'Critics' by Marcus Valerius Martialis

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The readers and the hearers like my books,
And yet some writers cannot them digest;
But what care I? for when I make a feast,
I would my guests should praise it, not the cooks.

-Translated by John Harington

Editor 1 Interpretation

Poetry, Critics by Marcus Valerius Martialis: A Masterpiece of Satire


Poetry, Critics is a collection of satirical poems written by Marcus Valerius Martialis, a Roman poet who lived in the first century AD. The collection consists of eighty-six poems, each of which is dedicated to a different poet or critic. Martialis uses these poems to mock his contemporaries and to critique the state of poetry in his time.

In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will examine the themes and techniques employed by Martialis in Poetry, Critics, and explore the significance of this work in the context of Roman literature.

Historical Context

To fully appreciate Poetry, Critics, it is important to understand the historical context in which it was written. Martialis lived during a time when poetry was a highly respected and popular form of art in Rome. However, as with any art form, there were also many critics and detractors. Martialis himself was a victim of criticism, with some accusing him of being too vulgar and lacking in taste.

In response to these criticisms, Martialis wrote Poetry, Critics, which can be seen as a form of revenge against his detractors. However, the work is more than just a personal vendetta. It is a commentary on the state of Roman poetry and a call to action for poets to strive for greatness.

Satirical Techniques

One of the most notable features of Poetry, Critics is Martialis' use of satire. Satire is a form of writing that uses humor, irony, and exaggeration to criticize and expose the flaws of individuals or society as a whole. Martialis employs a variety of satirical techniques in his poems, including:


Irony is a literary device in which the intended meaning of a word or phrase is opposite to its literal or usual meaning. Martialis uses irony throughout Poetry, Critics to mock the poets and critics he targets. For example, in Poem 1, Martialis writes:

You, Catullus, you are always asking me

to write you some verses. But I can't, my friend,

since all my talent, wit, and ingenuity

have been exhausted by your own fine pen.

You want me to write something that's not obscene?

You who outdo the prurience of any scene?

You want me to write something that's neat and trim?

You who are content with anything, so long as it's fancy?

Here, Martialis uses irony to highlight the hypocrisy of Catullus, a poet known for his obscene and vulgar content. By pretending to be unable to write anything that is not obscene, Martialis exposes the absurdity of Catullus' request.


Hyperbole is a form of exaggeration that is used to make a point or to emphasize a particular aspect of something. Martialis employs hyperbole throughout Poetry, Critics to ridicule his targets. For example, in Poem 2, Martialis writes:

If you want to hear about your verses, read them

yourself. You'll hear worse things than I could say.

But listen: your style is so inflated

nothing can ever bring it down to earth.

Your poems are so heavy they can't be lifted,

so long they can't be read without fatigue.

Your words are like a swarm of bees in summer,

and every sentence stings with pedantry.

Here, Martialis exaggerates the flaws of the poet he is addressing, using hyperbole to ridicule his pompous and pretentious style.


An epigram is a short, witty poem or statement that is often satirical in nature. Martialis was a master of the epigram, and he uses this form extensively throughout Poetry, Critics. For example, in Poem 16, Martialis writes:

Your verses, dear friend, are like your nose:

not the biggest, but the one that most annoys.

Here, Martialis uses an epigram to make a humorous comparison between the poet's verses and his nose, highlighting the irritating nature of both.


The main theme of Poetry, Critics is the state of poetry in Martialis' time. Martialis uses his satirical techniques to critique the poets and critics of his day, exposing their flaws and shortcomings. However, there are also other themes present in the work, including:


Many of the poets and critics targeted by Martialis in Poetry, Critics are portrayed as vain and arrogant. Martialis uses satire to expose their vanity and to highlight the absurdity of their inflated egos.


Martialis also targets the hypocrisy of some of the poets and critics he addresses. Many of them are guilty of the same flaws they criticize in others, and Martialis uses satire to expose their double standards.

Call to Action

Finally, Poetry, Critics can also be seen as a call to action for poets to strive for greatness. Martialis uses satire to mock the poets and critics who settle for mediocrity, and encourages his readers to aim higher and to take poetry seriously.


Poetry, Critics is a significant work in the context of Roman literature for several reasons. Firstly, it is one of the few surviving examples of Roman satire. Martialis' use of satire in Poetry, Critics was highly influential, and his work paved the way for later Roman satirists such as Juvenal.

Secondly, Poetry, Critics provides valuable insights into the state of Roman poetry during Martialis' time. Martialis' critiques of his contemporaries provide a window into the trends and styles of Roman poetry in the first century AD.

Finally, Poetry, Critics is a masterpiece of satire in its own right. Martialis' use of irony, hyperbole, and epigram to critique his targets is both clever and entertaining, and his work remains popular and widely read to this day.


In conclusion, Poetry, Critics is a remarkable work of satire by Marcus Valerius Martialis. Through his use of irony, hyperbole, and epigram, Martialis exposes the flaws and shortcomings of his contemporaries, while also offering a call to action for poets to strive for greatness. The work is significant not only for its historical value, but also as a masterpiece of satire in its own right.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry has been a form of expression for centuries, and its significance has not diminished over time. It has been a medium for people to express their emotions, thoughts, and ideas in a creative and artistic way. Poetry has been a subject of analysis and criticism since its inception, and one of the earliest examples of poetry criticism can be found in the classic work of Marcus Valerius Martialis, a Roman poet who lived in the first century AD.

Martialis' work, titled "Poetry Critics," is a collection of poems that provide a critical analysis of the poetry of his time. In this article, we will delve into the details of this classic work and explore the insights it provides into the world of poetry criticism.

The first thing that strikes the reader about "Poetry Critics" is the wit and humor that Martialis employs in his critique. He uses satire and irony to poke fun at the pretentiousness and self-importance of some poets and their critics. For example, in one of his poems, he mocks a poet who claims to have written a masterpiece, but when asked to recite it, he cannot remember a single line. Martialis uses this example to highlight the importance of substance over style in poetry.

Another aspect of Martialis' critique is his emphasis on the importance of originality in poetry. He criticizes poets who imitate the works of others and calls for them to find their own voice. In one of his poems, he writes, "Why do you write what others have already written? / Why do you sing what others have already sung?" This emphasis on originality is still relevant today, as poets are often encouraged to find their own unique voice and style.

Martialis also critiques the use of overly complex language in poetry. He argues that poetry should be accessible to all, and that the use of obscure words and convoluted syntax only serves to alienate readers. In one of his poems, he writes, "Why do you use words that no one understands? / Why do you write in a language that no one speaks?" This critique is particularly relevant in today's world, where there is a growing movement towards plain language and accessibility in all forms of communication.

One of the most interesting aspects of "Poetry Critics" is Martialis' critique of the role of critics in the world of poetry. He argues that critics should not be overly harsh or dismissive of new poets, but should instead provide constructive feedback and encouragement. In one of his poems, he writes, "Do not be too harsh on the young poet / For he is still learning the craft." This emphasis on constructive criticism is still relevant today, as many new poets struggle to find their place in the world of poetry.

Overall, "Poetry Critics" provides a fascinating insight into the world of poetry criticism in ancient Rome. Martialis' wit and humor make his critique both entertaining and insightful, and his emphasis on originality, accessibility, and constructive criticism is still relevant today. Whether you are a poet or a poetry lover, "Poetry Critics" is a must-read for anyone interested in the art of poetry.

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