Saturday, February 5, 2011

Pretiosa Fames

Once again I have the excellent Dr. Gilleland to thank for drawing my attention to a lovely passage of Latin to savour (and dissect!): a Martial poem in which he revisits the often tawdry Roman theme of nostalgia for a rural birthplace.

The longing for a simple country life which so many Roman authors evince often comes across as hypocritical, and Horace of course poked fun at such dreamy pining in his well-known Alfius poem. But it does provide scope for some fine imagery, and Martial rises above his usual glib standards when comparing his beloved Bilbilis to imperial Rome.

illa placet tellus in qua res parva beatum
me facit et tenues luxuriantur opes:
pascitur hic, ibi pascit ager; tepet igne maligno
hic focus, ingenti lumine lucet ibi;
hic pretiosa fames conturbatorque macellus,
mensa ibi divitiis ruris operta sui;
quattuor hic aestate togae pluresve teruntur,
autumnis ibi me quattuor una tegit.
i, cole nunc reges, quidquid non praestat amicus
cum praestare tibi possit, Avite, locus.

(Martial, 10.96, 5-14)

"I like that country, in which a small property makes me rich, and a few possessions spoil me. The land is fed here [in Rome], but there [in Bilbilis] it feeds you: here a fireplace is warm with a grudging flame, there it gleams with a grand light; here, hunger costs plenty and the market sends you broke; there, your table is filled with the wealth of its own soil. Here, in the summer four or more togas get worn out, there one is enough to cover me in four autumns. Go on then, Avitus, pay court to your patrons, when a place can provide you with whatever a "friend" doesn't provide."

Martial uses language very cleverly:

Line 5: We see the first of a number of cute juxtapositions in "parva beatum", the second word reminding one of the opening of the aforementioned Horace poem ("beatus ille...")! The idea that satisfaction with the gifts of one's own soil constitutes real "wealth" was, by this time, a commonplace in Latin literature.
6: another oxymoron: "tenues luxuriantur opes". luxuriantur goes beyond the idea of satisfaction, however (the metrically convenient sufficiunt might have been used otherwise), stating that Martial can even make a pig of himself on his hometown estate.
7: a classic example of that staple of classical poetry, chiasmus. The subtlety here lies in the use of "pascitur", which is typically used in a deponent sense, "feeds on". But with the active "pascit" mirroring it, the meaning is more likely to be a straight passive, "the land is fed" (delaying "ager" until the end of the phrase also enhances the effect, in my view). The "middle" sense of pascitur lingers, however, with the dark implication that the big city Rome "feeds on" its inhabitants. A similarly menacing note is struck by the unexpected (and emphatically-placed) "maligno" at the end of the line. Of course, this could simply mean that the fire is meagre and hard to maintain, but the sense of "ill-wishing" is also clear.
8: the rhyming "lumine lucet" is reminiscent of Ovid, and creates a sharp contrast with the previous line.
9: another nicely-chosen oxymoron to begin the line. The phrase "pretiosa fames" captures with admirable succinctness the idea that in Rome, even basic necessities are ludicrously over-priced, and that it is necessary to work tirelessly to "earn your poverty", as the saying goes. The tongue-in-cheek phrase "conturbator(que) macellus" completes the depiction, with its playful suggestion that even the local market (supermarket?) can send you bankrupt. Anyone who has lived in Sydney for any length of time will know exactly what Martial is talking about here!
11-12: a nice study in extended chiasmus and judicious word order. "quattuor...aestate" is balanced by "autumnis...quattuor", but in the first case it is four togas in one summer, in the second it is...four autumns, four years in other words, for one toga (a point which is further enhanced by the juxtaposition "quattuor una" in line 12). This element of the country/big city dichotomy, the need to wear (out) uncomfortable formal clothing in an urban setting, is also mentioned elsewhere, notably in Juvenal's third satire where he states baldly that in many parts of Italy, "nemo togam sumit nisi mortuus".
13-14: the word "reges" carries a double meaning here, as it often does when applied to the patron-client relationship. The title rex was generally given to a rich patron, but Juvenal (among others) makes use of this title to hint at the regal airs adopted by the more self-indulgent patroni. The word "cole" is similarly rich in connotation, with its quasi-religious tone perhaps mocking the assiduousness with which ambitious clientes courted their patrons. The word "amicus" is placed emphatically at the end (shades of Juvenal again!) and the sly dig at the patrons' generosity (or lack thereof) is compared to the "generosity" of the country soil in the next line, with the key word "locus", again, delayed until the end.

Personally I would love to move to the country (as would my wife, who was raised on a farm), but there aren't many jobs for Latin teachers in the bush. That's my excuse, anyway.


  1. hi my name is lauren and i am just wondering if you could possibly translate something into latin for me?
    it is only a few short words, and of course there is google, but i just want to check from someone who actually knows the language.
    if this is okay can you email me at and i will email you back with the sentence. thanks so much!

  2. How many times do you want to say ARYAN on a BLOG- REMY?
    How many times does LAUREN OCONNOR want to spell out NETHERLANDS and CULLS?
    How many times do you need to send " secret" codes about OSIRIS- PETWOOD- HYDRA?
    They have ACE- ACCING- BRATEOPH and IMMUTE, for your information.
    With CONINES.
    And that's with COCONS.
    " Assholes".