Martial’s three offensive lessons for writers

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A 15th-century manuscript of Martial’s Epigrams – Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut.35.37

In a ranking of the ancient world’s most offensive writers, the Roman epigrammatist Martial (1st century AD) arguably deserves the top position. There are writers who offend general sensibilities, there are writers who offend precise individuals in writing, and there are those who, like Martial, do both with gusto and without apology. In his Epigrams, he lampoons Roman life in all its contradictions, not sparing anyone on the way. The verb ‘to satirize’ doesn’t quite do justice to Martial’s pasquinades. To ‘martialise’ would probably be more suitable.

Martial’s epigrams have come down to us precisely because they are offensive. I doubt that most 21st-century controversial writing would fare equally well, given recent impulses of direct and indirect censorship in certain milieux. But back to Marcus Valerius Martialis.

If Rome’s most objectionable critic has something to teach us, it can’t be an easy instruction to swallow. To aspiring writers, Martial has three lessons to offer :

  1. A good book is not necessarily one that is widely admired (and I have a separate list of such books at hand). The converse is equally true.

Perhaps my own books are not lauded in such terms but at least people read them!

And those who do are not only poets but the common people, everyone except those stuffy pendants who pore over ancient dusty tomes! (Epigrams, IV, 49).

  1. Writers have a sacred duty to their readers in that they should get their works published as soon as they’re finished. Nothing should be left unshared, except due to suicide or untimely death. This is particularly good advice for those among us who finished their thesis half a decade ago and, though under contract, still haven’t published it:

Sosibianus, your desk is full of manuscripts,

and they’re piled high to the ceiling,

all of them unpublished. Why is that?

You tell me your heirs will publish all the work posthumously. When will that be?

Are you sick or planning to kill yourself any time soon? Your work should be read now.

There is no reason to keep it hidden.

Or is there? (Epigrams, IV, 33)

  1. Reviewers and critics should put themselves in the writer’s, er, quill before condemning a piece of writing. This argument is as old as the profession itself, but I believe Martial’s is its earliest articulation. In an ideal republic of letters or tower of song, every poet is a critic and every critic a poet.

Your reviews of my books are consistently negative. I know you get pleasure from panning my works,

in all the major journals.

Why don’t you put down your critic’s pen

and write some poems yourself, if you’re so smart, or do you think so little of your own work

that you refuse to publish it? (Epigrams, I, 91)

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