Lust Thrust Thursdays: Eros & Possession

The Diadumenus Epigrams by Marcus Valerius Martialis  (Rome c. 40 – 104 c.e.)

translated with an afterword

Book III, 65

The sweet gasp of an apple as a young girl bites
into it. The ephemeral scent of Corycian saffron,
Spring vineyards white with buds and grass
that sheep have freshly grazed. A musky
harvest of Arabian spice, myrtle, rubbed amber,
and incense lit to welcome the pale dawn.
The odor of earth sprinkled by a brief summer rain.
Tresses fragrant with sweat and balsam. Your kisses,
fierce Diadumenus boy, evoke all these. What would
all this be like if you could give them without hatred?

Quod spirat tenera malum mordente puella,
quod de Corycio quae venit aura croco;
vinea quod primis cum floret cana racemis,
gramina quod redolent, quae modo carpsit ovis;
quod myrtus, quod messor Arabs, quod sucina trita,
pallidus Eoo ture quod ignis olet;
gleba quod aestiv spo leviter cum spargitur imbre,
quod madidas nardo passa corona comas:
hoc tua, saeve puer Diadumene, basia fragrant.
Quid si tota dares illa sine invidia

Book V, 46

I only want those kisses I force out of you. Diadumenus.
Your anger enchants me even more than your looks.
More often than not, I slap you to caress you. And
then you neither fear me, nor, sadly, love me.

Basia dum nolo nisi quae luctantia carpsi,
et placet ira mihi plus tua quam facies,
ut te saepe rogem, caedo, Diadumene, saepe:
consequor hoc, ut me nec timeas nec ames.

Book VI, 34

Overwhelm me with kisses, Diadumenus, don’t ask
how many. Can you count the ocean waves, the sea
shells on the Aegean shore, the buzzing Attic honeybees?
Or tally the rustle and applause as the audience
catches sight of Caesar entering the crowded theater?
I don’t want just the thousands Lesbia lavished, when
she  finally gave in to cunning Catullus. If what I want
had any limits, it wouldn’t be enough for me.

Basia da nobis, Diadumene, pressa. “Quot?” inquis.
Oceani fluctus me numerare iubes
et maris Aegaei sparsas per litora conchas
et quae Cecropio monte uagantur apes,
quaeque sonant pleno vocesque manusque theatro
cum populus subiti Caesaris ora videt.
Nolo quot arguto dedit exorata Catullo
Lesbia: pauca cupit qui numerare potest.


Eros and Possession: Martial’s Diadumenus Poems

There are only three epigrams addressed to “Diadumenus” among Martial’s 1500-odd extant works. Although they occur in three separate books, Martial has a habit of returning, over time, to a theme – and taken together the poems read well as a sequence. The addressee is a slave who may be real, or imagined. His idealized name refers to a 4th century b.c.  Greek statue by Polycrates, popularly reproduced in Martial’s time. The statue portrays a naked young athlete tying a victory ribbon (a “diadem”) around his hair.

Aspects of 1st century a.d. Roman mores come together in these poems that don’t easily translate to our culture – pederasty, slavery, and even Emperor flattery. Other than, perhaps, the decried practices of some Afghan warlords, we have no societal model for the routine Roman sexploitation of slave boys, seemingly lauded by all, from the Emperor on down.

Roman “boy-love” bears only surface resemblance to our notions of pederasty and homosexuality. Poets, including Martial and Catullus, satirized and mocked homosexuality between grown men, but waxed romantic about sexual encounters with boys of a certain androgynous age: A boy, pubescent, but still not old enough to shave. Or to modify Nabokov’s coined word, a nymphus. Nor were the boys, themselves, considered “gay.” Most were expected to mature into a primary heterosexuality. Unless, the boy happened to have been castrated as a child. A practice of some pimps who trafficked in eunuchs.

Slavery wasn’t a matter of innately inferior caste or race, but simply economic luck. Being someone’s property could sometimes be just the lowest rung on the Roman patronage ladder. And boy love seemed to be respectable at the highest levels.  Both Martial and the court poet Statius addressed paeans to the Emperor Domitian’s “Ganymede”, Earinus, celebrating the coming of age haircutting ceremony which marked his generously endowed manumission.

Domitian, cultivated the reputation of being a prude and if there was anything viewed as askance in his liaison, it was that Earinus’ boyish charm may have been enhanced by his being a eunuch. Domitian, notably, made childhood castration illegal. Perhaps his decree had more than a little to do with compassion for Earinus.

While a number of Augustan and early Imperial period poets celebrate man-boy encounters, Martial uniquely connects them with the one factor that made them licit – slavery. Even for an emperor, propriety depended on the youth being a slave, or at least underclass or foreign,  Suetonius’ for example, excoriates Nero for abusing freeborn Roman youths.

As an aside, barely nubile slave girls didn’t seem to evoke the same level of romanticizing as young boys. Perhaps, because 12 year old girls were already legally marriagable adults? Or perhaps the possibility of conception made expressing idealized feelings towards “property” a slippery social slope.

The Diadumenus poems aren’t the only Martial epigrams in which a slave resents being sexually used. But they seem to be to be the only Martial sequence in which that rebellion sexually arouses the narrator. Still, I think the poems have more to do with the complexities of possession than sadism. The boy’s resistance seems finally overcome in epigram VI, 34. And the poem’s penultimate image of conquest – Caesar entering his theater to the applause of the crowd – is rife with the joy of benevolent mastery.

VI, 34’a final image, however, might be taken to double back on that to something closer to love, or at least mutual desire. Epigram VI, 34 is one of Martial’s many nods to his literary forerunner, Catullus.  It evokes, not only Catullus’  thousands of kisses” Lesbia love poems. carmen  5 and carmen 7. But also the “three hundred thousand kisses” Catullus bestows on the boy Juventius’ “honey sweet eyes” in carmen 48. Given the more direct parallel with the Juventius poem, why did Martial choose Lesbia for his final kissing image?

Despite some current day queer-lit conjectures, Juventius (real or idealized) would have been presumed by contemporary readers to be either a slave or otherwise socially unequal to the equestrian Catullus. Conversely, Lesbia (a soubriquet for the patrician Clodia Mettelli) was several notches up the social ladder from even Catullus’ prominent family. Perhaps, I read too much into Martial’s eight short lines, but choosing Lesbia rather than Juventius for his final image seems akin to a sort of poetic manumission for Diadumenus.

But of course, Martial could also just be wryly intimating that even a woman as exquisite and abandoned as Catullus’ Lesbia wasn’t enough to quell his itch for boys. Reading, or translating, Martial, I think it’s always wise to keep an open mind and not try to pin down intent. As with any of the great poets, rather than guide the poem, he usually seems to let the poem guide him as it comes to life.


Image by Victor Manuel.

Art Beck is a San Francisco poet-translator currently at work on a book length selection of Martial epigrams, titled Mea Roma. Readers may also like his, longer, foray into the poetic kinks of Roman prurience at the Journal of Poetics Research.
Gem Blackthorn is QMT's Sex Columnist, and the author/curator of Lust Thrust Thursdays. Send her your submissions and questions at sexsexsex [at]

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