Quintilian, greatest guide of wayward youth,

pride of the Roman toga, please forgive

that I—though poor, not age-wracked—should make haste

to live: none hastens as he should to live.

Let him defer it who’d surpass his father

in wealth, and crowd his hall with busts galore.

A hearth, a roof not bothered by black smoke,

a running stream, and fresh grass please me more.

Give me a well-fed home-born slave, a wife

not learnèd, nights of sleep, days free of strife.



Original ↓

Quintiliane, uagae moderator summe iuuentae,
     gloria Romanae, Quintiliane, togae,
uiuere quod propero pauper nec inutilis annis,
     da ueniam: properat uiuere nemo satis.
Differat hoc patrios optat qui uincere census  
     atriaque inmodicis artat imaginibus:
me focus et nigros non indignantia fumos
     tecta iuuant et fons uiuus et herba rudis.
Sit mihi uerna satur, sit non doctissima coniunx,
     sit nox cum somno, sit sine lite dies.

Translator's Note

Martial’s epigrams are best known for their snarky or bawdy zingers critiquing people at every level of society, from wealthy patrons to inept doctors to cadging parasites to aging prostitutes.  But there is another side of Martial, in which he praises the ordinary pleasures of daily life and implicitly questions the priorities of the bustling, social-climbing Romans.  His praise poems unabashedly appeal to the senses and reach out across millennia to offer common ground to contemporary readers, who often share his preference for relaxed, rural retirement over urban striving for success.

As part of their conversational style, some of Martial’s poems are addressed to one of his contemporaries, as in 2.90, addressed to Quintilian, a famous educator and writer on rhetoric who also had come from Spain. It may be inferred from this poem that Quintilian had urged Martial to pursue traditional roads to success, such as by arguing cases in the law courts as a step toward gaining political office and influence, but that Martial preferred the more leisurely—or lazy—life of a writer, and would rather live in rustic comfort than in ambitious luxury.

Martial had come to densely populated Rome from the town of Augusta Bilbilis, in a hilly, wooded region in Hispania Tarraconensis, in what is now northern Spain. He wrote nostalgically of rural pleasures and often sought to retreat to the countryside, to a small farm of his in Nomentum, eighteen miles from Rome.  Late in life, he retired from Rome entirely and returned to live near his birthplace, on a small estate given to him by a local patroness. Though 2.90 is one of his early epigrams, it lays out preferences that he later fulfilled.

There is a lot of subtext in Martial’s short poem.  The busts that he claims not to want in his hall are imagines, wax portrait busts of ancestors who had held public office, which were displayed in an upper-class house’s atrium and carried in funeral processions. Even today, owning many portrait busts is usually assumed to be a sign of wealth and family reputation.  There is no evidence that Martial ever married or wanted to marry, though in some of his epigrams he pretends to be married or considering marriage.  His portrayal of an idealized rural life includes marriage so that the readers of his time could identify with it more easily.  His expressed preference for a well-fed homeborn slave implies that many slaves who were products of conquest or purchase were maltreated or deeply unhappy, and that such slaves would lead to a more unpleasant or contentious home life. Martial’s desire for “non doctissima coniunx” (a not overly learnèd wife) probably alludes to Catullus’s praise of his lover Lesbia as a “docta puella” (a learnèd girl).  Martial implies that too much learning in a woman leads to adultery and other marital strife.  I have not attempted to spell out the subtext of this poem, assuming that even readers not familiar with details of Roman life can follow the overtones of these details.  

Because Latin meters, which depend on a pattern of short and long vowels, cannot be heard well in English, which uses a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, I have translated Martial’s elegiac couplets (alternating lines of dactylic hexameter and pentameter) into iambic pentameter, the metrical pattern that is used most often in English verse and that fits English speech rhythms most closely. Although Latin verse of Martial’s time did not rhyme, in English the epigrams that Martial helped to popularize have traditionally used rhyme to add elements of surprise and emphasis to the poems, so I have followed that pattern.  However, trying to rhyme every line would lead me too far away from the content of the original poems, so—except in the concluding couplet—I have rhymed every other line.


Susan McLean

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In the Classroom

Quotidian diversion: Write a third version of Epigram 2.90 based on the translations by Susan McLean and J. Tristan Barnes (and consulting the original if you read Latin)—another retranslation or translation of translations, if you will. Address your poem to a friend or mentor (real or imagined), taking stock of simple daily pleasures in your life right now. Reflect in your own translation a new interpretation of the poem, just as McLean and Barnes have presented Martial’s idealized life in different terms.
Bonus points if your new version combines words found in both McLean’s and Barnes’ translations.

Daily Pleasures

Translated by Susan McLean
Quintilian, greatest guide of wayward youth,

pride of the Roman toga, please forgive
that I—though poor, not age-wracked—should make haste
to live: none hastens as he should to live.
Let him defer it who’d surpass his father
in wealth, and crowd his hall with busts galore.
A hearth, a roof not bothered by black smoke,
a running stream, and fresh grass please me more.
Give me a well-fed home-born slave, a wife
not learnèd, nights of sleep, days free of strife.

On Wanting a Simple Life

Translated By J. Tristan Barnes 
To you, friend/mentor, fellow guide of youthful passions,

You who have established yourself and found your voice,
You who have urged me to find mine in spite of (because of?) my circumstances and my youth,
Forgive me: I hear you, but it’s hard to live—to really live—that way (and I want to live).
I feel like it might be different for someone else, someone who already has their family’s wealth,
Or someone who can marshal strength from their ancestors.
My dreams used to be smaller, a simple house that was out of the way,
A quiet sanctuary where my refuge could flow.
God knows I wanted good friends and a clever wife, all of whom could see what I could not,
I wanted a night with sleep, and a day without strife.

But you all did, in fact, see what I could not, so now...

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