In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Martial

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Forms and Meters of Martial’s Epigrams
  • Editions
  • Translations
  • Intertexts
  • Larger Scale Structures
  • Interplay Between the Real World and the Literary World
  • The Poet and His Patron
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Later Reception

Classics Martial
Patricia A. Johnston
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0082


Most of what we know of the origin and early life of Marcus Valerius Martialis (Martial) has been gleaned from his works: the 1561 short, witty poems known as Epigrams that he wrote and which established him as the creator of the modern epigram. He was born in Spain, at Bilbilis, on March 1 between 38 and 41 CE. He died (according to Pliny Epistles 3.21) in Spain between 101 and 104 CE. In Book 10.24 of his Epigrams, composed between 95 and 98, he mentions celebrating his fifty-seventh birthday, and hence he was born on March 1 in 38, 39, 40 or 41 CE. His twelve books of Epigrams were published in Rome between 86 and 103 CE, during the reigns of the emperors Domitian (81–96 CE), Nerva (96–98 CE), and Trajan (98–117 CE). In his poems he satirizes city life and the scandalous activities of his acquaintances, and romanticizes his provincial upbringing. Martial indicates that he came to Rome about 64 CE (Epigrams 10.103 and 10.104), where he appears to have been supported by the younger Seneca, Gaius Calpurnius Piso, and other important patrons (Epigrams 4.40, 12.36) and friends, including the poet Juvenal. The location of his farm at Nomentum (modern Mentana) near Rome, where Seneca and his family owned property, has been cited as evidence of his relationship to Seneca. It has been suggested that the real reason he left Rome was that he was too closely associated with Domitian, whose memory, after he was murdered in 96, was condemned by the Roman Senate. After the death of Domitian, Martial repudiated his earlier praise of this emperor, and instead turned to Emperor Nerva, to whom he dedicated Books 10 and 11, some of which have not survived. But Martial’s poetry and personal position were too closely associated with Domitian for him to be comfortable at Rome. After living in Rome for 34 years, he retired to Spain in 98 CE, and although he was disappointed by the absence of the advantages he had known at Rome, and by the lack of urban sophistication in small-town Bilbilis, he did not live long enough to return to Rome, even if he had wanted to do so.

General Overviews

Sullivan 2004 (cited under Forms and Meters of Martial’s Epigrams) is an excellent beginning for a broad introduction to the works of Martial and to his world. Holzberg 2002 contradicts the author’s 1988 shorter edition. Grewing 1998 is a collection of critical essays. In the category of shorter introductions, Howell 2009 is quite useful; Livingstone and Nisbet 2010 is a solid bibliographical essay in the Cambridge University Press Greece and Rome New Surveys in the Classics series. Among contemporary treatments, Spisak 2007 discusses Martial’s social world. Fitzgerald 2007 (cited under Forms and Meters of Martial’s Epigrams), Rimell 2008, and Roman 2010 consider Martial in the context of the details of the city Rome in his time.

  • Grewing, Farouk, ed. 1998. Toto Notus in Orbe. Perspektiven der Martial-Interpretation. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

    Contains a preface and sixteen articles on Martial. In his Preface (pp. 7–14), Grewing provides a survey of modern Editions, Translations, and studies of Martial, with special emphasis on Sullivan’s 1991/2004 monograph (Sullivan: Martial, the Unexpected Classics, pp. 7, 31, 76, 149 ff, 105–107, 255, 217–221, and 290; pp. 12, 31, 171, 198) and on Shackleton Bailey’s three-volume Loeb edition (cited under Translations). Other essays focus on various aspects of Martial’s relationship to Catullus, Ovid, Statius, and Juvenal, as well as individual books.

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

    An expanded version of Holzberg’s shorter 1988 edition, with a different approach and emphasis. There Holzberg depicted Martial as a “social critic” teaching his contemporaries to achieve the Horatian ridentem dicere verum, with Martial as a regime critic. This book, rejects those interpretations and is greatly expanded, to include the twelve epigram books (1–12), the Liber Spectaculorum, the Xenia (Book 13) and the Apophoreta (Book 14). Here he has become a poet “who laughs and makes people laugh.” (See also review by Grewing.)

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

    A short (126 pp.), readable introduction with a useful bibliographical endnote. Intended for the modern general reader, but also provides a solid introduction for students of Martial in Latin or for a civilization or literature course in translation.

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

    Published for the Classical Association, this is an introductory survey of the epigram as a genre, tracing its migration 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 Martial’s vision of the relationship between art and reality and his role in formulating modern perceptions of Roman spatiality (distance and proximity within and to/from Rome).

  • Roman, Luke. 2010. Martial and the city of Rome. Journal of Roman Studies 100:88–117.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0075435810000092

    Examines the representation of the city of Rome in Martial’s Epigrams, and specifically, his references to urban topography, with the city a vivid presence to a degree unparalleled in Roman poetry. He fashions a Rome that is more relentlessly sordid, irregular and jagged in texture, and overtly dissonant in its juxtapositions, than the literary cities of his poetic predecessors. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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

    Treats Martial as a writer of praise and blame poetry that is intended as social commentary and guidance.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.