Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 5.

Art L. Spisak, Martial: A Social Guide. London: Duckworth, 2007. Pp. vi + 151. ISBN 978-0-7156-3620-6. US$ 25.00 / UK£14.99.

Farouk F. Grewing,
University of Vienna, Austria

'Professor uses new book to change image of popular Roman poet' - - thus the caption of an online feature, published by the Office of University Communications of Missouri State, advertising the book under review here.[[1]] Spisak’s main thesis is neatly summarized on the book’s back cover: he argues that 'Martial with his poetry played a serious and vital role in his community as a social guide or conscience' (whence the title); 'The book’s unique approach to Martial’s poetry places him within the reactionary tradition of Indo-European blame/praise poetry.' Spisak maintains 'that Martial certainly entertained with his poems, but that they, in the main, were also meant to instruct at a personal level.' (p. 3, my emphasis; cf. pp. 97-99)

One of Spisak’s goals seems to be to act as a sort of mediator between two interpretive extremes, that is, between those who have 'slighted [Martial’s epigrams] as poetry not worth much consideration' because of 'the particular literary and social milieu that has influenced and shaped its form, content, and tone', and, on the other hand, those whose approaches reveal themselves as subject to 'over-interpretation of the text, for example, [by] attributing a politically subversive subtext to it' (p. 1). I cannot help but wonder who among the enlightened Martialists would seriously subscribe to either of these extremes?

Be that as it may, in the introduction (pp. 1-13) Spisak briefly outlines what he considers the chief literary background against which Martial, the ‘social guide’, is to be read: the iambic tradition, Archilochus and, above all, Catullus, Martial’s chief 'model' (p. 10). Spisak’s favorite term is vers de société (for example, pp. 8, 9, 11, 12, 35, 97, 104 n. 34), by which he characterizes what in reality is a much more diverse and complex genre. For example, Hipponax and Simonides are hardly deemed worth mentioning (pp. 6, 18, 56); Hellenistic poetry (above all Callimachus but also Herondas) does not seem to exist; Horace’ Epodes appear just implicitly through a quotation from D. Mankin’s commentary of 1995 (p. 6), his Epistles and Satires are mentioned briefly at p. 20.[[2]] In short, the ‘tradition’ established here, namely Archilochus –- Catullus -- Martial is extremely problematic, if not simplistic.

This impression, I must say, is confirmed in the actual first chapter, 'Invective' (pp. 15-33), where Spisak a little further elaborates on the 'Greek iambics', 'Roman invective', and finally 'Martial’s invective'. Invective, abuse, and obscenity are said to be mere correctives: the poet 'claims the right or privilege to target examples of degenerative behaviour because he does it with no malicious intent, but rather to entertainingly instruct and benefit his social community' (p. 32, my emphasis); the 'effect [. . .] of Martial’s obscene jokes was to open up the psyche for refreshment, renewal, and rebirth [. . .] and thereby maintain the community’s health and productivity' (p. 33). Bakhtin (who is briefly touched upon at p. 112, n. 78) would be pleased, but this approach cannot possibly account for the diversity of Martial’s verse.

Chapter 2, 'Amicitia' (pp. 35-51), after a brief review of ancient ethical definitions and discussions of various types of friendship (Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca), considers a handful of epigrams (2.55; 4.40; 5.18; 7.86; 10.58) in order to demonstrate that 'the line between altruistic and utilitarian friendship in Martial’s poems is not at all distinct' (p. 42). The focus is on (the protocol of) reciprocity (pp. 35, 38, 40, 48, and so on). Spisak draws mostly from the well-known studies by D. Konstan, R.P. Saller, and P. White, spiced up a bit by 'social exchange theory' (above all P. M. Blau) to explain that amicitia functions as a non-contractual bond between individuals, which holds the community together.

Chapter 3, 'Poems of Praise' (pp. 53-71), continues in the same vein: it is argued that Martial’s praise poems 'catalogued social views and practices but also in part had the effect of strengthening norms for his readership' (p. 53). The poet keeps guiding his fellow citizens (Chapter 2), with praise being the counterpart of blame (Chapter 1). From a social point of view, Spisak compares Martial’s poems of praise to those of Pindar, his alleged 'model' (pp. 56-61); I have expressed my qualms about this anachronistic simplification elsewhere,[[3]] so this need not be repeated here. The imperial, or Domitianic, poems are seen in a light similar to the non-imperial epigrams of praise: they are 'Martial’s currency in the process of exchange', and the poet 'plays the role of power broker between the emperor and the social community' (p. 61, cf. pp. 68-71). It comes as no surprise that Spisak argues vigorously against any subtext readings of Martial, above all subversive ones, because any such ambiguity or openness 'simply does not accord with what was normally the method and purpose of [. . .] the iambic tradition' (p. 70). That Spisak focuses so much on reading these epigrams as performing speech acts rather than representing them sounds pretty dogmatic in that it makes interpretive pluralism a priori impossible.[[4]] As to the non-imperial poems, Spisak acknowledges that, other than the two epigrams discussed by him (1.39; 6.25), the majority of 'the poems of praise are more subtle', thus 'leaving the reader to draw the inference' (p. 56). How does this accord with Spisak’s own, rather dogmatic, stance? Who is this 'reader' of p. 56?

The last chapter (pp. 73-95) aims to explore Martial’s notion of 'The Good Life'. This includes a description of the urban-rural antithesis in the Epigrams, that is, the pros and cons of a rural vs. an urban existence. Particular stress is laid on what Spisak calls the 'pastoral ideal' as expressed in 10.47 (pp. 81-90)[[5]] and Martial’s idealized conception of a Saturnian Golden Age. Martial’s representation of 'the good life is meant to address the seemingly inevitable ills that attend a complex and civilized society' (p. 95).[[6]]

In sum, it makes me feel uneasy to see Martial reduced to a producer of vers de société much like, say, John Betjeman’s How to Get On in Society of 1958, making fun of the middle class nouveau riche. It is surely true that Martial’s Epigrammata form part of the contemporary social discourse, and I do not at all deny that it is possible to read a number of poems as ‘social comment’. In major parts of his monumental Martial: The Unexpected Classic of 1991, Sullivan, too, views the literary through the social and anthropological, but his approach was much more versatile. To posit that 'Martial [. . .] served a vital function for his audience and society' (p. 13), that is, that his epigrams were destined to function as moral lessons is as one- sided, if not dogmatic, a conviction as that of those who view Martial solely as a politically subversive poet. Ironically, the major drawback of this book is precisely its biased obsession with Martial as a social guide, which so blatantly dispenses with decades of literary criticism. But I am ready to admit that some of this is simply a matter of taste.


[[1]] (April 26, 2007)

[[2]] Apparently, Spisak is not aware of more recent work in this area, such as A. Kerkhecker, Callimachus’ Book of Iambi (Oxford 1999); esp. B. Acosta-Hughes, Polyeideia: The Iambi of Callimachus and the Archaic Iambic Tradition (Berkeley 2002, esp. Chapter 5); or L.C. Watson, A Commentary on Horace’s Epodes (Oxford 2003) 4-19.

[[3]] F. Grewing, review of A. J. Boyle and W. J. Dominik (edd.), Flavian Rome (Leiden and Boston 2003) in Plekos 9 (2007) 79-85 at 83.

[[4]] See his note at 120 n. 2, on Nauta vs. Lorenz, and cf. B. Gibson, BMCR 2002.11.22, vs. S. Lorenz' review of Nauta's Poetry for Patrons, Plekos 5 (2003) 71-81.

[[5]] See already Spisak's 'The Pastoral Ideal in Martial, Book 10', CW 95 (2002) 127-141.

[[6]] For a more balanced view of the city-countryside antithesis in Martial, which takes into account a diachronic development of the author and his poet-persona, see E. Merli, 'Martial between Rome and Bilbilis', in R. M. Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (edd.), City, Countryside, and the Spatial Organization of Value in Classical Antiquity (Leiden 2006) 327-47.