Blood on the Jumbotron: Martial’s Arena Poems

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Cum traheret Priscus, traheret certamina Verus,
   esset et aequalis Mars utriusque diu,
missio saepe viris magno clamore petita est;
   sed Caesar legi parvit ipsae suae
(lex erat ad digitum posita concurrere palma):
   quod licuit, lances donaque saepe dedit.
inventus tamen est finis discriminus aequi:
   pugnavere pares, succubuere pares.
misit utrique rudes et palmas Caesar utrique.
   hoc pretium virtus ingeniosa tulit.
contigit hoc nullo nisi te sub principe, Caesar:
   cum duo pugnarent, victor uterque fuit.

Priscus desperately played for time, Verus struggled
to hold on too. Neither could get the better of their mortal
combat. The awed crowd kept chanting for the magnificent,
exhausted men’s reprieve. But Caesar was bound by
the letter of his own law. (The rules were clear, there had to
be a winner. Only a raised finger could stop the bout.)

He did what he could to calm things with dishes and gifts.
Then he found a way to end the crisis. They’d battled
to a brutal draw, now each was dead on his feet. Caesar
gave them both, not just a reprieve—but each the palma
of victory and the rudis of liberty. It’s never
happened before, under any princeps, Caesar:
A pair who fought to the finish until both were victorious.

—Martial Spectacles XXXI. tr. Art Beck

Watching the finale of the half time show at Super Bowl XLIX, with Katy Perry suspended on a small platform high in the air amid fireworks, I was reminded of Martial’s sequence of poems on the Roman Colosseum. It’s generally referred to as De Spectaculis, or (to distinguish it from the similarly-named Christian tract of Tertullian) the Liber Spectaculorum.

These are poems not included in the fourteen numbered books of Martial’s epigrams. Their reputation, at least since the 19th century, might be characterized as “mixed.” This dismissive Encyclopedia Britannica description is not untypical:

Martial’s first book, On the Spectacles (A.D. 80), contained 33 undistinguished epigrams celebrating the shows held in the Colosseum, an amphitheatre in the city begun by Vespasian and completed by Titus in 79; these poems are scarcely improved by their gross adulation of the latter emperor.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary similarly treats the Liber Spectaculorum as juvenilia: “Its 33 surviving pieces record contests in the Arena without as yet full mastery of style.”

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I really wanted to get back to the Super Bowl. The Colosseum, it’s said, had props that resembled various skies and starscapes, as well as elaborate pulley systems and other devices. One of Martial’s poems describes a bull, “piously” taken up into the heavens.

Raptus abit media quod ad aethera taurus harena.
   non fuit hoc artis, sed pietatis opus.

The marvel of the bull snatched up from the middle of the arena
into the firmament, wasn’t the stagecraft, but its submission.

Being “tossed to the stars” seems to have been a common idiomatic metaphor for handlers, animal fighters, or run-of-the-mill victims who ran afoul of angry bulls in the Arena. There are surface similarities and profound differences between this ancient scene and the football game where Katy Perry rode a massive golden lion before two shark dancers of inconsistent quality. Then as now, the role of the games was spectacle and prowess. We have anthems and flyover jets; the Romans exalted their histories and military strength. However, except for the star performers, who were valuable property, the Romans would have laughed at any concern that gladiators suffered concussions. Had the trainers access to modern steroids then, no doubt they would have bulked up fighters to the max. A few years ago, the NFL suspended star quarterback Michael Vick for his involvement in dog fighting. To 1st century Romans, the only concern might be that dog fighting is too picayune a sport to attract the attention of a true aficionado. On Super Bowl morning, waiting for the festivities to start, I found myself translating this Spectacles poem:

Lambere securi dextram consueta magistri
   tigris, ab Hyrcano gloria rara iugo,
saeva ferum rabido laceravit dente leonem:
   res nova, non ullis cognita temporibus.
ausa est tale nihil, silvis dum vixit in altis:
   postquam inter nos est, plus feritatis habet. 

A tigress, who likes to come lick the hand of her
relaxing trainer, a rare glory from the Hyrcanian
hills—savagely tore a wild lion apart with her raging teeth:
Something new, completely unknown before our time.
She dared no such thing while she lived in the high forest.
Now, she’s one of us, and more ferocious

The now-extinct Hyrcanian (or “Caspian”) Tiger was slightly smaller than the Siberian—her odds against a lion were probably better than Martial makes them out to be. But the encounter certainly dwarfs any dog fight. And while the helmetted clash of behemoth NFL linemen makes for great, field-miked television, it pales next to this:

Praestitit exhibitus tota tibi, Caessar, harena
   quae non promisit proelia rhinoceros.
o quam terribilis exarsit pronus in iras!
   quantus erat taurus, cui pila taurus erat!           

The rhinoceros pacing, Caesar, circling the arena,
delivered even more of a fight than promised!
Ah, how it lowered that terrible horn and charged in such a rage.
One hell of a bull, who tossed that bull like a rag doll!

Despite their hoi polloi aesthetic, I take a more favorable view of these poems, and I’m not entirely alone. In his 2007 critique, Martial, the World of the Epigram, Cambridge classicist William Fitzgerald devotes a long, serious chapter to the Spectacles. But he begins by noting one of the reasons the Spectacles are rarely translated—except in muddy prose versions—and thus remain among the least read of Martial’s poems:

Standing at the head of Martial’s oeuvre, the Liber Spectaculorum threatens to turn away the modern reader at the very threshold of his work. Even a sensibility dulled by contemporary screen violence may find some of it hard to take. For sheer physical repulsiveness, Spec. 9, in which a criminal is mauled to death by a bear, is difficult to match. The cruel gloating at human suffering and the mockery of the tormented remind us of what has made the Roman Arena a source of such ambivalent fascination to Hollywood.

Fitzgerald has a point. Most readers wouldn’t consider the routine carnage of the Roman “Games” a fit subject for poetry. Especially when the depraved festivities are presided over by a (to us) repulsive Caesar, whom the poet effusively apotheosizes.

But I think the impediment to a modern enjoyment of the Arena poems is not their topic per se. Rather, it’s the subject matter combined with two other interpretive issues. The first issue is the presumption that the Spectacles represent “the very threshold” of Martial’s work. The other is the literal-mindedness of too many scholars in reducing the Roman epigram to prose.

Juvenilia, Celebration, or Something Else?

Kathleen Coleman is a Harvard classicist who’s made a specialty of the mores and workings of the Roman arena. She acted as a technical consultant for the script of Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator, for instance (whose historical inaccuracies she herself criticized). She also focuses on execution practices in the early Roman Imperial period—the time of Martial and the Spectacles—particularly what she calls the “fatal charades,” executions in which the condemned play the roles of mythical figures for the entertainment of the crowd. Only one, possibly two, of the thirty-six poems in Martial’s sequence, portray actual gladiatorial combat; five portray fatal charades.

In Martial: Liber Spectaculorum, Coleman may have expended more time and research on the sequence than any modern scholar writing in English. The first paragraph of her general introduction is particularly useful to keep in mind:

All that one can say with moderate certainty about this book of epigrams is that it comprises an untitled collection of uncertain length celebrating a series of unspecified occasions in honor of “Caesar” (unnamed); and it is attributed to Martial.

Perhaps “celebrating” is too simplistic a term. Both Fitzgerald and Coleman note that, unlike Martial’s numbered epigrams, in which various aspects of Martial-as-persona participate, the Spectacles seem like a series of snapshots by an anonymous onlooker. There is no distinct persona, only scenes and spectators. A 20th century comparison might be the short squibs that precede each story in Hemingway’s In Our Time. The subjects of those news clip are similar to Martial’s scenes: violence, executions, gory bullfights.

As with Hemingway, Martial’s reportage seems to convey a marked enthusiasm for the animal fights. But Coleman’s introductory conclusion invites a modern reader to speculate about just how celebratory the sequence may be. Particularly in regard to the executions and the presiding character, Caesar.

There have been scores of attempts to tie the Spectacles to specific dates in the Arena, and to either the emperor Titus or Domitian. Coleman, who presumably waded through seas of research, concludes that the anonymous Caesar of the Spectacles may be Titus, but might also be Domitian—or could just as well be both. There’s scant evidence that the Spectacles depict a single year’s games, or that, contrary to tradition, the work was presented to any emperor.

Why is this important? It frees both readers and translators to interpret the sequence as something other than some adulatory bouquet of flattery by a would-be court poet. In other words, it allows these poems to simply be poetry.

Martial’s Ceasar(s)

Caesar, who presides over Martial’s sequence, is as much a spectacle as any of the scenes, and his anonymity amplifies that presence. It may not have been Martial’s intent, but the imperial function seems more essential than whoever a particular Caesar might be. And in gauging Martial’s attitude toward the figure of Caesar, it might be helpful to take a quick look the real Caesars in Martial’s lifetime.

Martial was born around 40 AD, during Caligula’s short, notorious reign—he was assassinated in 41. Caligula’s successor, Claudius, was poisoned by his own wife, Agrippina, in 54 AD. (Martial quips about this in his epigrams.) Next came Nero, whose reign needs little comment other than to mention that one of Martial’s patrons upon arriving in Rome is reputed to have been the playwright and philosopher Seneca, Nero’s one-time tutor, who was ultimately forced to commit suicide at Nero’s command.

In 68 AD, Nero was left with no choice except to kill himself when he was overthrown, ushering in the “Year of Four Emperors”—in which three rulers came to violent ends, each usurped by their successor, with Vespasian the last one standing. A grizzled, pragmatic general with a notable sense of humor, he reigned for ten years and died of natural causes in 79 AD, just before the construction of the Colosseum was complete.

After Vespasian’s elder son and beloved successor, Titus, died of a fever in 81 AD, his brother Domitian rose to power. Domitian figures widely in Martial’s poems—a somewhat patron, sometimes benefactor, always appropriately flattered. In the numbered epigraphs, that flattery can be obsequious or playfully subservient. Kissing up to Domitian, the forbearing “lion” to Martial’s “hare,” required caution. Suetonius notes an incident in the Colosseum in which a spectator paid him a compliment that the emperor took as an insult. Domitian had the spectator “dragged from his seat and—with a placard tied around his neck … torn to pieces by dogs in the arena.”

Near-contemporary historians describe Domitian as a petty, cruel, greedy, and increasingly megalomaniac ruler. Suspicious and manipulative, almost Stalin-esque, Domitian cultivated informers and manufactured charges against anyone he saw as a threat. He came to insist on being referred to as “Our Lord and God.” In the end, his tangled spider web of terror proved too much even for his wife, who joined in a palace coup to do away with him in 96 AD. The Senate celebrated his assassination and rescinded all honorifics bestowed upon him. He was the last of the Flavian line that began with Vespasian. Martial was fifty-six years old.

Domitian’s demise ushered in the “Five Good Emperors,” and nearly a century of stability that culminated with Marcus Aurelius. And although Martial managed to survive Domitian, he never attained popularity with the new regime. He retired to his native Spain around 98 AD, missing Rome but claiming to be happy in the country.

It seems clear that, despite the conceits of Silver Age court poetry, emperor worship was a complicated, evolving concept, rife with irony. Seven of the nine emperors in Martial’s lifetime met violent ends. Perhaps Martial was closer, in his private temperament, to the cynical Satires of his dear friend Juvenal, than to the paeans of his fawning contemporary Statius. A century had passed, but Martial was not so many generations removed from his model, Catullus, whose poem about the original Caesar begins:

Pulcre convenit improbis cinaedis
   Mamurrae pathicoque Caesarique

They get along beautifully, those prancing pretty
boys, Mamurra and his butt-pal Caesar…

It’s a huge step in the other direction to this, in the Spectacles:

Quod pius et supplex elephas te, Caesar, adorat
   hic modo qui tauro tam metuendos erat
non facit hoc iussus, nulloque docente magistro:
   crede mihi, nostrum sentit et ille deum. 

That same elephant, who just now was so brutal to
a bull, piously kneels and reveres you, Caesar.
Believe me, no trainer coached or commanded this.
He just senses the presence of our god.

One can read these lines not just as sentiment, but as a snapshot among many in Martial’s arena. A place where, in Seneca’s words “…in the morning, men are thrown to the lions and bears… at lunchtime, to the spectators.” Here’s Caesar, the generous provider of the games, whose power even the elephants adore. And who, with a snap of his fingers, might have some poor ass who’s had one too many torn apart by dogs, for all to enjoy.

Verse becomes poetry at that spark-point where the intent of the poem replaces the intent of the poet. For modern day formalists, that happens when rhyme or meter begins to dictate where the poem wants to go. In Martial’s hands the Roman epigram is an eely, self-subversive format that often implies almost exactly the opposite of what it seems to say. His best epigrams don’t strike that intangible spark of poetry with meter—rather, they hum with the elusive metrics of irony and contradiction. On its surface, Martial’s quatrain is shameless flattery, but in its bald misstatement of the obvious, it also becomes sarcastic reportage of a shameful dynamic. Caesar mocked, by being told just what he wants to hear?

One of Martial’s fatal charades depicts the forced copulation—and likely execution—of a woman by a bull. This isn’t a low-class sideshow. It is the edifying re-enactment of a myth, the cultural equivalent of a Judeo-Christian Bible story:

Iunctam Pasiphaen Dictaeo credite tauro:
   vidimus, accepit fabula prisca fidem.
nec se miratur, Caesar, longaeva vetustas:
   quidquid fama canit, praestat harena tibi.

That Pasiphae coupled with the Cretan bull—believe it!
We’ve seen it: the fable we used to have to take on faith.
You shouldn’t be surprised, Caesar, at such an old tale retold.
Whatever myth sings, the arena presents you with.

The key phrase here is fama canit (fame sings). Fama is one of those all-purpose, multi-meaning Latin words, much broader than fame in current English usage. It can mean gossip, slander, idle chatter, myth or misinformation. But doesn’t coupling fama with canit (sings), seem to preference fame as glory? It would, if not for the subject. The Pasiphae myth is about infamy, not glory. It’s a cautionary tale of a bestial human lust whose monstrous consequence, the Minotaur, has to be hidden deep in a dungeon labyrinth: the very opposite of “fame to sing about.”

At the very least, I read fama canit as sarcastic here. But it can stretch a little further too. Myth might be an equally valid choice for fama. To whom does the myth sing? Is there a double-entendre? As in, “Caesar …whatever myth sings (to you), the arena presents to you.” Perhaps the double-entendre is only the resonance of a deeper, unmentionable whisper that fama canit might bring to mind (if not to paper) in the context of this Imperial sex-snuff show: “Whatever’s rumored to appeal to you, Caesar, the arena presents you with.”

Are these poems panegyric, scoptic—or both? From a cautious scholarly perspective, it may be hard to say. But whatever Martial’s intent, Caesar and Rome are long gone now, and the epigrams, read at this distance, address only the reader. Whatever energy survives isn’t because of the extravagant praise, but because of the authorial portrait reflected in that praise, like a brutally honest mirror. Perhaps this is what Ben Jonson was thinking in his “To the Ghost of Martial”:

Martial, thou gav’st far nobler epigrams
To thy DOMITIAN, than I can my JAMES :
But in my royal subject I pass thee,
Thou flatter’dst thine, mine cannot flatter’d be.

In Spectacles 9, the scene is another execution for entertainment. This time the reenactment is secular, taken from the popular theater, and Martial interjects another, much deeper, cultural image. The ellipses here indicate text lost in the original manuscript, wholly re-imagined (in parenthesis) in the translation:

Qualiter in Scythica religatus rupe Prometheus
   assiduam nimio pectore pavit avem,
nuda Caledonio sic viscera praebuit urso
   non falsa pendens in cruce Laureolus.
vivebant laceri membris stillantibus artus
   inque omni nusquam corpore corpus erat.
denique supplicium [……………………………]
   vel domini iugulam foderat ense nocens,
templa vel arcano demens spoliaverat auro,
   subdiderat saevas vel tibi, Roma, faces.
vicerant antiquae sceleratus crimina famae,
   in quo, quae fuerant fabula, poena fuit.

So, oddly, reminiscent of Prometheus chained
to the Scythian crags with the relentless bird gorging
on his too-big heart: The guy acting the part of the mime
show bandit, Laureolus. Naked, helpless, hanging on
no make believe cross, and offering up his guts to
a Caledonian bear. His torn apart parts, dripping. Joints
still writhing alive in a body no longer anyone’s body.
Justice at last. (But tell me again what he did?)
Did his guilty sword slit his master’s throat? Or
did the harebrain burgle a temple looking for secret gold?
Or maybe this savage was even plotting to put you—
gentle Rome—to the torch? Does it matter?
He’s certainly outdone the old storybook desperados.
Their crimes are fables; his punishment, the real thing.

Fitzgerald, noting the “potentially subversive nature” of the Prometheus comparison, nevertheless concludes that Laureolus is “…a new kind of Prometheus … created by the theatrical medium … conjured only to be exorcised as the defiant hero becomes merely entertaining.” Coleman, prosaically, renders the poem’s last lines: “This miscreant had surpassed crimes recounted in tales of old; in his case what had been legend really was punishment.” Walter Ker’s 1908 version simply reads “…in him what had been a show before was punishment.” David Shackleton-Bailey’s current Loeb version is similar.

They all presume that Martial’s sequence was written for Caesar’s enjoyment. How certain is that presumption? Is it possible to question without disrespecting the scholarship? Ridley Scott both incorporated and ignored Kathleen Coleman’s expertise when reimagining the Arena for the 21st century screen. There’s no way to read 1st century Latin with the full set of resonances they bore for their contemporary readers. The cultural and temporal gaps are too great for scholarship. But poetry flies over the chasms between what was and what might be.

Whatever Spectacles 9 means to Latinists in Latin, in English a last line double take just leaps out as if it always wanted to be there. It’s pretty much essential if the translation is going to become an epigram in English.

Blood on the Jumbotron

Russell Scott Valentino is the Chair of Slavic and East European Languages at Indiana University and the current President of the American Literary Translators Association. He has a knack for succinctly clarifying arcane translation topics. In a recent blog post, he nicely encapsulates the issue of literary intent:

Thinking about the meaning of a work as being “what the author intended” has a tendency to limit meaning and blind the interpreter to the other, often widely divergent, meanings that other readers in other times and places have found in the very same words. The intentional fallacy has little patience with polyvalence. It likes to have God, or Homer, or Shakespeare mean pretty much one thing. It likes to pronounce other interpretations wrong because they don’t understand what the author intended. This is why I emphasize the text over the author’s intention. The text is what we have. The author’s intention is what we imagine. The text, because it is made up of words that no one owns, can mean many different things to people in different parts of the world at different times. The author’s intention is limited historically, linguistically, geographically. Shakespeare did not mean to say anything about America, yet Americans find plenty of meaning in Shakespeare’s words. This is not because Shakespeare intended us to.

The text of Martial’s Spectacles has come down to us in only a handful of manuscripts, all dating from well after his death. The current numbering of poems combines these manuscripts and ends with two couplets that appear in only one 12th century source. Number 35 requests Caesar’s indulgence for the writer’s spontaneity as he hurries to please. Number 36 is one of those compact Latin statements that almost defies direct translation:

Cedere maiori virtutis fama secunda est.
   illa gravis palma est, quom minor hostis habet.

To yield to greater power and survive is also to win.
But the consolation prize weighs on the heart.

It’s a quizzical enough ending to the sequence. But a 17th century Dutch scholar’s edition appended what would have been a new conclusion, Spectacle 37, which was included in many later editions as well. That poem is now generally excluded by modern scholarship, because it seems on its face incongruous. The prevailing theory is that the medieval scholiast who compiled its manuscript source interjected a later Martial couplet, written after Domitian’s death. Given what the poem says, this may well be the case:

Flavia gens, quantum tibi tertius abstulit heres!
   paene fuit tanti, non habuisse duos. 

Flavian house, how much your third heir squandered!
It would almost be better, to not have had the other two.

Still, even if the dubious coda represents only a misappropriated comment inserted by an unknown compiler—it seems someone else, long ago, once read this sequence not all that differently than I do.

There’s an eerie sense of life in that idea: a soft tug on the fragile line between ancient and now; the way a curious old fish might mouth the lure, then quietly swim away. It’s a reminder about the resilience of poems, how they strangely surface a millennia later, into new languages, new cultures. A poem is a living thing, connecting the history to the present. However much we congratulate ourselves on outgrowing the nightmares of history, a poem speaks to transcendent human nature, the same humanity in the past is it will be in the far future.

In that sense, maybe we make too much of the moral differences between ourselves and the Romans. Our real-life games seem somewhat gentler now, but perhaps it’s a matter of technology offering alternative outlets—films and video games filled with violent spectacles. Just today, I stumbled on an old journal entry: “And then that stupid movie I was so hot to see yesterday afternoon—Gladiator. Bad history, bad drama—but plenty of gore.”

Plenty of others enjoyed that gore: the film earned $35 million in its opening weekend. Have we shifted our appetite for violence to the imagination, where it can blossom without consequence? But then again, maybe not. On the subject of movies, it’s hard not to think about the recent use of internet videos to make a spectacle of elaborate public executions in our still very uncertain new century. Brutal, intended to instill a sense of awe—it is almost as if the Roman Arena had a Jumbotron.

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About Art Beck

Art Beck has published several collections of poetry and poetry translations, most recently Luxorius Opera Omnia, a Duet for Sitar and Trombone (Otis College, Seismicity Editions), which was awarded the 2013 Northern California Book award for poetry in translation. His poetry and essays have appeared in a wide range of literary journals, including Alaska Quarterly, Artful Dodge, OR, Sequoia, Translation Review, Jacket2, and in anthologies such as Heyday Books’s California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present and Painted Bride Quarterly’s 20-year retrospective. He was also a regular contributor to Rattle‘s since-discontinued e-issues with a regular series on translating poetry.