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Wordle: Martial VI 



  You always order that our penis stands for you, Lesbia:

         Trust me, it is not a penis, as it is a finger.

  Although you molest it both with smooth hands and sounds,

         against you is your domineering face .

XXIII    Meter: Elegiac Couplet

  Stā rĕ iŭ|bēs nōst|rūm sēm|pēr tĭ bĭ,|Lēs bĭ ă,|pē nēm:

       Crē dĕ mĭ|hī, nōn|ēst||mēn tŭ lă,|quōd dĭ gĭ|tūs.

  Tū lĭ cĕt|ēt mă nĭ|būs blān|dīs ēt|vō cĭ bŭs|īn stēs,

       Tē cōn|trā fă cĭ|ēs||īm pĕ rĭ|ō să tŭ|ā͜e̸st.



With the pseudonym of Lesbia, Martial calls back to his Catullus roots. Lesbia was the pseudonym that Catullus assigned to his mistress Clodia. And like Catullus, Martial uses this name in his poem in an obscene manner to “establish himself as the successor of Catullus and Martialis.” (Watson 21). Yet the implication of the name Lesbia changed from Catullus’ time to Martial’s. Where Catullus’ Lesbia likely meant nothing more than “a pretty girl from Lesbos ,” (Wirshbo 70), Martial’s Lesbia takes on a more corrupted meaning.

Martial spends a great deal of time in numerous epigrams degrading those who practice sexual habits outside of vaginal sex. “These include oral sex, passive homosexuality … adultery…and Lesbianism.” (Watson 22). Certainly, in poem 6.23, Martial implies non-normal sex claiming non est mentula, quod digitus. Right off the bat, this Lesbia is not trying to arouse some male member, but someone’s finger, and even then, she fails. She attempts to harden it et manibus blandis et vocibus, implying with vocibus that she performs oral on the finger, and the zinging last line of the poem refers to how domineering her face is, suggesting that perhaps it is too horrifying to permit even a finger to remain upright. This would keep in line with the later meaning of the name Lesbia, meaning fellatrix, or someone who performs oral sex. (Wirshbo 70).

Another author, W.M.A. Grimaldi, takes this Martial-like cynical view on the use of Lesbia. He acknowledges the “passionate love [of Catullus] for her, but also its sheer folly.” (Grimaldi 91). This Lesbia, like Martial’s, has a preference for the unusual in her romances. Grimaldi continues that Catullus knows that “he and his love are nothing but a plaything for Lesbia,” (Grimaldi 92). Martial certainly suggests that his Lesbia also has a plaything, and plays with it badly.

Yet for all of Martial’s disgust towards this Lesbia, there may be some merit to a thought that he married a woman from the family of Catullus’ Lesbia. Watson takes the stand that “in his early years [Martial] had one or more marriages,” (Watson 3). She bases this on Martial’s repeated requested for the ius trium liborum, or law of three children, claiming that it indicated unfertile marriages. (Watson 3). Harry C. Schnur, however, found references in Raderus’ Vita to Uxorem habuit Clodiam Marcellam ex gente Claudia plebia, or a wife from the plebian race of the Claudians. (Schnur 98-99). He claims that this marriage took place late in Martial’s life as references to her only appear in book 12 of the Epigramata. How ironic, that Martial, like Catullus, would choose to give his love to a woman of the Clodian branch, or the plebian branch of the Claudian family. Just think, a Clodia all for himself.


Grimaldi, W. M. A. “The Lesbia Love Lyrics.” Classical Philology. Volume 60 Number 2. University of Chicago Press. April 1965. pages 87-95.

Schnur, Harry C. “Again: Was Martial Really Married?” The Classical World. Volume 72 Number 2. Classical Association of the Atlantic States. October 1978. page 98-99.

Watson, Lindsay and Patricia, editors. Martial: Select Epigrams. New York ; Cambridge University Press. 2003.

Wirshbo, Eliot. “Lesbia: a Mock Hypocorism?” Classical Philology. Volume 75 Number 1. University of Chicago Press. January 1980. page 70.

A. Galica-Cohen