The Volokh Conspiracy

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"But what about my goats?": The Roman poet Martial on lawyers


Marcus Valerius Martialis, Roman poet (1814). Marcus Valerius Martialis, known in English as Martial, was a Latin poet who lived in Hispania (Spain) during the 1st century AD. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

I was recently reminded of one of the Epigrams of the Roman poet Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis). It is about the lawyers of his day, but it reflects—in an exaggerated way, of course—something that some lawyers, and many law students, tend to do today in their briefs, especially briefs that deal with glamorous subjects such as constitutional law. Here is a translation I much liked, by Roger Dickinson-Brown, reprinted with permission:

There is no poison here, no rape or force –
a simple case: my neighbor stole my goats.
But my expensive lawyer will discourse
on the whole history of law. He quotes
book, precedent and chapter 'til he's hoarse.
Fine, noble words! But what about my goats?

Meredith (For Keats' Sake!) also has a translation I like, and here's one more from two centuries ago, by John Quincy Adams, himself a lawyer of some distinction. It comes from his "Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory: Delivered to the Classes of Senior and Junior Sophisters in Harvard University" (more about that later), delivered when Adams was a senator; note that Adams keeps Martial's historical references in his translation—which would have been vivid to Martial's audience, but come across differently to us today—while Dickinson-Brown chooses to omit them:

No dagger keen, no poison'd bowl
Forms, of my suit, the constitution
'Tis of three kids my neighbour stole
I come to court for restitution.
With thundering voice, and outstretch'd arm
my lawyer fights o'er all our battles;
Now thrills with Cannae's dire alarms
And now of Mithridates prattles.
Oh! let thy tongue, Verboso, cease,
Which trust in Punic faith forbids;
Let Sylla, Marius, sleep in peace;
And say—one word about my kids.

And here's Martial's original Latin:

Non de vi neque caede nec veneno,
Sed lis est mihi de tribus capellis:
Vicini queror has abesse furto.
Hoc iudex sibi postulat probari:
Tu Cannas Mithridaticumque bellum
Et periuria Punici furoris
Et Sullas Mariosque Muciosque
Magna voce sonas manuque tota.
Iam dic, Postume, de tribus capellis.

If this post leads some small voice inside you to occasionally say, as you're writing or editing, "But what about my goats?," then Martial's life will not have been in vain.

UPDATE: Sasha points out that this is "One good contribution of Martial law."