Structure. On a bipartite scheme, 1–10 outline the situation, and the final couplet offers pointed commentary. But a tripartite structure suggests itself perhaps more immediately: 1–2 (the book could have been three times as long but would have repelled readers); 3–10 (advantages of a short book); 11–12 (readers may nonetheless be bored). At the same time there is a framing, or ABA, structure: in the first couplet the poet tells his book that no one will read it if it contains as many as 300 epigrams, while in the last he observes that many readers will be bored even if it contains only a few epigrams.
The body of the poem enumerates three succinctly described advantages (primum, deinde, tertia) introduced by the line "at nunc succincti quae sint bona disce libelli," itself a model of simple clarity. The list is pleasingly varied in syntax and metrical structure: rather than dedicating a couplet to each of the three advantages of a short book, the poet describes the first in a single line (4), the second in an entire couplet (5–6), and the third in a couplet (7–8) that is then expanded upon with a concrete illustration in yet another couplet (9–10). This structural tricolon crescendo is combined with a progression in content: from writer (who wastes less paper) to copyist (who wastes less time) to reader (who will avoid boredom). In short, the protest that readers will be bored is made in a neatly turned piece that does its best to counteract tedium.
1 ter centena: The number is not randomly chosen, as the ideal limit for Martial is clearly 100 epigrams per book (cf. 1.118, cited on 11 below), and indeed, with the exception of the Xenia and Apophoreta, his books fluctuate around this limit, ranging from 82 poems in Book VIII to 118 in Book I.
3 libelli: One of the most common of Martial's designations for his own poetry; see Grewing ad 6.1. The literal sense of the diminutive is sometimes dominant (10.1.1–2: "si nimius videor … esse liber, legito pauca: libellus ero"), but it more often refers to the lightweight aspect of Martial's poetry, as opposed to such heavier genres as epic. In any case the term brings with it an element of mock-modesty. Prominent examples of the programmatic use of libellus by other authors include Catull. 1.1 ("cui dono lepidum novum libellum") and Juv. 1.86 ("nostri farrago libelli est").
4 brevior quod mihi charta perit: Martial begins with the most practical consideration; for the imagery, compare 6.64.23 ("miseras et perdere chartas"), 13.1.3 ("perdite Niliacas, Musae, mea damna, papyros"), Juv. 1.18 ("periturae parcere chartae"), Auson. Epigr. 35.1–2 ("si tineas cariemque pati te, charta, necesse est, / incipe versiculis ante perire meis"), Sidon. Apoll. Carm. 9.10 ("iubes … perire chartam").
Editor’s Note 5 una peraget librarius hora:
Compare 4.89, where both the reader and the librarius
tire after eighty-nine epigrams. The functions of the librarius
were to copy out manuscripts, as here, and to sell the copies (in which case he might also be called a bibliopola:
see 14.194 with Leary ad loc.); sometimes both functions were performed by one and the same man. Martial refers to librarii
again at 1.2, 2.8.3
, and 4.89.8–9; see further Kleberg 1969
and McDonnell 1996
. In the present case it is not clear whether (as Nauta 2002
: 130 assumes) the librarius
is Martial's own slave, in which case tantum
, or a hired specialist, in which case the adverb emphasizes meis
The MSS of families α and β read the present tense peragit (printed by Schneidewin, Lindsay, and Shackleton Bailey), while family γ reads the future peraget (printed by Gilbert, Heraeus, and Friedlaender). The latter seems slightly preferable in view of the universally transmitted serviet in 6: there would thus be a sequence from present tense (perit) in the first of the three advantages to future tense in the remaining two (peraget, serviet, legeris, eris), although precisely for this reason one might argue that peragit is the lectio difficilior.
Editor’s Note 6 nugis serviet … meis:
The original meaning of nugae
(whose etymology is unclear, and which always appears in the plural) is "that which is unprofitable or absurd" (OLD
s.v. 1), a secondary meaning is "things not serious, frivolities" (OLD
s.v. 3). The term is often used to refer to literary works of a light character, as opposed to, for example, epic or tragedy: see Catull. 1.4 (with Swann 1998
: 53–54) and Hor. A.P
. 322. Like Catullus, Martial applies it quite insistently to his own work: see 1.113.6, 2.86.9
, 3.55.3, 4.10.4, 4.72.3, 4.82.4, 5.80.3, 6.64.7–8, 7.11.4, 7.26.7, 7.51.1, 8.3.11, 9.praef., 10.18.4, 12.praef., 13.2.4, 14.183.2.
Seemingly the only modern translation to bring out the imagery of slavery present in the verb serviet is that of Barié and Schindler: "und ist nicht auf so lange Zeit der Sklave meiner poetischen Nichtigkeiten."
10 incipiat positus quam tepuisse calix: Given the range of meanings of the verb and the absence of any further specification in this context, the phrase positus calix may mean "the cup that has been placed before him" (Izaac, Barié and Schindler, Norcio, Ceronetti, Scandola) or "the cup he has put aside" (Ker), but the former seems more likely; compare 1.43.2 ("positum est nobis nil here praeter aprum") with Citroni, 6.94.1 ("ponuntur … chrysendeta Calpetiano"), V. Aen. 1.706 ("pocula ponant"), V. Copa 37 ("pone merum et talos").
Heated wine was served especially in the winter, and Martial's point—surely exaggerated—is that a reader can get through Book II so quickly that his cup of heated wine will not even become tepid; see further on 2.6.12
. In 12.1 Martial proudly claims that the entire twelfth book, containing ninety-eight epigrams, can be read in less than a winter hour, itself less than a modern hour.
12 ei mihi: The interjection, which occurs frequently in Plautus, Terence, Ovid, and elsewhere, but only here in Martial, adds a tone of pathos: the poet wrings his hands, worrying whether the public will like his book.