Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Martial 5,34: little Erotion.

Martial is famous - or infamous – for his satirical, sexual explicit and misogynistic poetry, actually the reason why he is still rather widely read. The following poem has nothing of that all, but is a moving poem on the death of a girl of nearly six: Erotion. Her parents were slaves, or at least her mother. Martial must have been very fond of her and this epigram is a tribute to her short life.

Martialis 5,34

Hanc tibi, Fronto pater, genetrix Flaccilla, puellam
     oscula commendo deliciasque meas,
parvula ne nigras horrescat Erotion umbras
     oraque Tartarei prodigiosa canis.
Impletura fuit sextae modo frigora brumae,              5
     vixisset totidem ni minus illa dies.
Inter tam veteres ludat lasciva patronos
     et nomen blaeso garriat ore meum.
Mollia non rigidus caespes tegat ossa nec illi,
     terra, gravis fueris: non fuit illa tibi.              10

Fronto pater, genetrix Flaccilla: Martial’s deceased parents
commendo (-are): to intrust, commend
oscula… deliciasque meas: apposition to puellam
deliciae –arum: darling
parvulus: diminutive of parvus
horresco horrui: to be terrified
nigras umbras: i.e. the phantoms of the deceased
Tartarei canis:  Cerberus, the hound of Hades. He had three heads, hence ora.
prodigiosus: unnatural, prodigious
impletura: about to fulfil
frigus –oris (n.): coldness
bruma: the shortest day, but by extension also used for `winter’ and in poetry also for `year’.
ni = nisi
minus totidem dies: the same amount of days less, i.e. she died six days before her sixth birthday.
lascivius: playful
patronos: Martial’s parents serve now as Erotion’s patrons. Her death has set Erotion free, but a freed slave needed a patronus under Roman law, who had the responsibility for some material welfare and could serve as a representative in court.
blaesus: lisping, speaking indistinctly
garrio: to chatter
caespes –itis (m.): turf, grassy field

Translation by A.S. Klyne.

To your shades Fronto, and Flacilla, this child
I commend: she was my sweet and my delight.
Little Erotion shall not fear the darkened shades
nor the vast mouths of the Tartarean hound.
She’d have completed her sixth chill winter,
if she’d not lived a mere six days too few.
Now let her frisk and play among old friends
now let her chatter, and so lisp my name.
And let the soft turf cover her brittle bones:
earth, lie lightly on her: she lay lightly on you.


  1. Hello, Leo. I want to thank you for this blog. I always enjoy your posts, and I learn a lot! I have been so moved by Martial's little poem that I have attempted a translation of my own, and I post it here -- despite its flaws -- as a gesture of respect for the original.

    On the Death of Erotion, a Slave Child

    I commend this girl, this sweet one, my delight,
    Fronto and Flaccilla, my parents, into your care,
    so that with you little Erotion might not take fright
    at Cerberus's triple roar or the phantoms there.
    Had she lived six more days of winter cold,
    she'd have prided herself on being six years old.
    With such familiar protectors, let her trick and play
    and still lisp my name, as she used to do.
    May mellow sod veil her brittle bones --- and weigh
    Lightly on her, kind earth; she was light on you.


  2. Rather nice; no real flaws that I can hear.

  3. Actually, given the girl's name (Erotion <- 'eros', desire, lust), there is probably more here than meets the eye (or ear). Erotion was probably a 'verna', a baby born to a slave girl and her master.

    1. It occurred to me, too, that Erotion might have been a child of Martial's. A little research reveals that others have thought so, too. For example, another epigram reveals that he gave Erotion the sort of burial usually reserved for free persons, and, by commending her to his parents, he seems to want to welcome her into the family, at least in the after-life. It is inconclusive, though, and since he doesn't say anything explicitly about this in the poem, it seemed best to leave this idea out of the translation, too.

  4. Hi James! Translating is a very good exercise, both for understanding the original language and exploring the possibilities of one’s own language. Especially the translation of poetry is demanding, but also satisfying when one finds a rendition which is both fluent in translation and faithful to the original and I think your translation is an example of this.

  5. Tarlach, that crossed my mind too. Could it be that it was the child of Martial?

  6. It is my impression that Martial was not writing a typical elegy, but a prayer-poem for protection of a little girl who may have been his daughter. Here is my loose translation of the poem and my brief comments, if anyone is interested ...

    To you, my departed parents, with much emotion,
    I commend my little darling, my much-kissed Erotion
    who died six days short of her sixth bitter winter.
    Protect her, I pray, from hell’s nightmare shades a-flitter;
    and please don’t let fiends leave her maiden heart dismayed!
    But lead her to romp happily in some Elysian glade
    with her cherished friends, lispingly exclaiming my name.
    Let no hard turf smother her softening bones; and do
    rest lightly on her, earth, she was such a slight burden to you.
    —Martial, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

    This is a touching elegy that Martial wrote for a slave girl, Erotion, who died six days before her sixth birthday. The poem has been called Martial’s masterpiece. The child’s name may not have been Erotion, which may possibly correspond to our term “love child.” It has been suggested that the little girl may have been Martial’s love child, by a female slave. That could explain why Martial is asking his parents’ spirits to welcome, guide and watch over the little girl. Martial uses the terms patronos (patrons) and commendo (commend); in Rome a freed slave would be commended to a patron. A little girl freed from slavery by death might need patron/protectors on the “other side,” according to Greek and Roman views of the afterlife, where the afterworld is guarded by a monstrous three-headed dog, Cerebus. It seems that Martial is asking his parents to guide the little girl’s spirit away from Cerebus and the dark spirits (the “fiends” of my translation) to the heavenly Elysian fields where she can play and laugh without fear. If I am correct, Martial’s poem in not just an elegy, but a prayer-poem for protection, perhaps of his daughter.

  7. Hi Michael! Thanks for the comment and additions. I happened to read this poem by chance, picking a book from my bookshelves in search for a new text for my blog. The commentary was not that helpful, so I had to rely on my own interpretation. Interestingly, this post has drawn some comments forcing me to reread and rethink my original post. One can never be sure to what extent Martial was writing autobiographically or was using his persona as poet, but the fact that this poem has provoked some comments on this post, certainly proves that he still is a poet worth reading

    1. Yes, I think Martial is definitely worth reading. I think Oscar Wilde would agree, because the last line above seems to have been "borrowed" for his lovely elegy "Requiescat," which he wrote for his sister after her premature death.

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  9. This girl I commend to you, Fronto father,
    mother Flacilla, kisses and my darling,
    that little Erotion not tremble at the dark shades
    and the unnatural mouths of the hellhound.
    She just about to fill the cold of her sixth winter,
    had she not lived that many days too few.
    Among her old patrons let her play, so much fun,
    and let her lisping mouth eek out my name.
    May the turf cover her soft bones gently, nor the earth
    be heavy upon her, as she was not on it.

  10. If we take Fronto and Flaccilla as Martial's own parents, who favoured the girl while they were alive, this poem's unadulterated but visionary sadness may stem from Martial's real purpose here, for this girl to be an emissary to the other world. So that when her lisping mouth eek out Martial's name, his parents receive report of his devotion.