Martial, Epigrams VI.3

Martial’s expectations about the birth of an heir to Domitian.
Name of the author: 
90 CE to 91 CE
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Title of work: 

This poem is part of the sixth book of Martial’s Epigrams, a book which may have been published in 90 or 91 CE (for 90, see Coleman, M. Valerii, p. xxvii; for 91, see Nauta, Poetry, p. 442). In verse 6, the poet mentions Julia, the daughter of Titus and niece of Domitian, and he identifies her with a Parca – that is with one of the three deities who controlled the life of every mortal and immortal, and who were represented as spinners measuring the live of men and cutting their destiny. Julia must have died between 87 and 89 CE, maybe in the last months of 89 CE, and numismatic evidence shows that she was probably deified in 90 CE (for a bibliographical survey, Filippini, Dal repertorio p. 129, n. 23; 130, n. 24).

Among Martial’s Epigrams, book VI is a quite ambiguous book in which Martial still deals with sexual and adultery stories (no less than 10 on the 94 epigrams of the book, see Coleman, M. Valerii, p.lxxx), while also praising the laws ordained by Domitian in 89 CE to condemn adultery (Nauta, Poetry, p. 431-433). The understanding of the epigram VI.3 has been much debated due to the mention of Julia, Domitian’s niece. Actually, Juvenal, Pliny, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio – authors hostile to Domitian and who, for most of them, wrote after Domitian’s death – write that Domitian had an affaire with his niece and that he compelled her to abort the child she carried from him, an abortion which would have been fatal to her (for the references, see Raepsaet-Charlier, Prosopographie p. 323-324). The way we consider these narratives influence the way we understand Martial’s epigram VI.3. For some scholars, as John Garthwaite, the reference to Julia and to Domitian’s expected son would be an implicit and satiric allusion to their affair and would thus discredit Domitian’s moral reforms against adultery (Garthwaite, “Martial,” p. 18-21). However, for us, it seems preferable to consider the opinion of other scholars, such as Farouk Grewing, who argue that Martial refers here to Julia to highlight the unity of the imperial family. Actually, as Julia was already dead when Martial wrote this epigram, the expected child could only be a lawful heir, that is a child carried by Domitian’s wife, Domitia Longina (Grewing, Martial, p. 84-86). Actually, it is doubtful that Martial explicitly mocks here the affair between Domitian and his niece, as the epigram VI.3 is placed between two epigrams praising Domitian for his moral reforms. Ruurd Nauta rightly remarks that Martial may have been aware of the circulating rumours about the affair between Domitian and Julia, but when he composed this epigram around 90 CE (that is after Julia’s death), he may have chosen to fit with the official speech which made of her one of the best protectors of the gens Flavia (Nauta, Poetry, p. 436).

In this epigram, Martial expresses a general wish that Domitian and Domitia may produce a heir to distract from the premature death of their first son which may have occurred between 80 and 83 CE (Southern, Domitian, p. 28; for other references to the death of their first son, see Silius Italicus, Punica III.629; Martial, Epigrams IV.3.8; Statius, Silvae I.1.97; Statius, Silvae IV.3.148-149; Martial, Epigrams IX.86.6-10). As Domitian’s reign was going by, the expectation of an imperial heir was growing and was associated with an increasing anxiety. Statius, for instance, expresses his hope that Domitian will have some grandsons, nepotes, who will honor him (Statius, Silvae I.1.97, written in 91 CE).

Martial fits in with this context: the repetition of the imperative verb, nascere (“be born”), shows how the poet looks forward to this birth with anxiety. The understanding of the first verse of the epigram, Nascere Dardanio promissum nomen Iulo; “Be born, name promised to Dardanian Iulus,” is difficult. Martial’s wording echoes the verse 288 of Jupiter’s prophecy in the Aeneid when Jupiter forecasts the birth of a “Trojan Caesar” and adds that he is “a Julius, name descended from great Iulus” (Iulius, a magno demissum nomen Iulo, Virgil, Aeneid I.288; Grewing, Martial, p. 88). Martial’s first verse can be variously interpreted. Firstly, Domitian may have wanted to call his expected child Julius or Julia, to echo the name of his deceased niece (Shackleton Bailey, “More Corrections,” p. 137). Secondly, through the allusion to the “Dardanian Iulus” which may refer to Ascanius – the founder of Alba longa and thus the ancestor of the gens Iulia –, as well as through the echo with the Julius of Jupiter’s prophecy in the Aeneid  – which refers to Augustus –, Martial may have wanted to associate Domitian with the gens Iulia and especially with Augustus (Grewing, Martial, p. 88-89). This association between the two emperors could make sense, as in 88 CE Domitian celebrated the secular games, one year after he extended the scope of the lex Iulia against adultery and other sexual offences – a law which originally came into effect under Augustus between 18 and 16 BCE (Moreau, “Loi Iulia”). This situation clearly reminds that of Augustus who celebrated the secular games in 17 BCE, one year after his legislation on marriage (lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus), while the legislative process of the lex Iulia against adultery was going on.

In verse 2, Martial uses a quite common theme in imperial official speech, as he apostrophes the expected child as “true progeny of gods” (vera deum suboles) and “great boy” (magne puer). The idea that Domitian is a “maker of gods” is commonly used by the poets of the time writing imperial praises, as for instance by Silius Italicus (divos dature; “the one destined for making gods,” Silius Italicus, Punica III.625) or Statius (parens deorum, “father of deities,” Statius, Silvae IV.3.139). This second verse of the epigram directly echoes the tone and the wording of two passages of Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, in which the Sibyl prophesises the birth of a miraculous child who will restore peace and prosperity on Earth (see Grewing, Martial, p. 87-88; Nauta, Poetry, p. 434-435). In our epigram, it is Domitian’s expected child who plays the role of Virgil’s miraculous child, and he is even presented by Martial as more powerful, magnus, than the one in the Virgil’s Eclogue who is presented as a parvus puer only. In Martial, the expression “true progeny of gods” (vera deum suboles) also echoes the verse 49 of Virgil’s fourth Eclogue: cara deum suboles, magnum Iovis incrementum!; “O you dear offspring of the gods, mighty seed of a Jupiter to be!”. Through the use of the adjective verus, Martial highlights in a stronger way the divine nature of the child than Virgil does (Grewing, Martial, p. 88).

In a way that is quite similar to Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, the expected birth of the child is presented by Martial, if it happened, as the opening of a new Golden Age – an idea which perfectly fits in with the contemporary ideological context marked by the celebration of the secular games in 88 CE.

First, in verses 3 and 4, Martial uses the common motif of the endless and boundless nature of the Roman empire. He apostrophes the expected child to be born “so that ages hence your father may hand you the eternal reins” (cui pater aeternas post saecula tradat habenas). By insisting on the fact that Domitian will give the power to his child post saecula, “after ages,” Martial takes the usual prudent attitude which should be taken when a poet forecasts a dynastic succession (see also Statius, Silvae IV.1.17-20 and 34-38; IV.3.145-152; for other references, see Grewing, Martial, p. 90). In addition, by mentioning that Domitian will give the aeternae habenae, “eternal reins” of the Empire to his son, Martial fits in with the ideology of the imperium sine fine, that is of the empire without end, but also without bound (see Virgil, Aeneid I.275-279). The birth of this expected child is thus presented by Martial as the accomplishment of Rome’s vocation to rule the world (orbis, v. 4) endlessly.

Second, the idea that the birth of this expected child will open a new Golden Age, is also confirmed by the two last verses. By associating Julia with a Parca, Martial presents her as the deity who could intercede for fulfilling this imperative to have a child, and for giving to this child the best destiny. By telling that Julia was spinning the golden life-threads (aurea fila, v. 5) of the child, Martial may have wanted to symbolize the fact that his birth would open a new Golden Age (for an association of the spinning Parcae with the opening of a new Golden Age, see Virgil, Eclogue IV.42-47). As Farouk Grewing remarks, under Nero, various authors praised the promising destiny of the emperor by referring to the golden life-threads weaved by the Parcae (Seneca, Apocolocyntosis IV.1.3-12; Calpurnius Siculus, Eclogue IV.139-140; Grewing, Martial, p. 91). Martial highlights the fact that the destiny of this child could even be superior to that of his predecessors as he associates the golden life-threads of the child with the golden fleece, implicitly mentioned in verse 6: according to the legend, Phrixus and Helle, the children of the king Athamas, would have been saved thanks to a golden winged ram which would have led them in Colchis, a place where the ram was sacrificed to Zeus and its golden fleece given to the king Aeetes. Through this association between the golden life-threads forecasting the opening of a new Golden Age and the golden fleece, Martial highlights the length and the exceptional nature of the destiny of this expected child.

To sum up, Martial was aware of the fact that he could not explicitly express the general anxiety about the dynastic impasse of the Flavians in the 90’s. In order to formulate his hope that Domitian and Domitia may produce a heir to the Roman empire, Martial thus uses one of the texts which fitted in perfectly with the subject of his epigram, namely Virgil’s fourth Eclogue. The coming of the expected son is presented as an event which would strengthen the dynastic unity of the gens Flavia, and his advent is hyperbolically staged as the beginning of a new Golden Age characterized by the endless and boundless hegemony of Rome. The distinctive feature of this epigram is that the newly deified Julia is here staged as the protector of this expected child, an element which perfectly fits in with the Flavian official speech of the year 90-91 CE, which praised the unity of the imperial family and of the domus divina, namely of its deified members (Filippini, Dal repertorio p. 130-131).

Bibliographical references: 

“Loi Iulia réprimant l’adultère et d’autres délits sexuels”

Moreau, Philippearticle-in-a-bookLepor. Leges Populi RomaniJean-Louis Ferrary, Philippe Moreau“Loi Iulia réprimant l’adultère et d’autres délits sexuels”[Online]. Paris:IRHT-TELMA, 2007. URL : Date de mise à jour :04/12/15.
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