Context for Sulpicia
Sulpicia is the only female poet from Ancient Rome whose work still survives today. Her six love elegies were published with the work of Albius Tibullus in his Tibullian Corpus. Sulpicia’s poems have received critical attention from many scholars within the last five centuries as the poem’s authorship and literary credibility are often contested. Sulpicia’s birth year is thought to have been around 40 BCE. Sulpicia’s contemporaries included Horace, Ovid and Virgil, three of the many Latin male poets that flourished during the Augustan period, largely considered to be the Golden Age of Latin poetry.
Sulpicia’s father Servius Sulpicius Rufus and mother Valeria were well-off citizens with strong connections to Emperor Augustus as Valeria’s brother served as his commander. While women are not believed to have had a major role in the literary work of the time, Sulpicia’s aristocratic upbringing legitimizes the claim that she was well-educated. Her poems express an understanding of the Latin elegiac form that was mastered by her contemporaries, all of whom seem to have influenced the younger poet. Many scholars do not believe that a woman of this era could have written these elegies. Her authorship is now accepted by most scholars in this field, however, her work is often denigrated and criticized as artless and unimpressive by many who attribute the survival and interest of her work to her gender.
Rather than focus on the unique insight Sulpicia’s poetry offers into our understanding of female identity in this time, some academics work oppresses the only surviving female voice from Ancient Rome.
Like many other texts from Classical antiquity, Sulpicia’s poetry survives through the manuscript tradition. Her work within Tibullian Corpus was reprinted many times since its creation. We do not have any fragments of Sulpicia’s poetry from the archaeological record and it is not entirely clear which material she would have used for her writings. Wax tablets and papyrus were both common materials used for writing at this time, however, Sulpicia reveals her preference for using papyrus in her poetry.
Although no physical material from her original work survives, we can use Sulpicia’s words as a source to not only learn about the material, but to also learn of her identity in Ancient Roman society. We are fortunate that Sulpicia included information about her family relations within her poems as well. Modern scholars have been able to confirm her close connections to Caesar Augustus and ensure the probability of her being well-educated. This connection supports the now widespread belief that Sulpicia was intellectually capable of writing these poems.
While Sulpicia is still fighting for her voice in Ancient Roman history, Tibullus’ reputation helped preserve her identity.
Sulpicia’s six elegies offer a unique perspective into female identity in the Augustan period. Her poems provide us with our only understanding of a female’s life in this time through the eyes of an actual female. She offers an organic perspective on her sexuality and love life with Cerinthus, a probable pseudonym given as a vehicle to describe her affection for her desired partner. Her poems, raw with emotion, reflect an awareness of her social situation as a high-class woman. While the expressive and unique descriptions of her emotion offer artistic value to the poems, Sulpicia’s writing shows technical abilities at more profound level. Sulpicia’s poems are often looked at as a metaphor for the female body, where readers experience the femininity first hand upon reading her poems, rather than the physical descriptions of female bodies offered by her male counterparts. This perspective helped solidify the now widespread belief that her poems were, in fact, written by the female known as Sulpicia as the content was inherently different than that written by her male contemporaries. While her work is beginning to be praised for artistic merit, the most important quality of the poem’s content is what it tells us about a woman’s life at this time.
Centuries of Scholarship
Early scholarship on Albius Tibullus’ Appendix Tibulliana did not believe that Sulpicia’s elegies were truly written by a woman, rather that Tibullus was writing through the voice of a woman. This is reflected by 16th-century scholar Joseph Scaliger, writing in 1577. When explaining-away Sulpicia’s credit as the author of the elegies, Scaliger, like many others, expressed belief that Tibullus was impersonating an aristocratic woman named Sulpicia to produce an original perspective on the female sexuality. He even calls Sulpicia Tibullus’ “female mouthpiece”(as cited in Skoie, 2002, p. 109). While this wording seems highly misogynistic and provocative for debate, it received little backlash until centuries later. The 17th-century scholars paid little attention to Sulpicia’s work compared to the following centuries where the study of authorship and the value of Sulpicia’s poetry became more popular.
Sulpicia’s six elegies provoked more discussion in the 1700’s but most scholars still held that it would have been impossible for an Ancient Roman woman to compose these poems. However, Christian Gottlob Heyne, a German scholar and archeologist, became fascinated with the six poems and, in 1777, he became the first scholar to suggest that they were in fact written by a girl named Sulpicia. He attributes this to the undeniable and unique femininity of the work that he believed would be hard to replicate. Heyne’s belief is now widespread among most scholars Although Heyne’s realization inspired a closer look into the possibility of female authorship, this was continuously debated. Regardless, Heyne’s contribution in 1777 helped push forward the slow turning wheel of Sulpicia’s respect among modern scholars.
In 1838, Otto Gruppe sparked conversation over the feelings portrayed in Sulpicia’s work. Like Heyne, Gruppe accepted that the love elegies were written by the Augustan female Sulpicia. The two were also similar in their fascination with how these poems showed us of her identity, a possible reflection of many women of the same class at the time. However, neither of these scholars identified these poems as deep or impressive works of art. They, like most of their male dominated scholarly field, would have agreed with the widespread notion that these poems were only preserved because Sulpicia’s elegies were within the book of a male poet. Gruppe is quoted in Skoie’s Reading Sulpicia: Commentaries 1475-1990 as calling her poetry “amateur” and “artless” (as cited in Skoie, 2002, p. 197). This is disputed in later years. While Gruppe might not have valued the artistic merit of Sulpicia’s poetry, his studies spurred a closer look on the actual content of her work.
By the 20th century, Sulpicia’s authorship of the six elegies was accepted by most scholars in this field. However, up until the last two decades of the century, 20th-century scholarship revealed the common consensus that Sulpicia’s poetry was not valued for its artistic qualities. This was blankly stated in the commentaries of reprinted copies of the Appendix Tibullus. This was evident as late as 1966 where a prefatory note claimed that Sulpicia’s poetry was not an artistic creation. The author then went on to suggest that he “liked to believe that Tibullus helped Sulpicia to write poetry, that he was her confidant” (Creekmore, 1966, p. 106). This is quite an oppressive assumption for a prefatory note to make about the work, yet, it reflects a common theme in the 20th-century scholarship on Sulpicia. While it was now widespread belief that a female wrote this Golden Age Latin poetry, it was common for her to be denigrated for her work.
There has been a recent upsurge in interest on this subject and scholars finally recognize Sulpicia’s poetic talents. Upon arriving at the conclusion that Sulpicia’s work is, in fact, artistically impressive, modern scholars say there lacked an in-depth look at the literary devices that the poet used. Recent studies on the artistic value of Sulpicia’s poems include a closer study of these devices, including multi-layered literary allusions which exists in Sulpicia’s work. Since the late 20th century, scholars in this field tend to agree with the widespread belief that Sulpicia’s love elegies in Appendix Tibullus were written by a real female citizen named Sulpicia in the time and that the work deserves artistic merit. Thomas Hubbar, Tom Habinek and Niklas Holzberg are three examples of 21st-century scholars who still do not think Sulpicia truly wrote the love elegies and support their position with “a lack of a female literary culture in Ancient Rome” (as cited in Keith, 2006, p. 6). These three academics are professors, teaching in this field. Their opinions are most likely heavily based on their objective and scholarly understanding of Ancient Roman culture. While they oppose widespread belief that a woman did, in fact, write these poems, these disagreements occur quite often in every field. The real issue is one of oppression that began hundreds of years ago. Early male scholars were superimposing patriarchal beliefs, denying any possibility that a woman could have in fact written these poems and when they did, they worked to criticize the value of her work.
Watch Gail Trimble discuss the complexities of the Latin Love Elegy:
The Value of Sulpicia
Upon beginning my research on this subject, I noticed a lot of scholarship devoted to the denigration of Sulpicia’s poetry. The fact that this notion has recently changed is satisfying, however, it seems that a lot of effort was taken by male scholars to suppress this isolated female voice by criticizing its artistic value.
It seems like a wiser use of energy would have been to explore what Sulpicia’s work said about women in Ancient Rome, rather than making sure others did not find Sulpicia’s literary work as impressive as her male contemporaries.
When reading Sulpicia’s six poems, one might notice a clear difference from her work and the work of other Augustan Latin poets that flourished during this Golden Age, however, it is this difference that enhances our modern understanding of women in ancient Rome. This different voice and aspect that some scholars wrote off as a “female–mouthpiece”, gives us further insight into the lifestyle and emotion of this high–class ancient Roman woman. We are given a legitimate source of one woman’s experiences with female sexuality, anger and relationships between parents and children as well as the relationship between two lovers.
While it would be irresponsible to accept Sulpicia’s words as reflective of all Ancient Roman women, it is hard to imagine why early male scholars were so reluctant to accept her voice at all.
Sulpicia’s six poems are short and although they give us a limited access into the average Ancient Roman female’s mindset, they certainly offer insight that can’t be replicated by the ancient Roman male writers who are often trusted with third-person descriptions of these silent women.
Sulpicia’s six love elegies offer us a unique perception into one woman’s experience in the Ancient Roman world. As the only surviving female Roman poet, Sulpicia’s work offers us insight into the lifestyle, sexuality and relationships of a high–class woman of the Augustan era. This perspective cannot be replaced by the literary work of her male contemporaries who use an outside perspective to describe women of this time. Sulpicia wrote during the Golden Age of Latin poetry and contributed her unique and emotional artistic elegies to a literary world dominated by men. Unfortunately, some remain unconvinced of the authorship and credibility of Sulpicia over two millenniums later, this topic continues to provoke much debate amongst scholars of the Classical field. Initially regarded as simply a “female – mouthpiece”, Sulpicia has gradually earned the credit that was due for her enlightening contribution to the study of this era.
- Brill, E. J. (1938) Lygdamus: Corpus Tibullianum III. 1-6: Lygdami Elegiarum Liber. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishers. Retrieved from: /books.google.ca/books?id=ZKGO1swPh84C&pg=PR2&source=gbs_selected pages&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Creekmore, H. (1966) The erotic elegies of Albius Tibullus. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
- Keith, A. (2006) Critical trends in interpreting Sulpicia. The Classical World, 100(1), pp. 3-10, doi: 10.2307/25433969.
- Merriam, C. U. (2006) Sulpicia: Just another roman poet. The Classical World, 100(1), pp. 11-15, doi: 10.2307/25433970
- Milnor, K. (2002) Sulpicia’s (Corpo)reality: Elegy, authorship, and the body in [Tibullus] 3.13. Classical Antiquity, 22(2), pp. 259-282, doi:10.1525/ca.2002.21.2.259
- Plant, I. M. (2004) Women writers in ancient Greece and Rome: An anthology. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press
- Salisbury, J. E. (2001) Sulpicia. Encyclopedia of women in the ancient world (pp. 335-337) Oxford, England: ABC-CLIO.
- Skoie, M. (2002) Reading Sulpicia: Commentaries 1475 – 1990. Oxford: University of Oxford Press