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Not a Freak but a Jack-in-the-Box: Philaenis in Martial, Epigram 7.67

Sandra Boehringer

How are we to understand Martial’s satirical and sexual epigrams? How to find the laughter which they provoked in their audience? And, especially, how are we to perceive the humour of these coarse and violent caricatures which, today, no longer come off as comical? This paper focuses on a particular figure, that of the Philaenis character, a woman whom Martial twice characterises as a tribas. In 7.67, the character is portrayed as performing various types of activities (touching on erotics, sports, and food): Philaenis drinks, vomits, eats poorly and too much, goes in for sport and fucks boys as well as girls.

Many modern commentators have seen in these poems a physical picture of the active and androgynous lesbian, a type of woman whose body was built by her sexual orientation. According to this interpretation, it is this epitome of the masculine and active ‘butch’-- a woman who believes herself to be male, a lesbian transgressing gender roles -- which would have caused the laughter of a Roman audience. According to this kind of reading, the cinaedi and the pathici appearing in Martial’s poems would similarly be considered to be gay, passive men, and it is their effeminate behaviour that would be Martial's target, providing the core of the comedy at work in these portraits. It seems to me, however, that it is not, in fact, Martial's reproachful speech against a coherent type of person that produces laughter or accounts for the popularity of his epigrams with their piquant endings, so appreciated for their wit and humor.

I wish to show that a reading relying too heavily on such moral considerations regarding sex and gender may keep us from perceiving an important aspect of Martial’s humour. Indeed, in a society ‘before sexuality’ (see the work of Foucault, and e.g. Winkler, Halperin, Williams, Dupont & Eloi), the ancients did not perceive human practices in the same way that modern Western societies do. Consequently it becomes impossible to tell on its face whether a particular behaviour refers implicitly to sexual identity in a humorous way. Further, when dealing with a world where such identities as "homosexual" or "heterosexual" did not exist, it is not legitimate to perceive transgressions of modern norms as humorous for an ancient audience.

Once it has been shown that what makes us laugh may not have made the Romans laugh, we can proceed to the second step of our analysis: what really is funny in this epigram? The use of Bergson's work on laughter might seem anachronistic, yet the philosopher provides effective analytical tools for understanding the poem differently. If we move away from a focus on sexuality, we first note that the character staged in this poem is primarily a being in action. Martial portrays someone who is agitated in every sense, who performs fast, repetitive, excessive actions.  There is "something mechanical in something living" in Philaenis, like the Jack-in-the-Box that Bergson uses to characterize one version of the comic..

Martial supplements this humor of situation and behavior (based on the rhythm and quality of action) with a comic play on gender: the important activities of an honourable Roman citizen (palaestra, diet, eroticism), which ought to be practiced at specific times of the day, are performed by Philaenis in quick succession, outside the framework of Roman decorum that gives these activities meaning. Mechanical rhythm, awkward and socially inappropriate gestures: Bergson’s analysis of laughter, combined with a historicizing approach to sexual categories, allows us to perceive the poem as staging an inversion not of sex but of the civilized social behavior of a Roman citizen. This enables us to understand the laughter prompted by the final sentence: "May the gods give you a mind, Philaenis, you who imagine that licking cunt is manly!" (7.67.16-17). Philaenis is neither a freak nor a homosexual: she just does not understand what it is to be a vir.

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