Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2023 Issue

Martial In Rome, the Power And The Glory

The Colosseum: Not fun and games, games and slaughter.

I went to Rome, Italy, and I took a picture of a 1671 edition of Martial’s epigrams inside the dreadful Colosseum. This place was once the showcase of the most powerful city on Earth; as you enter it in 2023, you’re almost deafened by the mute cries of 80,000 raging spectators. They were screaming with joy as people were murdered, raped or torn by wild beasts in front of their eyes. These circus games inspired several epigrams to Martial (40-104)—known as “the book of the circus games”. They are not recommended for soft readers.


Visiting the Colosseum is like visiting St Peter’s church in the Vatican. Those places are nothing but unapologetic displays of power. Everything there was designed to make you feel miserable. The cold breath of power blows on your neck as soon as you enter, as if to remind you how insignificant you are. Two thousands years or so later, notwithstanding technological or medical progress, or our travelling to the moon, the impact is still the same. It is a debauchery of means and money with a unique goal: showing who’s the master. “Let barbarian Memphis keep silence concerning the wonders of her pyramids,” Martial writes, “and let not Assyrian toil vaunt its Babylon. Let not the effeminate Ionians claim praise for their temple of the Trivian goddess (...). Every work of toil yields to Caesar's amphitheatre.1” It is the most visited site in Italy today. “What race is so distant from us, what race so barbarous, Caesar, as that from it no spectator is present in thy city? The cultivator of Rhodope is here (...): the Sarmatian nourished by the blood drawn from his steed, is here. (…) The Arabian has hastened hither, the Sabaeans have hastened (...). Though different the speech of the various races, there is but one utterance, when thou art hailed as the true father of thy country.” A pagan Tower of Babel, so to speak.


I had an “arena access” ticket, so I was permitted to step into the arena with a restricted amount of tourists. Here I was, walking in the footsteps of Carpophorus. He was Domitian’s protégé2, and a fearless hunter. “That which was the utmost glory of thy renown, Meleager, a boar put to flight, what is it? a mere portion of that of Carpophorus. He, in addition, planted his hunting-spear in a fierce rushing bear (...); he also laid low a lion (...); and with a wound from a distance, stretched lifeless a fleet leopard.” One day, a lion escaped its master’s grip and created panic among the patrons. Everybody ran away but Carpophorus, who jumped on it instead, and put it to death. What a spectacle indeed! I looked at the nearby seats behind me. They seem so close! The spectators could almost touch the many gladiators who died at their feet.


The circus games had a political dimension. Binging lions, rhinoceros (how powerful was that tusk to whom a bull was a mere ball!) or elephants from the ends of the empire was a way to display Caesar’s power. Even the wild beasts came to die for his glory. The floor of the arena is now gone, and we can see corridors underneath—the belly of the beast. Elevators would send the gladiators, the animals or their victims right in the middle of the battlefield. Representation was the key word of the games. “The pagan and cruel Romans,” our French translator warns before offering the poem entitled Pasiphae, “would often give inhuman and lewd spectacles in the Colosseum, to re-enact the Greek fables.” Pasiphae was Minos’ wife, and when the latter refused to sacrifice a white bull to Poseidon, the God retaliated. He made Minos’ wife fall in love with a bull. So passionate was Pasiphae that she hid inside a wooden cow covered with a cow skin. “The bull approached and started to copulate with it as if with a real cow,” Apollodorus writes. “The young woman then gave birth to the Minotaur.” Many questioned the truth of these fables, and re-enacting them in the Colosseum was a serious matter. “Believe that Pasiphae was enamoured of a Cretan bull: we have seen it,” Martial rejoices, “The old story has been confirmed,” meaning they had a woman publicly raped by a bull. Another wretch had the honour to re-enact the myth of Prometheus: “so has Laureolus, suspended on no feigned cross, offered his defenceless entrails to a Caledonian bear. His mangled limbs quivered, every part dripping with gore, and in his whole body no shape was to be round.” This Laureolus, Martial presumes, had “murdered his father, or assassinated his master, or maybe raped his mother.” Serves you right, you savage!


Man versus lions, leopards versus elephants, women versus beasts, or short-people fighting each other—it goes on and on. I was reading the epigram about those young men who were attacked by a loose lion. They were sweeping away the sand made thick with blood during an interlude. Then I noticed a modern Venus on my right. She was posing in the arena, holding her phone with a selfie-stick—looking for the best view on her body curves, the best pout. Not as much as a bull raping a woman, but this was a dreadful spectacle to behold. Unfortunately, there were thousands of Venuses in the Colosseum that day. Guess that when they post their best shots on social media, 80,000 spectators applauded. The ancient tyrants are gone, but the circus games go on, and the spectators are always asking for more.


Thibault Ehrengardt


1. The English translations are from a 1897 edition available online (www.tertullian.org).

2. The translator of our 1671 edition indicates that Martial is referring to the circus games given by Domitian. Yet, in his article Domitien, spectacles, supplices et cruauté, Cinzia Vismara writes (persee.fr): “The chronology of Martial’s Book of the Circus Games has only been confirmed recently (...). And these poems exclusively depict the games given by Titus to inaugurate the Colosseum.”

Posted On: 2023-02-02 12:41
User Name: chr.edwards

This all seems to me a bit oversensitive: it's getting on for 2000 years since people and animals were slaughtered in the Colosseum (not the Coliseum, by the way). And to compare it with St Peter's in the Vatican, which is certainly not intended to make the visitor miserable, is ridiculous. I suggest you save your indignation for modern atrocities, about which something can be done.

Posted On: 2023-02-02 20:41
User Name: ehrengardt

You're right. A woman raped by a bull in front of a delighted audience? Come on, man! A man ripped by a fierce beast while chained on a rock? Don't be a sissy. That was long ago, this is inaccurate, just like old dusty books I guess.

If you can't see the link between the Colosseum (pardon my English, will ask the editor to correct it) and St Peter's Church, never mind - they do. That's why they did all they could to put their name all over the place. And if I remember correctly, they tried to erect a church inside the place at one point.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Means a lot to me, you now how sensitive I can be. :D

Posted On: 2023-02-06 23:52
User Name: bukowski

The Colosseum is not terrible. It is majestic and magnificent, regardless of how and for what it was used. Woke poseur!

Posted On: 2023-02-09 17:58
User Name: ehrengardt

"Regardless?" Guess, I'll have to keep on thinking without you that 2+2=4.
Have a majestic and magnificent day. ;)

Rare Book Monthly

  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD
  • Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Closing Time, Advance Readers Copy of Uncorrected Proof with a letter from Heller on his personal stationary
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Gates, Bill, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, N Y: Knopf, 2021; first edition, with a handwritten note from Bill Gates
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Catch-22, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961, first edition, first printing, first issue dust jacket, inscribed on the front end paper by Heller
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Something Happened, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, first edition, inscribed on the front end paper by Heller
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, London: John Murray, 1818, in four volumes
  • Manuscript Masterpieces from the Schøyen Collection
    London auction, 11 June
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Holkham Hebrew Bible. In Hebrew, decorated manuscript on vellum [Toledo, 2nd quarter 13th century]. £1,500,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Crosby-Schøyen Codex. In Coptic, manuscript on papyrus [Upper Egypt, middle 3rd century / 4th century]. £2,000,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Geraardsbergen Bible. In Latin, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Southern Netherlands, late 12th century]. £700,000–1,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now : Jean de Courcy (fl. 1420). The Chronique de la Bouquechardiere. In French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1480]. £200,000–300,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The ‘Catherine de Medici’ Hours. In Latin and French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1485]. £120,000–180,000
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions