Three Sexual Poems by Marcus Valerius Martialis
I began translating the obscene poems of Martial many years ago. At that time I was still in thrall to vers libre notions, and I believed that one could only capture the acerbic colloquial flavor of Martial by rendering him into a sassy, in-your-face American idiom that disregarded meter. In fact quite a number of Martial's Epigrams go into free verse very readily, and part of the pleasure of translating them was seeing the ease with which Latin vituperation and ridicule slipped into New York street talk.
But some poems lent themselves to metrical treatment. I present three of them below, with my English translations and a few explanatory notes. They all deal with sex in some way or another. The first is about a lesbian named Bassa; the second is about a speaker's desire for a young boy (the eromenos of Graeco-Roman sexual practice); and the third is about some rather obscure but kinky sexual acts. In each case, the poem shows Martial exactly as he was: a Roman male who disliked homosexuality, but who had a proclivity for underage boys, and who appears to have favored a somewhat rough and exploitative sex.
Making love to an eromenos was not considered abnormal at that time; indeed, if we are to believe Martial, it seems to have been a preferred sexual outlet for many adult Roman males. Epigram III.65 is a love lyric addressed to such a boy. The other two poems are satiric, making fun of lesbian sex and kinky heterosexual practices.
There are other poems among Martial's Epigrams that make these three look like exemplars of Victorian reticence. I choose to present these ones because I had put them into an approximation of English meter, and also because they are good instances of a more robust approach to poetry (and to discourse in general) than what normally obtains today. We live in a timorous age, where the fundamentalist Right and the politically correct Left have conspired to strangle any openly sexual references of an impolite nature.
Martial wrote many of his Epigrams during the reign of the tyrant emperor Domitian. It was a time of political repression, fear, and cowed speech. Nevertheless, he was allowed to ridicule whatever sexual practices or personality types he pleased. I trust that right now, in the United States, I have at least as much freedom of speech as Martial had under Domitian.
All three Latin poems are in elegiac couplets. I have rendered them into iambic pentameter, although my version of Epigram III.65 takes metrical liberties that I would never allow myself today. Rather than rewrite it, I have left it as it stands.
Bassa, I never saw you hang with guys--
Nobody whispered that you had a beau.
Girls surrounded you at every turn;
They did your errands, with no attendant males.
And so, I guess I naturally assumed
That you were what you seemed: a chaste Lucretia.
But hell no. Why, you shameless little tramp,
You were an active humper all the time.
You improvised, by rubbing cunts together,
And using that bionic clit of yours
To counterfeit the thrusting of a male.
Unbelievable. You've managed to create
A real conundrum, worthy of the Sphinx:
Adultery without a co-respondent.
Quod numquam maribus iunctam te, Bassa, videbam
quodque tibi moechum fabula nulla dabat,
omne sed officium circa te semper obibat
turba tui sexus, non adeunte viro,
esse videbaris, fateor, Lucretia nobis:
at tu, pro facinus, Bassa, fututor eras.
inter se geminos audes committere cunnos
mentiturque virum prodigiosa Venus.
commenta es dignum Thebano aenigmate monstrum.
hic, ubi vir non est, ut sit adulterium.
Lucretia: the legendary avatar of chastity among the Romans. She was a high-born matron who was raped by the evil king Tarquinius Superbus, and who committed suicide rather than bear the dishonor.
fututor: literally "fucker," but with the male suffix of agency. The oxymoronic fututrix would, if it existed, be the proper term for a woman, but that is Martial's comic point.
mentiturque virum prodigiosa Venus: literally "and your unnatural lust counterfeits a male." I have taken the liberty of translating somewhat freely here, using "bionic clit" and "the thrusting of a male" to capture Martial's meaning.
Thebano aenigmate: the Theban enigma was the riddle of the Sphinx, posed to Oedipus at the gates of that city.
ubi vir non est: literally "where there isn't a man." Adultery in ancient Rome could only be committed by a married woman and a lover of the opposite sex. Martial's joke here is that Bassa has turned herself into an ersatz man, thus making an action for divorce possible.
The breath of a young girl, biting an apple,
The scent that wafts from Corycian saffron,
The smell of the white vine, flowering with first clusters,
The odor of fresh grass, where sheep have grazed,
Fragrance of myrtle, spice-reaping Arab, rubbed amber,
A fire glowing pale with eastern incense,
The earth just lightly touched with summer rain,
A garland that has circled someone's hair
Wet with spikenard. Diadumenus, cruel child,
All these things breathe forth from your perfect kisses:
Can you not give them freely, unbegrudging?
Latin text:Quod spirat tenera malum mordente puella,
quod de Corycio quae venit aura croco;
vinea quod primis cum floret cana racemis,
gramina quod redolent, quae modo carpsit ovis;
quod myrtus, quod messor Arabs, quod sucina trita,
pallidus Eoo ture quod ignis olet;
gleba quod aestivo leviter cum spargitur imbre,
quod madidas nardo passa corona comas:
hoc tua, saeve puer Diadumene, basia fragrant.
quid si tota dares illa sine invidia?
Corycio...croco: Corycos in the province of Cilicia was noted for its production of saffron, a highly prized seasoning and aromatic.
messor Arabs: literally "the Arabian reaper." A great many spices came to Rome via traders in Arabia, and as a result Arabia was sometimes thought of as the actual source of many spices, rather than as a transit point.
saeve puer: literally "savage boy." Martial often writes of the lovely young eromenos who is sexually desirable, but whose boyish fickleness and petulance frustrate an adult male lover. See Epigrams VIII.46, XII.75.
I had this really horny broad all night,
A girl whose naughty tricks are unsurpassed.
We did it in a thousand different ways.
Tired of the same old thing, I asked to buttfuck--
Before I finished speaking, she said Yes.
Emboldened, I then blushed a bit, and laughed,
And asked for something even dirtier.
The lusty wench agreed without a blink.
Still, that girl was pure in my eyes, Aeschylus--
But she won't be for you. To get the same,
You'll have to grant a nasty stipulation.
Latin text:Lascivam tota possedi nocte puellam,
cuius nequitias vincere nulla potest.
fessus mille modis illud puerile poposci:
ante preces totas primaque verba dedit.
inprobius quiddam ridensque rubensque rogavi:
pollicitast nulla luxuriosa mora.
sed mihi pura fuit; tibi non erit, Aeschyle, si vis
accipere hoc munus condicione mala.
nequitias: from nequam, "worthless, wretched, no good." This plural form can be translated as "naughtinesses," with a definite sexual connotation.
illud puerile: literally "that boyish thing." This refers to anal intercourse. Even when performed on a woman, this act was considered peculiarly masculine. See Epigrams XI.22, XI.43, XI.78.
inprobius quiddam: literally "a certain more wicked thing." This is a sexual act of an even more degrading nature, but it is not absolutely clear what it is. One scholar has suggested that it refers to the rubbing of the speaker's penis on the girl's face after anal sex.
condicione mala: literally "on a bad condition." The girl may have agreed to the above-mentioned act when Aeschylus requested it, but on the condition that he then kiss her, or perhaps lick her face clean. Martial has a horror of kissing anyone who has been polluted by an oral/genital connection. See Epigrams I.94, II.50, III.81, VI.66, VII.95, XI.95.
Joseph S. Salemi's latest collection is The Lilacs On Good Friday, published by The New Formalist Press, and available at its website. His new article on Whittaker Chambers has just appeared in The University Bookman, and his recollections of his poetic upbringing ("A Memoir of Figurative Language") have just been published in Italian-Americana. He was recently interviewed by Paula Berinstein on the state of contemporary poetry at www.writingshow.com.
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