Janus governs the winter, Domitianus the fall, and Augustus the summer…” Martial casually slips Domitian in with a couple gods of the calendar to show his greatness. However, based on Martial’s writings after the death of Domitian, Martial’s tributes to the emperor were not reflective of his sincere views.

    The contradiction alone is enough to prove Martial was not genuine in his praise of Domitian, but as further support, Martial even said in 5.19 “Uile quod nobis do tibi consilium” or “I give to you advice that is useful to me.” It is clear Martial has his own agenda on his mind when he admits it in the punch line of his epigram. The last line is typically where Martial made his jokes, but combined with an unrelenting praise of an undeserving emperor, it is obvious the admiration is the real joke here.

    No one wants to be on the bad side of the emperor, including Martial. He knows Satire is risky business and could cost him his life. His sincerity lies in the necessity to appease the emperor at the cost of his own honest opinion. Hence, his legitimacy as a poet is lost. The reader wants to believe what they are reading is genuine and echoes the writer’s true feelings on the subject. It is similar to someone finding out their favorite actor is actually a jerk in real life, evoking a feeling of being lied to.

    To further this conversation, I feel as though social exchange may have been a result of Domitian’s reign. Just to follow up Domitian and hear Martial bash flattery and the late emperor’s use of “Lord and God” would make any subsequent emperor nervous about what the citizens are really thinking and talking about behind closed doors. Trajan is obviously nervous about large groups talking when he denies Pliny a fire brigade, solely because they might conspire against him. This is just a side though and not a very developed argument as I lack a vast knowledge of the preceding emperors and how they were received, but I would love to hear the thoughts of others who may know more. Perhaps this was a common phenomenon and Domitian only served as a catalyst for the silent, symbiotic, emperor-influential writer relationship, but it seems to me the social contract must have been enacted by a very paranoid and self-conscious emperor.


    Emily Jolie

    A primary tool to many poets is the use of their voice in their writing—the way they convey their ideas and emotions through a medium of words, sometimes clear, other times subtle. In Martial’s poetry, especially with the argument by Spisak, it is easy to see the “hidden transcript” and “public transcript”. On the surface, it looks as though Martial is praising Domitian, a necessary part of life, especially as a poet. In order to continue his role as a poet, Martial uses the “public transcript” to flatter him by comparing him to Caesar and praising him for “liberty so great”. The “hidden transcript” reveals Martial’s sarcasm—it’s well known throughout history that Domitian was one of the most oppressive emperors. One of the major examples of this “hidden transcript”, although not directly sent to Domitian himself, is in the beginning of Martial’s poem to Pliny where he talks of the “libellum”, but before mentioning the pamphlet, or little book, he first talks of the things modifying it— “nec doctum satis et parum severum…” or “not learned enough and serious enough”. Martial’s placement of pamphlet after all of the modifiers that could either modify a thing or a man (according to their case endings) suspend the audience until they reach the noun. The subtle and obviously sarcastic jab of Domitian’s reign. These examples of surface level and deeper meanings in Martial’s poetry strongly validate his voice as a poet. No matter what the circumstances, Martial manages to manipulate the situation into his favor. He flatters Domitian so that he can continue his poetic works, only with more scrutiny do his works turn into more sarcastic, backhanded remarks.


    John Ford

    According to many surviving sources, Domitian was a bad emperor; this tends to be the outlook still held by many people today. However, Martial’s poems, written during Domitian’s reign, paint Domitian as a wonderful person, heaping praises upon praises upon him. In fact, his words might be too flattering for praise. It seems as though perhaps Martial was on the verge of satire.
    Martial’s poems, on the surface, speak very highly of Domitian. In one poem, Martial writes, “Pulchrior et maior quo sub duce Martia Roma? (Beneath what leader was Martian Rome more beautiful and greater?)” (5.19) Martial is claiming here that Domitian is the greatest leader Rome has had so far, greater than the Flavians, the great republican Romans of 1st Century BC, and all the great men from Roman history; not exactly a small gesture. In fact, it points to hidden satire, so flattering it is. To call a man great would have been believable, but to call Domitian the greatest ever is obvious satire.
    Probably the strongest evidence of Martial’s satire is another poem he wrote, this time while under the rule of Trajan. The poem begins, “Frustra, Blandititae, venitis ad me attritis miserabiles labellis (In vain, Flatteries, you have come to me, miserable with your shameless lips),” (10.72). Martial is telling Flattery to leave, hinting that what he said under Domitian was a “shameless” attempt to increase his reputation with the now-deceased emperor. Since Domitian is now dead, he has no need to sing his praises any longer. He also says “Dicturus dominum deumque non sum (I am not about to say ‘Lord and God,’),” (10.27) in the same poem. “Dominus deusque” was the title that Domitian preferred, “Lord and God.” Martial made many references to the emperor under this title, but here refuses to say it again; in fact, he almost angrily refuses. He goes so far as to write “Ad Parthos procul ite pilleatos et turpes humilesque supplicesque pictorum sola basiate regum (Go off to the felt-capped Parthians and, as base and lowly supplicants, kiss the feet of embroidered kings),” (10.72), telling the flattering words of Domitian to go kiss the feet of Rome’s great enemy, the Parthian Empire. This could even be a jab at Domitian’s attempt at military conquests, which ended up with him giving the Dacians a large tribute in gold. It seems Martial may have had some pent-up irritation at the late emperor.
    It’s hard to see how Martial could have liked Domitian in a world where the majority of other writers despised him. He probably acted along the lines of how Pliny the Younger behaved: he acted loyal when Domitian lived, and immediately began to defame him upon his death. After Domitian’s death, Pliny made a large attempt to separate himself from Domitian. He pointed his finger at another man, named Regulus, and claimed that he was a true Domitian-crony. Pliny also claimed that, while rising under Domitian, he held his tongue against him not because he like Domitian, but because he preferred to keep his tongue, and his life. This is similar to what Martial probably would have done after Domitian’s death.


    Grant Casto

    Understanding Martial through these texts alone provides insufficient knowledge to me, but it will be attempted. Martial being a ‘spoken of’ poet for his time is an indication the flattery alone was not the sole reason for his success, making the task of separating the poet from the person more difficult effort. The large shift in his own works—from Domitian to Trajan—is also made equally difficult if in both cases Martial held the same beliefs as his contemporaries. Assuming that Martial was someone the excessively used flattery to obtain personal gains, the poem written to Trajan [Spisak 78] takes two possible implications: Martial is an excessive flatterer with no regards to who his object of flattery, or he did not intend to become ridiculed/punished for his past actions.
    As a poet, Martial did have a valuable resource he would have been at risk losing: the library in the temple dedicated to Palatine Minerva. (my assumption) Being atop of one of the Seven Hills of Rome and overseen by an appointee of the king, the tools to furthering any poet’s career being at the mercy of one person alone, makes a strong case against any sincerity Martial would have in his flattery.
    Martial 10.20: is a poem that is unrelated to Domitian, but can be used as evidence to help support the idea of false flattery. The line: facundo mea plinio: possibly having the translation “eloquent Pliny” does not have an etymological history to support the positive image. Facundo—an adjective—is also associated with a meaning similar to ‘ready to speak’, a more insulting attribute. What can be inferred here is that Martial may not have exclusively used double meanings to gain favor with whomever he was writing to/for. This introduces the possibilities of either Martial being on shaky ground with many people—including friends—in his ‘occupation’ and a poet’s choice to use their knowledge of the language for superior writings.
    Ignorant of policies enforced under Domitian, but if he had attempted be an active judge/critic of other people’s works (poetry in this case), then it can be reasoned that Martial would be inclined to support the policies of Domitian whenever possible to avoid risking his position, but flattery of Domitian himself is different. Even under dominus deusque (Spisak, 78), refusal to admit to previous action’s as one’s own can be interpreted as a strong character flaw, and certainly invites negative opinions.



    Victoria, I also enjoyed the line in Spisak about comparing Martial’s request for money to the modern equivalent of a writer applying for a grant. These are the things we do to stay alive by our art, then and now. Since reading Spisak, I cannot read Martial without questioning how he words his poetry so that the reader could take it (at least) two ways. The example you pulled from 5.19 (in Spisak) is exactly one of those instances. If you take a closer look at the poem, Martial writes, “Si qua fides veris . . .”(1). That “Si” can propel the reader to question the nature of truth under Domitian. Also, the fact that Martial does not assert “. . . magis licuit dignos spectare triumphos (5.19.3), but he asks, “Quando?” leaving the answer unclear and letting it be very easy to respond, “any other time but now.” But we shouldn’t give Martial all the credit, we see other writers manipulating language to get what they want. We only need to look at Pliny’s letters to Trajan. What lines of Pliny do you think best demonstrate his use of language to nudge Trajan to give him what he wants? How does he use the language differently from Martial? Does that have more to do with the difference between the writers or the difference between the emperors?



    Bailey, you bring up an excellent point by talking about why Martial employs a muse rather than a servant to carry Martial’s “libellum” to his friend Pliny. He balances a self-deprecatory tone with one that shows he considers himself fully accepted into the ranks of Roman poets. I would, however, be careful about assuming that this means he “paints himself in an almost godlike light.” There are different ways to read this and I think you are more accurate in asserting that this could be a clever inside joke that Martial has with Pliny. I think it is strong and possibly incorrect to say that Martial “blackmails” the emperor Domitian. He may want to support the creativity of his work, but no amount of self-praise is going to make someone who is not talented appear talented. The requests he makes of Domitian are wrapped up in the pleasure that Domitian and the rest of the court may received from Martial’s poems. Perhaps you can question the authenticity of his work because his voice was hindered by the environment in which he wrote, but what poet’s voice isn’t partially created by the state in which he writes? I’m not sure he did it “all for personal gain” as much as to stay successful AND alive under a dangerous emperor. With that being said, how does Pliny act in this same environment? How does Pliny react to Trajan? Does the difference between the authors means as much as the difference between the emperors? I also suggest going back to read Spisak and seeing if you can think of modern examples of double speak that is for a variety of audiences. It might help provide you with a deeper reading of the ancient authors.



    I am not sure that I am convinced that Martial is a special case of flattery. I think Spisak is trying to show that this was normal practice for landowning elites. What does Martial bring to the table for Domitian or Trajan?



    Henry, you have some very interesting observations here. It is difficult to know how thick Domitian was or if anyone close to him would have explained the insults in Martial. The comparison with Catullus also brings out another characteristic of Martial’s poetry, his lighthearted personal tone. However, Catullus was not putting his life at risk to criticize contemporary politicians. Is Martial really willing to put his life on the line to poke fun at the emperor?



    Interesting. I want to point out that it was not uncommon for a slave to have the name of a god/goddess. Also, I find it interesting that Thalia is the Muse of comedy and idyllic poetry. Perhaps because she is associated with country song, Martial needs to give her specific direction through the city.

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