The seventh book of Martial’s Epigrams was probably published in December 92 CE, as it includes many epigrams celebrating the return of Domitian from his third campaign against the Sarmatians and alluding to the Saturnalia festivities. It is composed of epigrams dealing with various prosaic subjects, such as scenes of daily life in Rome, literary themes, personal attacks, patronal relationships and various jokes (see Galán Vioque, Martial, p. 9-12). It is also characterised by the fact that it has the greater concentration of polemical poems against Jewish men (Zeichmann, “Martial,” p. 115, n. 8). Actually, many epigrams of this book deal in a polemical way with Jewish sex or sexual practices, and associate Jewish men with homoerotic overtones (see VII.35, 55) (Zeichmann, “Martial,” p. 115). Epigram VII.82 fits in with these homoerotic overtones, mainly due to its subject: a comic actor or singer called Menophilus, who is wearing a sheath (an instrument covering the penis or the prepuce to avoid sexual activity or to prevent erection; on the shape of this sheath see Galán Vioque, Martial, p. 450), stands in the middle of the sports ground of some public baths when suddenly, his sheath slips off and everybody sees that he is verpus, a technical term meaning that “his foreskin is pulled back.”
First, it is interesting to note that Martial presents the main character of the epigram, Menophilus, through his sex organ (penem, v. 1) which has three characteristics. Firstly, Menophilus uses a sheath (fibula, v. 1), supposedly to control his penis and to protect his voice (v. 4), even though we understand from the outcome of the epigram that his real intention was to hide his penis. Secondly, Martial insists on the impressive dimensions of Menophilus’s sex organ through the size of his sheath (v. 1-2). Thirdly, Martial ends by revealing that Menophilus’s sex organ is verpus (v. 6). This term has been understood by most scholars as “circumcised.” However, the adjective verpus is ambiguous, as it technically means “with the glans of the penis exposed,” which could be because of erection or because of circumcision (Cohen, The Beginnings, p. 41). Thus, instead of the classical reading which consisted of seeing Menophilus as a Jew who wanted to hide his circumcised sex organ, Shaye Cohen proposes another reading of the text: Menophilus’s fibula may have slipped off because he had an enormous erection. This reading would mean that, instead of being polemical against the Jews, the epigram becomes a coarse homoerotic joke (Cohen, The Beginnings, p. 358-359; it has to be noted that Martial uses verpus to refer to an erect penis in epigram XI.46). Shaye Cohen’s argumentation is justified, but in favour of the classical reading, it has to be noted that Jews are commonly presented in Martial’s epigrams through their sexual organs, in particular through the fact that they are circumcised. To describe this physical particularity, the poet uses the words recutitus (VII.30) and verpus (XI.94). The second argument is that Martial commonly characterised the Jews as well-endowed (see Epigrams VII.35, and VII.55). The fact that Menophilus’s sex organ presents these two characteristics means that the classical reading, considering that he is a Jew hiding his origin, remains valid.
Moreover, considering the fact that Martial has voluntarily associated the ambiguous term verpus with the sexuality of the Jews, Pierre Cordier argues that it could show that Martial may not have despised circumcision because it was a sexual mutilation. For him and for many Romans of his time, the pulling back of the foreskin of the Jews may have become a humorous and provocative motif because their sex organs were associated with some kind of priapism and unrestrained sexuality totally opposed to the self-control which characterized the Roman citizen with good morals. Such an idea is explicitly expressed in epigram VII.55 when Martial writes that his proba et pusilla mentula, “honest and petty cock” is totally different from that of a Jew (see Cordier, “Les Romains,” p. 349).
Understanding the adjective verpus in this epigram as a reference to circumcision, Guillermo Galán Vioque assumes that Menophilus was concealing the fact that he was a Jew to avoid paying the annual tax of two drachma per person which was previously offered by the Jews to the Jerusalem Temple, and which, after the defeat of 70 CE, continued to be received by Rome and was assigned to a fund, the fiscus Iudaicus (Galán Vioque, Martial, p. 451; the Jewish tax is explicitly mentioned in Martial, Epigrams VII.55). To assert his hypothesis, Guillermo Galán Vioque quotes a passage of Suetonius, Life of Domitian XII, when Suetonius writes that under Domitian, the fiscus Iudaicus was administrated in a stricter way (acerbissime), and that both the Jews “who were living a Jewish life without publicly acknowledging it” (inprofessi Iudaicam viverent vitam) and those who were “concealing their origins” (dissimulata origine) were now forced to pay the Jewish tax. Domitian’s hostility towards the Jews, especially the rigorous nature of his fiscal policy towards them – not attested by Martial (Cappelletti, The Jewish, p. 129) – has been put into perspective by various scholars arguing that Suetonius might have been excessively critical of Domitian (for a survey of the bibliography and counter-arguments, see Williams, Jews, p. 102-105). Despite our reliance on Suetonius’s point of view, there might have been a real intensification of the sanctions against evaders of the Jewish tax under Domitian. The identity of these evaders, only mentioned by Suetonius, has been much discussed.
Firstly, for some scholars, the Jews “who were living a Jewish life without publicly acknowledging it” would be not native Jews, but converts to Judaism (or “Judaizers”) and sympathizers (see Schäfer, Judeophobia, p. 113-116; Cohen, The Beginnings, p. 42). Following Lloyd Thompson, Martin Goodman identifies Suetonius’s first category of Jews in a different way, as he considers that they were “native Jews who lived a Jewish life secretly,” that is Jews who were not declared as members of the Jewish community. Following Martin Goodman’s interpretation these Jews would be different from Suetonius’s second category of Jews “concealing their origins,” who are identified as “native Jews who practiced openly but hoped to avoid the tax by denying their origins” (Goodman, “The Fiscus Iudaicus,” p. 169; Goodman, “Nerva,” p. 41; Thompson, “Domitian”). For the scholars considering that Suetonius’s first category of Jews refers to Judaizers or sympathizers, the Jews “denying their origins” would be “native Jews who did not lead a Jewish life” (see Cohen, The Beginnings, p. 42; Schäfer, Judeophobia, p. 114).
If we consider that Martial means that Menophilus was circumcised, his status of comic actor or singer and his use of the fibula to hide his sex organ can be considered as evidence that he may be representative of the Jews well assimilated into Roman society who wanted to hide their Jewish origin. Even though Menophilus’s story has been written from a satirical and erotic perspective, Martial’s choice of subject may prove that “the deliberate concealment of circumcision was in all likelihood a feature of the time” (Williams, Jews, p. 102), especially if after Domitian’s reform the public examination of genital organs by some officials was allowed to determine if a person was hiding that he was a native Jew (as seems to be the case in Suetonius, Life of Domitian XII). If verpus refers to circumcision, Menophilus would thus be the perfect archetype of the “apostate” Jews who were fully integrated into Roman society, and who wanted to hide the last thing which connected them with their Jewish origins. Menophilus may have opted for the fibula, while others chose the epispasm, that is, the operation which consisted of stretching the foreskin so that it could look like an uncircumcised sex organ (Cohen, The Beginnings, p. 39-40).