A highlight of a challenging term has been teaching, with Barney Taylor, a new course on late first/early second-century Roman literature–Martial and Statius so far, with Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and Juvenal to come next term. One text this brought me back to is the fourth book of Statius’ “occasional” (i.e. lighter, officially non-epic) poetry, Silvae. I’ve a personal soft spot for the Silvae, and Silvae 4 especially, because it was while, in 1997 in Dublin, I was listening to a talk on Silvae 4.3, Statius’ celebration of the new Via Domitiana that the emperor had built, a quick road connection to Naples, that I had an idea from which, a decade later, this book finally emerged. The idea of Musa Pedestris was to encourage readers of Roman poetry to pay more attention to the metrical form that it adopted, which (I argued) potentially contributed as much meaning to its poetry as any other element of the composition. The various metrical forms that Roman poetry adopted had their own independent character, established by usage (and theory about usage) over time, and this could shape in interesting ways the poetry they carried.
Well, in a fit of nostalgia, here’s a blog that illustrates the thesis, or tries to, that if you ignore the metre of a Roman poem, you potentially miss something fundamental. The subject is three interrelated poems about a statue of Hercules, by Statius (Silvae 4.6) and Martial (9.43 and 44), but first a couple of general rules about metrical character or ethos by way of introduction; with a warning that what I’m ultimately going to argue here is that the poets want us to see their manipulation of metrical structures as in some sense equivalent to the sculpting of a bronze statuette.
Statius’ poem is in a metre that we call the dactylic hexameter, and which the ancients as often referred to as the “heroic verse”. This was by convention the most elevated poetic form, a metre fit to tell the tales of heroic figures of epic poetry like Achilles or Aeneas. (The notion that combinations of long and short syllables could have a perceived character might seem odd, but here and here are striking illustrations of how well-established it was; and here a less striking one.) In any case the hexameter is Statius’ favourite metre in the Silvae, and among other things allows this supposedly occasional poetry to rise at times to the level of epic. Another metre, meanwhile, the hendecasyllable, had been much used by Catullus, and is both Statius’ choice for a number of the Silvae and the second-most common metre in Martial’s epigrams. When used by both Martial and Statius it can evoke a Catullan atmosphere (it lends a sense of Catullan spontaneity, freedom and youthful energy to Domitian’s new road in Silvae 4.3, for instance), but it was also considered a kind of polar opposite of the grand hexameter, a vehicle for trivialities, not heroes. The choice of metre for 4.3, essentially a panegyric of the emperor, was thus also arrestingly unexpected. Elsewhere the hendecasyllable is used by Statius for festive or Saturnalian poems.
The three poems I’m concerned with here all address a single topic, a miniature statue of Hercules (less than Roman foot high, according to Statius, 4.6.39) that served as a table ornament and was owned by a man with the excellent name Novius Vindex. The poems are in hexameters (Statius, Silvae 4.6), hendecasyllables (Martial 9.44), and in the case of Martial 9.43 elegiac couplets. A final word on that last metrical system. The elegiac couplet combines a hexameter line with a shorter dactylic length known as a pentameter, and one consequence is that it can carry with it a sense of being closely related to the heroic hexameter, since that provides its first line, yet also inferior, since a pentameter, a shorter length, always follows the hexameter. But note that this kinship with the hexameter securely establishes elegiacs as higher in the metrical pecking order than hendecasyllables.
Here is one example from elsewhere in the Silvae of the kind of subtle play with metrical associations that these poets are capable of.
Silvae 1.2 is an epithalamion, a marriage poem, for L. Arruntius Stella, a patron of poets such as Statius and Martial and a poet in his own right, the author of love elegies in the tradition of Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid. These had their trademark metre, the elegiac couplet that we’ve mentioned, a combination of a dactylic hexameter and pentameter often said to fall short of the epic hexameter by one foot (pente < hex). Statius’ poem (playfully) presents Stella’s marriage to his new bride Violentilla as an abandonment of his elegiac life of dissolute love (his formerly solutus amor must now obey the laws of marriage, 28-9), and the metre of Statius’ own poem, hexameter, is made to express in its own right Stella’s new status as a respectable married man. Elegy herself, embodiment of the metrical form of elegiac poetry, and of the kind of poetry for which that metre was the vehicle, attends their wedding. In Ovid’s love elegies Elegy had been portrayed as limping (deficient in one foot, geddit?) and all the more attractive for it (Amores 3.1.7-10). Statius’ Silvae have survived by a whisker, and the text is often difficult to reconstruct. But at Silvae 1.2.7-10 Elegy tries to slip herself unnoticed among the nine Muses who are hymning the happy couple, and she does something with her foot (the critical word is unclear, but it may suggest a built-up shoe) to conceal her tell-tale elegiac limp. It’s a brilliant conceit, even if we can’t quite see exactly how it works: if Elegy loses her limp, we have the heroic hexameter, and the hexameter here means marital respectability.
But back to Novius Vindex’s statue of Hercules. It was a representation of the the hero is a relaxed state that had both miniature and full-size (and larger than full-size) versions in antiquity (on this ambiguously titled “Hercules Epitrapezios” see M. Beard and J. Henderson, Classical Art from Greece to Rome, 197-8). The originals, big and small, of this image were attributed to Lysippus (on whose remarkable influence as a sculptor of Heracles see here), and numerous copies survive to this day. But Vindex’s statue is claimed by the poets to be an original, the work of Lysippus’ own hand, and furthermore to boast an illustrious history of ownership, having passed from Alexander to Hannibal and on to the Roman dictator L. Sulla. This seems unlikely, although all three of these men did display particular respect for Heracles/Melqart/Hercules, it is fair to say.
A key theme in the poems on Vindex’s statue is the tension inherent in a statue of a great hero (and a statue that had allegedly belonged to some of the most famous figures in history) which is diminutive in size and function, and in the possession of a private citizen. Statius develops this play between big and small, heroic and domestic, public and private at some length, but Martial does similar things in his first epigram (9.43), which can illustrate the theme:
Hic qui dura sedens porrecto saxa leone
mitigat, exiguo magnus in aere deus,
quaeque tulit spectat resupino sidera uultu,
cuius laeua calet robore, dextra mero:
non est fama recens nec nostri gloria caeli; 5
nobile Lysippi munus opusque uides.
hoc habuit numen Pellaei mensa tyranni,
qui cito perdomito uictor in orbe iacet;
hunc puer ad Libycas iurauerat Hannibal aras;
iusserat hic Sullam ponere regna trucem. 10
offensus uariae tumidis terroribus aulae
priuatos gaudet nunc habitare lares,
utque fuit quondam placidi conuiua Molorchi,
sic uoluit docti Vindicis esse deus.
“This one that sits and softens the hard rocks with outspread/ lionskin, a mighty god in a miniscule bronze,/ and gazes at the stars he once bore with upturned face,/ whose left hand is busy with a club, his right with wine–/ he is no recent object of fame nor the glory of a Roman chisel;/ it is the noble work and gift of Lysippus that you see./ This deity the table of the tyrant of Pella possessed,/ who lies at rest a victor in a world he swiftly subdued;/ by him the young Hannibal swore an oath at a Libyan altar;/ it was he that bade pitiless Sulla lay down his kingship./ Discomfited by the inflamed terrors of diverse courts,/ he rejoices now to dwell in a private house,/ and as once he dined with peaceful Molorchus,/ so the god wished to be the guest of learned Vindex.”
Martial wrote two poems on the same subject, as mentioned. In other words Vindex’s statue provokes in Martial a metrical game he occasionally plays, presenting alternative accounts of a circumstance in different metres, elegiacs and hendecasyllables, the metres seemingly shaping each treatment according to their traditional character. The phenomenon is investigated by Patricia Watson, “Contextualising Martial’s metres”, in R.R. Nauta, H.-J. Van Dam & J.J.L. Smolenaars (eds.), Flavian Poetry (2006), 285-98.
Martial 9.44’s approach to the subject, in hendecasyllables, is strikingly different from his preceding poem. Whereas the elegiacs we have just seen are overtly poetic and formal in expression, 9.44 is colloquial, realistic, and humorous:
Alciden modo Vindicis rogabam
esset cuius opus laborque felix.
risit, nam solet hoc, leuique nutu
‘Graece numquid’ ait ‘poeta nescis?
inscripta est basis indicatque nomen.’ 5
Lysippum lego, Phidiae putavi.
“I recently asked Vindex’s Hercules/ whose work and happy creation he was./ He laughed, as is his way, and with a light nod/ “Poet”, he said, “don’t you know Greek?/ My base is inscribed and shows the name.” I read Lysippus. I thought it was Phidias’s.”
This is a controversial poem. Change the text of the first line a bit and it’s Vindex being questioned, not the god himself; and the point of the last line is elusive, too. But what matters for my purposes is the metrical self-awareness that Martial sees fit to flaunt in his book of epigrams, largely for its own sake. I’d merely make a provisional further point at this stage that Martial’s poetic reception of Vindex’s bijou statue of Hercules shares with that statue a mastery of high and low, the capacity to capture it in the elevated, aestheticised terms of dactylic elegy, and also in the colloquial mode of the hendecasyllable.
Statius also seems determined to create a poetic artefact that shares characteristics with the statue it celebrates, and again his approach has a metrical dimension, I think.
Silvae 4.6 addresses Vindex’s statue in terms so close to Martial’s as to make us suspect the guiding hand of Vindex in each–intriguingly, the two leading Flavian poets never explicitly acknowledge each other’s existence. Again, a key conceit in Statius’ poem is the grandeur of the figure of Hercules paradoxically captured in a tiny figure, finesque inclusa per artos/ maiestas (35-6), “small to the sight, huge in impression” (37-8, paruusque uideri/ sentirique ingens). And like Martial again, Statius’ celebration of this diminutive masterpiece ranges between poetic styles. In this case Silvae 4.6 traverses the full spectrum of poetic registers from satire to epic before settling in an intermediary position that the “occasional” Silvae find congenial.
Let me explain what I mean, and what the implications for metre are. Verse satire was a genre pursued by Horace, Persius and Juvenal (and C. Lucilius before them) and was considered Rome’s only poetic innovation–everything else they borrowed from the Greeks. Satire was a genre of criticism, and more generally a poetry that concerned itself with the lowest, meanest aspects of human life. Satire is never entirely convinced that it’s really poetry at all, so unedifying is its content. (It’s a melancholy fact that the one genre of poetry Romans could call their own isn’t certain it is poetry.) A development that crystallized satire’s character was C. Lucilius’ decision to adopt the dactylic hexameter as the signature metre of this anti-genre–an outrageous choice, since it matched the most elevated metre to the tawdry topics of satire. This reinforced satire’s status as a response, or antidote, to the artificiality of epic poetry. Every subsequent satirical hexameter, one might say, advertised the mismatch of content and vehicle.
Statius in 4.6 frames his encounter with Vindex as a dinner to which Vindex has invited him, and he starts his poem with extensive reminiscence of Horace’s Satires, when he insists the joy of the dinner was not a matter of luxurious food, for instance (Kathy Coleman’s commentary to Silvae 4 cites parallels in Horace), but most obviously at the very start, where Statius wandering idly in Rome, described in a conversational tone, strongly evokes Horace doing the same in Satire 1.9 (Statius’ first line alludes to the first and last line of Horace’s poem). But the dinner-by-invitation, cena, and the sermo, “conversation”, that was conventionally the essence of a good cena (the quality of the sermo chez Vindex is singled out by Statius), were the bread and butter (so to speak) of satirical poetry.
Soon enough, though, Statius’ poem rises to a higher register, as Amphitryoniades enters the poem, “Hercules son of Amphitryon” (33), a grandiose epic patronymic filling half the line, and especially when Statius starts enumerating his eminent previous owners. Here is Hannibal’s spectacular introduction by way of illustration (75-8):
Mox Nasamoniaco decus admirabile regi
possessum; fortique deo libauit honores
semper atrox dextra periuroque ense superbus
“Presently the marvellous treasure came to belong to the Nasamonian king: the valiant god he, Hannibal, honoured by libation, ever savage with his right hand and arrogant with treacherous sword.”
Statius’ poem will ultimately find its way to an accommodation of these divergent registers, the god Hercules still epically mighty, but relaxed and at peace (and pint-sized, of course) in Vindex’s private home, and this compromise typifies the intermediary poetics to which the Silvae aspire. The interplay of large and small, high and low, in Statius’ poem and Martial’s epigrams has been well investigated by Charles McNelis, “Ut sculptura poesis: Statius, Martial, and the Hercules Epitrapezios of Novius Vindex,” AJPh 129 (2008), 255-76, with an emphasis on Callimachus as a model (Molorchus in particular points in his direction), and McNelis draws out the emulative impulse of Martial’s and Statius’s response to the statue–poetic achievements comparable in artistic dexterity to the statuette itself are the only adequate way to celebrate it.
All I’d like to add is a proper recognition of the role of satire in Statius’ poem, and an observation about metre that links both poets. Martial and Statius react to Vindex’s statue with poetry that seeks to match the quality of a valuable artefact, and that matches it in one particular respect: both poets advertise a control of the high and the low parallel to that of the sculptor Lysippus, a mastery of the spectrum of registers from the mundane to the magnificent. In Martial’s case this is conveyed by two poems in contrasting metres and concomitant styles; but Statius also exploits the scope available to him within the Roman history of a single metre, the dactylic hexameter, shifting between the hexametrical poles of satire and epic with as much deftness as Martial flips from elegiacs to hendecasyllables.
When I was writing about metre many years ago I came to feel that the Romans regarded the metrical forms of their poetry as closely akin to physical structures. Michael Roberts considers Statius a harbinger of the style of late-antique Latin poetry, and in The Jeweled Style (1989), p.21 has this to say of the latter:
“Words are viewed as possessing a physical presence of their own, distinct from any considerations of sense or syntax. They may be moved like building blocks or pieces in a puzzle to create ever new formal constructs. It is this sense of the physical existence of words and of meter as their structural matrix that underlies the ingenious verbal patterns of Optatianus Porfyrius and the Technopaegnion of Ausonius.”
Not the least important respect in which Statius and Martial craft an adequate response to Lysippus’ miniature god, creating poetic artefacts comparable to an exquisite sculpture, is in their absolute mastery of the poetic structures we call metres.
I’ve had a busy summer composing an annotated bibliography. It’s a bibliography of Roman poetic metre, and I wrote a book tangential to that topic a few years back (how tangential, I now fully appreciate.) Not the most stimulating activity, it’s fair to say, and if there’s anything better gauged to play on academic insecurities, I can’t think what it is. There is so much I don’t know…
What this exercise has reminded me of, though, is what caught my interest all those years ago, the moments when an ancient poem’s metre is absolutely critical to its meaning. Catullus 11 falls into this category, I believe (I wrote about it here), and Statius’ Silvae 4.3, a poem about a road in which the poet makes it increasingly hard to distinguish road-building and versifying, or so I once argued. Then there was an epigram by Martial, 3.29, composed in a metre called “Sotadean”, quite a rare metre, but one of the most fascinating metrical phenomena that ancient poetry had to offer.
Here is Martial 3.29 in its entirety:
Has cum gemina compede dedicat catenas,
Saturne, tibi Zoïlus, anulos priores.
These chains with their twin fetters are dedicated
to you by Zoïlus, Saturn: the rings he used to wear.
Zoilus is a regular butt of Martial’s abuse, and here we are told that a man who now wears the insignia of high status, gold rings, used to be a slave. True to my topic, though, the Sotadean metre has its own contribution to make. I’ll get to that, eventually…
Greco-Roman metre is governed by quantities, the length of syllables, and Martial’s poem follows the structure of a standard version of the Sotadean ( _ is a long syllable, u a short):
_ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _
Just a pattern of long and short syllables, then. But what makes the Sotadean so interesting is how the ancients responded to this particular pattern. Here is the ancient critic Demetrius (Eloc. 189) describing what happens when a poem is turned from another metre into Sotadeans:
“A composition <is described as affected when it is> anapaestic and like the emasculated, undignified metres, especially the Sotadean because of its rather effeminate rhythm, as in … ‘brandishing the ash spear Pelian right over his shoulder’ in place of ‘brandishing the Pelian ash spear over his right shoulder.’ The line seems to have altered its whole shape, like figures in myth who change from males into females.”
A bit of explanation. Demetrius identifies the Sotadean as an especially “effeminate” metre, then quotes by way of illustration two versions of a line from Homer’s Iliad, 22.133: Homer’s original, in the epic metre of dactylic hexameters, and (before that) a reworking of the same line in Sotadeans. Demetrius then records his feelings about what has happened when a line written in hexameter is converted into Sotadean: it is as if it it has metamorphosed from male to female.
Here are the two versions of the line, Sotadean first, then the Homeric original in hexameter:
σείων μελίην Πηλιάδα δεξιὸν κατ’ ὦμον
σείων Πηλιάδα μελίην κατὰ δεξιὸν ὦμον
Both these lines mean “brandishing the Pelian ash spear over his right shoulder”, but while the second one scans as a hexameter, _ _ _ u u _ u u _ u u _ u u _ _, the first follows the same scheme as Martial’s poem on Zoïlus, _ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _. This may not look like much to you and me, but to Demetrius that reordering of long and short syllables is weird and unsettling.
The Sotadean version of this line was written by Sotades himself, the Greek poet who invented and lent his name to this metrical length. Very few certain fragments of his work survives. That one is Fragment 4 Powell; in a poem that included Fragment 1 he was so rude about the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphus, and the king’s marriage to his own sister Arsinoe, that he was sealed in a lead jar and dropped in the sea, allegedly. In our Fragment 4 he seems to be engaged in “translating” Homer’s Iliad from hexameters to Sotadeans, and we need to ask why.
The first thing to say is that converting hexameters into Sotadeans was quite a popular activity in the ancient world. Quintilian (9.4.90) gives us a Latin hexameter, astra tenet caelum, mare classes, area messem (“Heaven holds the stars, the sea the fleets, the threshing floor the harvest”), which, if you read it backwards, messem area, classes mare, caelum tenet astra, turns into a Sotadean. Similarly, (Demetrius 1.516.29-30 Keil) esse bonus qui uis, cole diuos, optime Pansa (hexameter); Pansa optime, diuos cole, si uis bonus esse (Sotadean), “If you want to be respectable, worship the gods, excellent Pansa”. (Both of these lines vary slightly from Martial’s sotadean, ending _ _ u u.) In the fourth century Optatianus Porfyrius, trick poet par excellence (see Sarah Bond on the remarkable poetic creations of Optatianus here), included “reversible” hexameters/Sotadeans in his Poem 15 in praise of Constantine. William Levitan (reference at the bottom) explains how this poem contains every trick in the box, but this one strongly suggests that Romans of Optatian’s day had lost a sense of what the Sotadean had entailed earlier in antiquity.
I say this because, whatever the truth of the story about his death, Sotades’ poetry was seriously subversive stuff. Strabo gives us the clue when he tells us (Geog. 14.1.41, the same forwards as backwards) that ἦρξε δὲ Σωτάδης μὲν πρῶτος τοῦ κιναιδολογεῖν, “Sotades was the first to write as a cinaedus“, in other words that the main concern of his poetry was to describe what the ancients considered his perverse sex life. A κίναιδος/cinaedus was a man who assumed the passive role in a sex act with another man, behaviour which, according to ancient ethics, was reprehensible and shocking enough to exclude him from the category of true men.
This starts to explain Sotades’ interest in dactylic hexameters. If the Sotadean was the metre of the cinaedus, the hexameter represented its polar opposite: it was known as the “heroic” metre (herous in Latin, τὸ ἡρωικόν in Greek), the vehicle for epic and its praise of Great Men, models of normative masculinity. Varro expressed the relationship snappily: ᾿Αχιλλέως ἡρωικός, ἰωνικὸς κιναίδου (Men. Sat. 360 Cèbe), “the heroic hexameter is the metre of Achilles, and the ionic (the class to which the Sotadean belongs) is that of the cinaedus.” When Sotades converted hexameters into Sotadeans, and epic moments into cinaedic, what might seem to us a very intellectual exercise, transposition from one metre to another, amounts to an assault on the sexual mores of the ancient world. And as any Classicist can tell you, from their sexual ethics flowed much that was fundamental to Greco-Roman society.
Perhaps I don’t need to explain that the line of Homer changes more than its shape when it is converted into Sotadeans. Homer is describing the spear of Achilles, the massive ash-hewn weapon that is his defining accessory: when Patroclus dresses in Achilles’ armour in Iliad 16, the spear of Achilles is the one thing he does not (because he cannot) borrow (“Only the spear of the peerless son of Aeacus he did not take,/ the spear heavy and huge and strong; none other of the Achaeans could/ wield it, but Achilles alone was skilled to wield it,/ the Pelian spear of ash, that Cheiron had given to his dear father/ from the peak of Pelion, to be slaughter for heroes,” 16.140-144). This spear defines Achilles, in other words. It is the essence of his heroic character.
Well, what can I say? The long thin appendage in Sotades’ version of the line is not a spear, that’s for certain.
Turning back to Martial, there’s something broadly similar going on. The poem is presented as a dedicatory epigram, and that had a proper form closely related to the hexameter, the elegiac couplet consisting of a dactylic hexameter followed by a dactylic pentameter. Martial’s poem, converting elegiacs into Sotadeans, subverts the respectable act of dedication just as Sotades had the noble arms of Achilles, implying that Zoïlus and his dedication are morally corrupt, that he is sexually perverted, indeed that Zoïlus’ very rise in Roman society proves that society’s decadence: dedicating his fetters to Saturn, the Lord of Misrule, is an telling detail, too. (A parallel is Athanasius’ repeated attack on the Thalia of Arius, in which Arius set out his ‘heretical’ Christology, as a poem that is effeminate and imitates Sotades: Martin West explains how the metre of the Thalia might be felt to resemble sotadeans, and it’s fascinating to find these obscure metrical issues caught up in the formative conflicts of the Christian Church.)
In so many ways, a deeply unpleasant poem, Martial 3.29, but one that gets much of its force from associating its target with _ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _ . For the ancients, that was metrical code for utter depravity.
C. Connors, Petronius the poet: verse and literary tradition in the Satyricon (Cambridge, 1998), 30-31;
W. Levitan, “Dancing at the end of the rope: Optatian Porfyry and the field of Roman verse,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 115 (1985), 245-69;
Ll. Morgan, Musa Pedestris (2010), 40-48;
R. Pretagostini, Ricerche sulla poesia alessandrina: Teocrito, Callimaco, Sotade (Rome, 1984), 139-47;
M. L. West, “The metre of Arius’ Thalia,” Journal of Theological Studies 33 (1982), 98-105.
Sugar & spice & all things nice
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.