Holding up a mirror

The 1st-century AD Roman poet Martial knew the power of words and the weakness of men. He knew that the best a writer can do is to hold up a mirror for her readers, or have the readers hold it up for themselves. He knew that what we don’t want to see in ourselves is the first thing we notice when others start looking at us. And Martial liked to look.

In his famous book of Epigrams, he is careful to set the rules of the game. I’ll make you laugh, but you should probably cry, for what you laugh at is nothing but yourself. Nothing escapes Martial’s vigilence, neither the cruelty of masters towards their slaves nor the squalor of the living conditions of cosmopolitan Rome.

The Epigrams pronounce a Martial law on self-righteousness, without descending into moralism. A power of observation and a commitment to veracity that go to the heart of the brutal reality of any world, not just ancient Rome.

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