The Paris Review

Cooking with Martial and Catullus

In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.

In ancient Rome, poetry was pop culture, and being a poet was a viable living of sorts—you attached yourself to a patron and wrote flattering words about him, nasty verse about his enemies, and humorous epigrams to enliven his dinner parties. You kissed political ass, stuck in well-timed barbs, snarked about fashion and stupid food trends, and called out friends, foes, and former lovers. And while many wrote elevated, epic work, there was a thriving culture of poets like Martial (A.D. 40–103) and Catullus (84–54 B.C.), whose catty, witty, often obscene poems reflect daily life and circulated first through gossipy word-of-mouth and graffiti.

If it seems surprising that the enjoyment of bitchy public ephemera (see: Twitter) is as old as human civilization, it’s only one way in which the psychology of ancient Rome seems eerily similar to our own. Martial and Catullus cared about money and sex, status and partying, making art and having dinner, just like we do today. Their city, as described by Martial, has “grimy restaurants” that “spill out too far” onto the sidewalks, “inn posts … festooned with loads of chained flagons,” and at least one bar that’s a “smoke-blackened dive.” It’s populated by “bar owners, butchers and barbers,” but the elite pretty boys have “long hair and soft beards,” and there is a brisk economy of gift-giving. In one epigram, Martial notes that “this month,” trendy items include “napkins, pretty spoons,

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