A certain Thais appears in a number of epigrams by Martial. Thais is a Greek name taken from the historical Thais, a Greek hetaera at time of Alexander the Great and infamous for instigating Alexander to burn Persepolis. The Thais in the epigrams is a fictitious name for a non-Roman girl with loose morals and probably not denoting a real person: when we take all the characteristics together, she is one-eyed, has black teeth, a terrible smell, is fat and is a girl everybody wants to sleep with. Many things have changed over the past 2000 years, but I can’t imagine that such a woman has ever been the object of sexual desire. It could be argued that various women are behind this Thais, but I am rather sceptical about that: I think that Thais is made up by Martial as an object for his sarcasm, even though the epigrams have a ring of referring to a real existing girl.
These epigrams are revealing about the attitude towards lower-class non Roman girls – seen as more or less prostitutes and probably that was their way to earn a living - and the kind of jokes being made about them. The point is not so much about prostitution, about which Romans were rather relaxed, but about being a lower-class foreign girl.
Martial uses vulgar language and Lewis and Short is not very helpful with these lemmata, or rather not helpful at all. Fortunately my modern Latin-Dutch dictionary is straightforward and translates vulgar where it is needed or when there is no equivalent, it simply explains. The same is true for most translations on internet: I have taken the anonymous translation published by Bohn in 1897 and recently revised by Roger Pearse. Pearse has not included the real obscene epigrams and where possible he has expurgated obscenities. From a philological point of view, this is unfortunate…
"Thaida Quintus amat." "Quam Thaida?" "Thaida luscam."
Vnum oculum Thais non habet, ille duos.
luscus: one-eyed (It does not necessary imply that Thais is half blind: it is also possible that she looked askance with one eye.)
ille duos (non habet)
I have written a post on this epigram, so I won’t go into details again.
Within the imagined context this Quintus felt a bit offended: his name was right, but Martial got the name of his girlfriend wrong, and besides, she is not one-eyed! Martial replies:
Si tua Thais nec lusca est, Quinte, puella,
cur in te factum distichon esse putas?
Sed simile est aliquid? Pro Laide Thaida dixi?
Dic mihi, quid simile est Thais et Hermione?
Tu tamen es Quintus: mutemus nomen amantis: 5
si non uolt Quintus, Thaida Sextus amet.
Si tua Thais nec lusca est, Quinte, puella = si tua puella nec Thais nec lusca est
in te: against you
Pro Laide Thaida dixi? : i.e. Quintus would have a point when his girlfriend had the name Lais, almost similar to Thais, but her name is Hermione!
Quintus, Sextus: there is a pun here with these Roman names: if the fifth doesn’t want Thais, than she is happy with number six!
In the next poem Martial rebukes Thais for sleeping with everyone. If she doesn’t feel ashamed about that, than at least (saltem) she should feel ashamed about refusing nothing her lover asks her to do.
Nulli, Thai, negas; sed si te non pudet istud,
hoc saltem pudeat, Thai, negare nihil.
In the next epigram Martial imagines an old man trying his luck with Thais:
Quid me, Thai, senem subinde dicis?
Nemo est, Thai, senex ad irrumandum.
irrumo: to put the penis in a mouth
Is Thais chaste? Indeed, she only blows…
Non est in populo nec urbe tota
a se Thaida qui probet fututam,
cum multi cupiant rogentque multi.
Tam casta est, rogo, Thais? Immo fellat.
a se Thaida qui probet fututam: who can prove that Thais has been fucked (futuo) by him
Not only today people want to have Colgate bright teeth, but in Roman times that desire existed too. Apparently it was possible to buy teeth and have them implanted in some way. Thais doesn’t have the money.
Thais habet nigros, niueos Laecania dentes.
Quae ratio est? Emptos haec habet, illa suos.
emo emi emptum: to buy
haec: Laecania (hic refers to the last person mentioned)
Thais smells terribly and whatever she will try to hide it, it is to no avail…
Tam male Thais olet quam non fullonis auari
testa uetus, media sed modo fracta uia,
non ab amore recens hircus, non ora leonis,
non detracta cani transtiberina cutis,
pullus abortiuo nec cum putrescit in ouo, 5
amphora corrupto nec uitiata garo.
Virus ut hoc alio fallax permutet odore,
deposita quotiens balnea ueste petit,
psilothro uiret aut acida latet oblita creta
aut tegitur pingui terque quaterque faba. 10
Cum bene se tutam per fraudes mille putauit,
omnia cum fecit, Thaida Thais olet.
oleo olui: to smell
quam non fullonis auari testa uetus: as even not the old jar of an avaricious fuller (A fuller was someone who prepared wool. For this process urine was used and this fuller had a jar time and again filled with urine and now full again…)
ab amore recens hircus: a male goat just back from mating (The smell is terrible!)
detracta cani transtiberina cutis: a skin torn off of a dog at the other side of the Tiber
pullus abortiuo nec cum putrescit in ouo: not when a chicken is rotting in abortive egg (It sometimes happens that a chicken dies before coming out of the egg.)
amphora corrupto nec uitiata garo: even not as an amphora defiled with rotten fish-sauce
virus viri (n.): stench
deposita veste: having put off her clothes
psilothrum: an unguent for removing the hair and making the skin smooth
vireo: to be green
acida latet oblita creta: hides herself besmeared with acid chalk
tegitur pingui …faba: covers herself with fat bean-unguent
Thaida tam tenuem potuisti, Flacce, videre?
Tu, puto, quod non est, Flacce, videre potes.
tenuis: slender, fine
Translation (but compare the translation with the Latin!):
Quintus is in love with Thais."----What Thais?----"Thais with one eye."----Thais wants one eye; he wants two.
If your mistress, Quintus, is neither Thais nor one-eyed, why do you imagine my distich to have been levelled against you?----But perhaps there is some similarity in the name; perhaps it said Thais for Lais.----Tell me, what similarity is there between Thais and Hermione?----But you are Quintus, you say;----well, let us change the name of the lover. If Quintus will not have Thais, let Sextus be her swain.
You deny no one, Thais; but, if you are not ashamed of denying no one, at least be ashamed of denying nothing, Thais.
Why, Thais, are you constantly saying that I am old? One is never too old, Thais, for what you require.
There is no one among the people, or in the whole town, who who assert that Thais has granted him favours, although many desire and entreat them. Is Thais then, I ask, so pure? By no means; she has a filthy tongue.
Thais has black, Laecania white teeth; what is the reason? Thais has her own, Laecania bought ones.
Thais smells worse than an old jar of a covetous fuller just broken in the middle of the street; worse than a goat after an amorous encounter; than the belch of a lion; than a hide torn from a dog on the banks of the Tiber; than chick rotting in an abortive egg; than a jar fetid with spoilt pickle. Cunningly wishing to exchange this disagreeable odour for some other, she, on laying aside her garments to enter the bath, makes herself green with a depilatory, or conceals herself beneath a daubing of chalk dissolved in acid, or covers herself with three or four layers of rich bean-unguent. When by a thousand artifices she thinks she has succeeded in making herself safe, Thais, after all, smells of Thais.
And have you been able, Flaccus, to see the slender Thais? Then, Flaccus, I suspect you can see what is invisible.