Martial’s De Spectaculis: a Poetic Collection of Ancient Events


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De Spectaculis

Ancient sources are often heavily relied upon by historians to discover what life was like in the ancient world. While these sources can provide an account of historical events, there are still some challenges of using these texts, especially poems, as historical evidence. Martial’s De Spectaculis is a poetic collection that describes the events that took place in the Flavian Amphitheatre in ancient Rome under the emperor Titus in A.D. 80. It begins with a physical description of the Flavian Amphitheatre itself, before the events of the day including the procession to the amphitheatre, the presence of gladiators, the execution of prisoners through fatal charades, wild beast hunts, chariot races, and even naval battles (Mart. 1-34 (30;28)). While the physical remains at the site of the Flavian Amphitheatre, along with other iconographic and epigraphic evidence show that it was possible for these events to take place, it is difficult to say whether his poems can still be used as historical evidence for spectacles at Rome. Historians face problems in using these poems as historical evidence due to possible biases of Martial himself. However, it is still possible to use De Spectaculis to reconstruct the programme of events at the amphitheatre for that occasion, but not to the extent that Martial lays out in his poems.

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Martial, born as Marcus Valerius Martialis in Spain sometime from 38 to 41 A.D., was a poet and his breakthrough work was De Spectaculis (Sullivan 6). While Martial was alive and present during the recount of the spectacles he recorded in his poems, it does not completely validate his claims made. It is argued by some scholars that the entire poetic collection was published with encouragement of Titus and that De Spectaculis is a form of propaganda (Sullivan 8). This creates a problem when using the collection of poems as historical evidence. Since Martial was living under the reign of Titus, it would have been important to glorify the emperor at the time and emphasise his achievements. The poem begins with Martial highlighting the greatness of the Flavian Amphitheatre by stating, “Let barbarous Memphis speak no more of the wonder of her pyramids, nor Assyrian toil boast of Babylon; nor let the soft Ionians be extolled for Trivia’s temple…All labor yields to Caesar’s Amphitheatre” (Mart. 1). Martial downplays all other ancient landmarks in order to showcase the greatness of the Amphitheatre and then continues to describe how the structure itself is better than the rest. He then continues to boast about how people come from all over to watch the spectacles saying that, “The farmer of Rhodope has come from Orphic Haemus, the Sarmatian fed on draughts of horses’ blood has come, and he who drinks discovered Nile’s first stream, and he on whom beats the wave of farthest Tethys” (Mart 3). Having people from all over the ancient world coming to watch the spectacles was important, as it showcased how much power Titus had, that people from everywhere would come to watch the inaugural event at the Amphitheatre. While the problems of the poetic collection do not come entirely from the recounting of the events themselves, it is clear that the poems glorify Titus and the events that he is able to put on in the Amphitheatre. He refers to Titus as the “true father of the fatherland” and claims that both Mars and Venus serves his “unconquered arms” (Mart. 3-7(6)). Martial’s loyalty to the emperor makes it difficult for historians to decipher whether what he says in his poems are true, or if he is exaggerating aspects of the events in order to make Titus seem greater. Martial also points out that the emperor has great authority over life and death with the fatal charades and even the death of a pregnant sow, who gave birth to a living child before dying (Mart. 9(7)-16(14)).While the argument has been made that De Spectaculis is more of a political propaganda document than a historical account of the first spectacles put on at the Flavian Amphitheatre, it does not mean that the poetic collection is completely invalid.

It is possible to use De Spectaculis as a reference to the reconstruction of the events for the occasion. Martial goes into the major events with great detail. When describing the fatal charades he mentions that, “The criminal had outdone the misdeeds of ancient story; in him, what had been a play became an execution” (Mart. 9(7)). As mentioned in several other historical documents and epigraphs, fatal charades were a big part of these events. The spectacles put on at the Amphitheatre took advantage of the mass amounts of spectators to publicly execute criminals and warn citizens from breaking the law. Martial also describes the wild beast hunts and mentions that, “Earth through a sudden opening sent a bear to attack Orpheus” (Mart. 25(21 b)). Archeological evidence shows that there were trap doors from underneath the Amphitheatre that allowed for captured animals to be raised up from their cages underneath the ground. Both these accounts provide great examples for how these poems can be used to reconstruct the events of the occasion. They provide a detailed account of events that took place and allow historians to accurately replicate the description. However, De Spectaculis is not a flawless source. The initial spectacles put on by Titus lasted several days, yet there is no indication of this in Martial’s account of the events. When Martial switches from his descriptions of fatal charades, to wild beast hunts, to the naval battles, there is no mention of the passing of days. Also, there is little mention of certain events, such as the chariot races and gladiators, which other forms of historical evidence show are a main aspect of the spectacles that took place at the Flavian Amphitheatre.

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