Tag Archive | limping iambics

Sugar & spice & all things nice

Version 2

I’m currently spending a lot of time thinking about the emperor Domitian. The immediate causes are Sophie Hay (to whom I owe the image above) and Kate Wiles, who have got me writing things, separate things, about him. I am deeply grateful that they have. I’ve come back to Domitian, his regime, ideology, the literary culture of his time, repeatedly in my academic life (nearly 20 years ago I wrote one of my first publications on a work of literature by Domitian himself, on the topic of hair care), and I never stop finding it all fascinating.

This blog has a pretty narrow focus. For Dr Wiles I’m writing something on Domitian’s minister or cupbearer, a slave called Earinus. Earinus was a eunuch as well as a slave, and we would know nothing about him if it weren’t for a flurry of poems in A.D. 94 by Martial and Statius, the leading poets of Domitian’s regime. The poems concern a ceremony back in Earinus’ home city of Pergamon which marked his retirement from service as cupbearer to the Emperor.

Here I’m interested in just one of these poems, Martial 9.11, typical of the rest in its exaggerated praise of its subject. Earinus is presented as an ideal of beauty and attractiveness, and thus worthy of the Emperor he has served. It’s all quite hard to stomach, abject flattery, but also (for me at least) interesting as an illustration of the kind of poetry that appealed to Domitian and his court. Domitian, I assume, is the primary audience of the poem, and what it tells us is not just that Domitian was happy to be the target of sycophancy, albeit in this case indirectly, but also that he enjoyed poetry displaying a pretty extreme degree of erudition.

Three of Martial’s poems on Earinus, 9.11-13, are variations on one trope, the difficulty of fitting Earinus’ name into a poetic line, which obliges Martial to paraphrase it. “Earinus” is a word of four short syllables, though since the last syllable changes with inflexion, the problem is with the first three consecutive short syllables, in technical terms a tribrach. In the process of regretting the difficulty of versifying “Earinus”, which means “springlike”, and compensating for his failure, Martial is of course able to say lots of very complimentary things about him.

Here’s the poem, with a translation much indebted to Shackleton Bailey.

Nomen cum uiolis rosisque natum,
quo pars otima nominatur anni,
Hyblam quod sapit Atticosque flores,
quod nidos olet alitis superbae;
nomen nectare dulcius beato,              5
quo mallet Cybeles puer uocari
et qui pocula temperat Tonanti,
quod si Parrhasia sones in aula,
respondent Veneres Cupidinesque;
nomen nobile, molle, delicatum              10
uersu dicere non rudi uolebam:
sed tu syllaba contumax rebellas.
dicunt Eiarinon tamen poetae,
sed Graeci quibus est nihil negatum
et quos Ἆρες Ἄρες decet sonare:              15
nobis non licet esse tam disertis
qui Musas colimus seueriores.

Name born with the violets and roses,
by which is named the best part of the year,
which savours of Hybla and Attic flowers
and has the fragrance of the haughty bird’s nest;
name sweeter than blessed nectar,
by which Cybele’s boy would prefer to be called
and the boy who mixes the wine cups for the Thunderer,
to which, if you voice it in the Parrhasian palace,
Venuses and Cupids answer:
that noble , soft and charming name
I wished to put in polished verse.
But you, obstinate syllable, resist.
And yet poets say Eiarinos,
but they are Greeks, to whom nothing is denied
and who think it proper to chant “Ares, Ares.”
I, who cultivate more austere Muses,
cannot be so glib.

An all-too rapid gloss of the rest of the poem before I concentrate on what most interests me, something nice and metrical (an old interest of mine) at lines 10-11:

Precluded from using Earinus’ name directly (as we eventually discover), Martial traces its derivation from spring (2), and associates it with springtime things like flowers (1), sweet-tasting springtime things like honey (the best honey came from Attica, especially Mt Hymettos, the second-best from Mt Hybla, Sicily; thyme-flavoured honey from Hymettos was the crème de la crème), and sweet-smelling springtime* things like the nest in which the phoenix died (4), reputedly constructed out of the bark-derived spices cassia and cinnamon (a strange and rather lovely piece of folklore).

Earinus, I think we can conclude, is sweet. Nectar is sweet, too, and as the drink of the gods, turns the poem towards the divine. Now the unnameable name is one coveted by two beautiful mythological boys, Attis (6) and Ganymede (7). Those two figures suggest other aspects of Earinus: Attis was a eunuch; Ganymede the archetypal cupbearer. Both were the beloved of gods, Cybele and Zeus, respectively, and it is Earinus’ sex appeal at issue in 8-9, to be witnessed in Domitian’s magnificent palace on the Palatine (“Parrhasian” = Arcadian, after Evander, an Arcadian former resident of the Palatine hill; the photo at the top is the ramp that led to the palace). Martial and Statius strongly and consistently imply that Earinus was Domitian’s lover, and cupbearers, young slave boys, undoubtedly laboured under that expectation in antiquity. Ganymede, the ultimate cupbearer, was the lover of Zeus. I don’t really believe this was the relationship between Earinus and Domitian, but that’s not relevant here.

At 10-11 we get to the heart of things: this wonderfully evocative name won’t fit into the rigid systems of short and long syllables that was ancient Greco-Roman verse. The problem is the short “E” that starts Earinus’ name (12): if only Martial had the license allowed Greek poets to lengthen syllables so as to make them fit the metre (13), as even Homer had notoriously done in a formula of address to the god Ares at Iliad 5.31 and 455, where the repetition of the god’s name fits the metre by having a long “a” in the first example, and short in the second (15).

The poem ends ironically, contrasting Martial’s greater compositional discipline with these examples of Greek license. Epigram, the genre that Martial writes, can never seriously be called austere, especially when he has just cited the most solemn style of poetry antiquity knew in the shape of Homer’s Iliad. The irony is sharpened by a Catullan tone that Martial cultivates throughout this poem, in verbal reminiscence of Catullus, and in the metre he chooses for the poem, hendecasyllables, a form intimately associated with Catullus, and capable of embodying whatever Catullus was felt to represent, youth, love, sex appeal.

An extremely cursory account of the poem there: Henriksén’s excellent commentary on Martial 9 has lots more detail, and pursues some other interesting avenues. But it’s worth contemplating for a second the intense sophistication of this poem for Earinus, unusually elaborate and erudite for Martial. The style of the poem is designed to convey in its own richness the qualities of the person it honours, and if that starts to make it sound like a gift to Earinus, like all gifts embodying somehow the character of the recipient, that may be a useful way of thinking about it. I respond to this poem as I do to a Fabergé egg, with a combination of admiration and repulsion, and that may be because both are creations that need to match the value of the high-status people to whom they are presented, the Tsarina in the case of the eggs, the emperor’s cupbearer for Martial.

A final example of the preciousness of this poem, and it brings us back to metre. As mentioned, it is composed in hendecasyllables, and in 10-11 Martial has generally been understood as saying that the name Earinus, with its three opening short syllables, cannot be fitted into any poetic metre; in 15 he mentions Homer’s trick to make Ἆρες Ἄρες fit his hexameters. The problem with this reading is that, while it is certainly true that the hendecasyllable cannot accommodate three consecutive short syllables, and true also of the elegiac couplets in which all Martial’s other poems on Earinus are couched, it isn’t true of all metres, and not even true of all Martial’s metres.

The vast majority of Martial’s epigrams are written in three metres, elegiac couplets, hendecasyllables, and choliambics (also known as limping iambics, or scazons). Choliambics were a metre with a strongly defined character, invented by the Greek poet Hipponax as a vehicle for his poetry of abuse. By Martial’s time the metre was less specialized in its application, and Martial himself uses it for poems which couldn’t count as abusive. But it is the nature of metrical meaning that the deeper associations of a metre are there to be activated if it suits an author to do so.  So when Pliny the Younger, a contemporary and acquaintance of Martial, wanted Suetonius to get a move on and publish something, possibly the De Viris Illustribus, he threatened, in jocular fashion, to use choliambic verses “to torture those books of yours out of you with abuse” (Ep. 5.10).

Here in Martial’s poem, line 11, uersu dicere non rudi uolebam, can be read as “I wanted to say [your name] in polished metre,” i.e. with “polished” (non rudi) as a strictly ornamental epithet of uersu, “metre”. But the emphasis could also be on non rudi, “I wanted to say [your name] in a metre that was polished,” i.e. rather than in an alternative metre, one that wasn’t polished. Furthermore, “Earinus” cannot go into two of Martial’s three favourite metres, but it does, tribrach and all, fit very nicely in a choliambic line.

The choliambic could very easily count as an unpolished metre. It was understood as a version of a conventional iambic line, the metre most famously of the dialogue in Greek tragedy, which was hobbled, and stumbled, at the end of line. Non rudi is literally “not rough”: the choliambic was as rough as metre gets (according to the ancient critic Demetrius it is “unrhythmical”, as if not really poetry at all, Eloc. 301), and rough in its traditional application, too. Martial is not saying that he was unable to name Earinus in any verse form, then, but that there was no respectable verse form that would accommodate it; by implication, that Earinus was far too exquisite a creature to hang about in choliambics.

The final way in which Martial’s poem expresses the ineffable beauty of Earinus, then, is that his name is too precious to be spoken of in a disreputable metrical form. And the final layer of sophistication in this gift to Earinus, the final poetic gem, is to flatter Earinus’ (and Domitian’s) intelligence by engaging them in a very sophisticated play on metrical convention.


*According to Pliny the Elder, citing Manilius, the regeneration of the phoenix takes place “around noon on the day when the sun enters the sign of Aries”, i.e. March 21.