Archive | September 2023

Domitian frag. 1

Quadrans (farthing) of Domitian, AD 83-85: see T.V. Buttrey, Journal of Roman Studies 97 (2007)

There’s a peculiar moment early in Martial’s first book of epigrams.

Martial’s first book of epigrams, I should start off by saying, though he himself entitled it Book 1, is not the first book of epigrams Martial wrote, not by any means. Book 1 was probably published in AD 86, and we think that a book of epigrams on the games in the Flavian Amphitheatre (Colosseum), and two books of poetic “gifts” at the Saturnalia, the Xenia and Apophoreta, predated Book 1.

And then there is the very first poem of Book 1: “Here he is! The poet you’re reading, the poet you request,/ Martial, famous the world over/ for his witty little books of epigrams;/ to whom, eager reader, you have given/ while alive and conscious such glory/ as precious few poets get post-cremation” (Hic est quem legis ille, quem requiris,/ toto notus in orbe Martialis/ argutis epigrammaton libellis/ cui, lector studiose, quod dedisti/ uiuenti decus atque sentienti,/ rari post cineres habent poetae.)

How can Martial claim to be so successful and famous at the start of his first book? Well, it can’t just be on the basis of those earlier books we know about, so we have to assume that he had produced a lot of poetry already, and that Book 1 represents some kind of new departure; and further books did follow regularly up until Book 12 in 101/102. The important point, though, is that at the start of Book 1 Martial could already claim celebrity status.

The peculiar moment I’m concerned with comes shortly after that opening poem. In 1.4, still in introductory mode at the start of the book (his books tend to run to about a hundred poems), Martial commends his epigrams to the emperor Domitian, asking him to approach them not with the severe expression of a ruler of the world (flattery will get you everywhere) but with the tolerance he would bring to a performance of mime, a notoriously unsophisticated (and often obscene) form of comedy which was nevertheless extremely popular in Rome.

In the next poem, 1.5, the emperor Domitian apparently replies to Martial: Do tibi naumachiam, tu das epigrammata nobis:/ uis, puto, cum libro, Marce, natare tuo (“I give you a sea battle, and you give me epigrams:/ I think you and your book have an ambition to go swimming, Marcus.”)

“Domitian” threatens to throw Martial along with his worthless Book 1 into the water. The sea-battle meanwhile (presumably providing the water in question) was a spectacular show staged by Domitian in the Colosseum for thousands of rapt spectators to which a book of short, funny, often smutty poems can’t begin to compare. But it’s a playful ticking off. “Domitian” uses an intimate form of address to Martial (M. Valerius Martialis), his praenomen (pre-name, first name) Marcus.

I’ve put Domitian in scare quotes there, and that reflects the scholarship. No one, to my knowledge, has suggested that this really was Domitian talking, that the emperor Domitian had composed a response to 1.4. Friedlaender, the great nineteenth-century commentator on Martial, describes Martial putting words in the emperor’s mouth (and never doing the same thing again), and as far as I’m aware Martial scholars have followed him in this.

But I wonder…

Domitian was a populist; every emperor had to be, and you don’t stage a sea battle in the Colosseum if you’re not. That Domitian had a good sense of humour, meanwhile, was definitively established by Ll. Morgan (remember the name) in Classical Quarterly in 1997. We also know he wrote poetry (Suetonius, Life of Domitian 2.2; Quintilian, Inst. Or. 10.1.91-2; Martial 5.5, and others), and he could certainly bash out a two-line elegiac epigram if he needed to. A further thought is whether it’s sensible to pretend to be an emperor who, despite that sense of humour, had a reputation as somewhat unpredictable and kinda ruthless.

Isn’t it actually more likely that Martial shared the poem with Domitian (we have evidence that this happened in poem 101 of the first book, a scribe of Martial whose handwriting was known to Domitian and his brother, and predecessor as emperor, Titus), and Domitian wrote a (slightly plodding) reply? We know that both Titus and Domitian showed favour to Martial, and it wouldn’t be the first or the last time a politician sought to harness the popular appeal of an artist, and I don’t need to embarrass anyone with toe-curling reminders of Cool Britannia. Domitian himself had between AD 83 and 85 put a celeb on his coins, as you can see at the top, the rhino (an impossibly exotic creature) that he had introduced to the Roman audience at the Colosseum. The denomination of coin with the rhino image is the lowest, a quadrans, so had the widest distribution. Domitian did not want the Roman people to forget the rhinoceros.

To Domitian, joining in the fun of Martial’s epigrams brought popularity (though with a slightly different demographic than the rhino coin, perhaps); to Martial it offered a brilliantly disruptive, eye-catching moment as he relaunched his poetic career. As for me, I am presenting you with a quite unprovable hunch, but that’s what blogs are for.

This would, though, be the only surviving poetry of the emperor Domitian, and indeed, modest as it is, a whole poem.