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Marcus Valerius Martial: Quotations, Epigrams, Poems and Observations

Marcus Valerius Martialis (better known today as Martial) was born around 40 AD and died around 104 AD. He was a Latin poet from Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula, or modern-day Spain). Martial is best known for his twelve books of epigrams, published in Rome between AD 86 and 103, during the reigns of the emperors Domitian, Nerva and Trajan. In these short, witty, often scathing and sometimes deliciously raunchy poems, Martial lampooned "civilization" and the boorish/scandalous activities of his contemporaries. He wrote more than 1,500 epigrams, most of them in elegiac couplets, and is generally considered to be the father of the modern epigram. Martial has been described as "colorful" and as "Rome's wiseacre poet." Martial has been a possible or probable influence on epigrammatists such as Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Thomas More, Shakespeare, John Donne, Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, Matthew Prior, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Voltaire, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Walter Savage Landor, Robert Frost and J. V. Cunningham.

compiled by Michael R. Burch

There is no glory in outstripping donkeys.—Martial

Lie lightly on her, turf and dew ...
She put so little weight on you.
—Martial, translator unknown

The lines above appear in a poem Martial wrote for a slave girl, Erotion, who died six days short of her sixth birthday. The image of earth lying "lightly" on the grave of a girl who died before her time would later be used by Robert Herrick in his poem "Another: Upon a Child" and by Oscar Wilde in the marvelous elegy, "Requiescat," he wrote for his sister Isola who died at age ten. Two translations of the full Martial poem appear on this page.

Another: Upon a Child
by Robert Herrick

Here a pretty baby lies
Sung asleep with lullabies:
Pray be silent, and not stir
Th' easy earth that covers her.  

Whoever makes great presents, expects great presents in return.—Martial

Readers and listeners praise my books;
You swear they're worse than a beginner's.
Who cares? I always plan my dinners
To please the diners, not the cooks.
—Martial, translated by R. L. Barth

You ask me why I've sent you no new verses?
There might be reverses.
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You ask me to recite my poems to you?
I know how you'll "recite" them, if I do.
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You ask me why I choose to live elsewhere?
You're not there.
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You ask me why I love fresh country air?
You're not befouling it there.
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You never wrote a poem, 
yet criticize mine?
Stop abusing me or write something fine
of your own!
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

If fame is to come only after death, I am in no hurry for it.—Martial

He starts everything but finishes nothing;
thus I suspect there's no end to his fucking.
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My poems are naughty, but my life is pure.—Martial

You dine in great magnificence
while offering guests a pittance.
Sextus, did you invite
friends to dinner tonight
to impress us with your enormous appetite?
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

To read my Book the Virgin shy
May blush (while Brutus standeth by),
But when he's gone, read through what's writ,
And never stain a cheek for it.
—Martial, translation by Robert Herrick

Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.—Martial

Why do you maim your slave, Ponticus, by cutting out his tongue?
Do you not know that the public says what he cannot?
—Martial, translator unknown

The bee enclosed and through the amber shown
Seems buried in the juice which was his own.
—Martial, translator unknown

Take while you can; brief is the moment of profit.—Martial

Tomorrow you will live, you always cry;
In what fair country does this morrow lie,
That 'tis so mighty long ere it arrive?
Beyond the Indies does this morrow live?
'Tis so far-fetched, this morrow, that I fear
'Twill be both very old and very dear.
"Tomorrow I will live," the fool does say:
Today itself's too late—the wise lived yesterday."
—Martial, translation by Abraham Cowley

Fortune gives too much to many, enough to none.—Martial

You alone own prime land, dandy!
Gold, money, the finest porcelainyou alone!
The best wines of the most famous vintages—you alone!
Discrimination, taste and wityou alone!
You have it allwho can deny that you alone are set for life?
But everyone has had your wife
she is never
alone!
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You gave me nothing during your life, but you promise to provide for me at your death. If you are not a fool, you know what I wish for!—Martial

To you, my departed parents, dear mother and father,
I commend my little lost angel, Erotion, love’s daughter,
who died six days short of completing her sixth frigid winter.
Protect her now, I pray, should the chilling dark shades appear;
muzzle hell’s three-headed hound, less her heart be dismayed!
Lead her to romp in some sunny Elysian glade,
her devoted patrons. Watch her play childish games
as she excitedly babbles and lisps my name.
Let no hard turf smother her softening bones; and do
rest lightly upon her, earth, she was surely no burden to you!
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

NOTES: Martial wrote touching elegy for a little slave girl, Erotion, who died six days before her sixth birthday. The poem has been nominated as Martial’s masterpiece by L. J. Lloyd and others. Erotion means “little love” and may correspond to our term “love child.” It has been suggested she may have been Martial’s child by a female slave. That could explain why Martial is asking his parents’ spirits to welcome, guide and watch over her spirit. Martial uses the terms patronos (patrons) and commendo (commend); in Rome a freed slave would be commended to a patron. A girl freed from slavery by death might need patrons as protectors on the “other side,” according to Greek and Roman views of the afterlife, where the afterworld houses evil shades and is guarded by a monstrous three-headed dog, Cerebus. Martial is apparently asking his parents to guide the girl’s spirit away from Cerebus and the dark spirits to the heavenly Elysian fields where she can play and laugh without fear. If I am correct, Martial’s poem is not just an elegy, but a prayer-poem for protection, perhaps of his own daughter. Albert A. Bell supports this hypothesis with the following arguments: (1) Martial had Erotion cremated, a practice preferred by the upper classes, (2) “he buried her with the full rites befitting the child of a Roman citizen,” (3) he entrusted her [poetically] to his parents, and (4) he maintained her grave for years.

To you, my departed parents, with much emotion,
I commend my little lost darling, my much-kissed Erotion,
who died six days short of completing her sixth bitter winter.
Protect her, I pray, from hell’s hound and its dark shades a-flitter;
and please don’t let fiends leave her maiden heart dismayed!
But lead her to romp in some sunny Elysian glade
with her cherished friends, excitedly lispingly my name.
Let no hard turf smother her softening bones; and do
rest lightly upon her, earth, she was such a slight burden to you!
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Epigram I.90

Bassa, I never saw you hang with guys—
Nobody whispered that you had a beau.
Girls surrounded you at every turn;
They did your errands, with no attendant males.

And so, I guess I naturally assumed
That you were what you seemed: a chaste Lucretia.
But hell no. Why, you shameless little tramp,
You were an active humper all the time.

You improvised, by rubbing cunts together,
And using that bionic clit of yours
To counterfeit the thrusting of a male.

Unbelievable. You’ve managed to create
A real conundrum, worthy of the Sphinx:
Adultery without a co-respondent.

                    Translation by Joseph S. Salemi
                    (first published in The Barefoot Muse)

Gifts are hooks.—Martial

Epigram III.65

The breath of a young girl, biting an apple,
The scent that wafts from Corycian saffron,
The smell of the white vine, flowering with first clusters,
The odor of fresh grass, where sheep have grazed,
Fragrance of myrtle, spice-reaping Arab, rubbed amber,
A fire glowing pale with eastern incense,
The earth just lightly touched with summer rain,
A garland that has circled someone’s hair
Wet with spikenard. Diadumenus, cruel child,
All these things breathe forth from your perfect kisses:
Can you not give them freely, unbegrudging?

                    Translation by Joseph S. Salemi
                    (first published in The Barefoot Muse)

There is no living with thee, nor without thee.—Martial

Epigram IX.67

I had this really horny broad all night,
A girl whose naughty tricks are unsurpassed.
We did it in a thousand different ways.
Tired of the same old thing, I asked to buttfuck—
Before I finished speaking, she said Yes.
Emboldened, I then blushed a bit, and laughed,
And asked for something even dirtier.
The lusty wench agreed without a blink.

Still, that girl was pure in my eyes, Aeschylus—
But she won’t be for you. To get the same,
You’ll have to grant a nasty stipulation.

                     Translation by Joseph S. Salemi
                     (first published in The Barefoot Muse)

To the ashes of the dead glory comes too late.—Martial

Epigram I.77

Charinus has good health, and still he’s pale;
Charinus drinks with care, and still he’s pale;
Charinus digests well, and still he’s pale;
Charinus takes the sun, and he’s still pale;
Charinus uses rouge, and he’s still pale;
Charinus eats out cunt, and still he’s pale.

                    Translation by Joseph S. Salemi
                    (first published in TRINACRIA)

To be able to look back upon one's past life with satisfaction is to live twice.—Martial

Epigram I.83

Your little puppy licks your mouth and lips—
Manneia, I no longer find it strange
That dogs are tempted by the smell of turds.

                   Translation by Joseph S. Salemi
                   (first published in TRINACRIA)

Laugh, if thou art wise.—Martial

Epigram II.31

I’ve often fucked Chrestina. And you ask
How well she puts out? Listen, Marianus—
There’s not a trick left in the book of kinks.

                   Translation by Joseph S. Salemi
                   (first published in TRINACRIA)

Lawyers are men who hire out their words and anger.—Martial

Epigram II.42

Zoilus, why do you pollute the bath
By plunging your ass into it? A tip—
Want to make it filthier? Do this:
Submerge your head within the bath as well.

                   Translation by Joseph S. Salemi
                   (first published in TRINACRIA)

Too late is tomorrow's life; live for today.—Martial

Epigram II.61

While the light bloom of youth
Still played upon your cheeks
Your foul tongue licked men’s groins.

Now that your sorry head
Raises morticians’ gorges
And loathing in a hangman

Your mouth’s found a brand-new job.
Raging with swollen envy
You yap out endless slurs.

Let that noxious tongue
Go back to cleaning crotches—
Cocksucking was less vile.

                   Translation by Joseph S. Salemi
                   (first published in TRINACRIA)

Be content to be what you are, and prefer nothing to it, and do not fear or wish for your last day.—Martial

Epigram X.63

Phoebus, all faggots ask you home to dine—
Who feeds on dick is dirty, I opine.

                   Translation by Joseph S. Salemi
                   (first published in TRINACRIA)

Virtue extends our days: he lives two lives who relives his past with pleasure.—Martial

Epigram XI.99

I’ve noticed when you get up from the couch
You’re buttfucked, Lesbia, by your wretched skirts.
Your left and right hand try to yank them—ouch!—
You weep and moan and pull. I’m sure it hurts.
Your skirts are caught between those massive buns
As big as two Gibraltars—a tight fit.
You want to solve this problem? Listen, hon:
Don’t rise up, and what’s more, don’t even sit.

                   Translation by Joseph S. Salemi
                   (first published in TRINACRIA)

The mode of death is sadder than death itself.—Martial

Epigram XI.81

Aegle was once in bed with double action—
The eunuch Dindymus and some old geezer.
She lay between while they both got her hot.

Neither guy could make a go of it;
One lacked equipment, the other was senescent,
So Aegle burned without real satisfaction.

What could she do? She fell down on her knees
And prayed to Venus for herself and them:
“Make Grandpa young, make Dindymus a man!”

                   Translation by Joseph S. Salemi
                   (fist published in TRINACRIA)

He who refuses nothing will soon have nothing to refuse.—Martial

Epigram XII.61                (Qui Legit, caveat)

Poor Ligurra! You are sore afraid
I’ll write some pungent epigram to whack you—
A vivid little squib, or verses made
To flame your envy-driven ass. In fact you

Dream about being worthy to shed blood
As the chosen target of my lance.
Forget it, pal—you’re just a piece of crud.
Lions hunt bulls, not butterflies and ants.

If you want fame, go find somebody fitter:
A sot-brained rapper from the ghetto slums
Who’ll chalk you up in toilets, where a shitter
Can read about you with the other bums.

Me go after you? Please understand:
Your brow’s too low to take my high-class brand.

                   Translation by Joseph S. Salemi
                   (first published in TRINACRIA)

To have nothing, Nestor, is not poverty.—Martial

Epigram IX.27

Chrestus, your balls are depilated
And your cock is as smooth as a vulture’s neck.
Your scalp is slicker than a hooker’s butt
And there isn’t a bit of stubble on your legs.
Relentless tweezers have plucked your pale lips clean.

Still, you prate on about our hairy ancestors
And all those sturdy old republican virtues
That we read of history books.
You also sound off in no uncertain terms
About the vices of this age—
You rail against our frivolous theatrics.

But if, in the midst of all this sermonizing,
Some faggot schoolboy comes along
Fresh from his dancing-master, and fancy free,
A prancing gymnast whose swollen schlong
Has been released from its restraining jockstrap,
You’ll wink at him, call him over,
And I’m ashamed to say, Chrestus, what you do then
With your virtuous old republican tongue.

                   Translation by Joseph S. Salemi
                   (first published in The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature)



Brief Encounters: Other Roman, Italian and Greek Epigrams

• No wind is favorable to the man who lacks direction.—Seneca the Younger, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Little sparks ignite great flames.—Dante, translation by Michael R. Burch
• The danger is not aiming too high and missing, but aiming too low and hitting the mark.—Michelangelo, translation by Michael R. Burch
• He who follows will never surpass.—Michelangelo, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Nothing enables authority like silence.—Leonardo da Vinci, translation by Michael R. Burch
• My objective is not to side with the majority, but to avoid the ranks of the insane.—Marcus Aurelius, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Time is sufficient for anyone who uses it wisely.—Leonardo da Vinci, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Blinding ignorance misleads us. Myopic mortals, open your eyes!—Leonardo da Vinci, translation by Michael R. Burch
• It is easier to oppose evil from the beginning than at the end.—Leonardo da Vinci, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Fools call wisdom foolishness.—Euripides, translation by Michael R. Burch
• One true friend is worth ten thousand kin.—Euripides, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Not to speak one’s mind is slavery.—Euripides, translation by Michael R. Burch
• I would rather die standing than kneel, a slave.—Euripides, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Fresh tears are wasted on old griefs.—Euripides, translation by Michael R. Burch 
• Improve yourself by other men's writings, attaining less painfully what they gained through great difficulty.—Socrates, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Just as I select a ship when it's time to travel, or a house when it's time to change residences, even so I will choose when it's time to depart from life.―Seneca, speaking about the right to euthanasia in the first century AD, translation by Michael R. Burch

Booksellers laud authors for novel editions
as pimps praise their whores for exotic positions.
—Thomas Campion, Latin epigram, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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