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

Kate Stevens (Rutgers University)

In this paper, I explore how Martial accentuates the adoption by certain men of a particular impoverished aesthetic—that of ill health—to point up their abuses of power. In these poems [2.16, 2.40, 9.85, 11.86, 12.56] Martial’s targets claim similar forms of forged 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). These men exploit expectations about suffering in illness and take advantage of this temporary aesthetic to manipulate their social position. By artificially inflating their own needs, Martial’s targets not only harm their own friends, but also weaken the social contract that governs appropriate Roman behavior.