Help me: is this funny?

The Roman poet Martial was an epigrammatist, meaning that he specialized in very short poems. In total he wrote about 1,500 poems that we still have, and he must have written a lot more. But they don’t come much shorter than the 24th epigram of Martial’s sixth book, published in AD 91:

Nil lasciuius est Carisiano:

Saturnalibus ambulat togatus.

Carisianus is the most mischievous man alive:

He walks about in a toga during the Saturnalia.

This summer I spent a few days working through all of Martial’s epigrams, on the hunt for material to use at an event with Mary Beard at Cheltenham last week. Martial’s poems are superficially simple things, but can belie that appearance, often as intricate as any sophisticated gag; and of course they’re written for the pleasure of readers with a very different set of cultural assumptions. But 6.24 was one I quickly noted down on my piece of paper: an example of a very short poem with a clever but clear point, I thought: seven words, simple but funny, and perfect for our event.

What’s so funny about it? Whatever it is, it’ll certainly be less funny once I’ve tried to explain it. But it all hinges on the Roman festival of the Saturnalia in December. This was the most popular festival of the Roman year, a week in December featuring excessive eating and drinking (“exuberant gorgings and even more excessive drinking bouts,” according to one scholar), gift-giving and role reversal (masters would wait on slaves, for example, and slaves could speak freely to their masters), and special clothes: instead of the toga, the distinctive garment of the Roman citizen, everyone during the Saturnalia dressed in a suit of clothes known as the synthesis or cenatoria. We don’t really know what the synthesis looked like, but it seems to have been looser-fitting than the formal toga, and colourful (a bit like pyjamas), and whatever it was actually like, it symbolized the character of the Saturnalia, a time of uninhibited release.

Are you laughing yet? Probably not. But Martial’s joke is that by breaking the “rules” of the Saturnalia and wearing his toga instead of his synthesis, Carisianus is acting more in the spirit of the Saturnalia than anyone else. The word used of him, lasciuius, suggests uninhibited behaviour, in other words exactly what was expected of Romans at the Saturnalia. Carisianus is the most outrageous of the lot by virtue of acting totally square when everyone else is cutting loose. Geddit?

Well I thought I’d got it, and Mary Beard agreed (and she’s written a book on Roman laughter), and there was at least a ripple of amusement in our audience at Cheltenham as we tried to explain it.


© Marie-Lan Nguyen

But it turns out the Martial specialists don’t agree at all. Farouk Grewing, who’s written a commentary on Book 6, thinks the joke is much more complicated than this. What we’re meant to understand, according to him, is that Carisianus is actually a woman, specifically a woman who has been convicted of adultery and as punishment has to wear the toga. That was indeed a way of stigmatizing “fallen women” in Rome, the toga being, as well as the Roman citizen’s proper clothing, the garment worn by prostitutes (to distinguish them from respectable women, who wore the stola). Martial’s joke, according to Grewing, and Martial is certainly well capable of such viciousness, is that a woman dressed in a toga as punishment is mistaken for a man too uptight to dress down for the Saturnalia.

If so, as another scholar, Andreas Heil, points out,* Martial is being very oblique indeed, since there’s no indication anywhere in 6.24 that the protagonist is a woman, and Latin is meticulous about these things: the -us at the end of Carisianus and togatus indicate clearly that he’s a he. But Heil agrees with Grewing that a simpler reading of the poem is unsatisfactory: “It is hard to understand why wearing the toga at the Saturnalia should be proof of the special lascivia [mischievousness, naughtiness] of Charisianus.” Heil’s solution is that by telling us that Carisianus wears the toga at the Saturnalia, Martial is implying that he wears the synthesis the rest of the year: that is, Carisianus is lasciuus because on every day of the year other than the Saturnalia he dresses louchely, and behaves accordingly. A Roman citizen who habitually dressed in the synthesis  would be a very disreputable character indeed.

Now that all seems too complicated for me, but there’s no doubt Martial can be complicated. I’m planning to write another blog soon showing just how much can be going on in a seemingly simple two-line Martial epigram. But I think what matters here is that both Grewing and Heil feel a need to complicate the reading of 6.24 because a simpler reading of the poem doesn’t deliver enough of a punch. Isn’t funny.

But it is funny, right?

(A freer translation:

Carisianus is so shocking:

At the Saturnalia he goes round in a toga!)

*A. Heil, ‘Bemerkungen zu Martial: 6, 24. 6, 61. 6, 75. 9, 35 und 12, 5’, Philologus 146 (2002), 309-17, at 309-10.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

16 responses to “Help me: is this funny?”

  1. Dunstan Lowe says :

    Presumably those who think ‘Carisianus’ is a meretrix find Charis (a hetaira-name) in it? But according to Pauly-Wissowa it was not that exotic a name, either in Greece or at Rome. The simple reading is probably right, though ambulat might add some mock-serious play-acting (‘strides about in a suit and tie’), as it can mean taking on airs, at least in Horace (Epod. 4.5, Sat. 1.2.25, 1.4.66).

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      Thank you! Yes, that’s mentioned, and there is some MS disagreement between Carisianus and Charisianus. I like your thought about “ambulat”. In a poem of seven words I guess every one of them carries disproportionate weight, and I’d rather ignored that one. Which might be an argument for the deeper significance of his name, of course. I think I’m discovering why I’d never edit a book of Martial.

  2. alan macdonald says :

    well I am not exactly falling off my chair in Mogadishu — but ..nevertheless – I have learnt something – and been distracted from the raging chaos outside

  3. Aven McMaster says :

    On a first reading, before you gave your explanation, I took Heil’s approach; I presumed the point was that he properly observed the Saturnalia by reversing his usual behaviour, so toga-wearing then implied Saturnalian laxness all the rest of the year. The woman-as-man explanation didn’t occur to me, and I still don’t really understand it.

  4. Sam Hayes says :

    I don’t really find Grewing & Heil’s reconstruction very plausible, to be honest. What’s wrong with a little bit of sarcasm? Martial loves his straw men (or women – look at Philaenis in book 7). He often depicts his own poetry as ‘lascivi’ and associates it with the Saturnalia as a time when such verse is suitable.

    Maybe it’s not the funniest joke, but it achieves a snigger (which isn’t bad for 2 lines!)

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      Totally agree, and yes: worth a snigger, which is I think is what it originally got from me. Many thanks!

      • judithweingarten says :

        I would take it as a particularly vicious dig (!) at Charisianus, and that Martial meant that, during the festivities, he went around dressed as the sodomite prostitute he really was. Or is this, too, too complicated?

      • Llewelyn Morgan says :

        Well, it’s of equivalent complexity to Grewing’s reading, and I’m finding as many people buy that as my super-simplistic one. I’m fascinated by the range of opinions on this one, and starting to wonder if the various possible interpretations were anticipated by Martial himself!

  5. Slapstik says :

    It sounds terribly fascinating. However, the “need to complicate the reading” reminds me of the tendency in specialist doctors to over-diagnose an ailment. Their intimate familiarity with the subject matter, ironically, becomes a debilitating factor, because their “priors” are a little messed up on account of seeing a much larger sample of exceptions than is the norm (i.e. because specialist advice is sought in more exceptional cases to begin with).

    So a good indicator in this case, as in medicine, is to have a general practitioner of classics (not sure such beings exist) look at and classify Martial’s little ditty; and if (s)he thinks it needs to be referred higher then chances are the reading does need to be complicated indeed.

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