Sorry, but I don't mean "martial" as warlike, or of or relating to war (disappointing, I know; nothing is more interesting than war, particularly to those who haven't been in one). Rather I refer to the man we know as Martial, who was more properly Marcus Valerius Martialis. In this year 2766 A.U.C. (Ab Urbe Condita, meaning from the legendary founding of Rome) we remember and read him still.
And not just for the naughty bits as our British cousins might say, though they're certainly present in his epigrams. Nor even for the insight they impart regarding the social life of the Roman Empire in the first century of what is now called, rather insultingly I think, the "Common Era" though there's no question they do. I submit we read the epigrams and remember the man who wrote them because he was clever, artful and amusing and wrote clever, artful, amusing, and even sometimes wise and touching, epigrams.
Epigrams have their fascination, for me at least. To be able to condense thought and criticism and express them with elegance (mixed with vulgarity in Marital's case, but a vulgarity which seems somehow appropriate) requires a certain genius and is a succinct and telling expression of fundamental human characteristics, though they may be less than admirable...just as we often are.
Envy, vanity, lust, greed, egoism, selfishness are especially on display, mostly. They always have been, I think, but have not been so shamelessly and honestly set forth for a long time.
It's curious that Martial was born in much the same location in Spain as was Baltasar Gracian, S.J., author of The Art of Worldly Wisdom and other things. In that work, the worthy Jesuit was rather pithy as well, not in epigrams but in maxims. Those maxims relate to how to distinguish oneself in society, or at least the society of 17th century Spain, and while those maxims are largely secular there is no doubt that they are the creation of a Christian and the product of a profoundly Christian culture. Martial was not a Christian, and the Roman world was not yet Christian; the view of life and people in the epigrams is very different from that in Gracian's maxims. As a result, Martial was often the subject of disapproval by Christian moralists of all kinds, particularly those titans of prudery, the Victorians.
There is a problem with considering Martial and his epigrams from our, largely Christian, perspective, that I think leads us to misinterpret him and the Roman world of his time. We tend to look upon the people of the Roman Empire as immoral and degenerate. We point to Martial and others, especially the wackier emperors, as examples of the monsters we become without religion, which is to say the true religion, of course. Supposedly, the Empire fell due to its decadence. But the "decadence" and the "decadent" we point to in making this judgment existed centuries before the Western Empire dissolved (for various reasons). The Eastern Empire lasted centuries longer, until Constantinople was sacked by Christian Crusaders. We Americans love to compare ourselves to the Romans, particularly those of us who love to moralize and look back to simpler and more virtuous times (as the Romans did, including Martial). We will be fortunate if we last as long as Rome.
Martial was not alone in his condemnation of his contemporaries, of course. Juvenal is another example of a Roman who at least purported to despise most of those around him. But Juvenal's contempt is lengthy and relentless. There is no room for elegance in his satires, and the humor is bitter. Martial is an easier read.
Martial was a professional. He wrote his epigrams to earn his living, in most cases, which makes their vituperativeness somewhat surprising. We don't know who poor Sextus and the others who are lashed in the epigrams were, so it's hard to feel any sympathy for them. We have a tendency to look down on professional artists. Ezra Pound, not the most well-balanced fellow, look down on Pindar for being a professional, and so not a true artist. But artists were and still are professionals, and this was particularly necessary and even deemed appropriate in the world of ancient Rome, where all great men, as patrons, had their followers, called clients. These clients were of all kinds and were dependent on the patron sometimes even for their food (food or at least being seen dining with the great was particularly important in the Roman world, it seems). The clients accompanied the patron, defended him, voted for him, applauded him in the Senate and the courts. He in turn had his obligations to them.
It's still difficult to find good translations of Martial. Older translations of his work tend to disregard the racier epigrams, or even it seems to rewrite them at times. Those translations acknowledge his genius but deplore his lasciviousness. We're not quite as constrained as we once were, though we still tend to look on sex of any kind as shameful, and sex of an unusual kind as sinful. Perhaps literal translations will become more available. Or, perhaps, if we're very fortunate, a new Martial will arise, to lambaste us as elegantly and honestly as he did those of his time.