My Old Friend Marcus Martialis
Listen to/Watch entire show:
Like many Americans, the Urban Man often worries about Rome. Not the modern Rome, but the ancient Rome—as in, "Will America suffer a similar fate? Will our empire fall to barbarians or zealots?"
Last year, I couldn't help reading Cullen Murphy's excellent book, Are We Rome?, in which he cataloged the similarities: you know, an overextended military; a dependence on distant resources; and an upper class that refuses to pay taxes, devotes itself to private pleasures, and stays out of the ranks... Then of course there's the porous borders, the longterm depredation of the environment, and gee, apparently that old empire got bogged down occupying the area that's now Iraq.
In the end, they say, Rome suffered the loss of its underlying consensus, the very idea of what it meant to be "Rome."
Lately, I can't help watching the way we hold up our chins, the bearing of our bureaucrats, the tone of our collective laughter. I note the changing purposes of our great families and I measure our growing obsession with the personal whims and tastes of our leaders. I recall how, at a certain point, back in Rome, everyone's every waking thought seemed to concern...the emperor.
Then there's this Roman poet. Every few years, I re-read the epigrams of Marcus Valerius Martialis, who wrote smart, snarky little ditties back around the year 80 — many still R-rated. Each time, I report back to my friends on whether he sounds increasingly…up to date.
This afternoon, I've taken Martial…or at least his book…for a stroll along Melrose, and I listen as he chats about the wine, the furniture, and the chic ambitions of his wealthy Roman friends:
I angle for your dinner invitations…you fish elsewhere…
I'm your spaniel, following your every pompous whim.
Meanwhile, you court a richer patron. I dog you and you dog him.
Like many in his day, my old friend was unselfconsciously bi-sexual… appreciating a host's pheasants and his serving boys. Of one acquaintance, he writes:
I wouldn't like you with tight curls…nor yet too tousled…
Your trouble is that despite the virile stubble
That mats your chest and furs your leg
Your mind's as hairless as an egg.
And just now, as somewhere out in our own Mesopotamian sphere of influence, America is fighting zealots and barbarians, I pause outside a little boutique selling $1500 bathroom fixtures, and I read aloud:
When Eros goes into a shop
And sees fine slaves, a table-top
Of citrus-wood, a Murrine cup,
He weeps, he heaves his whole heart up
Because he can't, poor man, take home
The entire street! Thousands in Rome
Suffer the same pangs—but dry-eyed:
They mock his tears while theirs scald inside.
Like us, Martial had a caring side. In fact, he was nearly a bleeding-heart liberal. One poem on the untimely death of a slave girl is beautifully poignant. And in another, he writes to a neighbor:
Why did you cut out your slave's tongue,
Ponticus, and then have him hung
Crucified? Don't you realize, man,
Though he can't speak, the rest of us can?
As evening falls, the Urban Man takes Martial into the Urth Café and over my decaf cap I say to modern friends, "Don't worry, we aren't becoming Rome anytime soon. We have far to go before we treat enemies or undocumented aliens in such a brutal manner. Our disparity in wealth has not become so great. We are not so very uncareful of our democracy. Not so driven by our desires. Not so wasteful of our wealth. And surely, we will never be so unwise as to spend our life's blood trying to control the resources of far-off lands.
Still, when I get home and return Marcus Valerius Martialis to his shelf, I say, "Dear ancient Urban Man: Let's stay in touch. In fact, let me check back…soon."
Translations by James Michie, "The Epigrams of Martial," Vintage Books © 1972 (with some modifications). Other Text Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
Engage & Discuss
BROUGHT TO YOU BY