Martial, translated from Latin by George Held

In this installment, we’d like to bring you the spicy taste of the poems and epigrams of the ancient poet Martial. The guest of this post is George Held, a poet and translator of great versatility who moves with ease from sonnets to epigrams to witty insights in his own poems—and always surprises his readers with pieces like the provocative essay on Martial submitted along with these poems. Suffice to say, February at NTM is hot, dear friends!

And remember, all this month and beyond: read, write, and share your favorite translated poems.

—Claudia Serea & Loren Kleinman



I never called you, Coracinus, a queer.
I am not so rash or audacious
or one who easily tells lies.
If I called you a queer,
let me feel the wrath of Pontia’s flask,
the wrath of Metilius’* wine cup.
I swear to you by Syrian tumors,
I swear by Berecyntian tremors.
What did I call you? Something light and paltry,
which is well known, which you yourself don’t deny:
I called you, Coracinus, a cunnilinguist.

* Both Pontia and Metilius were poisoners.

Previously published in Skidrow Penthouse


Why don’t I give you my small-press books,
though you so often beg and demand them,
Ted, do you wonder?  There’s good reason –
you might give me your small-press books.

Previously published in 5 AM and Martial Artist


Go, little book, go with our friend Flavus
over the boundless sea, but with kind waters
and on an easy trip with helpful winds
head for the arches of Spanish Tarraco:
there some wheels will rapidly take you
and maybe you’ll see noble Bilbilis and your river Salo.
Why do you question my commission?—to greet,
right from the road, my few old friends,
not seen by me for thirty-four winters,
and repeatedly remind our friend Flavus
to procure me a pleasant and healthful retreat,
but not too demanding or expensive,
which might make your father indolent.
That is all. Now the self-important captain calls
and castigates delays, and a stronger breeze
has opened up the port. So long, my little book:
you know, I think, no ship waits for one passenger.

Previously published in Notre Dame Review and Martial Artist


Since you’re alike and on a par in life –
a lousy husband and a lousy wife –
I marvel that you both don’t hit it off.


All your friends are either old bags
or wrecks uglier than old bags.
These pals you lead and draw with you
through banquets, theaters, colonnades.
Thus you, Fabi, are a girl, a babe.


Paula wants to wed me;
I don’t want to wed her.
She is old. But if she
were older, I’d agree.


Seven wives, Phileros, you have now buried in your field.
None but you, Phileros, gets from his land a better yield.


While the light pyre was being built
with papyrus soon to be lit,
while his tearful wife bought some myrrh
and laurel, and the grave, the bier,
the mortician were all prepared,
Numa wrote making me his heir:
he recovered.

Imperfectly Modern Martial

Martial is not a man for all seasons. He would have been obscure in Augustan England and out of place when Romanticism or Victorianism ruled the realm. But in those eras known for wit and malice, he’d have thrived, say, Restoration England or the fin-de-siècle 1890s. But for his obscene, contrarian satire there’s no time like the present for his epigrams.

Martial published them in twelve volumes, about one a year starting in A.D. 85, with about a hundred per book. In these mostly short, terse poems he observed the mores of first-century Rome with the sharp eye of a satirist, the detachment of an outsider, and the scrupulousness of a master prosodist.

Born in eastern Spain in A.D. 40, Martial looked across the Mediterranean to Rome, the political and cultural capital of the empire that ruled his own land and longed to make his name there. In his early twenties he followed his countrymen the writers Seneca (the elder and the younger), Lucan, and Quintilian from the provinces to the great metropolis, as how many others have left the hinterlands for London, Paris, and New York.

In an age like ours, when artists must spend at least as much time marketing as creating their work, Martial was a sycophant successful in acquiring patronage, and a bold self-promoter. In the epigram he wrote to introduce his first book he declares that he’s “the famous one you read and ask for— / Martial, noted throughout the world” (I.1), and in the 90s, contemplating a return to his native Bilbilis, he tells its citizens, “I am your glory, your renown, your fame” (X.103). Vanity, surely, but just as surely the truth.

While first-century Rome was hardly the decadent city it would become some centuries later, it must have had a sizable population of prurient readers who made Martial the rough equivalent of a best seller. His subjects were sex, money, dining, the baths, the emperor, the Circus Maximus, weekend retreats—all the venues Romans frequented and all their foibles, including envy, gluttony, laziness and its counterpart, excessive ambition, and that old staple of the satirist, vanity.

Like most Roman men of his time, Martial had an omnivorous sexual palate; thus he writes about same-sex relations between men and between men and boys, and sexual relations between men and women, young and old, as well as sexual dysfunction. In his poems men suffer impotence caused by drunkenness, old age, and inanition, while women lose out sexually because of age, ugliness, or a man’s preference for other men.

He even writes of incest: “Do you ask, Fabullus, why Themison / doesn’t have a wife?

He has a sister” (XII.19). This couplet shows Martial’s skill at bitchy innuendo. Fabullus might in fact have asked no such question, but the gossip in Martial wants to reveal the possible cause for Themison’s unmarried state; but rather than saying he’s fucking his sister, Martial says simply that “he has a sister.” Fabullus and we are left to draw our own conclusions.

Anyone reading or translating Martial must be unblinking toward his frequent use of vulgar sexual language. Throughout his work, when it comes to sex, there is no room for euphemism, and this is particularly so for his naming the penis. He eschews such foolish porn circumlocutions as “the rod of reckoning” and calls a penis—a Latin word, after all—either that or mentula, the Latin equivalent of “cock,” “prick,” “dick,” or “dong.” Latin futuo is the verb “to fuck.” Thus when he compliments a friend for his scheme to lure men to service a wife no longer desirable to her husband, he calls her new partners “fuckers.” And when Lesbia boasts that “she’s never been fucked for free,” Martial agrees: “It’s true. When she wants to be fucked, she puts down money.” This unexpected ending applies what Martial called the stinger, the satirist’s sharp equivalent of an O’Henry ending. Such puncturing of human vanity occurs so frequently in Martial’s epigrams that they sustain a high level of entertainment.

Toward that end, Martial invents a character to bear his most frequent barbs. Zoilus aspires to rise in society but turns out to be a nebbish who seems to deserve one put-down after another. We all recognize the type as Martial calls him out for his vulgar excesses, finally dismissing him with“Who says you are vicious, Zoilus, lies. /

You’re not vicious, Zoilus, but vice” (XI.92).

Like the best writers of any era, Martial gives his readers the sights, sounds, and smells of his own time and place. When it comes to odors, he recoils less than George Orwell but savors them less than Norman Mailer. Because he treats the pungency of bodily odors so vividly, after getting a whiff of Lydia’s armpit or Zoilus’ breath, we can better appreciate the widespread use of deodorant and mouthwash today.

One reason that Martial’s work achieved success in the late first century and that it might be less appreciated in our age of free verse is his mastery of form. He usually wrote in lines of eleven syllables, and with the freedom of Latin syntax he arranged his words to create a wide range of poetic sound effects and meaningful juxtapositions. Though Latin verse was unrhymed, sometimes Martial placed words with similar sounds at the ends of consecutive or proximate lines. Because of his scrupulous use of form, modern translators have often used the rhymed pentameter couplet for Martial’s couplets, as I have, though I have also omitted rhyme, especially in longer poems, rather than force it.

Finally, however, Martial’s candor about sexual predilections and lack of hygiene, about toadying and other despicable behavior makes him an imperfect fit for our own politically-correct times. Consequently, readers will find him either anathema or antidote. But he never exempts himself from his own complicity in the sordid life of first-century Rome, so we trust the veracity of the unparalleled picture he paints of it. Whether a reader be censorious or prurient, he or she will not find Martial dull.

Marcus Valerius Martialis (A.D. 40-104), or Martial, was born in Spain and flourished in Rome. His greatest achievement remains his 1,500 epigrams, in which he depicts, often satirically, the behavior of his fellow Romans and perfects the form in Latin. His influence appears in the work of virtually every epigrammatist since.

George Held’s translations of Martial’s epigrams have appeared inCircumference, Connecticut Review5AM, and Natural Bridge,among other periodicals, and in Martial Artist (Toad Press International Chapbook Series, 2005). His seventeenth collection of poems is Neighbors: The Yard Critters Too(, 2013).



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.