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Martial, Epigrams. Mainly based on Bohn's Classical Library (1897).  Preface to the online edition


Marcus Valerius Martial was born on the 1st March 43 AD, in Bilbilis in Spain, but was active as a poet at Rome.  His works were mainly published under Domitian, whom he flatters outrageously, although he continued to be active under Nerva and then Trajan.  Finding the latter less responsive to his flattery, he eventually left Rome and returned to his home town of Bilbilis, with the aid of Pliny the Younger, where he died. 

His surviving works consist of 14 books of epigrams, plus a further collection from a work on the Games.  The last two books of the epigrams are a collection of short epigrams sent out with presents at various times.  The whole collection is a valuable source of information on life and customs in ancient Rome.  It is particularly valuable for insights into the Roman book trade.


I recently wanted to use some material from Martial, and found that there was no scanned copy anywhere online.  Since it depicts the world in which the early Christians at Rome had to live, and indeed throws light on the Jews in Rome, I decided to scan the text myself.

The first complete translation into English was Elphinstone's 18th century edition. But the anonymous translation published in the Bohn edition and reprinted by George Bell and sons is what has been used here.  This can be found in PDF form online, and this was used for OCR.  Such PDF books are a blessing; but can also be hard to consult and use.  It seemed worthwhile to create an HTML text.

Because the complete text of the Bohn translation is online and may be consulted by those who need to do so, I have felt able to take liberties with this HTML version.  Firstly I have turned 'thee'/'thou'/'thy' into you/you/your, etc, and generally ensured that the text is in modern English and so rather more readable for that reason.  Secondly I have not thought it necessary to reproduce pagination, or indeed the exact form of footnotes.  

The Bohn translation also included older English verse versions of many of the epigrams.  These are rarely exact, and often of inferior quality.  I have omitted nearly all of these, apart from a few which seemed to me to be worth retaining.  It should be remembered that the original epigrams were in verse, and were witty; a quality not preserved in English prose translations.  The verse translations help to convey to the reader something of the quality for which Martial was originally read.


A problem for all translators is the obscene epigrams.  Martial deliberately sprinkled his books with these, in order to boost readership of his books, rather as bed-scenes are introduced into television dramas by modern producers.  The anonymous Bohn translator left these untranslated, and accompanied them with an existing Italian translation.  I have omitted both the Latin and Italian as a rule.  However I have looked again at most of the obscene epigrams, and consulted the 1920 W. Ker Loeb edition and translation, to see if anything more could be rescued.  In the vast majority of cases the epigrams are best left out; in one or two, however, I have added a translation from Ker or made one myself, where I felt the omission owed more to the needs of the Victorian schoolroom than to actual obscenity.  

The reader who seeks factual information on the details of Roman vices -- copiously documented by Martial -- should seek another translation which renders brutally all the epigrams, as I have found instances of silent omission of obscene material without footnotes.  Those I have found, I have noted in notes myself, but there must be more.  The modern Loeb edition and translation may be consulted if need be.

I do not believe that most people who read Martial will feel any sorrow at these omissions.  To read Martial is to walk with him along the streets of ancient Rome; but few of us need accompany him when he jumps into the sewers.  We can all enjoy, however, his portrait of a society which was in some ways so like our own, and in others so very different.


The manuscripts of Martial were first analysed scientifically by Schneidwin for his 1842 edition.  They divide into three families of manuscript sources.

In the middle ages, in northern Europe, Martial was found in manuscripts of the 'C' family.  These all contains books 1-14, and derive from a manuscript in minuscule, which was lacking 10.56.7-72 and 87.20-91.2; later descendants also misplaced 3.22.1-63.4 after 5.67.5.  The earliest extant manuscripts are:

Other later copies exist.

The 'B' family of manuscripts of books 1-14 is rarer.  All those known derive from L, which did not become known until 1900.  This in turn derives from a manuscript written in Beneventan minuscule, so in the South of Italy.  Books 1-4 have various disarrangements.  But this family contains subscriptions at the end by ancient copyists, most fully preserved in L and Q, which indicate that this family derives from a manuscript emended in 401 AD: 'emendavi ego Torquatus Gennadius in foro divi Augusti Martis consulatu Vincentii et Fraguitii virorum clarissimorum feliciter'; 'I, Torquatus Gennadius, amended [this] in the forum of the deified Augustus in March in the consulate of the honourable Vincentius and Fragvitius.  Good luck.'  The manuscripts are:

Finally epigrams are preserved in a family of anthologies, known as family 'A'.  Copies of this family contain excerpts from books 1-12, about half in all, plus books 13 and 14 in full.  But it also preserves excerpts from a book of Games, unknown to the families B and C.  The manuscripts are:

Other now lost early manuscripts are mentioned in medieval catalogues at Lorsch in the 9th century and Bobbio (with Juvenal and Persius) in the second quarter of the 9th century; another in the library of Charlemagne contained 9 books 'to Lucanus and Tullus'.

There are also excerpts in three manuscripts, of uncertain relation to the main families:

Further manuscripts exist, compiled from more than one family.  This process began in France, the home of both A and C.  The Florilegium Gallicum contains some material drawn from both, plus Games 31-2, found nowhere else.  One manuscript compiled from both A and C is

By the 14th century both A and C had reached Italy, where a member of C also was prefixed by the Games from A:

By the 15th century humanist copies began to proliferate, in various orders, trying to reconcile the text in the three families.  This process continues in the editions from then on.

April 2008
Slightly revised September 2010


M.D.Reeve, in L.D.Reynolds, Texts and Transmissions: a survey of the Latin classics (1983) pp. 239-244.  Available on and

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