Martial’s epigrams on Erotion

Tonbridge - post-mortem photograph
Tonbridge – post-mortem photograph

The Latin Poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (known in English as Martial), born between 38 and 41 AD and who died between 102 and 104 AD, is known for his Epigrams, a collection of short poems grouped into 12 “Books”. The original poems in Latin can be found in The Latin Library, Bibliotheca Augustana and Wikisource. Here I will use the English translation given by The Tertullian Project.

Most of the Epigrams are satirical, mocking his contemporaries, and in them he often resorts to insulting or obscene language. However he could also express his humanity and his love. Indeed 5.34, 5.37 and 10.61 (that is, Epigrams 34 and 37 in Book 5 and 61 in Book 10) are devoted to Erotion, a little slave girl whom he loved tenderly, and who died 6 days before her 6th birthday. In 5.34 he commends her to his own deceased parents, that they may protect her in the realm of death. In 5.37 he extols her incomparable charm, then mocks a man who laments the death of his very rich wife (whom he probably married for her dowry), but chides Martial for mourning a little home-born slave. In 10.61 he asks future proprietors of his lands to preserve Erotion’s grave.

V/XXXIV. AN EPITAPH ON EROTION, WHO DIED AT NEARLY SIX YEARS OLD, AFTER HER PARENTS.

To you, O Fronto my father, and to you, O Flaccilla my mother, I commend this child, the little Erotion, my joy and my delight, that she may not be terrified at the dark shades and at the monstrous mouth of the dog of Tartarus. She would just have passed the cold of a sixth winter, had she lived but six days longer. Between protectors so venerable may she sport and play, and with lisping speech babble my name. Let no rude turf cover her tender bones, and press not heavy on her, O earth; she pressed but lightly on you.

V/XXXVII. ON THE YOUNG EROTION.

Child, more sweet to me than the song of aged swans, more tender than a lamb of Phalantine Galaesus, more delicate than a shell of the Lucrine lake; you to whom no one could prefer the pearls of the Indian Ocean, or the newly polished tooth of the Indian elephant, or the newly fallen snow, or tho untouched lily; whose hair surpassed the fleece of the Spanish flock, the knotted tresses of the dwellers on the Rhine, and the golden-coloured field-mouse; whose breath was redolent with odours which rivalled the rose-beds of Paestum, or the new honey of Attic combs, or amber just rubbed in the hand; compared to whom the peacock was ugly, the squirrel unattractive, the phoenix a common object; O Erotion, your funeral pyre is yet warm. The cruel law of the inexorable Fates has carried you off, my love, my delight, my plaything, in your sixth winter yet incomplete. Yet my friend Paetus forbids me to be sad, although he smites his own breast and tears his hair equally with myself. “Are you not ashamed (says he) to bewail the death of a little slave? I have buried a wife,—a wife distinguished, haughty, noble, rich, and yet am alive.” What fortitude can be greater than that of my friend Paetus?—He inherits (by the death of his wife) twenty millions of sesterces, and yet can live.

X/LXI. EPITAPH ON EROTION.

Here reposes Erotion in the shade of the tomb that too early dosed around her, snatched away by relentless Fate in her sixth winter. Whoever you are that, after me, shall rule over these lands, render annual presents to her gentle shade. So, with undisturbed possession, so, with your family ever in health, may this stone be the only one of a mournful description on your domain.

These three epigrams have been commented by several scholars. L. J. Lloyd (Erotion: A Note on Martial, Greece & Rome, Vol. 22, No. 64, Feb. 1953, pp. 39–41) notes in Martial a quality of tenderness, which “is rare, if not unique, in Latin poetry.” He considers 10.61 a “lovely little thing” and says about 5.34 that it “surely makes a strong claim to the title of its author’s masterpiece.” On the other hand, he dislikes 5.37: “It is a charming and civilized composition, but it is a set-piece;” then about the jest concerning Paetus mourning his rich wife: “Where there is no depth of feeling a piece of sarcasm will do well enough.

E. J. Kenney (Erotion Again, Greece & Rome, Vol. 11, No. 1, Mar. 1964, pp. 77–81) defends 5.37 through an in-depth analysis explaining its meaning, which seemed lost to modern readers. Indeed, it stands close to 5.34, and ancient poets “followed principles of variation and contrast which were well understood by their readers,” thus the style had to be completely different.

The third verse, “more delicate than a shell of the Lucrine lake” (Concha Lucrini delicatior stagni), does not refer to a pearl, since in the next verse he prefers Erotion to pearls. “He compares Erotion with Lucrine oysters for the same reason that he compares her with all the other things in the list, because they were famous,” indeed “because they were good to eat. Martial is saying playfully, that Erotion was delicious enough to eat.” Hence in the first half of the poem, “the comparisons are not meant to be taken wholly seriously; they are the tender play of the poet’s fancy, baby-talk, the sort of thing that Martial used to say to Erotion when she was alive.

Finally the jest about Paetus makes sense. His wife was “distinguished, haughty, noble, rich,” but “we miss one quality in this stately catalogue, one word: amatam” (loved). “Paetus can bear his grief, for he has lost a wife whom he did not love, and keeps the only thing of hers which he values, her dowry. Martial has kept nothing of Erotion but bitter-sweet memories of what a charming little thing she was, but his grief, though restrained, is real, since what he has lost is real, a child, a person.

Albert A. Bell, Jr. (Martial’s Daughter? The Classical World, Vol. 78, No. 1, Sep.-Oct. 1984, pp. 21–24) agrees on this point: “to be confronted with Paetus, pretending to mourn a wife whom he had married solely for her money! Martial’s sarcam is not at all out of place, as critics often contend. He who on the surface has lost so little has actually lost the most precious thing in the world.” He also argues that in 5.34 Fronto and Flaccilla are Martial’s own parents, not Erotion’s, as some have claimed.

However his main point is the suggestion that Erotion was Martial’s daughter with one of his women slaves. He supports this hypothesis with several arguments: Martial had Erotion cremated, a practice preferred by the upper classes, “he buried her with the full rites befitting the child of a Roman citizen,” he entrusted her to his own parents, and maintained her grave for years. He wonders: “Is that not excessive devotion to a mere slave child?

I do not find these arguments compelling. As wrote L. J. Lloyd, Martial “is one of the most human and companionable of Latin authors.” In several epigrams, he could show admiration, love or compassion for slaves. In particular he denounced cruelty against them, first in 2.66 “To Lalage”:

One ringlet of hair, in the whole circle of Lalage’s tresses, was out of its place, haying been badly fixed by an erring pin. This crime she punished with the mirror, by means of which she discovered it, and Plecusa fell to the ground under her blows, in consequence of the cruel hair. Cease now, Lalage, to adorn your fatal locks; let no waiting-woman henceforth touch your outrageous head. Let the salamander leave its venom on it, or the razor pitilessly denude it, that the image may be worthy of your mirror.

Then in 2.82 “To Ponticus”:

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

And in 3.94 “To Rufus”:

You say the hare is not sufficiently cooked, and call for a whip.
You would rather cut up your cook, Rufus, than your hare.

Whatever the truth concerning the hypothesis on Martial’s paternity of Erotion, these three epigrams are a beautiful testimony to the love that a man can feel for a little girl.

Acknowledgement: I first learned of epigrams 5.34 and 5.37 in the page Amours platoniques in François Lemonnier’s site La sexualité de la fillette.

Previously published on Agapeta, 2015/04/18.

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