Martial's rudeness and Juvenal's bitterness illuminate life under the empire.


An epigram is a Greek term meaning “inscription”, often in verse, on a tombstone or accompanying an offering. In the hands of Martial it became the medium for short, pointed, witty sayings about people and the hazards of daily and social life, usually in elegiacs, but also in hendecasyllabics and other metres.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum as it is today. Martial’s first-known published work was a volume celebrating its opening in AD 80. (VRoma: Charles Olsen)


Marcus Valerius Martialis (c. AD 40 - 104) was a Spaniard from Bilbilis who came to Rome in AD 64 and was taken up by his literary fellow-countrymen, Seneca and his nephew Lucan, until they were purged by Nero. Initially Martial scraped a living by writing verses for any occasion, even on the labels for gifts which guests took away from parties. Ultimately he published several books of verse, and ended up owning a farm in the country as well as a house in Rome. He was a hack, a parasite, and, when it suited his interests, as it did when writing about Domitian, an unctuous flatterer. That did not prevent him, however, from being almost always witty, if often coarse, and frequently poetic, while pioneering a form of literature which has had many exponents.


Petulant face of Domitian, flattered by Martial, ridiculed by Juvenal. (VRoma: Museo Montemartini: Ann Raia)


One of Martial’s friends was Decimus Junius Juvenalis (c. AD 65 - c. 140), most graphic of the Roman satirists and the last of the classical poets of Rome. As far as we can tell, he was born in Aquinum, son of a well-to-do Spanish freedman. He may have served as commander of an auxiliary cohort in Britain and have held civic offices in his home town before trying to make a living in Rome by public speaking. At some point during the reign of Domitian, he seems to have been exiled for a while to Egypt, undoubtedly for saying or writing something offensive to the emperor, but not offensive enough to be executed for it.

A litter

A Roman litter, carried by slaves. Juvenal was especially scathing of those who travelled by this means. (Dana C. Munro, A Source Book of Roman History 1904: VRoma: Barbara McManus)

The sixteen Satires that we have were published between about AD 110 and 130, in the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian. Written in hexameters, they attack various social targets, including homosexuals, living conditions in Rome, women, extravagance, human parasites, and vanity, while moralising on such subjects as learning, guilty consciences, parental example, and the treatment of civilians by the military. There is sarcasm, invective, and broad humour.

Believe it or not:

After Domitian’s death, Martial found no difficulty in switching his flattery to Nerva, to whom he also dedicated one of his books.
In Juvenal’s fourth satire, there is a ridiculous account of Domitian summoning the Privy Council to deliberate upon what should be done with a prize turbot, with which he had been presented as his due. Yet, in 1986, it was reported that a sturgeon had been caught in British territorial waters and sold to a restaurateur, who remembered, just in time, an ancient law whereby all sturgeons belonged to the Crown. As a formality, he offered the fish to the Queen. An equerry replied that she would accept it.