Selected Epigrams – Martial (Translated by Susan McLean)

A book is not always just the written content you get when you turn the pages. If you pick up any modern book in the whatever language you call your mother tongue, you are getting what it says on the tin. But if you are getting anything that needs a translator or an editor of any kind, the selection process is going to affect what you read.

Martial was a first-century poet of epigrams, a brief poetic form often associated with satire. He wrote of what he encountered in his times in a manner that can best be called accusing. Many of the pieces he wrote seem to be pointing his finger at a certain member of his society and letting them know just what he thought of them or their actions.

But with a description like that one might wonder what the point of reading this may be, particularly nearly two millennia after these works were written. It bears repeating that this is my favourite edition of the works of Martial from all the ones that I have found, as this is the one that I feel gives you the most honest version of who Martial was, and what his society really was like. Perhaps it was only my upbringing, but I found that often people have something of an idyllic understanding of what life was like. People often think that somehow life back then was greater, or more noble. Or perhaps this is just what the renaissance thought of antiquity. Martial’s epigrams really humanize that time period in the worst (or best) way possible. His epigrams are often addressing the lower parts of society; adulterers, the miserly, serial fornicators, the dishonest, et centra. This gives the work something of the feeling you would get from watching the worst of daytime television, but it is beneficial in as much as it helps you understand that those things that you think may be terrible of our society are actually just terrible of all of humanity. We are all after all bawdy, gossipy, a bit rude.

Martial comes off as moralizing, which can come to feel like a bit much. Thankfully epigrams tend to be short, and so the book s easy to put down and pick back up later. And the wit and brevity with which Martial attacks his own society is, though far from light-hearted, easy enough for one never to get to down from all the criticism. This book is great, even for those who have no interest in Latin or the classics.

Selected Epigrams (Wisconsin Studies in Classics) – this is the edition I vouch for.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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