Martial’s Use of Obscenity and Iambe’s Ritualized Jests in the Hymn to Demeter

Art L. Spisak

Martial’s relatively frequent use of obscenity and graphic sexual content is probably his poetry’s most controversial and misunderstood aspect. I argue that he, as part of the iambic tradition (see J.K. Newman, 1990), on the model of Iambe’s ritualized jests (aischrologia) in the Hymn to Demeter, used obscenity to target an overly strict and inhibiting mentality that was a threat to the health of the community. The underlying purpose of these ritualized obscene jests was not so much to attack persons or vices as to recognize, celebrate, and restore the reader’s connection with the basic human drives and instincts.

Several times in his twelve-book corpus Martial makes a telling comparison: he likens his risqué jests to the Florales (sc. ludi), the typically licentious games that occurred during the annual spring festival in honor of the goddess Flora, an old Italian vegetation goddess. Martial’s association of his risqué jests with the vegetation goddess, Flora, recalls the origins of the iambic tradition in the Hymn to Demeter. There the risqué jests of Iambe remedied a condition that had responded to none of the normal means of treatment: she used these jests to lighten Demeter’s severe and intractable mentality or mood – to break through her grief over the loss of her daughter. The risqué jests were tools, then, not for a personal and malicious attack against Demeter – for Iambe was not attacking Demeter herself. Rather, the earthy humor of her jests was meant to jolt and liberate Demeter from her antisocial, unproductive, and dangerous state of mind (see M. Arthur 1994).

Martial, I propose, used risqué jests with much the same effect as did Iambe in the Hymn: they were a liberating treatment for a stunted or perverted mentality – a gravitas carried too far – that was a threat to normal and productive social activity.

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