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A Metaliterary Celebration of Saturnalian Epigram in Martial 4.46

Emma Brobeck

University of Washington

Beyond the Xenia and Apophoreta, Martial’s poetry is self-consciously Saturnalian. Six of Martial’s books were published around the time of the Saturnalia (Citroni, Rimell), and many of the individual epigrams pertain to gift-giving during the holiday. One poem exemplifies Martial’s overarching Saturnalian theme: epigram 4.46, which satirizes a certain Sabellus for taking pride in paltry holiday gifts. Scholarship on this poem focuses on its relationship to Statius and Catullus’ poetry (Seo) as well as the formal satiric elements within the text (Moreno Soldevila). However, in this talk I argue that the list of holiday gifts forms a series of systematic allusions to Martial’s earlier Xenia and Apophoreta and thus becomes a metaliterary celebration of Martial’s Saturnalian poetry collections.

I begin by analyzing the depiction of clay tableware in the poem as a unique marker of Saturnalian literature. The Catullan echo of polish (polita, 14) renders the tableware as a stand-in for the poetry itself, and the potter (figuli, 14) corresponds to programmatic imagery found in the ideologically weighty artwork sequence of the Apophoreta (Lehmann, Prioux). Significantly, the collection of tableware is described as a synthesis (15), the same word that opens the Apophoreta. Martial thus transforms the dinner suit (synthesis) of the earlier collection into a literal collection of tableware. I further argue that the tableware functions as part of a larger theme of epigrammatic sequences and collections through its close proximity to a napkin (mappa, 17) with a colored stripe that imitates a Roman toga (Barchiesi, Moreno Soldevila). Since toga appears in the opening line of the Xenia, Martial cleverly alludes to the beginnings of each collection in the imagery of 4.46, and he humorously changes the outfits into cheap convivial paraphernalia.

Additionally, I examine two food items in 4.46 that correspond to distichs in the Xenia and highlight the theme of Saturnalian collections: a Lucanian sausage (Lucanica, 8) and a box of olives (cistula . . . olivae, 13). The corresponding distichs, 13.35 and 13.36, describe the sausage as a crown (corona) on a bowl of white porridge and the olives as a fitting treat for the beginning and end of a meal. The crown perversely invokes the final winter garland of the Xenia (13.127), itself an allusion to garlands in Horace and Meleager (Roman, Leary). The olives encourage the savvy reader of 4.46 to understand Martial’s overall theme of Saturnalian collections embedded in the rest of the imagery of 4.46.

Thus, far from deriding Sabellus for his cheap gifts, Martial expresses pride in his writing by deploying a specific set of images within the poem. Through the arrangement of the gifts in 4.46, Martial also creates new meaning for the earlier Saturnalian poems and thus encourages the reader to view the act of reading epigrammatic collections as a recursive process that continually transforms the text.

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Flavian Poetry

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