Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

The Father of Epigram

by Henry S. Salt

THE origin of the Epigram in our modern sense of the word, must be sought in Latin poetry rather than in Greek; and of Latin Epigrammatists by far the most distinguished was Marcus Valerius Martialis, known to us familiarly as Martial. Of the personal facts of his life little has been recorded, and such knowledge as we have is mainly derived from references in his own works; it is solely on his merits as a writer of short, terse, and pungent poems that his reputation is founded. Born at Bilbilis, in Spain, about A.D. 43, he came to Rome as a young man, and stayed there for fully thirty-five years, during which time he published all but the last of his twelve books of epigrams. He returned to Spain A.D. 100, and died there about four years later.

The character which Martial bore at Rome was that of a genial humorist. He was described by the younger Pliny as having “as much good nature as wit”; he was, moreover, what would now be called a Bohemian and “man about town,” and he appears to have been liked and admired in a wide circle of acquaintance, besides being a personal friend of Quintilian, Lucan, Juvenal, Silius Italicus, and Pliny. From a poem addressed by him to Quintilian (II, 90) some idea can be formed of his vivacious, easy-going temperament.

Quintilian, erring youth’s most trusty guide;
Quintilian, glory of the Roman bar;
If from the lure of wealth I turn aside,
And haste to live, ere age my vigour mar,
Thou’lt pardon me; too slow we mortals are
To seize on life before life’s joy hath died:
Who longer waits, let mammon be his care,
And pomp of statue-cumbered halls his pride.
Mine be a home that scorneth not the touch
Of smoke up-curling from the rustic hearth;
Mine a quick-flowing stream, a grassy lea;
An household well-content, secure from dearth;
A gentle wife, not learned overmuch;
Calm nights with sleep, calm days from discord free!*

As a result of this unwillingness to bind himself to any regular profession, Martial was compelled to live by his wits, and his genius soon showed itself in the lighter form of verse. But no poet in those days  could afford to dispense with a patron; and however uncongenial such dependence may have been to the better side of Martial’s nature, he did not scruple to pay assiduous court to the influential and wealthy: in particular his flattering of the Emperors Titus and Domitian, who bestowed on him equestrian rank and other favours, was little less than abject, and from his own writings it appears that he could stoop at times to tout among rich friends for a dinner or a suit of clothes. A still worse blot on his fame is the extreme grossness which pervades a great number of his poems; but this, it should be remembered, was a common blemish of the age in which he lived, and one which was scarcely less noticeable in his great predecessor, Catullus, and in his contemporary Juvenal, and from which even such writers as Ovid and Horace were not exempt. It may at least be said of Martial that he was neither hypocritical nor malicious, and that while a large portion of his verse must be discarded for its indecency, there is also much that is marked by a high regard for beauty and uprightness. That Martial felt an honourable pride in his function of epigrammatist may be seen from the following lines (IV, 49):—

You know not, friend—I tell you true—what epigrams are worth:
You deem them nought but badinage, mere raillery and mirth.
More mirthful he whose pen would write of cruel Tereus’ fate,
Or of that ghastly banquet-board whereat Thyestes sate;
How Dædalus equipped his son to wing it o’er the deep;
How Cyclops on Sicilian hills roamed pasturing his sheep.
All such bombastic windy themes my sober songs disdain,
Nor walks my Muse in crazy garb of swollen tragic train.
Yet men still praise, admire, adore, the high heroic deed:
Ay, verily; such songs they praise; but mark you, mine they read.

If Martial was, as I have styled him, the Father of Epigram, this was largely due to his anticipation of the adage that brevity is the soul of wit. His best work is of that briefest class in which there is not a word that is superfluous or misplaced, but a perfect sequence and a cumulative effect which ends on the one night and inevitable note, and so leaves on the reader’s mind precisely the desired impression: keener wit was never allied with apter language. Take, for instance, a couple of those terse distichs in which he shows how one personality may find itself at cross—purposes with another: here even a translation, though it must miss the perfection of the original, may preserve something of its facility:—

There’s such a hard, soft, sweet, sour way about thee—
With thee I cannot live, nor yet without thee.
—(XII, 47.)

I flee your courtship, court you when flee:
Our moods agree not, save to disagree.
—(V, 83.)

When one considers the wide range of Martial’s wit, and the modernness of his outlook on life, it is rather surprising that only one of his epigrams (I, 33) has become really naturalised in an English form—the well-known “I do not love thee, Dr. Fell”—and even there the obligation to the Roman poet has been almost entirely forgotten. For Martial, as a satirist, scourges all sorts of follies which are scarcely less rampant m our time than in his own, and which seem to be the inevitable excrescences of the “civilisation” of a great city: never were beaus and busybodies, poetasters and plagiarists, legacy-hunters, and the vicious types of swindlers and noodles, pilloried with ridicule so effective yet so delicate. The beau, for example, is thus addressed (III, 63):—

Charles, you’re a Beau; so many say; nor dare I disagree:
But this I beg you, tell me, Charles, just what a Beau may be
A Beau is one who combs and curls his hair in order neat;
Who’s always lavendered, or bathed in perfume rich and sweet;
Who hums the very latest tune from Egypt or from Spain;
Who waves his sleek and dainty hands to mark the varying strain;
Who haunts the seats where ladies sit, and loitering daylong there
Forever murmurs flattering words in some attentive ear;
Who opes a dozen billets-doux and wields an amorous pen;
Who shrinks from slightest elbow-touch of coarse unpolished men;
Who knows of every love affair, and spreads the gossip wide;
Who can recount the pedigree that brings Hirpinus1 pride.
Is this a Beau? how say you? this? Then, Charles, if it be so,
A fearful and a wondrous thing it is to be a Beau.

Nor does the busybody fare any better at Martial’s hands (II, 7):—

Neatly you plead, friend Attalus, and neatly you recite;
Neat are the verses you compose, neat histories you write;
Neat epigrams you hammer out, neat comedies you plan;
A neat astrologer you are, a neat grammarian:
Most neatly, Attalus, you sing, most neatly dance withal;
You’re neat in playing on the harp, you’re neat in playing ball:
While nothing that you do is good, neatness you never lack:
Say, shall I tell you what you are? A most outrageous Quack.

In view of the vituperative powers which Martial possessed, he must be credited on the whole with being a merciful satirist; but there are occasions when he strikes rather heavily in his lampoons. Thus (XII, 54):—

Red hair, swart face, club foot, and eyes all blear:
A rogue you are, if aught on earth is clear.

And elsewhere (II, 87):—

Of maidens burning for your love you chatter:
You—with the face of one who swims ’neath water.

It would seem that there was no law of libel in the Rome of that date. Nor can the legacy-hunters have enjoyed Martial’s comments on their trade, for this is the advice which he gives to one of their victims (VI, 63):—

You know you’re hunted, know who sets the snare,
Know to what end his crafty projects lead;
Yet, senseless, in your will you’ve named him heir,
And bid him, madman! to your wealth succeed.
Big gifts, ’tis true, he’s sent, but baited sly:
Do fishes bless the hooks whereon they’re caught?
Think you this rogue will sorrow when you die?
Nay, if you wish him tearful, leave him—naught.

The Epigrammatist, perhaps, is never more delightful than when he is dealing with a noodle pure and simple; it is a very dainty wheel on which he breaks his butterfly (XII, 93):—

Friend Priscus, oftentimes you ask what sort of man I’d be,
If sudden share of wealth and power should haply fall to me:
But who can thus depict his state in days beyond our ken?
If you became a lion—pray, what sort would you be then?

One of the disagreeable features of Martial’s epigrams is, as I have said, his flattery of the Cæsars; in his dealings with his lesser patrons he could allow himself more licence, and some of his keenest shafts are aimed at that target, as when he cries “quits” to one who plays the parts of patron and of client at the same time (II, 18):—

To dine with you (alas! ’tis true) I own I use my wits:
You court more sumptuous feast elsewhere. So, Maximus, we’re quits!
I call to greet you every morn, but lo! you’ve gone before,
Another; wealthier lord to greet. So quits we are once more!
In a long retinue I march, to flatter your proud will:
You march to grace another’s pomp. ’Tis quits between us still!
Come, then: a vassal I may be; a vassal’s vassal, No!
If you’re so lofty, Maximus, you must not stoop so low.

The niggardliness of rich friends is a frequent theme; his retort to one Caius may serve as an example (II, 30):—

I asked him fifty pounds to lend—
To give them he could well afford—
A man of means, a trusted friend,
Whose coffers scarce his wealth can hoard.
Says he: “If at the Bar you plead,
You’ll make your fortune in a trice.”
Caius, ’tis fifty pounds I need:
Give that: I do not need advice.

Martial, as we have seen, was properly jealous of the dignity of his poetical calling; and in an age which swarmed with sycophants and imitators, it was inevitable that much of his satire should be directed against the impostors who plagiarised his verses, or exploited them in recitations, or used various devices to get free copies of his books. In these matters it would seem that the world of letters has not greatly changed in the past eighteen centuries. One wonders what were the feelings of the Tucca who received the following protest (XII, 95):—

Epic I wrote, you likewise; I retired,
Craving no glory from such rival won:
To tragic grandeur, next, my Muse aspired;
Thou, too, the robe of tragedy didst don.
I twanged the lyric string that Horace knew;
You snatched my lute in your ambitious game:
Satire I dared—a satirist were you:
Light elegies—your fancy was the same.
A lowlier theme in epigrams I sought;
E’en there my palms to you must I resign:—
Choose now, for very shame! Wilt leave me naught?
Let whatsoe’er you covet not, be mine!

Not less effective was his treatment of the elocutionist and the free copy hunter:—

Those verses you recite were mine,
For none but I did write them:
Now yours they are, in every line—
So badly you recite them.
—(I, 39.)

Why did I send you not my books? I knew
What would be sent me, in return, by you.
—(VII, 3.)

But let us now turn from the satirical to the sententious side of Martial’s genius—from his biting sarcasms on the follies of Roman society to his own wise and often beautiful reflections on human life. If the false friendship was sharply denounced by him, there is real feeling in his references to the true, as in the two epigrams devoted to his friend Marcus Antonius Primus (X, 32, 23):—

This portrait that I cherish, flower-entwined,
Dost ask whose features on the canvas glow?
Such was Antonius when the years were kind,
Herein the sire his earlier self may know.
Ah, could Art paint his manners and his mind,
No fairer picture would the wide world show!

Nor are there many more charming descriptions of old age than the following:—

A calm glad life hath wise Antonius led,
Who, numbering now full seventy summers fled,
Looks back on. days long past and ripened years,
Nor that less distant stream of Lethe fears.
No day, recalled, seems joyless or unblest;
Not one that he would banish from his breast:
Thus lengthened is a good man’s life; for this
Is twice to live, when bygone hours are bliss.

The perils of procrastination form the subject of several of Martial’s shrewdest epigrams; none, perhaps, is better than this playful bantering of “To-morrow” (V, 58):—

You’ll live to-morrow—to-morrow is your cry!
Say, when will your to-morrow have its birth?
Where dwells to-morrow? does it bide near by,
Or lurk in some far corner of the earth?
Ancient as Adam is tomorrow’s date:
If I would buy to-morrow, what’s to pay?
To-morrow live you? Why, to-day’s too late:
Yea, wise was he whose life was yesterday.

We have seen that the poet could stoop, on occasion, to be a flatterer and parasite; it is only fair, therefore, to set against the verses which show him in that unfavourable light one of his nobler conceptions of the uses of wealth (V, 42):—

Some crafty thief thy strongest box shall break,
Or pitiless fire thy cherished home o’erthrow;
From wasted loans small profit shalt thou take,
Small harvest reap from seed that thou didst sow:
A mistress false shall make thy purse her prey;
Thy freighted ships shall founder in the brine;
Naught canst thou keep but what thou giv’st away:
That only, and beyond all chance, is thine.

There are occasions, too, when Martial can celebrate love as worthily as friendship, and when from the mire with which too many of his humorous fancies are stained there emerges a pure gem like this short epithalamium (IV, 13):—

’Tis Claudia weds my Pudens; union fair!
Wave happy torches, Hymen, o’er the pair!
Thus mix rich spices in one fragrance sweet;
Thus Massic wines with Attic honey meet:
Not fitlier joined are elm and vine; nor more
Is stream to lily dear, to myrtle shore.
Perpetual concord o’er their home preside!
Thou, Venus, bless such bridegroom and such bride!
Long may she love him, and in time’s despite
Herself to him seem young, though hair be white.

Nor are there lacking, here and there among the Epigrammata richly-worded love-poems which have the glow of genuine passion: witness the lines to Diadumenus (III, 65), in so far as a translation can faintly reproduce the fire of the original:—

Fragrant as apple ’twixt a maiden’s lips;
As scent of crocus that the soft air sips;
As the first clusters of the whitening vine;
As pasture cropped e’en now by sweet-mouthed kine;
As myrtle, amber, or Arabian spice;
As incense in pale flame of sacrifice;
As lawn that summer showers have lightly sprayed;
As flowery wreaths on perfumed tresses laid:
So breathe thy kisses, thou whose heart is flint—
What if thou gav’st them freely, without stint!

Historical events, or incidents that had moved public feeling in Martial’s time or earlier, form the subject of several fine epigrams; the best known of which are, perhaps, the indignant lines addressed to Mark Antony on the death of Cicero (V, 69):—

No blame on Pompey’s murderer canst thou throw:
Thy crime of crimes was wrought on Cicero.
’Gainst him, Rome’s mouth, thy crazy steel was bared;
Not Catiline himself such deed had dared.
With gold some wretch was bribed to work thy will;
Such price was paid one sacred voice to still;
Yet vain this costly silence thou didst seek:
All living men for Cicero will speak.

The enforced suicide of Arria with her husband Pætus, at the bidding of the Emperor Claudius, A. D. 42, had stirred the imagination of many Romans very deeply: and the heroism of her last words, described by Pliny as “an utterance immortal, and almost divine,” was worthily enshrined by Martial in a memorable quatrain (I, 14):—

When Arria to her Pætus passed the steel,
Which she had plucked from her own faithful heart,
“Think not,” she cried, “this wound of mine I feel:
’Tis thine, thy coming deathblow, that doth smart.”

In spite of Martial’s long residence in Rome, there are not a few indications in his poems of a genuine craving for country life; he seems to have been swayed by two conflicting attractions, one for the artificial excitements of the city, the other for the freedom and simplicity of nature. One of the most charming of his later epigrams is that which describes his delight in the garden given him by Marcella—whether she was his wife or a wealthy patroness does not clearly appear—after his return to his native land in his declining years (XII, 31):—

This grove, this fount, this sheltering canopy
Of vine, this brook in fertile channel led;
These lawns, and roses that with Pæstum vie;
These herbs that here no nipping winter dread;
This fishpond, with its prisoners sporting tame;
This dovecot, white as its winged tenants are—
All were Marcella’s gift, when home I came,
Who nigh on forty year had sojourned far.
In this small realm she throned me; here I live
So blest, that if some fairy nymph unknown
The gardens of Alcinous would give,
Smiling I’d say: “I better love my own.”

The last class of Martial’s poems that need here be mentioned are his epitaphs; and so graceful are these that it has been said of them by the scholarly editor of the Anthologia Latina, Mr. F. St. John Thackeray, that they may be compared with the best of the Greek. “Latin,” he adds, “from its terseness and its impressive strength and earnestness, has remained the language par excellence of epitaphs.” Of the several instances selected by Mr. Thackeray, one must now suffice, the verses on the child Erotion (V, 34):—

To Fronto and Flaccilla I commend
Erotion, my pet, my sweet child-friend;
That she, so small, may tremble not, to tread
The monster-guarded mansions of the dead.
Of winters six she nigh had filled the tale;
Six days were lacking when her life did fail
Now by your side, kind parents, let her play,
Lisping my name in her dear childish way.
Lie gently, Earth, on her young bones, nor be
A burthen to her: she was none to thee.

An Epigram meant, literally, an inscription; and some thing of the original significance of the term is discernible in Martial’s best work; whether it be epitaph, epithalamium or in the modern sense epigram, it produces on the mind the effect that a flawless inscription produces on the eye—clear-cut, appropriate, and concise. Of all later writers who have excelled in the production of witty, pointed and sententious verse there is not one who consciously, has not been indebted to Martial as his father and forerunner in the art.

Published: The Socialist Review, March 1922