Martial makes no secret that he was greatly inspired by the poetry of his predecessor Catullus, whose contributions to poetry beyond his epigrams Martial often minimizes, if not outright ignores. Martial is clearly interested in portraying Catullus exclusively as an epigrammatist, but he seems particularly invested in casting Catullus as an obscene writer, especially when this helps to validate his own use of profanity. One particularly thought-provoking way to examine Martial’s adaptation of Catullus’ legacy is through his treatment of his predecessor’s most recognizable character, Lesbia, who appears in 13 poems across his 14 primary books of epigrams. Of these, seven take the form of invective poetry (1.34, 2.50, 5.68, 6.23, 10.39, 11.62, and 11.99), while the remaining six are neutral references to Catullus’ poems and plots (6.34, 7.14, 8.73, 12.44, 12.59, and 14.77). Here are some of the invective poems to illustrate how Martial assimilates Lesbia into a comedic stock figure; I also include one of the neutral ones (6.34) to show the contrasting tone taken in this other group of poems.
Incustoditis et apertis, Lesbia, semper
liminibus peccas nec tua furta tegis,
et plus spectator quam te delectat adulter
nec sunt grata tibi gaudia si qua latent.
At meretrix abigit testem ueloque seraque
raraque Submemmi fornice rima patet.
A Chione saltem uel ab Iade disce pudorem:
abscondunt spurcas et monumenta lupas.
Numquid dura tibi nimium censura uidetur?
deprendi ueto te, Lesbia, non futui.
Lesbia, you always sin out in the open, without guard,
And you do nothing to cover up your tricks.
Think about how you delight in a spectator more than a forbidden lover,
And how pleasures are not pleasing to you if they escape public notice.
This isn’t how a prostitute would act – she’d chase away witnesses,
Using her curtain, not to mention the cloak of darkness,
And the Summoenium’s brothel is only revealed by thin cracks.
Chione could teach you her wit; Ias, her bashfulness —
Even the dirtiest of whores takes cover in a tomb.
Does all this scolding seem too harsh for you?
Relax – I’m not telling you not to get laid, Lesbia – just don’t get caught!
Arctoa de gente comam tibi, Lesbia, misi,
ut scires quanto sit tua flaua magis.
I sent you hair from a northern people, Lesbia,
To show you how much more yellow you’ve stained your own.
Consule te Bruto quod iuras, Lesbia, natam,
Mentiris. Nata es, Lesbia, rege Numa?
Sic quoque mentiris. Namque, ut tua saecula narrant,
Ficta Prometheo diceris esse luto.
Swearing that you were born when Brutus was consul, Lesbia,
You make things up. Do I hear you suggesting you were born during the years of king Numa?
There, you’re making things up again. In fact, as people describe your age,
You are said to be made up yourself – of Prometheus’ clay.
Lesbia se iurat gratis numquam esse fututam.
Verum’st. Cum futui vult, numerare solet.
Lesbia swears that she’s never been laid for free.
This is true – when she wants to be laid, she’s used to paying.
Basia da nobis, Diadumene, pressa. “Quot?” inquis.
Oceani fluctus me numerare iubes
et maris Aegaei sparsas per litora conchas
et quae Cecropio monte uagantur apes,
quaeque sonant pleno uocesque manusque theatro
cum populus subiti Caesaris ora uidet.
Nolo quot arguto dedit exorata Catullo
Lesbia: pauca cupit qui numerare potest.
Give to me, Diadumenus, firmly planted kisses. You ask, “How many?”
You’re really telling me to count the ocean’s waves,
And how many molluscs are scattered across the Aegean’s shore,
And how many bees wander the Acropolis,
What about the number of voices and hands exclaiming in a full theatre
When Caesar’s countenance unexpectedly appears to the people.
I do not want as many kisses as Lesbia gave
To the sweet-talking Catullus: for one who can count how much he desires, desires little.
Chosen and translated by Jacob Horn.