The Spectacle

By skepticlawyer

For whatever reason, I’m in a Roman mood just now. The reaction to my Christmas piece over at OLO probably kicked it off, to the point where I admitted (privately) to a mate that I largely wrote that piece in order to show off my translations from Statius’ Silvae.

I taught myself Latin in year 12 after getting busted reading Robert Graves’ translation of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars under the desk in year 11 ‘Christian Knowledge’. (This was the compulsory subject we all had to do three times a week. It didn’t count towards your Senior results, so students were inclined to take it less seriously. Needless to say, the school didn’t agree with our assessment).

My teacher’s response – a high octane what are you doing reading that smut? made me figure there must be more where that came from. I searched out a couple of Latin textbooks from the local book exchange – it shared premises with the TAB, if I recall – and started learning. I figured that if I was reading dodgy stuff in a foreign language, no-one was going to be any the wiser. Admittedly, I hadn’t counted on Mr ****** knowing Latin. To be fair, he gave up on the ‘smut’ line after that and let me swot up the back of the classroom to my heart’s content.

Martial was Statius’ contemporary. The two did not get on. Statius wrote socially responsible epics and school text-books. Martial was a sports tragic with a nice line in, ahem, smut. He’s usually credited with inventing the epigram. One of his poems became a nursery rhyme – the well-known I do not love thee, Dr Fell. His attitude also seeps through in Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, with one poem inspiring Dr Lecter’s alias. His writing is part Quentin Tarantino, part Bloodhound Gang. Were he around now, I’m pretty sure he’d be a wild headbanging dude with a drug problem, but one also prone to bursts of genius during his moments of clarity. I also suspect – if he were a muso – he’d be wanting 1805 Napoleon brandy and hand-sorted red smarties while on tour.

I started fiddling with Martial translations towards the end of my first year at university – purely for my own entertainment, I have to say. I’ve periodically returned to them since, but they’ve never had a public airing, so I don’t know if they’re any good. I’ve put up a few over the fold. These are taken from a series of pieces he wrote commemorating the opening of the Flavian Amphitheatre (better known as the Colosseum) in A.D 80. It’s probably worth pointing out that Lecky (in his History of European Morals) had the following to say about Martial’s writing on his sports obsession:

Martial’s De Spectaculis is not more horrible from the atrocities it recounts than from the perfect absence of all feeling of repulsion or compassion it everywhere displays.


Where we now see the great colossus rise
And vast tiers backlit with starry skies
Was once filled by Nero’s golden home –
Imagine a palace swallowing Rome!

Here, where our arena games has shown
Nero’s stagnant fish-pond once overflowed
Now, too, we’ve scored us a big new bath
Where Nero’s lawn once took poor folks’ land.

While Claudius’ terrace shades our path,
Caesar grants us a ruler’s pleasures with lavish hand.

It’s probably worth pointing out that – after the Great Fire – Nero made himself enduringly unpopular with the hoi polloi for resuming a whole heap of land and using it to build a palace for himself. Vespasian and Titus made themselves enduringly popular by demolishing Nero’s ‘Golden House’ and turning the land over to the general public for entertainment purposes. Eminent domain, anyone?


Not only warlike Mars in your service fights
Venus also shows her conquering might
In the Nemean Lion’s vale, like Hercules famed
A bare-headed woman will win or die maimed.

Silence upon writers of old: for since Caesar’s game
‘Lion killed by woman warrior’ we now proclaim.


While terrified handlers the rhino poked
(After the beast took time to get stoked)
The crowd had despaired of the promised fight,
When at last the fierce anger we knew blazed bright!
His double horn tossed aside a great bear
Like kids thowing balls high in the air.
So sure was the thrust of his Norican spear
It seemed hunter Carpophorus’ strong hand was here.

Next thing that spry neck with its cruel double horn
Put a bull out of action and a bison had torn
A lion fled headlong and was spiked en brochette
Hey crowd, still harping on delays at the outset?

‘Norica’ refers to an area corresponding with modern south-western Slovenia, which was famous for its hunters.


For ages and ages Verus and Priscus fought on
Their fight in the balance, hanging equal so long
The crowd howled ‘Freedom!’ for such gutsy men!
But just Caesar his own law did pen
‘Keep at it,’ he ordered. ‘But put down your shield’.
He offered great riches ‘to the man who won’t yield’.

At last this even fight finished up fair –
Equal defeat and victory bestowed on the pair.
Caesar gave both freedom and palm
‘Fitting reward for such courage and charm’.

No-one but you, Caesar, could this law lay down
That two may fight, and each win the crown.

That’ll do for now.

Just a note – classical Latin poetry never rhymes. It’s very easy to rhyme in Latin – it’s an inflected language – so Roman poets eschewed rhyme. Instead, they relied on meter, which is much more regular in Latin than in English. Each syllable has a defined length, which when deployed with skill gives a strong sense of rhythm. English, by contrast, is a difficult language in which to rhyme. Here, I tried to transfer the relevant Latin ‘skill’ into a comparable English one.

UPDATE: I’ve had a couple of off-line requests for particular poems from De Spectaculis. This is the closest Martial gets to political commentary:


This noxious mob hates calm and happy peace
Always trying the poor of money to fleece
After standing naked in the sand, informers now live
In the desert. They’ve had exile given, who’d exile give.

Exposed in the arena, presumably with accusatory placards hung around their necks, ‘informers’ played a large role in Roman politics. They operated as a class of amateur spies who dobbed in their neighbours or enemies to the authorities for crimes and misdemeanours ranging from social security fraud to hatching plots against the emperor. Often rewarded with part or all of the property of the dobbed individual – who was then sent into internal exile – their activities generated great social unrest, creating an atmosphere redolent of the Soviet Union under Stalin. The better emperors exiled them, but it only needed the accession of a paranoid ruler to create a whole new class of informers.

Someone else requested ‘one of the gross ones’. Here are two, both fairly dependent on mythology (which every Roman schoolchild knew in the same way as people fifty years ago knew the Bible). Caution: high level violance, sexual scenes, adult themes.

We’re told a bull fucked the Cretan Queen
In our arena, this by all was seen
So let not myth her fictions crow
What we want, Caesar, on the sand you show.

This nasty bit of snuff becomes clearer once you know that Pasiphae, Queen of Crete, mated with a bull, resulting in the Minotaur. Here, a non-citizen female criminal convicted on a capital charge is forced to ‘perform’ Pasiphae’s role.

Just as Prometheus in Scythia to a rock was bound
His guts by vultures torn and ground
So lying Laureolus, by a Caledonian bear
Is shredded while crucified, hanging down there.
His limbs still live, while gore jets and drips,
Look for his body? It’s been cut into bits.

He who stabs his master, those who kill
Their parents – this is how they die.
The fool who rapes a Priestess, burns Capitol Hill
Such a fitting penalty – we have him fry.
Swap a scabrous criminal in these stories of old
And fiction becomes fact, in the amphitheatre retold.

It is possible, I think, after reading that, to see where Thomas Harris got his ideas for Dr Lector’s, ahem, interesting tastes.


  1. Posted January 5, 2007 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    More Roman stuff up here, folks.

  2. Deus Ex Macintosh
    Posted January 6, 2007 at 3:59 am | Permalink

    Why does that Lecky quote sound awfully familiar? Does Martial also lack “a sufficiently strong voice of condemnation or enough historical distance to give readers a proper, moral perspective”? Or is it infra dig on Catallaxy to mention your former career as national lit-git stirrer extraordinaire?

    Re: Hannibal Lecter, I’ve always been a big fan (Hannibal is my favourite movie of the three as you get to see him ‘free-range’ as it were.) This is a guy who has gone right through sane and out the other side.

  3. Posted January 6, 2007 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    Not infra dig at all on a literature post, DEM. Don’t get me wrong, Martial was a twisted, twisted guy, but gee whiz he could write. But yair, that’s definitely one of the reasons I like translating his stuff.

    It does give you a sense of just how these guys entertained themselves though – sheesh. Gladiator was very much the family version of the Roman sporting palette.

  4. John Greenfield
    Posted January 6, 2007 at 1:45 pm | Permalink


    I did one semester of Introductory Latin at uni. but did not pay much attention (my lecturer graciously gave me 50/100, more for my smile than my declensions, I suspect). Is it easy to “teach yourself?” Can you recommend the best short-cut? I imagine there are all sorts of fancy interactive technologies out there.

  5. Justin Jefferson
    Posted January 6, 2007 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Yes skeptic what I want to know is how you managed to digest all those fuckinibus word endings. If I had been emperor my first decree would be a general suffix-ectomy for the whole language. But seriously, what with different endings for declension, and gender, and number, and case, and what-have-you, how, apart from native genius, did you do it? What was your actual technique? Did you spend time drilling yourself in tables? How, hmm?

  6. Posted January 6, 2007 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    I still have the books I picked up at the book exchange – Jones & Sidwell’s Reading Latin: Grammar, Vocabulary and Exercises and Reading Latin: Text. Both books are constructed as a series of exercises that, when done properly, build vocabulary and grammar nicely.

    I found Latin grammar more logical than English. Once you get used to the fact that Latin is inflected, you then realise that the only requirement is to get the suffix right. Word order doesn’t matter a crap. ‘Man bites dog’ doesn’t exist in Latin, because dog will always be in the nominative, and man in the accusative. Unless, of course, man really did bite dog…

  7. Justin Jefferson
    Posted January 6, 2007 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    Yes but how do you remember them all?

  8. Posted January 6, 2007 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Not sure how to say this, but languages seem to come easily to me – always have. I should probably speak about 6 of the more useful modern buggers by now; instead I speak two modern languages fluently (English & Italian), one not too badly (Spanish). I also read three ancient languages (Latin, Old Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon).

    I used to have reasonable Japanese, Ukrainian and German, but they’re all waaaay rusty now. They come back when I go to the country in question, though – I was last in Ukraine and Germany in 99, and both started to come good after a week or so.

  9. Deus Ex Macintosh
    Posted January 6, 2007 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    I was last in Ukraine and Germany in 99, and both started to come good after a week or so.

    Except when trying to order still mineral water.

  10. Posted January 6, 2007 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    Thankyou for reminding me. I don’t think I figured out that little furphy until we’d crossed the Czech border. My the belly laugh was worth it, though 😀

  11. GMB
    Posted January 7, 2007 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Now come on you international travellers.

    No private jokes here.

    What’s the translation.

  12. John Greenfield
    Posted January 7, 2007 at 4:28 pm | Permalink


    Might I suggest that you are a “cunning linguist?” 😉

  13. Posted January 7, 2007 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Very witty John, bit like the name of that Irish airline… 😉

  14. Posted January 9, 2007 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    The descriptions of Roman sport brought to mind Steven Pinker’s little piece on the decline of violence. An interesting thought for those who think that we’ve currently reached some low point in humanity.

    On a lighter note, I found the Teach Yourself Latin by Gavin Betts very helpful but dense (helps if you like grammar!). Otherwise Peter Jones did a very accessible series with quaint illustrations originally published in the Daily Telegraph (UK), now known as “Learn Latin”. He also did “Learn Ancient Greek” which is also a lot of fun.

  15. Posted January 9, 2007 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    Kitty, you haven’t got a working link for that by any chance? That one seems busted, and I wouldn’t mind reading it.

  16. Posted January 10, 2007 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Just checked the link and it worked for me, there are a few pieces on the same page so you have to scroll down a bit. Otherwise do a search for it at, the article is called “Looking through rose-colored microscopes” and it’s on the second page.

    Here’s an excerpt:

    In 16th century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted above a stage and then was slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, “the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted and finally carbonized.” As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This is just one example of the most important and underappreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence.

  17. Posted January 10, 2007 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    It’s a small piece out of a much longer article. Very interesting, too:

    Cruelty as popular entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, genocide for convenience, torture and mutilation as routine forms of punishment, execution for trivial crimes, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution — all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. Yet today they are rare in the West, less common elsewhere than they used to be and widely condemned when they do occur.

    Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the 20th century, find this claim incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millenniums (and for that matter, the last 50 years), particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward (though of course with many zigzags).

    Anyone who doubts this by pointing to residues of force in the U.S. — capital punishment in Texas, Abu Ghraib, sex slavery in immigrant groups and so on — misses two key points. One is that, statistically, the prevalence of these practices is almost certainly a tiny fraction of what it was in centuries past. The other is that these practices are, to varying degrees, hidden, illegal, condemned or, at the very least, as in the case of capital punishment, intensely controversial. In the past, they were no big deal.

    I’m not sure if violence has declined in absolute terms – certainly not during the 20th century, at any rate – but the idea that it’s all good fun has certainly gone by the by. Which is one of the reasons why reading Martial’s De Spectaculis is like being hit over the head with a spanner. People used to get off on this stuff.

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