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Its typical metre is the elegiac couplet, which is also the metre of Roman love poetry (elegy) and the hallmark of Ovid.
In antiquity it was a distinctively Greek literary form: Roman writers were never comfortable in it as they were in other imported genres, such as epic and elegy.
Its roots were inscriptional – ever since the archaic period, epitaphs and such had occasionally been composed in verse – but it took a library-based culture of scholarship to collate these older texts and turn them into models for literary imitation.
Epigram quickly found a home in the Greek symposium, the traditional after-dinner drinking party at which guests (‘symposiasts’) were expected to contribute a party turn to the evening’s entertainment.
It soon diversified: poetic epitaphs and praises of athletes (imitating the inscriptions found on the bases of statues of victors at games such as the Olympics) were joined by love-poems, descriptions of works of art (‘ekphrases’), mock dedications, and poems about the symposium itself.
Epigram bred epigram: from the beginning the genre encouraged proliferation, with ‘families’ of poems ringing the changes on favourite themes.
I wandered through a relatively lesser-known feminist bookstore in my city, and came across The Love Songs of Sappho, translated by Paul Roche and Page Du Bois.
When they dabbled in epigram they often used Greek to do so.
Martial’s decision to write books of Latin epigrams, Epigram had emerged as a literary force to be reckoned with in the Hellenistic age, in the centuries after the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC).
Catullus though, is a much more lively presence in Martial.
For modern readers of the classics he is one of Ancient Rome’s most important poets, second perhaps only to Virgil; he was probably read less widely in the first century AD than he is today (he had died nearly a hundred years before Martial was born), but his name still had power, and Martial wields it in almost every book: Gideon Nisbet has taught and researched the classical world and its reception at the Universities of Glasgow, Reading, Warwick, and Oxford, and is an expert in ancient epigram.