"gula est: Appropriating the aesthetics of illness in Martial’s Epigrams"

Kate Stevens (Rutgers University)

In a number of epigrams [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, who utilize a visibly ill aesthetic not to demand sympathetic gifts but to avoid unpleasant social responsibilities to those with equal or higher status. 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 social position. This paper explores 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.