Religion and Propriety in Martial's epigrams

Cvjeticanin, Jovan, Classics - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Miller, John, Classics, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the use of religious language and imagery in the poetry of the 1st century CE Roman poet Martial. He adheres to principles that there is a proper time, place, and manner for everything, which is analogous to the tendency of the Roman social and religious elite to impose control over the calendar, space and ritual norms. The three chapters will present the major groups of poems which I consider: epigrams about poetry, epigrams about patronage, and invective epigrams. The introduction consists of two parts: the first part is an overview of scholarship about Roman religion and literature with a focus on Martial, while the second part uses the Saturnalia as an example which illustrates the topics of the dissertation in one case study. The first chapter is about the proper way to write poetry. Since Martial had to reckon with potential criticisms that his poetry is obscene and thus detrimental to Roman morality, he uses religion to justify his poetic choices. Just as indecent and illegal things are allowed within the spatial and temporal constraints of festivals of license, so is obscenity allowed to be an integral part of epigram. On the other hand, in books which do not feature obscenity, the notion of religious purification is used as an analogy to justify its absence. The second chapter examines proper communication with patrons and its relationship to communication with the gods. In the first half, I argue that Martial does not depict his patrons as gods and creates a distinction between communicating with gods and patrons. Prayer plays an important role because it gives clients a sense of agency in the relationship. The second half looks at Martial’s strategies of communicating with the emperor Domitian. Since the emperor is presented as godlike and the most powerful patron, his status as somewhere between human and divine had to be repeatedly renegotiated. The third chapter examines the way religious language is used in invectives to describe individuals and behavior that Martial considers to be out of order. On the one hand, sacred architecture is used to signal imperial presence in epigrams that mock parasites and other individuals whose presence in Rome might subvert social order. On the other hand, the language of pollution is used to mock individuals perceived to be sexually deviant or socially unacceptable by the narrator. Overall, there is a sense that Martial uses religion to impose control over his poetic world: his poetry exists in a ritual space within which he is able to exercise complete authority. The language of prayer allows him to construct an ideal patron, and religious imagery and architecture provides a basis for mockery. The only person above Martial’s authority is the emperor, and the poet therefore attempts to stay within a religious framework when explaining how the emperor’s presence changes his poetry.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Latin Poetry, Roman Religion, Epigram
Issued Date: