gula est: Power dynamics of self-impoverishment through faked illness in Martial’s Epigrams

Kate Stevens (Rutgers University)

Throughout his Epigrammata, the Flavian poet Martial takes particular care in critiquing the social behavior of other inhabitants (real and imagined) of Rome. His targets behave badly in a number of ways, ranging from miserly patronage to concealment of bodily flaws. I explore how Martial criticizes men who adopt a particular impoverished aesthetic—that of ill health—to enable their abuses of power, exploiting feigned illnesses to manipulate their social positions for profit.

            In a number of poems [2.16, 2.40, 9.85, 11.86, 12.56], Martial repeats a scenario: he accuses a man of malingering for the purpose of enjoying unearned social and monetary benefits such as well-wishing and gifts. These men take on similar forms of contrived illness that are aesthetically similar: their symptoms are fevers, listlessness, and coughs, and their illnesses are acute (rather than chronic), potentially fatal (where recovery is cause for celebration), and not visually disfiguring (without perceivable lasting impairment). In contrast, there are two poems where the subject falsifies illness with applications of ointments and bandages [7.39, 10.22]. Martial notably does not attack the greed of these individuals, respectively identified as Caelius and Martial himself. Unlike those faking fever, Caelius and Martial utilize a visibly ill aesthetic not to demand sympathetic gifts but to avoid unpleasant social responsibilities to those with equal or higher status. I argue that Martial targets healthy individuals appropriating the aesthetics of disease to exert social power over others, using these examples to demonstrate that the impoverished aesthetic of illness—as appropriated by wealthy malingerers—can be a tool used to exploit social norms and inappropriately subvert the expected flow of generosity. His treatment of men who feign illness is not uniform, but highly dependent upon how they manipulate their presentation of (ill) health to optimize their position.

 

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