My dissertation argues that, in addition to their thematic content, the form of epigrams written by Martial expresses an understanding of four phenomena that were central to Imperial Roman consumer experience: buying, gift-giving, the extension of credit, and deceptive advertising. A Hispano-Roman poet who wrote over one thousand five hundred epigrams and compiled them into structurally innovative volumes for a general readership, Martial has drawn attention in recent decades for the realism and materialism of his work, qualities that distinguish him from other Roman authors who wrote in a first-person voice. Martial reveals a world of venal calculation submerged in social life and inconsistent with more idealizing notions of exchange and communal bonds. His poetry also tirelessly sifts through the accumulated wealth of empire, indulging in descriptions of luxurious and everyday consumer goods. Scholars have variously interpreted this departure from established poetic interests as historical evidence for the precarious and degraded mentality of free but impoverished individuals; a symptom of the cultural milieu surrounding holidays such as the Saturnalia, with Martial as an elevated example of the scurra or court jester; a rhetorical strategy by a client of independent means who used exaggerated talk of poverty to secure publicity for his literary project from wealthier patrons; the development of a new meta-poetic language that, despite its ostensible disinterest in the immaterial immortality of poetry, nevertheless enhances the poetic qualities of Martial’s verse (with “poetic” defined here in opposition to ephemeral socio-economic advantage); and as an effort to record in poetry the texture of urban life under the Flavians, in a city that had internalized the contours and contradictions of a global empire.
While previous studies that link the compositional dynamics of epigrams and collections of epigrams to the juxtapositions and paradoxes of urban life have focused on space and social attitudes, my project focuses on a new area: the economic institutions that structured consumption in Martial’s day. I begin with the purchase of commodities with cash. Martial highlights the possibility for coins to be both functionally identical numerical counters and totally individual configurations of matter, no two alike. In the movement between these two possibilities, I locate an aesthetic paradigm that appears throughout the corpus of epigrams, even in poems that have no obvious concern with cash. Next, I turn to the use of tickets in gift lotteries, small pieces of cheap material allotted selectively or sometimes tossed into crowds at private or imperial benefactions, to be exchanged later for actual gifts. Martial’s depiction of these lots provides the key to understanding the tension between accumulation and release that informs so many of his poems. Next, I show that for Martial, the primary social antagonism of credit, a term I use to encompass loans with and without interest, is a disjuncture in time between giving and reciprocating. The feeling of being out of joint resurfaces in epigrams wherein Martial complains that he lacks time to write epigrams; that is, he writes about not having time of his own to write. Foregrounding the importance of time in relations of credit allows Martial to nurture throughout his corpus an impossible double dream for communal ownership and time that is truly his own. In my final chapter, I explore a category of masking substances in the epigrams that I call goop, stuff that is smeared onto or builds up residually on objects and people. In the many references to goop made by Martial, we find fantasies of ownership, aspirations to move up in society, and the commemoration of dead people. We also find a rhetoric of deception that allows for the false appearances contrived by goop to nevertheless say something truthful about an individual or thing. By arguing that the smearing of objects and people with goop provides a material analog to verbal practices such as false advertisement, I conclude with a model for consumer fantasy that sustains gift-giving, buying, and borrowing as we find them described by Martial.