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Who Loves You, Baby? Martial as Priapic Seducer in the Epigrams

Eugene O'Connor

In his desire to seduce others into reading his books, the poet Martial positions himself at the center of his epigrams, as the ithyphallic god Priapus places himself at the center of his garden as an object of sexual enticement to various jaded passers-by with a fondness for anal, oral, or genital sex.

In this paper I will discuss Martial’s fixation on large penises in the Epigrams, a fixation seen also in the Corpus Priapeorum (hereinafter CP), an anonymous collection of scabrous, often hilarious epigrams featuring Priapus as guardian of crops who threatens intruders with sexual assault. Martial’s Priapic epigrams share with the CP many characteristics, principally an emphasis on penile size and exposure. In Ep. 7.35.3, Martial alludes to his being well endowed. In Ep. 3.68 he (metaphorically) exposes himself and, like Priapus, warns off (dubiously) pious matrons or cinaedi, but at the same time offers himself for public delectation. Also like Priapus, Martial prefers to take the active sexual role. Being the dominant, therefore the ‘normative’ and privileged male (for this paradigm, see Richlin, The Garden of Priapus, rev. ed., 1992), Martial can inveigh against various social and sexual types he deems as inferior, be they pathics, ugly or old women, eunuchs, or impotent males in terms bawdy, comical, grotesque.

At the same time, Martial seduces the reader qua viewer into sampling his ‘wares.’ For example, again in Ep. 3.68, Martial warns a Roman matron not to go beyond the female-oriented part of the book, and alludes to the ‘male’ themes to follow, namely, drunken revels, lascivious talk, and the sight of the rustic garden god Priapus with his exposed phallus. Which, of course, induces the bogusly pious matron to read on studiosa, or eagerly.

It is the appeal of the penis, specifically, which draws the reader/viewer into the ‘garden’ of Martial’s epigrams. Indeed, without it, epigram ceases to be itself (Ep. 1.35.3, 5: hi libelli . . . non possunt sine mentula placere). In Ep. 11.90.8, addressed to Chrestillus, a direct link is made between the piquant ‘taste’ of the Epigrams and the taste of a penis inserted in the mouth: dispeream ni scis mentula quid sapiat. In other words, Chrestillus is invited to take Martial’s mentula in his mouth to appreciate the wit of epigram. There are frequent references to ‘eating’ the penis or consuming phallic comestibles (Ep. 14.70).

As the controlling male, Martial can entice and at the same time mock passive adult males who have a fondness for oral sex, resulting in an unclean mouth; they themselves are polluted while Martial himself, by contrast, can fellate others without making them impurus (Ep. 9.67). At the same time, Martial’s Priapic epigrams’ emphasis on the large penis, sometimes so hypertrophied as to become grotesque, threatens to become overwhelming (e.g, Ep. 11.51). Hypertrophied genitals, therefore, join the list of deformities that include distended anal or genital apertures. By exposing his own penis, even metaphorically, and inviting people to ‘take it in their mouths,’ Martial invites ‘intruders’ to do to him (e.g., fellatio) what he decries in others. In this he becomes a Priapus who, in the CP and other Priapic poetry, is often made the butt of jokes: he bungles his role as guardian, becoming an object of enticement rather than fear, and subject to having his wooden phallus stolen along with the fruit he is supposed to guard.

As the god Priapus risks becoming a figure of fun, so does Martial risk turning into a risible figure, indeed an object of merriment for the many size queens who, according to the comic literature of the Empire, haunted the baths and other public places and who will be titillated by the penile imagery of the Epigrams

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