Martial Book 1 Epigram 5

While in college, the Classics department of Hillsdale College, my alma mater, grew considerably.  I believe that people are starting to become more interested in Rome because the Roman Empire–often in very sad ways–bears much similitude to the modern United States. But, Classical studies have not reached the eminence they once had, which is a shame.  One of my delights is to read the old Latin poets, whose verses are among the most beautiful ever produced.  Among poets, I give first place to the Greeks (they do have Homer), second to the Latins, and third to the English.


But of these three, I think that Latins have the best sense of humor.  Look at the original and my translation of Martial below.

Exigis ut donem nostros tibi, Quinte, libellos.

non habeo sed habet bibliopola Tryphon.

‘aes dabo pro nugis et emam tua carmina sanus?

non’ inquis ‘faciam tam fatue.’  nec ego. (Martial Bk. 1, epigram 5)


You demand that I give my little books as a gift to you, Quintus.

Not I, but the bookseller Tryphon has it.

“I, a sane man, will give money for nonsense and buy your poems?”

You say, “I will not do something so idiotic!”  Nor will I.

This poem does many nice things which I, as the translator, was hardly able to duplicate.  For example, “Exigis ut donem” is a terribly forceful way to begin a poem–demanding a gift.  Gifts are supposed to be free, you know!  Then, the other half of the line becomes softer and more diminutive.  “Nostros” was often used by the Latins to mean “little old me” rather than a royal plural.  Then, the line ends with “libellos” (little books).  Imagine someone shouting “I demand your pamphlets!” and you have an idea of how silly Martial has made Quintus look.  As a matter of fact, juxtaposing “Quinte” by the “libellos” further highlights the ridiculous figure cut by Quintus.

Somehow, this picture seems to work, but I could be wrong.

Somehow, this picture seems to work, but I could be wrong.

The second line, with its alliteration of b’s and abundance of vowels has a frolicsome feel to it.  Then, we see “habeo” (I have) at the opposite end from Tryphon.  This gives the impression that Martial wishes to shoo Quintus as far away from him as possible.

The third line uses the separation between the first and last words in a remarkably similar manner.  “Aes” (money) is as far from “sanus” as possible; hence, only a crazy person would pay for Martial’s poetry.  That’s known as adding insult to injury!

In the fourth, placing “non” before “inquis” makes the refusal extra emphatic.  I could have translated it as “No!  I will not do something so idiotic!”  “Faciam tam fatue” has a nice alliterative feel and suggests further the very haughty attitude of Quintus.  “Nec ego” is so brief and laconic in order to show Martial’s exasperation with Quintus.  It was expected among Roman circles of friends to pass around books for free.  Quintus seems to have presumed upon an nonexistent friendship, and Martial wants Quintus to know it.

Well, I hope that you enjoyed my little explication of Martial’s poem!

5 thoughts on “Martial Book 1 Epigram 5

  1. Nami says:

    I haven’t read any Latin poetry except for Virgil, so I suppose this time next year when I’m free from schoolwork I’ll have to give it a try.

    I also appreciate that picture of the Doctor telling Donna off (David Tennant is wonderful at making faces). Especially because if I’m right it’s from the episode “The Fires of Pompeii.” =)

    • I’m delighted to find that the photograph was so apropos! One problem with reading Latin poets is that they ought to be read in the original. There are many good translations, but one misses out on so many things when reading in English!

      You should read Virgil’s Eclogues too. You probably already know this, but the fourth eclogue was taken by the early Christians as prophetic of Christ’s birth. After reading it, I felt like agreeing!

      • Nami says:

        I certainly agree–I wish I had all the time in the world to learn different languages! I definitely want to finish my Latin education one of these days. I’ve had Latin I about three times for various reasons (including a sweet but incompetent high school teacher), and I’ve had a couple of semesters of Greek. Hopefully I can resume my studies of both languages after I graduate so I can appreciate the works I’ve read in their native tongue.

        I have read the Fourth Eclogue but not any of the other ones–I’ll definitely have to look in to them! I really need to start making a list of things to read (in my copious spare time).

      • You’ll be very pleased to know that one can read the New Testament Greek, especially the Gospels, pretty easily with some training.

        But, I did make a funny mistranslation of John 1:1 once. Before giving the translation, I must say that the worksheet gave no context and that my translation would be literally correct: “In the province, there was a speech, and the speech was against the god.” My friends ribbed me to no end!

  2. […] when he wants.  Instead, I’ll start with some of the best of Martial’s epigrams.  One of which, I have already posted about.  Essentially, I shall use the same format as was used in that article: writing the poem in the […]

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