Sunday, February 07, 2016

Erotion's Parents

The other day in Latin III, my students asked a question that made me realize something about Martial's poem V.34 about the death of Erotion. The parents of this very young slave are dead.
Hanc tibi, Fronto pater, genetrix Flaccilla, puellam
     oscula commendo deliciasque meas,
parvola ne nigras horrescat Erotion umbras
     oraque Tartarei prodigiosa canis.
Impletura fuit sextae modo frigora brumae,             5
     vixisset totidem ni minus illa dies.
Inter tam veteres ludat lasciva patronos
     et nomen blaeso garriat ore meum.
Mollia non rigidus caespes tegat ossa nec illi,
     terra, gravis fueris: non fuit illa tibi.                    10
In line 1, there has been mention of the chiasmus that exists in Fronto pater, genetrix Flacilla and how this reflection of word order suggests that the mother and father are facing each other, perhaps consoling each other in their grief. I generally like this suggestion and agree with it, even using this phrase as an excellent example of the poetic device and how it works. What is more interesting to me, though, is the placement of Hanc and puellam at the beginning and ending of the line, completely surrounding her huddled parents. To me this arrangement illustrates that Erotion exists in a world outside her parents. If her parents were alive, wouldn't "this girl" be more comfortable and loved by the placement between her father and mother?

When reading the poem, we do not learn by the persona, presumably Martial, that Erotion has died until the third line. He sets up the image of a sweet girl by mentioning her oscula and delicias until line 3, a jarring revelation when we realize that she, quite young (parvola) will be shuddering at the "dark shadows" which will be surrounding her, quite literally. Notice the arrangement of nigras...umbras physically around the shuddering girl (horrescat Erotion). The whole image is reinforced in line 4 with the realization that she will have to make her way past Cerberus (Tartarei...canis).

Therefore, if Martial is entrusting the care of Erotion to her parents (tibi...commendo, lines 1-2) before she her soul makes the journey to the Underworld, it only logically follows that Fronto and Flacilla are already there, waiting to receive her on the other side.

I think I overlooked this interesting point in the past because I was so eager to get to Martial's "gotcha" at the end of the poem and show my students the poet's poignant conclusion:

Mollia non rigidus caespes tegat ossa nec illi,
     terra, gravis fueris: non fuit illa tibi.                    10
"Do not let rough sod cover her gentle bones, earth, nor lie heavy upon her; she was not heavy upon you."