by Lindsay C. and Patricia Watson, Understanding Classics, I.B. Tauris 2015, Pb 174 pages, ISBN: 9781780766379 £(12.99).

This contribution to the Understanding Classics series is a short introduction to the study of Martial’s epigrams.  Watson and Watson’s (WW) method is to offer close readings of a selected number of the shorter poems each accompanied by an English prose translation.  Arguments are made always in the context of the discussion of a particular poem, particularly in the central chapters.  Over seventy poems receive this treatment in the course of the book with a number of extra poems inspired by or translated from Martial, giving the reader a short selection of his work in addition to a critical reading.  Some indication of the metre of each poem would have been helpful to the reader to more readily appreciate Martial’s snappy rhythms.

It should be made clear to potential readers that WW’s discussion of Martial’s obscenity is full and frank.  Their prose translations, which greatly help the reader’s literal understanding of the texts they choose, make full use of a wide range of English obscenities.  This feature of his verse is one characteristic they discuss as a barrier to the appreciation of Martial in past eras, but they assume that no such barrier exists today.  However, Martial is not often set in schools at final advanced examinations and is usually only offered to younger intermediate students in a carefully selected choice and so this book should come (as does Martial himself) with a parental advisory – explicit content sticker.  

Chapter one makes the case for “Why read Martial?” in the course of detailed discussion of epigrams which show how Martial can be a source for the social history of Rome in the 1st century CE.  While rightly warning against too literal a reading of Martial, who was not writing anything like social history himself, themes of patronage and class are identified as well as more mundane activities such as baths and dinner parties.  Martial has not always been widely read and the objections of critics at different times have been that he flatters the emperor too much, is too materialistic, his work requires a sound knowledge of Roman social history and that he is obscene.  These questions are dealt with in some depth including the interesting observation that a proper understanding of Martial’s use of rude words was not possible before the 1980s.  Perhaps rather that the publication of such discussion has only recently become possible.  The central discussion is contained in the next two chapters on his humour and the characteristic elements of his work.  Here representative poems are given full close readings to draw out the essential elements of Martial’s oeuvre.   WW value Martial’s humour for its sardonic wit and point, its wordplay, and its brevity.  The most common technique they identify is the surprise or paradoxical conclusion, like the perfect placing of tuos in 7.3 (the one about the awful poet who always asks Martial for a copy of his books).  They analyse a number of riddling epigrams which are difficult for modern readers to work out (one of my old inspectors used to talk of “solving” an epigram, like an equation) and wonder if this is not actually intentional on Martial’s part.  The paradox is the point.

Chapter five on reception and scholarship is perhaps the most interesting section, going well beyond the format of the short introduction into a survey of recent interpretations and the development of Martial studies in the past few decades.  The crisp and concise discussion gives an excellent summary of the state of play of current scholarship.

Finally a diverting selection of poems influenced by Martial and a number of recent versions conclude the book.  These give a vivid picture of the wit and technical verve that poets can give in their snappy and clever versions of Martial up to the present day.  Highly recommended for those coming to Martial in Latin for the first time but with a health warning for younger readers.

John Bulwer