Martial, Epigrams 2.37, 5.47, 7.20, and 11.52

translation and commentary by Richard Hill Burton



Whatever is put out for dinner, you sweep up on this side and on that: teats of sow’s udder, a rib of pork, a woodcock to be shared by two, half a mullet, a whole wolf fish, a side of lamprey, a thigh of chicken [5] and a pigeon dripping with its spelt gravy. When these things have been buried in your dripping napkin, they are handed over to the slave boy to be carried home. We recline, an idle crowd. If you have any shame, put back the dinner. [10] I did not invite you for tomorrow, Caecilianus.


Philo swears that he never has dined at home, and this is so. He does not dine, when no one has invited him to dinner.


Nothing is more pitiful or gluttonous than Santra. When he runs off to a formal dinner, after receiving a dinner invitation which he has tried to catch for so many days and nights, three times he asks for the sweetbreads of boar, four times the loin, each hip of the hare and its two shoulders [5], nor does he blush to lie about previously taking the thrush and to seize the blue beards of the oysters. He smears his filthy napkin with mouthfuls of cake; also put in there are jarred grapes and a few seeds of pomegranates [10], the unsightly skin of a hollowed-out sow’s udder, an overripe fig and a damaged mushroom. But now when the napkin is broken by a thousand thefts, he buries the gnawed shellfish in his warm lap and he also puts there a mutilated turtle dove, its head having been devoured. [15] And he does not think it shameful to collect with a long right hand whatever the sweepers and dogs have left. Nor is edible plunder sufficient for his appetite: he fills an earthenware vessel at his feet with mixed wine. When that gluttonous one has carried these things home up two hundred steps [20] and anxiously has shut himself up in a bolted room, he sells the plundered dinner the next day.


You will dine nicely at my house, Julius Cerialis; if you have no better engagement, come. You will be able to keep the eighth hour; we will bathe together (you know how the baths of Stephanus are close to me). [5] First, you will be given lettuce, useful for moving the belly, threads cut from leeks, next an old tunny fish larger than a thin lizard fish, but which eggs, with leaves of rue, cover. Other eggs, turned gently on the embers, will not be lacking, and a ball of cheese brought together over a Velabran hearth [10] and olives which have felt the Picenian cold. These are enough for the appetizer course. Do you wish to know the rest? I will lie, so that you come: fish, slices of meat, sow’s udder, fat birds of the yard and of the marsh, which even Stella is not accustomed to put out unless on a rare dinner. [15] I promise more: I will recite nothing to you, although you yourself may read all the way through your “Giants” or your “Pastorals” that rank next to immortal Vergil.



[2] “sow’s udder”-  Sow’s udders and a sow’s womb were considered particular delicacies at the ancient Roman table (see the discussion by Crystal King, author of the novel based on the life of Apicius called Feast of Sorrow; Blanc and Nercessian 2006).

[4] “mullet” – Mullet also was considered to be a great delicacy among the ancient Romans.  The price for mullet in the time of the Emperor Caligula was “enormous,” and one Consul was said to have paid 8,000 sesterces for one (see “Mullet – Delicacy of Ancient Romans”; Blanc and Nercessian 2006).

[7] “napkin” – Romans, for the most part, ate with their fingers or hands, so their fingers and hands got dirty.  Guests generally brought their own napkins called mappae to dinner parties.  As noted in this poem by Martial and by other Roman poets, these napkins often were used as “doggy bags” to take home little delicacies from the dinner.  In this case, Caecilianus took the “doggy bag” privilege to the extreme.


[1] “Philo” – This is the only place Martial uses this name, which probably was a common Greek name in ancient Rome (Howell 1995, 131).  Mr. Howell also notes that “this epigram deals with a traditional butt of humorous attack, the parasite.”  A parasite was a stock character in Greek and Roman comedy.  They often were flatterers or toadies who attached themselves to their social superiors for free meals (Brown 2016).


[9-10] “pomegranates” and “jarred grapes” –  Pomegranates and jarred grapes (i.e., raisins) are depicted along with other fruits in this wonderful wall painting from Pompeii (ca. 70 CE):

Fresco from the House of Julia Felix, Pompeii; National Museum, Naples (Artstor image)

[17] “whatever the sweepers and dogs have left” – Roman diners often threw their food detritus on the floor.  Later, slaves swept it up or dogs ate it.  In one case, it appears a mouse was the beneficiary of some of the detritus, as depicted on this famous “unswept floor” mosaic in the Vatican Museum:

Detail of the “unswept floor” mosaic from Rome in the Vatican Museum, a copy of a Hellenistic mosaic (Wikimedia Commons, CC0 Alf van Beem 2011)

[21] “bolted room” – Our Santra lives on one of the upper floors of an insula, a large multi-story apartment building in ancient Rome.  These often were crowded and inhabited by the lower classes, to which our Santra likely belongs (Poteat 1931, 191).


[3] “eighth hour” – The eighth hour was the usual bathing hour, which was the eighth hour after sunrise.  The dinner usually followed at the ninth hour after sunrise (Post 1908, 281).  For a wonderful discussion of how ancient Romans told the time, see “How they did it -keeping time in ancient Rome” (Invicta History 2019.)

[5] “lettuce” – lactuca in Latin- on the history of lettuce and why the Latin word is related to “lactic” (milky), see “The History of Lettuce” (Fischer 2019).

[10] “Velabran hearth” – The cheese brought together over a Velabran hearth was probably a smoked cheese.  The cheesemongers of the Velabrum, whose businesses were situated between the Palatine Hill and the Tiber, had a great reputation for their cheeses (Post 1908, 282).

[11] “olives” from Picenum – Picenum is the ancient name for the Adriatic region now called Marche and it is still known for its olives:

Map showing the Marche region (Picenum) in Italy (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 TUBS)

Photograph of Picenian olives (from Bartner 2010)

[14] “birds of the yard” – These would be domestic fowl (Post 1908, 282).

[15] “Stella”- L. Arruntius Stella, a wealthy Roman known for exotic fare at his dinner parties, who was a patron of both Martial and Statius (Citroni 2015).

[17-18] “Giants” and “Pastorals” – Julius Cerialis had written a Gigantomachia (War of the Giants) as well as an agricultural poem Rura (Pastorals), both imitating Vergil.  The giants referred to were a race of monsters, sons of Earth and Tartarus, who tried to storm Olympus, but were smitten by Jupiter with lightening and buried under Mt. Etna and other volcanoes (Smith 1960, 295).


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