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To Smell or Not to Smell: Martial’s Rome and Olfactory Claustrophobia

Johanna Kaiser

University of Pennsylvania

The sense of smell is traditionally found to be of little importance compared to the other senses. In Martial’s Epigrams, however, it takes a conspicuously prominent role. For Martial, smells are an anxiety-provoking topic to the extent that he thinks they should be avoided altogether: rather than to smell good, he thinks, a person should not smell at all (2.12; 6.55). Scholars like Allen (2015), Bradley (2015), and Stevens (2008) have investigated scents in Roman antiquity with some consideration of Martial’s Epigrams. Stevens (2008), moreover, has proposed the concept of “social synesthesia” which suggests that smells have the capacity to subversively communicate intimate information about an individual, such as their origin, position in a social hierarchy, or character flaws.

Building on Stevens’ work, my paper investigates what scholars to this point have failed to address: my work investigates the concept of social synesthesia in smells considering the implications that become apparent through using the genre epigram. I suggest that the subversive and condensed language of epigram serves as an efficient vehicle to reflect the cross-sensory, synecdochical impression created by smells. And more: I propose that the density of scents and language in the epigrams communicates Martial’s anxiety about smells. I will discuss two examples in detail: Epigram 4.4, in which the character flaws of Bassa are coded into an oppressive abundance of unpleasant smells and 6.93 where the poet struggles to describe Thais’ moral shortcomings through her smell. Based on these examples, I argue that Martial uses images crammed with unpleasant smells to express an anxiety about pollution and social stigmatization through proximity to Rome’s olfactory offenders. Martial’s overly awareness of smells in the city of Rome and his depiction of them in the dense language of epigrams is what I can be read as an indication of a certain kind of anxiety, which as I propose may be labeled “olfactory claustrophobia.”

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Flavian Poetry

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