Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

A Fashionable Poet


Know, most friendly and upright of booksellers that the Nereid, which sailed from Ostia for Gades on the kalends of this month of April carries for you a parcel of books. Dispose of them, if the citizens of Hispalis are not by this time weary of me, to your advantage and to mine. But let me first explain to you candidly—for it would be shameful not to deal honestly with an honest man—how it has come to pass that they are sent.

Three years ago I published a book of Epigrams, being the tenth in number of the volumes, which I have sent out since my coming to this city. The thing was done in haste, and, as is usual with things so done, in slovenly fashion. But I was in great straits. Money, which as you know is never abundant with me, was scarce beyond the common. One or two private patrons whose liberality I had been accustomed to enjoy were newly dead; another was absent from Rome; another had taken offence at something that I had written.

The Emperor was in an ill-humour, and not without cause. He was returned newly from his campaign against the Sarmatians, from which he had gathered, to say the least, but a scanty crop of laurels. As for me I did not know whether to be silent about his exploits or to write. I tried both ways, but pleased him with neither. He frowned upon a poem in which I made no mention of warlike matters, he frowned still more upon verses, somewhat flattering, it must be allowed, in which I extolled his martial exploits. In the end I could not get a single denarius  from him; and indeed the treasury was well nigh empty.

So, for sheer lack of money, I was compelled to publish. The book was ill-written, copied as it was by almost illiterate slaves, and altogether ill got-up. As for the poems, the bad things were in an even greater majority than usual. But what would you have? I had to fill a certain space and was compelled to use the sweepings of my desk. But enough of the past. The present is very different. We have a new Emperor, whom at least it is possible to praise without telling lies. Rome is more prosperous, and my patrons, in consequence more liberal. My own vein has been richer of late, and I have written verses which are not unequal to my best, if that is any commendation. Accordingly, my good friend Trypho, whom doubtless you know to follow your own trade, and whom I have found an honest man, though somewhat sparing of his coin, proposes to me to publish this same tenth book of Epigrams anew.

"What of the old stock?" I ask, for there are some hundreds of copies still unsold. "We will sell them at half-price" he replies. "Here in Rome?" I ask again. "Why not?" says he. "Nay" I answer, "for there are some who prefer a bad thing for one denarius  to a good thing for two. Let us rather send them elsewhere."

Hence the cargo which the Nereid  is carrying from Ostia to Gades. Are you offended, my excellent Ulpius, thinking that what is not good enough for Rome is good enough for Hispalis? Then I must throw myself on your mercy. You indeed are worthy of the best. But your townsmen? Are they devoted to letters? Do you find bookselling a lucrative business? Not so, unless you have complained without cause. But this book, believe me, is not altogether bad; and it is cheap. The price is little more than the cost of the paper. I trust to your kindness to do your best for it and for me.

One word more concerning business. The volumes are of two kinds; the more ornamented might be sold for three denarii, the plainer for one and a half. But this I leave to your judgment. And now for other matters.

You ask me in your last letter how I have prospered. Do not think that I am a Crassus when I tell you that I have both a country house and a town mansion. As to the country house, it has at least the distinction of being the smallest in the suburbs of Rome. There is a best bed-chamber, in which I cannot lie at length; another, in which I might lodge a friend, if only the friend were a pigmy, and a third, larger indeed, but with a hole in the roof; there is a dining-room which compels me to make my guests less numerous than the Graces, and a kitchen which would scarcely hold a peacock if I could afford to buy one. The garden is scarcely as big as what many dwellers in the town cultivate in their windows. A cucumber cannot lie at full length in it; a single mole does all my digging; and one field-mouse will lay it all as waste as Ætolia was by the Great Boar of Calydon. Seriously, it is over small, but it suits my means, and I do not trouble it much save when the autumn heats and fevers drive me from Rome.

Of my town mansion—a grand name if there is nothing else that is grand about it—what need to speak? It is better at least than the lodgings with which I was content when I saw you. I am independent. I have no neighbours below me and above me to drive me mad with their flute-playing or their convivial uproar. Above all, I am not in danger of being burnt to ashes with all my belongings through other people's carelessness.

That was what had nearly happened to me in my last abode. The whole block of buildings caught fire through a drunken freak of some young fellow on the first floor—I, you may remember, lodged on the third. By the favour of the Muses—if indeed the Muses know or care anything about me—I had gone down to my little villa for a breath of fresh air and so escaped. But my luckless neighbours on either side of my apartment were burnt to death; or, rather, one was burnt, the other dashed out his brains by leaping from his window into the street.

While I was looking for another abode, Regulus the advocate, in return for an epigram in which I had compared him to Cicero, presented me with a little house which he did not think it worth while to repair. However, a friendly builder, whom I had helped to get a good contract, did what was wanted at a moderate cost—only double his own outlay—and I am perfectly content.

The neighbourhood is a doubtful one—it is near the Temple of Flora; it is cold in winter and hot in summer, and damp all the year round. Still it is my own.

But most of my days I spend at the club—for we poets have a club. There are thirty members; and we might have three hundred, if it seemed good to us, for it is incredible how many men write verses nowadays. We have had a chamber assigned to us opening out on the Colonnade of Octavia. It has a fair library, no Roman author of repute, and few of the Greeks, being wanting, and some good casts of the ancient masterpieces in sculpture—originals, of course, are only possible for wealthy publicans and slave dealers.

We do not boast curtains of Tyrian purple, nor fine pavements; and the wine we drink is Sabine or Alban, except some rich patron spares us a cask of Setine or Falernian. But the place is comfortable and clean, and, but for the drawback that we have to listen to each other's verses, would be altogether desirable.

But after all, the time that I have to myself, whether at home or at the Club is very small, and if my business demanded of me anything more serious than the trifles which I can compose and write down almost anyhow, I should have to seek some other place than Rome to do it in. Before day-break I have to pay my morning calls, the first, and, I am bound to say, the most odious of the day's duties.

These rich men, fellows who have got rich by countless rogueries, or worse—for an informer is worse than a cheat, as a murderer is worse than a thief—often do not condescend to take any notice of one's greeting. Their favour is reserved for those who minister to their pleasures, among which hearing or reading verses, either good or bad, is certainly not to be reckoned. This done I have, as often as not, to witness a friend's will, or his marriage contract, or his manumission of a slave, or any one of the hundred things with which the lawyers hedge in our lives. This done, and a hasty meal snatched at home or wherever else I can find it, I have to show myself in the Consul's court or the Praetor's. Show myself, do I say? I have to sit the whole business out, for when the great man rises, of course I must be among the crowd that escorts him to his home. But I am not sure whether the Consul's court is not a more interesting place than a poet's recitation hall. Anyhow it is sooner over. The Consul cuts it as short as he can, whereas the poet—but you know what poets are. The whole day is hardly enough for some of them. The Diomedeid  in thirty books; for instance; that was the last horror that I had to endure. Nor are my duties as a listener completed by hearing the poets only. Some noble friend is going to plead a cause; I must form one of the gallery, and applaud his eloquence. If I fail, no more presents, no more dinners for me. Then an orator is going to improvise, or a professor to lecture. Do you think I can excuse myself? Not so; I want Mr. Orator and Mr. Professor to come to my readings, and of course I must go to theirs. It is "scratch me, and I will scratch you" at Rome. It is four o'clock before I can get to the bath, pretty well tired out by that time, you may be sure—and then comes pay-time. I get the wages for my day's work, just enough to pay for my bath, and if I am very frugal indeed for my dinner.

I must allow that I do not often have to dine at my own expense. All sorts of people ask me. You see, though I say it myself, I am fashionable. A new man finds a certain distinction in having me at his table. Proculus, a young lawyer, who fits himself out with handsome rings, a cloak of real Tyrian purple, a litter carried by eight tall Bithynians—all, you must understand, on borrowed money—is not satisfied till he gets me to dine with him. "You will meet Martial," he says in his airy way to the rich contractor whom he invites in the hope of getting employment from him.

Then the men who have made their fortune ask me. I am by way of being a passport to good society. And there are a few real gentlemen of the old Maecenas type. It is true that they sometimes write bad verses of their own to which we have to listen—Maecenas, you remember, did the same—but they do appreciate anything that is good, and are civil to me, not because it is the fashion, but because I really please them.

But oh! what a place this Rome is! What follies, what shame, what foolishness of fashions, what silly aping of the rich by the poor, what miserable pretences of being poor by the rich! This very day I saw an acquaintance—Mamurra I will call him—posing as a millionaire, though to my certain knowledge, he has not a dozen denarii  in the world. First he had a look at the slaves, not the common things that you and I see, but delicate creatures that you could not buy under a hundred sestertia  at the least. "Excellent" he said, when he had priced some half dozen, "but when I come to think of it my household is absolutely filled up."

Then he strolled off to the upholsterer's. There was a splendid tortoise-shell sofa. Out he brings his pocket measure, and measures it—actually four times if you will believe me—and at last comes out with, "Dear me! it is not quite large enough for my citron wood table. Only half a foot more and it would have been a perfect match. If one just a little larger should come in your way," he said to the shopman, "give me the refusal."—"It is the biggest in Rome, Sir," said the man.—"You don't say so," replied Mamurra. "I thought the Emperor's was larger, but one can't measure your host's furniture"—just as if he had ever dined at the Palace!

Next came the turn of the statues. He smelt them; "Hardly true Corinthian" he muttered. "And this" he went on, "seems a little too much fore-shortened."—"It is a genuine Polycletus," said the shopman.—"You don't say so" answered my friend, "hardly up to his best mark." The crystal cups did not please his lordship; they were a little speckled. "I must be content with porcelain," he said. "Put these ten aside for me." The man stared; they were worth about a hundred sestertia  apiece, and it is a distinction to have even a pair. However I shall weary you with his follies. Only near the end, just as the shops were going to shut, he bought a couple of earthenware mugs for a penny, and carried them home himself.

To tell you the truth, my dear Ulpius, I am heartily sick of the place. I shall leave it and go back to my own country. You smile: I hear you say: "This is the old story. I have heard it every six months for the last twenty years. He is always coming; he never comes." You are right to laugh at me and to be incredulous. But, nevertheless, this time I mean it. I do love the country at the bottom of my heart, the fields, the vineyards, the woods, and mean to end my days among them. In truth I am too old for Rome. I say to myself as Diomed said to Nestor, "Old man, the younger warriors press thee sore." If I can still hold my own, it costs me more labour than it did; and I am beginning to loathe it all, the posturing, the pretences, the flattery, the lying. There is another thing that will drive me home, my losses, not of money, which, for the best of all reasons I cannot lose, but of those whom I love. My last loss was of dear little Erotion, the gayest, sweetest creature that ever lived. Here are a few lines that I have written about her:

"Dear parents, lend your kindly aid

To sweet Erotion's tender shade;

Let not her kindly spirit dread

The gloomy paths of death to tread;

Six winters o'er her head had passed,

Six and no more, and to the last

Six days were wanting. Let her cheer

Your reverend age with sportive game,

And while she plays, be pleased to hear

Her lisping tongue repeat my name."


Martial did leave Rome finally about a year after the accession of Trajan.