The Poet Martial Bound In Roman Leather
Roman sandals were made from leather, not papyrus, and so was the handiest Roman book, a codex. This format was rectangular, and was smaller and lasted longer than most scrolls. Tubular scrolls need a pair of long winding spindles, and are fragile. Codices closed solidly just like a modern book, and a blocky codex can stand pressures that would ruin a scroll. Still, the dictator Julius Caesar never saw a codex. It might be that the satirical Latin poet Martial, who came of age 120 years later, was the first author to try them out.
Martial’s works appeared in two formats: fancy purple-wrapped scrolls in gift editions found at Trypho’s and other elegant bookstores around town, and, naturally enough, cheap editions (perhaps leather codices) manufactured near the street of the sandal-makers. And both kinds sold, posh and cheap! Martial had perfected a blend of sarcasm, abuse, and wetly finicky obscenity, full of puns, that carried him through eleven regular books, plus a collection of early efforts.
In the 70s, 80s and through the 90s of the first century, if you needed a new shoes in Rome, off you went to the Vicus Sandalarius (Sandal Street). Nearby on the Argiletum running north, you might pass the bookstall of freedman Secundus, who would smile and wave you to a stand out front showing his own specialty, Martial — perhaps in a creamy vellum codex. Indoors, wall boxes are holding papyrus scrolls tagged Catullus, Ovid, Horace, and so on, but many shoppers just ask for stinky Martial. Then Secundus opens a newly copied example to show you the exact spot where Martial in sleek Latin names him, Secundus, personally.
‘Mehercule’, you say after a bit, ‘that’s one awesome book there, but I need some lines, sadder than Simonides, for my cousin whose pet ferret’s died, you know. D’you have anything really sympathetic?’
‘Ah, I do in this other book by Martial. Hmm, last specimen. A bit unusual for him. Got the true feeling. Shows deserts of tar and smoke where Vesuvius blew apart that other year and killed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Shouldn’t go barefoot down there yet. There was good wine grown on that volcano Vesuvius and a lot of hidden woods for parties there. Buy this ducky little gem and write the poem out yourself for your cousin. I’ll have another copy or two made right off.’
You read the elegy and naturally make the purchase.
Image from The Spectator [UK] 7 January 2017, p 47.
(Here’s my translation in elegiacs from the Latin, which appeared the News of the Classical Association in 2010.)
A Roman Poet Remembers Pompeii & Herculaneum
This is Vesuvius. Last year vine tendrils tinted the shade green,
this was where tanks overflowed, dyed with the noblest of grapes:
Bacchus preferred those hillsides to Nysae, his homeland,
recently satyrs on this peak were accustomed to dance.
Here was a residence sweeter by far than her Sparta to Venus,
Hercules put his own name here to distinguish the place.
Everything now lies immersed in dispiriting fire and ashes:
nor are the gods themselves glad to have powers like this.