In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Epigrams and Satire in Latin Poetry

  • Introduction

Classics Epigrams and Satire in Latin Poetry
Patricia A. Johnston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0073


“Epigram” is from a Greek word that means “inscription.” Greek epigrams originally were inscriptions on objects or monuments (often tombs), intended to identify their owner or maker, and are usually defined as pointed and witty maxims or adages. Latin epigrams, too, can be identified as early funerary inscriptions, but they also comprise the erotic and occasional verse of the sort that Catullus wrote and the extant Priapea, a collection of poems about the phallic god Priapus and attributed to an unnamed group of poets who met at the house of Maecenas (the patron of Vergil, Horace, and Propertius, among others). Similar poems, largely lost, were attributed to such authors as Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Ovid, Seneca, Pliny, and Petronius. From a later period there are epigrams by Claudian, Ausonius, Paulinus of Nola, Pope Damasus I, and those authors represented by the Anthologia Latina. By far the greatest body of extant Latin epigram, however, is the collected poetry of Martial, who, in his 1,561 poems, changed the epigram into something almost uniquely his own. Martial will therefore be the focus of this portion of this article. Epigrams fall into four categories: (1) inscriptions, (2) short erotic poems, (3) special verses for social occasions, and (4) the short satirical poem having a “point.” This fourth category causes epigram to be most closely allied to satire. Roman satire, like Latin love elegy (“elegiac poetry”), is considered to be a uniquely Roman poetic form. Originally a mix of verse forms, or of both prose and verse forms, it soon acquired its own character as an ironic or humorous treatment of human faults and foibles. Menippean satires, named after the 3rd-century BCE Cynic philosopher Menippus of Gadara (in Palestine), were a mixture of prose and verse. They were imitated by Varro, L. Annaeus Seneca, Petronius Arbiter, and the emperor Julian. “Roman satire,” however, most often refers to the dactylic hexameter satirical poetry (“Roman verse satire”) of Lucilius, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal.

Latin Epigram and Martial

Latin epigrams were, from the 3rd century BCE, metrical inscriptions in Latin on objects or monuments, especially on tombs, conveying the name, career, achievements, and civic virtues of the subject. The meter was originally Saturnian, but Quintus Ennius (b. 239–d. 169 BCE) added the hexameter and the elegiac couplet, in which the majority of Martial’s poems are written; hendecasyllabic was the next most frequent, while other meters included iambic trimeter and choliambic, with four in dactylic hexameter. From the 1st century BCE on, epigrams appeared in a wide variety of meters as a uniquely Roman genre of short poems on erotic, polemical, or humorous themes. Marcus Valerius Martialis (b. c. CE 40–d. 104), considered to be the creator of the modern epigram, was born and spent his early life in Spain, arriving at Rome in CE 64. He published his twelve books of epigrams in Rome between CE 86 and 103, during the reigns of Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan. His book, Epigrammaton Liber, often called the Liber Spectaculorum (“Book of Spectacles”), celebrated the dedication of the Colosseum (the “Flavian Amphitheatre”). It appeared in CE 80 (see Introduction pp. xxv–xxxviii to Coleman 2006. His next works, the Xenia (“Presents”) (CE 84) and the Apophoreta (“Presents given at Saturnalia”), which appeared in CE 84 and CE 85, respectively, consisted of epigrams in the original sense of the term, as they were short inscriptions to accompany the sort of gifts Romans shared at Saturnalia. Although they were among his earlier works, they were later appended to Martial’s collected works as Books XIII (Xenia) and XIV (Apophoreta). In subsequent years, Martial published Books 3–11 at regular intervals, but Book 12 did not appear until after Martial had left Rome and returned to Bilbilis in Spain. Martial’s contemporaries included Lucan (who perished a few months after Martial arrived at Rome), Silius Italicus, Statius, Tacitus, Juvenal, Pliny the Elder, and Quintilian, although he was apparently not on good terms with many of these authors, except for Juvenal, between whose satires and Martial’s epigrams there are close parallels. Fitzgerald 2007 balances close readings of individual poems with analysis of their arrangement. Grewing 1998 is a collection of essays by distinguished Martial specialists. Holzberg 2002 reinterprets Martial’s poems, no longer interpreting them (as he had in 1988) as concealed criticism of the emperor. Howell 2009 and Livingstone and Nisbet 2010 are part of a series on individual ancient authors. Rimell 2008 discusses the way Martial creates his own Rome through his epigrams and their themes. For Spisak 2007, Martial’s poems are a form of social control. Sullivan 2004 is the first full-length study in English of Martial’s life, poetry, and politics, as well as of the survival of his epigrams to the present day. For more detail on Martial and Epigram, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Classics article Martial.

  • Coleman, Kathleen, ed. 2006. Martial: Liber Spectaculorum. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press

    An extensive general introduction of this book, including the transmission of the text, its subjects, and the identity of the “Caesar” named, followed by extensive commentaries on each of the 36 epigrams within this book.

  • Fitzgerald, William. 2007. Martial: The world of the epigram. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226252568.001.0001

    Places Martial’s epigram in its urban setting, addresses intertextual and intratextual connections (juxtapositions of poems, chiefly), and suggests political readings.

  • Grewing, Farouk, ed. 1998. Toto notus in orbe: Perspektiven der Martial-Interpretation. Palingenesia 65. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

    Contains a preface and sixteen articles on Martial. In the preface (pp. 7–14), Grewing provides a survey of modern editions, translations, and studies of Martial, with special emphasis on Sullivan 2004 (first published in 1991) and on Martial 1993, a three-volume Loeb edition (cited under Latin Epigram and Martial: Editions). Other essays focus on various aspects of Martial’s relationship to Catullus, Ovid, Statius, and Juvenal, as well as individual books. The title echoes the opening lines of Martial’s Book 1.

  • Holzberg, Niklas. 2002. Martial und das antike Epigramm. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

    A reworking of the 1988 edition with a very different approach and emphasis. Here Holzberg dissociates himself from his earlier book and interprets Martial as a poet “who laughs and makes people laugh.” (See Farouk Grewing’s review in Bryn Mawr Classical Review.)

  • Howell, Peter. 2009. Martial. London: Bristol Classical Press.

    A short introduction with a useful bibliographical endnote; intended for modern general readers.

  • Livingstone, Niall, and Gideon Nisbet. 2010. Epigram. New Surveys in the Classics 38. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Introductory survey of the epigram from Greece through Rome and after.

  • Rimell, Victoria. 2008. Martial’s Rome: Empire and the ideology of epigram. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Widely ranging study addressing intratextual relations, structure, order, number, politics, and the ideology of Roman spatiality (distance and proximity within and to/from Rome).

  • Spisak, Art L. 2007. Martial: A social guide. London: Duckworth.

    Treats Martial as writer of praise and blame poetry, intended as social commentary and guidance.

  • Sullivan, John P. 2004. Martial: The unexpected classic: A literary and historical study. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A broad, full-length introduction of Martial’s life, poetry, and politics. Originally published in 1991.

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