Martial translated by Tyler Goldman
Introduction to Martial
We know precious little about Marcus Valerius Martialis (ca. 40-104 CE)—and what we do know, we know primarily from his poems. We know that Martial, as he’s come to be known, was born in Bilbilis Augusta, a small iron- and gold-mining town in the Roman province of Hispania Tarraconensis, one of three Roman provinces in what is now Spain and northern Portugal. And we know, too, that after moving to the capital city of Rome, Martial established himself as one of the most popular and prolific poets of the ancient world, publishing nearly 1600 poems between 86 and 103 CE. For those of you counting at home, that’s about ninety poems a year, every year, for the last eighteen years of his life.
At least some of Martial’s remarkable productivity is attributable to his verse form of choice, the epigram, which developed out of the Greek tradition of chiseling short poems, known as epigramma, into the stone facades of buildings and the bases of sculptures. These material constraints—there was only so much physical space into which one could carve these poems—necessitated concision. Think: epitaphs, dedications, commemorations. When the epigram migrated to papyrus during the Hellenistic period and became a fully fledged literary form, it carried this pithiness with it. The epigram eventually made its way from Greek into Latin, where it became the ideal vehicle for Martial’s razor sharp, gossipy, and always direct brand of social observation and commentary. Corrupt politicians, shyster lawyers, incest, wealth inequality, bad dentistry, sex work, insurance fraud—it’s all there in Martial. In this batch we’ve got a debtor with some clever logic, a frustratingly asymmetrical friendship, a traitorous patron with a plan to secure the (ahem) affections of mutual love interest, a slightly less than pious father-son relationship, and a slightly less than loving marriage.
The fact that we can see and hear ourselves so clearly in these nearly 2000-year-old poems—nearly all of which would fit neatly inside a single Tweet—is both a heartening and disheartening testament to both our human nature and the deep, persistent influence of ancient Rome on 21st-century America. We’ve still got the rich assholes buying fat insurance policies and burning their houses down; we’ve still got the sham doctors and unethical lawyers and corrupt politicians; we’ve still got the chronic over-sharers, and shitty poets, and much too easily scandalized readers. We’ve also still got loyal friends and loving parents, fart jokes and casual sex, good food and good wine and—yes—good poems. Poems that reveal something about what and who we are, and who we were, and who we might become.[Adapted from Copper Nickel Spring 2019, Issue 28]
Five Poems by Martial
Translated by Tyler Goldman
Sexte, nihil debes, nil debes, Sexte, fatemur:
debet enim, quis si soluere, Sexte, potest.
Sextus, you owe nothing, you owe nothing, yes, okay.
You only really owe, Sextus, if you’re able to pay.
Numquam me reuocas, uenias cum saepe uocatus:
ignosco, nullum si modo, Galle, uocas.
Inuitas alios: uitium est utriusque. “Quod?” inquis.
Et mihi cor non est et tibi, Galle, pudor.
When I invite you over, G,
you always come right through.
You never do invite me back.
It’s fine, Gallus, we’re cool.
But only if there’s no one else
you’re asking to your place.
You do invite some other folks?
We’re really both to blame.
You ask me, “How you figure? In what way?”
I’ve got no sense, Gallus, you’ve got no shame.
Facere in Lyciscam, Paule, me iubes uersus,
quibus illa lectis rubeat et sit irata.
O Paule, malus es: irrumare uis solus.
You tell me to make verses about L,
which, when read, will make her mad as hell.
O Paulus, you’re a bad, bad man.
You want her blowjobs to yourself.
Nihil Ammiano praeter aridam restem
Moriens reliquit ultimis pater ceris.
Fieri putaret posse quis, Marulline,
Ut Ammianus mortuum patrem nollet?
When our friend’s father up and died,
he left him nothing but some dried out rope.
Now—who’d have thought it possible—our friend?
He wishes that the bastard hadn’t choked.
Miraris, quare dormitum non eat Afer?
acuumbat cum qua, Caediciane, vides.
You wonder why Afer won’t rest his head?
You’ve seen with whom he has to share his bed.
Tyler Goldman‘s poems and translations have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Poetry International, and elsewhere. He has received scholarships and awards from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Academy of American Poets, the University of Maryland, and the University of Utah, where he is currently a doctoral student in English Literature and Creative Writing.