From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Martial's keen curiosity and power of observation are manifested in his epigrams. The enduring literary interest of Martial's epigrams arises as much from their literary quality as from the colorful references to human life that they contain. Martial's epigrams bring to life the spectacle and brutality of daily life in imperial Rome, with which he was intimately connected.
From Martial, for example, we have a glimpse of living conditions in the city of Rome:
- "I live in a little cell, with a window that won't even close,
- In which Boreas himself would not want to live."
Book VIII, No. 14. 5-6.
As Jo-Ann Shelton has written, "fire was a constant threat in ancient cities because wood was a common building material and people often used open fires and oil lamps. However, some people may have deliberately set fire to their property in order to collect insurance money." Martial makes this accusation in one of his epigrams:
- "Tongilianus, you paid two hundred for your house;
- An accident much common in this city destroyed it.
- You collected ten times more. Doesn't it seem, I pray,
- That you set fire to your own house, Tongilianus?"
Book III, No. 52
Martial also pours scorn on the doctors of his day:
- "I felt a little ill and called Dr. Symmachus.
- Well, you came, Symmachus, but you brought 100 medical students with you.
- One hundred ice-cold hands poked and jabbed me.
- I didn't have a fever, Symmachus, when I called you –but now I do.
Book V, No. 9
- "You say that the rabbit isn't cooked, and ask for the whip;
- Rufus, you prefer to carve up your cook than your rabbit."
Book III, No. 94
Martial's epigrams are also characterized by their biting and often scathing sense of wit as well as for their lewdness; this has earned him a place in literary history as the original insult comic. Below is a sample of his more insulting work:
- "You feign youth, Laetinus, with your dyed hair
So suddenly you are a raven, but just now you were a swan.
You do not deceive everyone. Proserpina knows you are grey-haired;
She will remove the mask from your head."
Book III, No. 43
- "Rumor tells, Chiona, that you have never been fucked
and that nothing is purer than your cunt.
Nevertheless, you do not bathe with the correct part covered:
if you have the decency, move your panties onto your face."
Book III, No. 87
- "'You are a frank man', you are always telling me, Cerylus.
Anyone who speaks against you, Cerylus, is a frank man."
Book I, No. 67
- "Eat lettuce and soft apples eat:
For you, Phoebus, have the harsh face of a shitting man."
Book III, No. 89