Christer Henriksen (ed.), A Commentary on Martial, Epigrams Book 9
Martial draws a picture in which a certain Fabullus has made a petition to the emperor for the ius trium liberorum, although he has a young and beautiful wife. The conclusion is that he is impotent: Fabullus would not need to molest our Sire and God, if only he could get it up.
Impotence is a recurring theme of the scoptic epigrams, sometimes in connection with old age (3. 75 and 11. 46; see Kay on the latter and cf. AP 11. 29 (Automedon), 11. 30 (Philodemus) ), but more often as a theme in its own right (cf. 2. 45, 3. 73, 12. 86). The problem of childlessness due to impotence occurs also in 10. 91, while 3. 70 deals with 'partial' (or perhaps 'psychological') impotence. Other characters in Martial turn to cunnilinctio when affected by impotence, like the Sotades of 6. 26 and the Linus of 11. 25. On the entire subject, see Obermayer 1998: 255–330 (and 271–80 in particular).
Given the close vicinity to 9. 64 and its statement about one man asking Domitian, the Alcides maior, for wealth, the other for honours (verse 7), it is hard not to see Fabullus' petition as an instance of the latter. And it is undeniable that a reference to a technicality such as natorum iura trium, and particularly the use of the extremely submissive phrase dominoque deoque, make a ridiculous contrast to Fabullus' pretty wife and to the blunt fact that he cannot get an erection. But it is neither necessary nor very reasonable to read these lines as implying that Domitian would have been a gullible monarch. Irreverent as it may seem, the hyperbole is there to emphasize the lack of proportion in Fabullus' plan and to level all the criticism at him; the matter is such as he himself, ipse, should be able to fix. The fact that he cannot is in itself humiliating, and his attempted solution—to bother the authority second only to Jupiter himself—naturally outrageous. The contrast is further underlined by the structure of the poem in which lines 1 and 4, conveying the satire by stating the paradoxical problem of the pretty wife and the impotence, frame the reference to an imperial petition in lines 2 and 3.
1. Uxor cum tibi sit: this exact opening is found also in 12. 97, an epigram on one Bassus who prefers boys in spite of his having a lovely wife. Cum sit tibi ('although you have …') is commonly used by Martial at the beginning of satiric epigrams (cf. 1. 111. 1, 4. 34. 1, 4. 78. 1, and 7. 18. 1; cf. Ov. Met. 9. 549), as is cum sis (see note on 9. 37. 1).
2. natorum iura … trium: those of marriageable age who did not live in a respectable marriage were caelibes and therefore also incapaces, i.e. unable to be appointed heir in a person's will; but as also widowers and widows, although they may have had children, were considered caelibes, the lex Iulia of Augustus prescribed that, if they had at least three children, they should not be regarded as incapaces; this was the ius trium liberorum. The right could also be bestowed by the senate and later by the emperor as an honour to persons unmarried or childless; thus, it had been conferred upon Martial by both Titus and Domitian (see note on 9. 97. 5–6). Caelibes could not be appointed heirs at all, while those who were married but childless were allowed to inherit only half the amount bequeathed (see Kaser 1955: 273–4).
As the form lībĕrōrum is impossible in dactylic verse, Martial always uses natorum instead, three times with ius (2. 92. 1, 9. 97. 5, 11. 12. 1), twice with the poetic plural iura (also 3. 95. 6).
Fabulle: Martial apparently had a friend of this name (cf. 5. 35. 8, 6. 72. 3, 12. 20. 1, and 12. 22. 2), to whom the dinner-complaints of 3. 12 and 11. 35 were perhaps also directed, depending on whether the poet was close enough to Fabullus for the latter not to be offended by such poems (cf. Kay on 11. 35. 4 Fabulle). The present Fabullus is certainly not Martial's friend and is surely, like those in 4. 87 and 12. 85 (equally uncomplimentary poems), fictitious.
3. dominoque deoque: the lofty tone of the line makes a sharp contrast with the straightforwardness of what follows. The juncture dominus et deus appears in Martial for the first time in 5. 8. 1, and then there are only a couple of instances in the following books (7. 34. 8 and 8. 2. 6, apart from the present).1 In 10. 72. 3, addressed to Trajan, who, like Nerva, rejected all such titles, the poet contrasts him with Domitian: dicturus dominum deumque non sum.
Domitian's use of the title dominus et deus must be considered with greater caution than it has previously received. The evidence of the ancient historians is limited to a note by Suetonius and one by Dio, presumably drawing on the former. Suetonius states that Domitian, cum procuratorum suorum nomine formalem dictaret epistulam, sic coepit: 'dominus et deus noster hoc fieri iubet' (Dom. 13. 2; perhaps Martial is drawing on this same fact in 5. 8. 1 Edictum domini deique nostri). Thenceforward, it would have become the custom not to address the emperor otherwise, either in writing or in speech. Dio agrees that the titles were used both in speech and in documents and improves the story by stating that Domitian 'took vast pride in being called "master" and "god" ' (67. 4. 7). Later writers, such as Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, and Orosius, state that Domitian in fact adopted the title and that this was linked to a deterioration in his character; Orosius even adds that the emperor not only demanded to be referred to as dominus and deus in speech and writing, but also to be worshipped as one: Qui [sc. Domitianus] per annos quindecim ad hoc paulatim per omnes scelerum gradus crevit, ut confirmatissimam toto orbe Christi Ecclesiam, datis ubique crudelissimae persecutionis edictis, convellere auderet. Is in tantam superbiam prolapsus fuit, ut dominum sese ac deum vocari, scribi, colique iusserit (Hist. 7. 10. 2). But these are authors with a blatantly anti-Domitianic agenda, which make their works relatively worthless as factual sources.
The use of dominus et deus by Martial and others who thought it important to win the emperor's favour is no proof that Domitian claimed it as a title and ordered everybody to use it.2 If that had been the case, it is remarkable that writers hostile to Domitian, like Tacitus, Pliny, and Juvenal, did not seize upon what would have seemed a most detestable feature of the emperor's character. Furthermore, the juncture is never used by Statius; on the contrary, he states that Domitian would not have himself called dominus (Silv. 1. 6. 83–4). To quote the conclusion of Jones: 'He [sc. Domitian] obviously knew that he was not a God, and, whilst he did not ask or demand to be addressed as one, he did not actively discourage the few flatterers who did' (1993: 109; cf. also Scott 1936: 102 ff., which, however, should be read with more caution). Cf. also Introduction, 3.3.
1 In 8. 2. 6 (terrarum domino deoque rerum), the expression is 'split' (and thus toned down) by the genitives.
2 It was used, for example, by the jurist Juventius Celsus, who had to convince the emperor that he had not been part of a conspiracy against him (which in fact he had, Cass. Dio 67. 13. 3–4).