Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Martial 3,8: the one-eyed Thais or how a comma destroys the pun.

The comma is a very useful invention, as it structures a text and gives a guidance for interpretation and that is why in modern text editions of Greek and Latin authors commas are used. The comma itself was invented in the third century BC at Alexandria by the Greek grammarian Aristophanes of Byzantium, but this comma was used to divide verses and not to structure a text. That use of the comma was introduced in the late Middle Ages. However, sometimes a comma can destroy a text rather than help the reader.  I have come upon this while reading the following epigram by Martial:


"Thaida Quintus amat." "Quam Thaida?" "Thaida luscam."
     Unum oculum Thais non habet, ille duos.

Thais (Greek acc. Thaida -  Greek names often retain the Greek declension ) is a common name for designating women in a certain branch of trade, named after the (in)famous Greek prostitute Thais  who lived during the time of Alexander the Great and actually accompanied him. She convinced Alexander to burn down the palace at Persepolis as a retribution for Xerxes' burning of the temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens in 480 BC.
luscus:                 one-eyed

The remainder is easy Latin, but what is the point? Is it that Thais has one eye and Quintus two? Well, let’s remove the comma, keeping in mind that Martial himself was unaware of the use of the comma. But now non habet  can belong both to Thais and to ille: Thais does not have one eye and Quintus does not have two eyes. Here lies the pun. Of course Quintus has two eyes, but according to Martial, he is blind by falling in love with that one-eyed Thais! And so the placing of that comma by the editor has destroyed the whole pun, you see?


  1. I don't understand the form "Thaida".
    Probably I too am blind.

  2. Thaida is the Greek accusative of Thais. Greek names often retain the Greek declension. I forgot to mention that.

  3. No, you are not. It was my fault not to mention this, but I have improved my post on this point.

  4. I presume that by "one eye" and "two eyes" Martial is not referring to physical characteristics but to fidelity, or lack of it.

  5. Hi Henry, I have considered your idea, but I think that it is unlikely. There are other poems too in which Martial is making fun of outward appearences and handicaps. Antiquity had no room for anti-discrimination laws and handicapped people were not seen as `people with other possibilities', but often simply as people to make fun of....

  6. Hello, nice to visit your blog finally (I remember you announcing it on LinkedIn but didn't have much time then) :)

    I don't think this comma destroys anything. I don't remember when I first saw this epigram, but it seems quite natural to me that "ille duos" shares the negation as well as the verb with "Thais unum oculum", and I think the comma actually helped me to understand this.

    1. My point is that `non habet' has Thais with the comma as is stands. but if we leave the comma ille is subject too: Quintus has no two eyes because he falls in love with a one-eyed woman. Love makes blind...

  7. Sorry, I just don't see why comma makes Thais the only subject - I think I understand your point, but I fail to see the reason for it. (Maybe it's my native language (Russian) punctuation habits?) With the comma, the verb for 'ille' may seem to be missing at first, but is is found just before the comma and I see no reason to apply it to 'ille', while omitting the 'non' at the same time (as you apparently suggest is the case when the comma is present).

  8. Hi Peter, I think normally the negative is repeated: cf English: she has not one eye, he two. I will take this sentence as a about a woman with one eye and a man with two eyes. But you raise an interesting point: it could be that I read this poem with the English or Dutch syntax in mind.