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…



Original ↓

Quintiliane, vagae moderator summe iuventae,

gloria Romanae, Quintiliane, togae,

vivere quod propero pauper nec inutilis annis,

da veniam: properat vivere nemo satis.

Differat hoc, patrios optat qui vincere census

atriaque immodicis artat imaginibus.

Me focus et nigros non indignantia fumos

tecta iuvant et fons vivus et herba rudis.

Sit mihi verna satur, sit non doctissima coniunx,

sit nox cum somno, sit sine lite dies.

Translator's Note

Martial (full name Marcus Valerius Martialis) was a Roman poet from Spain who was active in the late first century CE. In his youth he moved to Rome hoping to find his fortune, patronage, and his way in the world; it didn’t go quite as planned. Although he achieved a degree of recognition and notoriety, he eventually moved back to Spain, where he ended his days in old age. While in Rome, he wrote books of epigrams, like this one, in which he brings the city of Rome to life, warts and all. Many of his poems are laden with a sarcastic and sometimes cynical appraisal of life in Rome that can give us today a rather negative impression of the city. Other poems, however, like this one, are more contemplative and reflective.

Martial addresses this poem to Quintilian, a preeminent teacher and orator known for educating and restraining the youthful passions of his students. At some point Quintilian had apparently urged Martial to put his talents to better use and enter public life, perhaps as a lawyer. Martial explains his reasoning for rejecting that suggestion in this poem, where he says that a life like that in the public eye can never really be a fulfilling one. All he wants (as he tells us in the last four lines) is a simple life with a humble house, a well-fed house slave, a wife who’s not too educated, a night with sleep, and a day without litigation. I’ve been assigning this poem as part of a Greek and Roman literature survey course for a couple years, and, for obvious reasons, that wish list requires a lengthy discussion of context when I present the poem to students. Discussions about the cultural ideals behind the offensive and misogynistic language first made me think about how I would update that wish list for a modern audience.

Then came the summer of 2020. At the core of Martial’s poem is a tension between where he is and where he wishes he could be. He says he wants a simple life, but he lives in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world. His profession (as a poet) means he cannot avoid engaging in political games of patronage and rubbing shoulders with people who live the kind of life he tells us he doesn’t want. There’s a certainty in his words when he tells us what he wants most in life, and yet that certainty is undercut by the fact that the scene he describes is not one that could have existed within the city where he lived. It’s reasonable to assume this was in his mind when he decided to move back to Spain in the last years of his life. That tension—of knowing what we want to do while simultaneously knowing what we must do—resonates strongly across time, place, and culture. The upheavals of the last year have revealed many truths that many of us would rather not face, or maybe many ideas that we always knew but never had to confront before. It’s understandable that we want to retreat from the chaos and find our simple life, like the one Martial wrote about, but we also know we can’t really do that, just as Martial probably knew he couldn’t really have his dream when he wrote this poem.

In this translation I’ve tried to keep the poetic sense of the original language throughout most of the poem. For example, vivere in line 3 doesn’t just have the meaning of “to live,” but has the added force of “to really live.” In other places, where I’ve departed from the original, I’ve tried to evoke the meaning of the Latin in my word choice. For example, the atriaque immodicis artat imaginibus of line 6 refers to the display of illustrious ancestors as portrait busts in the semi-public portion of a wealthy Roman home, which doesn’t directly transfer as a cultural practice into a modern setting. I’ve adapted the line here as a reference to surrounding oneself with ancestors following on the ideas in preceding line (the pun on “marshaling” wrote itself). Likewise, the rustic cabin that is evoked by the Latin in lines 7-8 has slightly different modern connotations, so I’ve updated the image but retained the general picture of a sanctuary from troubles where a sense of refuge can “flow” (from the Latin vivus in line 8).

I’ve been rather free with some of my lines because the feeling and impression was my goal as I tried to play up the tension that I feel when I read the poem. To that end I’ve removed proper names and anonymized the text so that it could be from anyone, and addressed to anyone else in a position of admired authority. Although the upheavals of the last year were in my mind as I translated the poem, a reader could just as easily, and should feel free to, interpret it in other ways. I’ve also reworked the final wish list and added the line at the end so that instead of subjugating others to the narrator’s wishes, the narrator now relies on them, perhaps in ways that were never intended, but in ways that are now central to the narrator’s sense of self. Through all of this, we, as the narrator, know what we’ve been told, know what we want, know why a tension exists between the two, and ultimately know that the dream is just a dream.


J. Tristan Barnes

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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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