Pithy sayings from pagan Rome. The martial art of Martial's ancient epigrams, now `Englished'

Epigrams of Martial, Englished by Divers Hands, edited by J.P. Sullivan and Peter Whigham. Berkeley: The University of California Press. 599 pp. $58. Several things have kept Martial's epigrams from their natural modern readers - people who don't generally like poetry, but would love this shrewd, independent, honest, entertaining man. First, he wrote in Latin. Second, he wrote ``plain Latin'' in a licentious age.

``Epigrams of Martial, Englished by Divers Hands'' meets these conditions, and others. It's a fresh translation by various good modern poets (including experts in the epigram such as J.V. Cunningham, Peter Porter, and Raymond Oliver) and includes a representative selection of Martial's epigrams. Indeed, Martial as presented here strikes one as a happy answer to today's pretentiousness, moral and artistic.

Martial was a Spaniard, the son of Roman citizens and the beneficiary of a good Roman education. His ultimate sanity may remind you of Cervantes. His sanity was sorely tried when he first arrived in Rome. He got there at a bad moment. His fellow Spaniard Seneca, Emperor Nero's advisor, had committed suicide. Nero's court, so generous to artists, had collapsed. Though not exactly young (he was about 25 years old when he got there), Martial was patient. Under the Flavian Emperors Vespasian and Domitian (AD 69-79 and 81-96), he joined the equestrian order and had financial stability. He was a success.

Though he had to flatter his patrons in the process, and critics and readers without a tenth of Martial's grit fault him for it, Martial witnessed the transformation of Rome from the conqueror of the world to its capital. He witnessed - and celebrated in his first book of verse dated AD 80 - the opening of the Colosseum by emperor Titus. He is the Dickens of Rome, capital of the world.

As J.P. Sullivan says in his introduction, ``At the heart of Martial's work is a deep concern for hierarchical order - national, political, social, sexual, and moral. From this springs his concern for private and also public decorum, whether at table or in bed, in manners or in clothing, in relationships between equals, superiors, or inferiors, even in literary composition....''

This sense of Martial's concern for decorum takes us to the heart of Martial's more than 1,500 epigrams (a tenth of which are lewd by any standard). Published every year or so from AD 85, his books were favored by emperor and general reader alike. The 12 volumes create a vivid tableau of the capital of the world. Martial's art has the fresh, open-air objectivity of the bust of Vespasian illustrated on this page.

Indeed, once we get past the flattery and the obscenity, there's much to appreciate in Martial's art of the epigram. But even here there's a problem: Taken individually, Martial's poems lack bulk. Often only two lines long, they rarely go longer than a page. They don't look, don't sound, very important. Still, the epigram had been written by Greeks and Romans alike, and no one poet had left his seal on the genre, so it was ripe for Martial to make his name with it.

At its best, the epigram has the brevity, compactness, and directness of inscription - or a stiletto. Later, after Martial, the epigram proved a useful form to monks who only had the margins of books to doodle on when the muse struck.

The epigram heralded the renaissance of interest in all things Greek and Roman, and was favored by Thomas More, John Donne, Ben Jonson, and, above all, Robert Herrick. Later, Dryden and Pope turned the inner form of the epigram into a major civilizing force.

Perhaps Martial is still the best because Martial had the best subject - Rome. To read one's way into Martial's epigrams is to lose oneself in Rome. It's a scary, an amusing, a wonderful place - and nothing if not varied. A deftly polite attack on a certain voluptuary may be followed by nostalgic lines on Vesuvius (it had erupted in AD 79): ``yesterday green with shady vines/... All lies sunk in flames and bleak ash.'' Glimpses of schoolmasters, suitors, poetasters, gluttons, whores, builders, critics, doctors, yield to exhortations to live today, to a portrait of a country house with its garden, or to an ode-like epigram to the river Rhine, bidding it return Emperor Trajan home safely.

Martial's attempts to ingratiate himself with Domitian's successors - like Trajan - met with little success. He returned to Spain. In the preface to his 12th book, he regrets the loss of his audience, and asks his friend Priscus to critique his ``trivial efforts,'' (his nugae, which is Martial's customary modest and sometimes ironic way of referring to his poems), so that he won't be sending to Rome ``a volume not so much written in Spain as written in Spanish.''

Martial's nugae have been read ever since - in Spain, Rome, everywhere. They are exemplary short poems. Martial traded in Greek and Roman myths and the lyrical point of view for the journalist's telling detail and the honest plain man's attitude toward the street and the larger world beyond. He told his contemporaries that his epigrams ``taste of man.'' They still do.

With this volume - a fine piece of book craft, Latin on facing pages, sage and spirited introductions to Martial, his poetry, and the art of translating, and an appendix of older translations that should not be forgotten - Martial will reach a whole new market, which is still what it's all about.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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