Martial thought his poems were funny.
Our knowledge of the life of Marcus Valerius Martialis, Rome's wiseacre poet, comes almost exclusively from what he wrote in his own verses. Of course, the need for caution in trying to extract factual information from satirical writing is something we need not dwell on. But do consider what it would be like if in 2000 years the only source we have about the United States Air Force is Joseph's Heller's Catch 22.
That said, scholars who have studied his poems have deduced that Martial - as he is inevitably called in English - was born sometime between 38 and 41 CE in Bilbilis in Spain. Bilbilis, today an archeological site near Calatayud, was a substantial city with a population of around 50,000. His parents may have been named Fronto and Flacilla although these names sound suspiciously like pseudonyms.
Whoever they were, Martial's parents were Roman citizens, and hence they passed full Roman citizenship to their son. Clearly they were people of some means, and Martial hints he received a classical education in Greek and rhetoric even while living in Spain. However, his folks were probably only middle class and did not belong to either of the highest levels of Roman society. The highest of the classes - or orders - were the senators and the next level down, the equites or knights.
By Martial's time, the class system in Rome was far more complex than the simple patrician / plebian division that you learn about in middle school history classes. Being a patrician simply meant you were a member of certain blue blooded families. Julius Caesar - from the Julian clan - was a patrician. But Caesar's sometime ally and often rival, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus - or Pompey the Great - was from the Pompeian family and so was a plebian.
On the other hand, the distinction between the senators and knights compared to the lower orders was economic. There were many plebians that were richer than some patricians, and contrary to popular opinion, you could be both a senator and be a plebian. The only hindrance for a citizen entering the upper orders was money, and after the time of Augustus, you had to have at least 1,000,000 sesterces (the Roman dollar) to be a senator. To be a knight - where Rome got a lot of the high level businessmen who eschewed politics or the military - you needed 400,000 sesterces.
The advantage of being a member of elite classes was that there were certain privileges that the lower orders did not get. For one thing, you got the front seats at gladiatorial games and the theaters. You could also wear gold rings, have purple stripes on your toga, and be eligible for certain cushy jobs. Also if you committed a crime you probably just got exiled - possibly to one of your elaborate villas in the Italian countryside.
Martial probably did not go to Rome before 64 because he never mentioned the Great Fire that devastated the capital in July of that year. If he had been there, you think he would he would have said something about it. On the other hand, you wonder why he would not have mentioned the huge burned out areas, which he would have seen. Still, we do know he lived in Rome for 34 years (that's what he says), and the guess is Martial lived in Rome from 64 to 98 give or take a few years.
Why Martial went to Rome, other than the general desire to "seek his fortune", is one of histories mysteries. Officially he may have planned to study law, but if he did, his heart wasn't in it. If his parents were still alive they would have given him some expense money, but when his boat docked at Ostia, Rome's new port, Martial had nothing lined up.
Politics was out, since like today to be a politician you needed money. But unlike today, office holders received no salary. After all, the Romans thought nothing was more ridiculous than to pay a bunch of multimillionaires to - quote - "serve the public" - unquote - when they already had more than enough to live on. Au contraire, as Julius Caesar might have said, elected officials had to use their own money for their own living and business expenses which included paying for any support staff.
But more importantly, politicians - and rich people in general - had to use their own money to pay for what were called the commoda - the conveniences. The commoda were anything that benefited the people. Supporting the commoda meant you would pay for gladiatorial games, supply free bread, and help fund the public bath houses which virtually everyone went to. And the best baths even had the "convenience" of the lavish co-ed lavatories complete with running water, reusable sponges-on-a-stick, and the ornate marble seats that must have been quite a shock when you sat down.
Martial, though, was in a tough spot. No fashionable Roman ever soiled his hands with actual work. So any income had to be gained in unobtrusive ways. So there you are. It was a disgrace to be poor and a disgrace to work. What could Martial do? Or more generally, what did anyone of any pretension do to earn money in the Roman Empire?
Well, if you owned a lot of land, you would parcel it out to tenant farmers who would pay you a yearly rent. Sitting on your rosy red culus on a country estate and having the money flow in was not considered working. So that was OK.
But the yearly income of a rich landowner - or agriculturalist to use a higher sounding term - was only about 5 - 7 % of the total asset value. That was so-so at best and not sufficient for maintaining a lavish lifestyle, bribing officials, building more villas in the countryside, or paying off voters in the Plebian Assembly. So usually you had to supplement your income with other no-work jobs. Cicero, the great orator, had a number of estates around Italy, but he also made a good chunk of money renting out crumbling fire-trap tenements in Rome. But best of all, he inherited a lot of money - but not from his parents who weren't that wealthy - but from his rich fat-cat friends.
This last source of income - that is from "legacies" - was one of the most lucrative and popular methods for making moolah without working. In addition to leaving money to their family, the rich bequeathed money and property to friends - especially friends who had loaned them money or otherwise helped them out in their own careers. If you were well placed you could expect a legacy every few years. After all, even if they survived childhood, only about half of the Romans would make it to age 50. So you had a continuous number of friends kicking the bucket and sending you money. Over his lifetime, Cicero's income from legacies was substantial - about 20,000,000 sesterces. Remember a Roman soldier only got about 1000 sesterces a year.
Of course, it wasn't all gravy, and there were complications. For instance, to inherit some legacies you had to have at least three children. But if you had the right connections, the Emperor could grant you the rights as if you had three kids. In later years Martial was indeed granted this privilege - the ius trium liberorum - which improved his finances.
Unfortunately, legacies were not just a one way street. You had to leave legacies to your friends as well, and if you were really smart you didn't forget the emperor. Augustus, the first Roman emperor, ultimately received 20 billion sesterces - that's 20 billion sesterces - in legacies from about 6 BCE to 14 CE when he died. Of course, you always told the emperor he was in your will since you hoped he would do the same for you. It just boiled down to who kicked off first.
Even the emperor received legacies.
Regarding his own finances, there was good news for Martial when he got to Rome. A number of people who hailed from his native Spain were in high levels of the government. The famous stoic philosopher, Seneca, was Spanish, and he was the teacher and advisor of the then emperor, Nero. Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, usually called Lucan and by now a famous poet, also worked on Nero's administrative staff. Although Lucan was about Martial's age and not a sure source of cash, his father, Marcus Annaeus Mela, was the brother of Seneca and quite well off. So Martial was not only in pretty good shape for the legacy business, but he was set up to receive handouts that would supply money for shorter term expenses.
Martial doesn't mention Seneca, Marcus, or Lucan specifically in his writings, but he writes appreciatively about the Annaean family to which they belonged. So it looks like once in Rome Martial quickly got some help from people with connections to the emperor himself. Even better news was that Seneca was over sixty. So there was a potential for a near term legacy from his famous countryman.
The bad news was that within a year, Seneca, Marcus, and Lucan were implicated in the plot to overthrow Nero, a plot that was masterminded by the senator and general Gaius Calpurnius Piso. All four were forced to suicide. Being friends with conspirators against the Emperor - especially an emperor who was immature nutball like Nero - wasn't a good point in Martial's favor.
But worse, the plot against Nero scotched any potential legacy for Martial since conspirators against the state forfeited all their money and property. In fact, bringing people to trial for treason - the famous maiestas trials - was a great way for a hard pressed emperor to add to his assets. It looks like Seneca's wife was permitted to keep some of her property, and she may have continued to help Martial out. But you can bet a lot of the Annaeus estate went to Nero.
Fortunately, there was always one way to make money without working if you were a young Roman of good family but slim pocketbook. It was a very common job with lots of applicants, but fortunately, there was always an opening. You just became a "client" of a rich "patron".
The client/patron relation was something that has no real modern equivalent although the "mentor/flunky" relationship so common in our business firms today captures a little of the institution's flavor. And it was an institution, all right, sanctioned by Roman law. Almost everyone was a client or patron of someone, and some patrons were themselves clients of richer patrons.
So what did it mean to be a client? And what did the - quote - "job" - unquote - entail?
Well, if you were a lower echelon client, you got up each morning and went to wait outside your patron's front door. You would do this not too long after sunrise. The patron would then see each client one by one who would come in to pay their respects. A really classy patron had a lot of clients and would install benches outside his house since the wait might be long. This meeting of a rich fat cat with his clients was called the salutatio or "greeting" and was an important part of the Roman day.
What the client would do next depended on who the client was, and what the patron planned for the day. The client might get a handout - a small gift such as some food or a small amount of money - and leave. He could then go home or to the house of another patron. Some clients, though, would be invited to stick around.
If you were invited to stay, you then had to follow your patron around on his daily rounds. If he was a politician, you would become a cheering section as he gave his speeches. If he was a lawyer you cheered him as he appeared in the courts. If he was a businessman, you just hung around making him look like a big shot.
But being a client was not without drawbacks. There were times when it could be decidedly risky. In the late Republic, the orderly institutions of government had almost broken down. Politicians were getting their way not by persuasive oratory but by dragging their opponents from the speakers platforms, showering them with the contents of chamber pots, and in some cases, out and out murder.
Of course, such shenanigans were beneath the dignity of good Roman politicians, and so it was the clients who took care of the actual rough stuff. We're not talking just about low life gangsters either. The clients of one of Caesar's powerful supporters, Publius Claudius Pulcher, were nothing but a gang of thugs, and they got into some real set-to's with the clients of their boss's political opponents.
Fortunately for Martial, things had calmed down a bit in the early Empire, and Martial's complaints were mainly about having to wear his hot woolen toga as he followed along with his patron while getting only enough money for his day-to-day living. But at least a client didn't have to troop around the forum all day long. The Romans workday was not IX to V, but more like VI to XII. The actual tending to real business might take three hours or so a day.
Martial had to follow along.
So around one o'clock, the patron and the clients might retire to the public baths. But some business continued even there just like executives might continue discussions in the gym, sauna, or, yes, the lavatory (the author of CooperToons once overheard a business discussion going back and forth between two adjacent stalls - a ridiculous situation which with the accompanying sound effects required all his mastery to avoid his braying with uncouth laughter). But keeping strictly to business was sometimes difficult since in the baths thieves might steal your clothes, ladies plying their avocation might ply their avocation, and sometimes the baths were so crowded you might get knocked down.
Given the amount of poetry he wrote on the subject, Martial must have loved the baths, even though they were probably not as clean as modern day bathers expect in a public swimming pool. Some baths had inlets for the pools but no obvious drains for the water to run out, although possibly it just overflowed the rim and ended up on the floor. Also sick people abounded since bathing was a more or less generic prescription for a variety of ailments.
One thing that contributed to the perhaps less than hygienic nature of the baths was the pre-bath activity. Before their plunges, the bathers went outside to work up a sweat. Playing ballgames was a favorite exercise and when everyone went back inside, they - including the ladies who sometimes bathed with the men - were covered with sweat and grime. Then you got a rubdown with olive oil, the excess of which was then scraped off with an instrument called a strigil. Of course, everyone still had a thin layer of oil on their skin when they plunged into the three pools - the cold pool or fridigarium, the warm pool or the tepidarium, and the hot pool or the caldarium. So by the end of the day, the surface of the pools was probably a bit shiny.
But at least, if you made it to the baths with your patron, there was a good chance you would get your invitation to dinner, and Martial's fame as a poet probably came out of his dinner invitations. He clearly had a natural flair for verse, and like the good limerick spinners, he would be called on to "honor" various guests or provide poetic commentary on celebrities or events of the day. Such poetic talents would insure that he didn't have to spend much of his frugal income on food. But we know in his first years in Rome he lived in a cheap walk-up flat, and his clothes were often not the best, as he himself wrote.
Quidam me modo, Rufe, diligenter
inspectum, velut emptor aut lanista,
cum voltu digitoque subnotasset,
"Tune es, tune" ait "ille Martialis,
cuius nequitias iocosque novit
aurem qui modo non habet Batauam?"
Subrisi modice, levique nutu
me quem dixerat esse non negavi.
"Cur ergo" inquit "habes malas lacernas?"
Respondi: "quia sum malus poeta."
Hoc ne saepius accidat poetae,
mittas, Rufe, mihi bonas lacernas.
which means (unpoetically translated)
Just now, Rufus, a certain person closely
examined me, as if he were a buyer of slaves
/ or a trainer of gladiators.
When by face and finger he surreptitiously noted
He said, "Are you, you that Martial,
of whose idleness and jokes he knows
who now does not have the Dutch ear?"
I smiled slightly, and lightly nodded.
I did not deny I was whom he had said.
"Then why," he said, "do you have a bad cloak?"
I answered, "Because I am a bad poet."
In order that this will not happen more often to a poet
May you send to me, Rufus, a good cloak.
Ignoring the rather disrespectful allusion to the lack of sophistication of the Dutch (Batavians), the poem tells us that Martial was well enough known to be recognized on the streets of Rome. But it also tells us that if he wanted a new cloak he had to get one from his patron.
Nero probably wasn't around long enough to have too much an impact on Martial's poetry. He was overthrown in 68 CE and the next year - called the "Year of the Four Emperors", 69 CE, - ultimately ushered in the Flavian Dynasty. This was a good time to be a satirical writer. The new emperor was the crusty old soldier Titus Flavius Vespasianus, who was a man who could take a joke. Suetonius, the historian, said that with Vespasian you didn't have to worry about what you wrote or said. In any case, Martial soon became well known in Rome, and soon established contacts at the senatorial level.
Despite his fame, Martial did not actual publish anything until more than 15 years after his arrival in Rome - around 80 CE. But he certainly gave "readings" of his poems, either in private houses or in public venues like theaters and lecture halls (a feature of the better bath houses). It is also likely manuscripts circulated privately, much as did the "sugared sonnets" of some guy named Will during Queen Elizabeth's I reign.
On the other hand there was a thriving book trade, which is not what you would expect in a society where all books had to be written by hand and probably less than 20 % of the people could read. Becoming a publisher was surprisingly easy. You didn't need the metal type or printing presses which made book and newspaper publishing so cumbersome until the advent of our digital cyber age. All you needed was a bunch of scribes - mostly slaves - and have someone read out a book. Each of the scribes would write down what the reader dictated and hey presto! you had more books. The major expense was papyrus - not cheap - and literate slaves also cost quite a lot. So we hear that books were expensive.
Although the initial investment and materials to be a publisher was a bit costly, the logistics and inventory handling was pretty simple. Book publishers were also the book sellers, and the books were produced right in the shop itself. So you could have five to ten literate slaves, and you'd end up with five to ten copies of whatever best seller was then in vogue. In the shop - called a taberna - the books were on display up front, and the slaves would be writing more books in the back. When Martial's first book went on sale, it costs five denarii.
Was five denarii expensive? Well, to get a feel for the costs we need to look into ancient Roman coinage and prices. The coinage system in Martial's time was essentially that of Augustus. The emperor had decreed that 1 gold aureus was equal to 25 denarii which was in turn equal to 100 sesterces which was convertible to 400 asses (a bronze coin, not the animal, and the singular is as). So with this rate of exchange, Martial's book cost 20 sestercii or 80 asses.
You'll find some books that put a sesterce into modern dollar equivalents. But since Rome didn't have built-in system of inflation like ours, the equivalences soon become outdated. It's better to see what the necessities and luxuries of life actually cost. Still, even then the relative worth of goods and services in antiquity cannot be equated to those today and we have to fish around to get an idea of what 20 sestercii means today.
For instance, what did it cost for a day's food? In Pompeii - which was buried by Vesuvius when Martial was about 40 - a visitor recorded the cost of his consumables at an average of 4 sestercii a day. The diet was also by no means extravagant. On a typical day you ate bread, cheese, and had wine to drink. When you splurged you might have a sausage and some vegetables. In other words, Martial's book cost 5 times what you needed for a day's modest diet.
Another way to look at the cost is to compare it to the income of various occupations. We know that a Roman soldier earned about 1000 sesterces a year and so he would have to set aside a week's wages to buy Martial's book. This agrees pretty well with the costs of our visitor to Pompeii (who did spend money on more than just food). But paying out a week's expenses for a book is not something your average Roman could easily afford.
So who bought the books? Obviously those with more money than a soldier. The poet Juvenal, who as a younger man probably practiced law (for which you were not allowed to accept fees), said that it was possible for a single man to live "comfortably" on the income from investments of 400,000 a year. Now if he got a return of 5 % - pretty typical for the time - he would get 20,000 sesterces a year. That must have been a comfort indeed and the 400,000 in assets actually defines the equestrian class. So Juvenal's comfortable single equestrian gentleman made about 55 sesterces a day. He could have easily afforded Martial's book.
Finally, we need to point out that a book in ancient times were scrolls and contained not much more than a single chapter of our own single volume codices. If you bought Martial's complete works you'd have to buy 15 "books" which would have run to 300 sesterces. That would be over five days pay for Juvenal and over three months pay for our Roman soldier. Today we can buy Martial's complete works with English translations - double the size of the originals - for about $40. So yes, books were more expensive than today and not something that your average Roman would buy.
Did Martial make money from his books? Not much. He might get a one time payment in a deal with a publisher or patron for a new book, but there was no copyright. So once the book was on the market, anyone with a backroom full of slaves could make and sell his own editions. So throughout his life, Martial had to rely on handouts - sorry, that's "patronage" - from his rich friends.
Martial's first book was the Liber Spectaculorum or the Book of the Spectacles which is also known as De Liber Spectaculis or the The Book About the Spectacles. The book celebrated the opening of the Flavian Amphitheater, or as we know it, the Colosseum. At that time the emperor was Vespasian's able son, Titus, who was cast in the same mold as his father, although Titus was a bit more urbanized. Some scholars have suggested that later editions were modified to butter up Domitian, Vespasian's second son, and who later became one of the empire's least loved emperors.
Celebrating the Colosseum.
Although the poems in the Liber Spectaculorum are by no means typical of Martial's better works, historians have found the book useful for gleaning details about passing a pleasant day at what the Romans called the ludi or games. Of course, the games included not only gladiatorial fights, but also animal hunts and prisoner executions.
There was a definite program for the day's entertainment. Contrary to popular opinion, gladiators did not fight animals. Instead, the fighters who contended with our four-footed friends were called the bestiarii, and the so-called animal hunts, or ventationes, were scheduled in the morning. Some bestiarii pitted themselves against lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!) - that is, animals that would fight back. Others went after animals that would generally run away, like ostriches, gazelles, and deer. Also there were contests where animals fought against each other, a - quote - "sport" - unquote - that lamentably continues today, though not always legally. But lest we become too critical of the Romans, there were also parts of the shows which weren't that different that today's circuses. You had water ballets with bears, lions that were trained not to harm rabbits that they held in their mouths, and even elephants walking on tightropes.
All games had a sponsor, called an editor who was usually someone who was wanting public approval. The editor put up the cost of the games either with his or borrowed money. So the bigger and more expensive the games, the more the people would think you were a big shot and wanted you to be in office. In fact, the Roman official known as the aedile was in charge of getting the games organized whether they were public games put on by the emperor or games sponsored by an individual. If there were great games under your aedileship, you were on the right track to be consul.
The trouble was the games got bigger and bigger over the years until they were totally out of control. Around 40 BCE, a game that was staged over three days was considered a media extravaganza. But 150 years later, the games would last over three months. It got to the point that it took years to organize a set of games, and it was up to the father to start organizing games that would sponsored by his son maybe fifteen years later.
But more was not always better. Once Pompey the Great - not only Caesar's rival but also his son-in-law from a surprisingly happy arranged marriage to Caesar's daughter Julia - decided to stage a set of games. He had returned to Rome after ridding the Mediterranean of the pirates and decided to really stage a fantastic animal hunt. So he brought in elephants from Africa. No one, he thought, would forget such an extravaganza.
He was right but for the wrong reason. After the hunters began to go to work, the elephants began to trumpet so piteously that the the crowd began to curse Pompey. A few "games" like these and you might as well retire to your villas in the country which Pompey did, at least for a while.
Martial tells us not only about the animal hunts but also the prisoner executions. These took place at noon and were the Roman equivalent of half time entertainment. But since just killing people wasn't always exciting, a smart sponsor would make sure the prisoners were executed in an entertaining manner. Particularly popular were executions which were staged re-enactments of various myths. In one case, Martial mentions a prisoner who was dressed as Orpheus, the Roman version of Dr. Doolittle who would sing to the animals. Details of the exact nature of the execution are sparse but evidently the prisoner was dressed up as Orpheus and first put into a cage with various cute animals like sheep, fawns, and birds. After a suitable interval, he was unceremoniously dumped into a cage with a bear which tore him up. The Romans thought this type of stuff was hilarious.
But the epigram about Orpheus is a good example of why Martial's poems are important to the historian. Although we can't always take his poetry as representing daily life with journalistic accuracy, his writings do tell us a lot about Roman culture - and not just that the Romans liked to see people eaten up by bears. At the end of the epigram, Martial mentions us the myth of Orpheus is fiction, and it was only became true with the re-enactment. So we know the Romans did not necessarily believe the stories about their gods and heroes to be factual accounts, and they had no prohibition against stating their disbelief publicly. Really skilled and knowledgeable historians can mine Martial's epigrams with surprising productivity to learn a lot about the daily life and the way people thought in the megalopolis that was ancient Rome.
Of course, the editor of the games, like any good impresario, saved the best for last, and the gladiators didn't perform until the afternoon. From Martial's (and other) accounts, we know there were definite rules, and there were even referees as in boxing. A lot of gladiators certainly died in the arena, that is true. But despite what you hear - even from television "documentaries (note quotes) with the ever present talking heads who should know better - the fights did not have to end with the death of of one of the fighters. In fact, most did not.
So how many gladiators made it past their three year stint to earn their freedom? We can glean an estimate of this from lists of fights, the participants, and the outcomes. From these "samples" we get about 15 % of the fights ended with one of the gladiators being killed. In other words, you had about 85 % chance of surviving a fight.
Unfortunately, that doesn't mean you had 85 % chance of living long enough to gain your freedom. That depended on how many games you fought. Some historians say (with some support of epitaphs from gravestones) that gladiators only fought three or four times a year. That's only maybe a dozen fights in a career. But there was a lot of variability between individual gladiators and one gladiator boasted 49 wins. We also know that some gladiators came back to fight even after being granted their freedom, and that some free men (and women) volunteered to be a gladiators. So it seems that there were not very many "average" gladiators from which we can draw any firm conclusions, and we also know that the gladiator graveyard in Ephesus - the town where St. Paul lived - holds an awful lot of gladiators that did not live to a nice ripe old age.
But above all, the goal of a gladiator was to win in a way that made you (and hence the editor) look good. Skilled swordsmanship was appreciated, and Martial tells us how one gladiator named Hermes was so skilled he could "win without wounding". That, though, was clearly an exception. After all, if all gladiators won without wounding the audience would have soon gotten bored, and that was not good for an editor's reputation.
Gladiatorial fights ended in one of three ways. First, a gladiator could be killed (of course). Alternatively, he could be spared by the editor with advice from the crowd. Although in the movies, the sign was either "thumbs up" or "thumbs down", all the Romans themselves said was the editor indicated his wishes pollice verso or a "by a turn of the thumb". We don't know if thumbs up signaled clemency or thumbs down did - or if it was some other signal altogether. The various talking heads on the history television shows like to give their viewers the low down of what the sign really was, but they have no more an idea about it than we do. And finally, a fight could be a draw.
So what was it that made Martial's poems so popular? It can't be denied that the modern reader perusing a translation might wonder exactly what the point of a poem is, particularly since they don't always make much sense. But we need to remember that the epigrams often refer to individuals that the original audience would know, but we don't, or to practices and customs of which we are unfamiliar (well, that's some of the practices). And if you get an edition which explains everything in detail, you lose something of the humor with the constant referral to the footnotes. Also, not all of Martial's poems were funny.
But we can go through the books and select poems that do not really need an accompanying scholarly concordance. Then we can make a better judgment as to whether Martial's reputation is merited. Remember, this is a poet who, as Pliny the Younger tells us, combines wit and satire with kindness.
Without doubt Martial's most famous epigram is this two line poem.
Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare.
Hoc tantum possum dicere. Non amo te.
I do not love you, Sabidus, nor can I say why.
This only I can say. I do not love you.
Doubled over with laughter? Well, of course, these poems were really meant for reciting. So maybe they lose something when just read silently.
The current popularity - or perhaps we should say the fame - of this poem comes from a translation by Tom Brown, a well-known but largely forgotten writer who lived from the late seventeenth to early eighteenth century. Tom, it seems, had been leading a life of less than repute while a student at Oxford. His professor, John Fell, said Brown could avoid expulsion (called "rustication" or being "sent down" in Oxbridge patois) if he would translate the epigram spontaneously. Young Tom came up with the famous rendering as:
I do not love thee, Dr. Fell. The reasons why I cannot tell.
But this I know and know full well. I do not love thee, Doctor Fell.
As with so many good stories, this one has no real documentation. Your various sources - some well over a hundred years old - refer to this as "a legend" with the usual qualifying comments such as "as the story goes", "supposedly", or "as commonly told". A likely source of the story is Tom itself, as this is exactly the type of story a rather feckless, self-promoting, and not very good author would write.
This example certainly sets us up a-pondering. Is this what the Romans considered the height of hilarity? The poem must have been famous enough or it wouldn't have been selected by Dr. Fell to test his student. Fortunately, Martial left us over 1500 other poems to get - as the statisticians say - a better sampling and so to hopefully pass better judgement.
So here is another famous epigram.
Thais habet nigros, niveos Laecania, dentes. Quae ratio est?
Emptos haec habet, illa suos.
which in English is
Thais has black teeth, Laecania snowy white. What is the reason?
This one has purchased (i. e., false teeth). That, her own.
This epigram is another example of how Martial's writings tells us about the culture of his own time. We know at least some Romans had 1) bad dental hygiene, 2) could buy false teeth, and 3) didn't write very funny poetry.
Martial, of course, liked to twit his friends. Or maybe they were not his friends, such as a certain Pontilianus, who was on the receiving end of the following poem.
Cur non mitto meos tibi, Pontiliane, libellos?
Ne mihi tu mittas, Pontiliane, tuos.
and which means:
Why don't I send my little books to you, Pontilianus?
So, Pontilianus, you don't send me yours.
You can just hear the peals of laughter.
As expected from someone who wrote over a thousand poems, Martial sometimes recycled his ideas. And sometimes one idea would lead to another. For instance, he also wrote:
Quem recitas meus est, o Fidentine, libellus.
Sed male cum recitas, incipit esse tuus.
The little book that you recite, Fidentinus, is mine.
But when you recite it badly, it begins to be yours.
Well, maybe it loses something of the native hilarity in the translation.
Martial's attitudes toward the professions are pretty clear. For instance, well before Moliére wrote the Imaginary Invalid, we have a Roman opinion on the physicians of his era.
Nuper erat medicus, nunc est vespillo, Diaulus.
Quod vespillo fecit, fecerat et medicus.
which is translated as:
Dialus was recently a doctor, now he is an undertaker.
What the undertaker does, the doctor also did.
Yes, the audience must have really been crapping themselves.
But the most popular of Martial's poems are those with a personal bite.
Hesterno fetere mero qui credit Acerram,
Fallitur. In lucem semper Acerra bibit.
Whoever believes that Acerra stinks from last night's wine,
Is mistaken. Acerra always drinks into the daylight.
A difficulty in translating Martial's poetry - or any Latin written in the commonly used verancular - is that the Romans - as befitting a society that would decorate their dining rooms with paintings of couples making whoopee - did not have the distinction between proper and improper words - at least not with the "vulgar" and "non-vulgar" dichotomy like we do. Our "vulgar" words usually are from Anglo-Saxon and the more genteel equivalents are derived, in fact, from Latin. So Latin using Latin as a substitute for a Latin word doesn't make sense.
But Latin, like all languages, does have words and expression which are not necessarily for polite or elegant company. So today it is common for modern translators to go ahead and translate certain words that Martial used with our Anglo-Saxon equivalents. For instance, there's ...
The reign of Titus lasted only two years and was followed by the longer and less pleasant rule of his younger brother, Domitian. Oddly enough, these were good years for Martial who met a number of other writers like Quintilian, Pliny the Younger, and Juvenal. All these men, as did Martial, survived the reign by keeping their heads down and not making waves - and toadying up to their paranoid ruler.
Actually Martial really didn't care where his money came from. One of his most powerful patrons was, Marcus Aquilius Regulus, who prosecuted his fellow countrymen for treason during Nero's time. Martial writes a number of flattering epigrams to Regulus, who probably provided the same prosecutorial services for Domitian as he did for Nero. Regulus was still alive at the fin de siècle, and so was one of Martial's long term supporters. Whether it was through Regulus or not, Martial ended up with a small estate in Nomentum (modern day Mentana) about 18 miles from Rome. With this property, Martial finally obtained tangible assets (if not hard cash) and got himself elevated to equestrian status.
Whether the assassination of Domitian by members of his own court was a factor or not, within two years of the Emperor's death, Martial returned to Spain. That was about 98 CE. The poet was sixty years old, and he lived only a few years longer. He died in the year 102 or thereabouts, aged 63 or 64. This was a fairly ripe old age for a Roman, and his passing drew a tribute from Pliny, who pointed out it was he, Pliny, had paid the expenses of Martial's trip back to Spain..
Martial, Loeb Classical Library
Latin: An Introductory Course Based on Ancient Authors, Frederic Wheelock, 3rd Edition, Barnes and Noble, 1976. A number of Martial's epigrams are in the exercises.
Martial: The Unexpected Classic - A Literary and Historical Study, J. P. Sullivan Cambridge University Press, 1991. Informative but expensive.
Ancient Literacy, William Harris, Harvard University Press, 1991. Professor Harris suggested that in the Early Empire in Rome male literacy was well below the 20% - 30% of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Literacy of women was probably less that 10%, so the overall estimate (given above) of 20% actually seems an upper limit.
As far as the thousands (tens of thousands) of graffiti in places like Pompeii, the often coarse nature of many of the writings has been argued that the writing on the walls was from the lower and a less educated and courteous class. Literacy, therefore, must have been relatively high.
It is certainly true that vibrant cities like Pompeii could have a higher level of literacy than the Empire as a whole. However, Professor Harris also points out that curses and snooty remarks - even about political figures - are by no means simply an affectation of the - quote - "lower orders" - unquote. The writings could have been the work of a relatively small number of literate men - which included educated slaves or freedmen - writing over extended periods.
It's easy for us to forget in an era where massive sports stadia comes crashing down after 30 years, that homes and buildings in Pompeii could be hundreds of years old. Grafitti was not necessarily rubbed out or painted over. A lot of graffiti can be dated from Nero's reign and so was at least a decade old. One inscription has even been ascribed to the time of Augustus (before 14 C. E). As far as scurrilous, rude, and even vulgar remarks being limited to the uneducated, we only need to review the recent speeches and tweets by our own ivy-league political candidates - and elected officials - to dispel that myth.
Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii, Kristina Milnor, Oxford University Press, 2014. Some discussion of literacy levels. A good point to remember is that literacy is not an all-or-nothing characteristic. Many short inscriptions ("Salve!", "Vale!") could have been scratched by people who were not literate in the modern sense, and it is certainly possible that a quite a few people could read a little - perhaps picking it up .
Bathing in Public in the Roman World, Garrett Fagan, University of Michigan Press, 1999. The first section uses the poetry of Martial to learn about the Roman baths.
A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries, and Curiosities, Alberto Angela, Europa Editions, 2009, A general "daily life" book. One chapter discusses costs of goods during Trajan's time and which were similar to those during Martial's lifetime.
"The Display of Elephants in Ancient Roman Arenas", Jo-Ann Shelton, ISAZ Newsletter, No. 21, pp. 2 - 6, (May, 2001)
Experiencing Rome: A Visual Exploration of Antiquity's Greatest Empire, Stephen Tuck, The Teaching Company.
History of Rome, Garrett Fagan, The Teaching Company.
The Roman Gladiator: Myths and Realities, Garrett Fagan, Lecture, The Pennsylvania State University, 2008. Sadly this interesting and largely spontaneous lecture seems to have vanished from cyberspace.
For various texts on the topics:
http://www.intratext.com/IXT/LAT0107/_INDEX.HTM. A collection of Martial's epigrams in Latin with a interactive concordance.
http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/. The Perseus Digital Library from Tufts University. Contains Latin and Greek Texts and English translations.
http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/. Again Latin texts of many ancient authors.
http://www.cems-oxford.org/john-fell. A page about John Fell of "I do not love thee, Dr. Fell" fame.
http://www.oenb.at/en/ueber_die_oenb/geldmuseum/allg_geldgeschichte/antike/money_in_ancient_times.jsp. A reliable discussion of ancient coinage from the Oesterreichische Nationalbank.