Martial 2.90: An Intro to the Good Life

Art L. Spisak

        Epigram 2.90 is an excellent introduction to Martial’s philosophy of life as presented in his twelve-book collection. In this poem, which is addressed to Quintilian, Martial targets a lifestyle common among the propertied classes: one driven by the immoderate desire for money, power, and status, and whose all consuming nature has reduced the quality of life in Rome both materially and morally. Martial, in opposition to this degrading and unnecessarily arduous lifestyle that he reckons as a waste of life, uses a form of primitivism to suggest a return to nature – not literally to a rural existence, but rather to a lifestyle more attuned to humankind’s natural and guileless state.

        No surprise that Martial should single out immoderate desire for money and power as a target: avaritia was – to judge from the consistent condemnation of it in the literature – endemic among the late Republic and Imperial ancient Romans (see, e.g., Sall. Cat. 10-13; Juv. 3). Propertied Romans of those times had an ongoing struggle with controlling their ambitions: on the one hand, the drive to achieve was the quality or characteristic that motivated them to accomplish and maintain superpower status; on the other hand, when ambition became immoderate and used dishonorable means, it was a socially and personally destructive force (cf., e.g., Catiline). It was especially damaging to the system of social exchange among amici, friends, that was so vital to the economy, government, and community.

        The primitivistic vision Martial uses in 2.90 (and elsewhere) to counteract the socially and personally destructive lifestyle bred by avaritia expands the topic so that Martial addresses the seemingly inevitable ills that attend a complex and civilized society – specifically, the sometimes mindless and demeaning constraints it imposes on the individual, and also the excessive labor it demands in order to attain what is considered adequate for a civilized existence. By calling into question with this vision the traditional indicators of success – money, power, and status – Martial makes his readers consider whether they themselves have matched their own natural abilities and aspirations with societal expectations in a personally fulfilling and productive way.

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