Martial, Liber Spectaculorum XXXIII (30)

The divine aura of the emperor.

Name of the author: 
79 CE to 96 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Liber Spectaculorum 



The Liber Spectaculorum, or De Spectaculis, is a problematic work. First, its title appears only in some medieval anthologies of Martial’s writings, which have preserved some sequences of his epigrams dealing with a common theme: the spectacles and celebrations organised by the emperors. According to Kathleen Coleman, Martial may have initially written some libelli, that is small groups of epigrams (dealing with celebrations but also with other themes), and presented them to the emperors during some solemn occasions. After having written various libelli, Martial may have gathered them in a bigger collection; an operation which may have happened at the beginning of his career, before the publication of most of his numbered books of Epigrams (Coleman, M. Valerii, p. xxv-xlv). The identity of the Caesar praised in the Liber Spectaculorum is also debated. According to a traditional opinion, all the epigrams would have been composed for a single occasion, the inauguration of the Flavian amphitheatre in 80 CE, and for a unique Caesar, Titus. Kathleen Coleman is opposed to such a reading and has convincingly shown that only a few epigrams can be associated with the inauguration of 80 CE and with Titus, and that others may have been composed for Domitian for other festivities.

For epigram XXXIII, at stake here, the identity of the Caesar mentioned is still debated. Actually, the hypothesis that it could be Domitian could perfectly fit in with the traditional representation of this emperor by Flavian poets such as Statius (I.6.28-50; IV.1.17-58; IV.3.123-163), and the other epigrams of Martial (for a rapid survey of Domitian’s associations or comparisons with gods, or of the Jovian ideology of his reign in Martial’s work, see Sullivan, Martial, p. 138-145). However, by attributing some godlike qualities to the Caesar of this epigram, it remains possible that Martial referred to Titus. Kathleen Coleman rightly recalls that the literary sources dealing with Titus’s power are very sparse compared to those dealing with his young brother, a situation which may explain why the adulatory vocabulary has often been understood in relation to Domitian (Coleman, M. Valerii,p. xlv-lxiv, 244).

This epigram starts with a vivid depiction of a confrontation in an arena between a doe and Molossian hounds (v. 1-2). Suddenly, the afraid doe arrives in front of the emperor and stays at his feet (v. 3-4). This situation is used by Martial to prove the supernatural character of the emperor who influences the natural instincts of the animals: first of the doe which does not rush out, second of the hounds who do not chase it anymore. Interestingly, the attitudes of the animals in Martial’s epigram could echo that of some animals in early-Christian literature, especially in someapocryphal texts, as animals are sometimes depicted as witnesses to divinely inspired power (see for instance Acts of Philip 8, in which a leopard and a goat kid become key witnesses to the apostle’s evangelism; on that subject see Spittler, Animals, p. 228-229). In Martial, the behaviour of the doe is all the more strange as it “stopped in supplication (supplex) before Caesar’s feet, like someone presenting a petition (similisque roganti)” (v. 3-4). For this strange depiction, Martial may have been influenced by Ovid, Metamorphoses III.240-241, a passage in which Ovid describes how Actaeon, after turning into a deer, was killed by his own dogs (see Hinds, “Martial’s Ovid,” p. 149-150). In addition, this depiction of the prostrated doe clearly echoes Martial, Liber Spectaculorum XX (17), an epigram in which a “respectful and suppliant (supplex) elephant” worships Caesar (Henriksén, A commentary, p. 139; Coleman, M. Valerii,p. 157-158, 247). Associating the figure of the emperor and that of the supplex animal – whose attitude, in the case of the doe, is made explicit with the sentence “like someone presenting a petition” – Martial may have wanted to refer to the submissive and respectful attitude which has to be observed before the emperor, an attitude which is quite similar to the proskynèsis.

In addition, in the doe’s story the ability of the animals to act counter their own natural instinct because of the influence of the emperor is clearly presented as a piece of evidence for the divine aura of the emperor (Henriksén, A commentary, p. 139). The last sentence of the epigram has thus to be understood as a sort of manifest of Martial for the imperial cult of the Flavian emperors. By mentioning the numen of the emperor (Numen habet Caesar, “Caesar possesses a divine aura”), Martial adopts the common way of representing the emperor that had been prominent since the principate. Actually, since Augustus’s reign, the Numen was associated with the emperor to refer to his divine power, or more precisely to the “divine property” “immanent within him” (Fishwick, “Genius,” p. 386). As Duncan Fishwick writes, through the association of the emperor with the Numen and the cult which was paid to its Numen, Augustus may have wanted to be praised not as a god, but rather as “an inspired man, one with deity in him” (Fishwick, “Genius,” p. 386-387). Flavian emperors, especially Domitian, were less reluctant to be openly praised, especially in panegyrics and poetic works, as a deus, a god. However, the honours bestowed to their Numen remained an important part of the imperial cult.

In the second part of the sentence, Martial highlights the fact that the potestas, that is the power of the emperor, is sacra, sacred. As John Scheid rightly recalls, the adjective sacer does not refer to a kind of divine quality which would be perceived as intrinsically present in somebody or something. This quality of sacer meant that the thing or the person concerned had to be considered as inviolable (Scheid, La religion, p. 24-25). Thus, in Martial’s epigram, the power of the emperor is thus considered as sacrosanct, a fact which reinforces the idea that the emperor himself was highly superior to men in general, and was even nearly approaching the divine.

Keywords in the original language: 

Bibliographical references: 

“Genius and Numen”

Fishwick, Duncanarticle-in-a-bookThe Imperial Cult in the Latin West. Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire, vol. 2, 1 Duncan Fishwick375-387“Genius and Numen”LeidenBrill1991
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