Sulpicia Biography

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Biography

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Life

Sulpicia (sewl-PIH-shee-ah) was the daughter of Servius Sulpicius Rufus and (probably) Valeria, the sister of her guardian, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, the patron of the poet Albius Tibullus. Her six surviving elegiac poems are contained in the third book of the Corpus Tibullianum (n.d.; English translation, 1913), adjoined to the works of other writers of the circle of Messalla: the Panegyricus Messallae, six elegies by Lygdamus, and a collection of five poems on Sulpicia’s love affair, probably by Tibullus.

Sulpicia’s poems track the progress of her relationship with a young Roman nobleman she calls Cerinthus. Although her poems display a refreshing simplicity and naîveté (especially when compared with the labored and laborious Tibullus), there is a sense that the collection is too well organized. She traces too perfectly the course of the relationship—introduction, conflict, sickness—following the conventions established by Tibullus, Ovid, and Sextus Propertius. To her credit, however, the poems reflect genuine feelings and mercifully lack the extended mythological allusions that ultimately mar the works of Rome’s great elegists. Nothing is known of the eventual fate of Sulpicia or of the true identity of Cerinthus.

Further Reading:

Flaschenriem, Barbara L. “Sulpicia and the Rhetoric of Disclosure.” Classical Philology 94 (January, 1999): 36-54. The author uses detailed textual analysis to support her belief that Sulpicia was a woman in conflict with herself. Though the poet expresses her thoughts and feelings honestly, she makes herself somewhat less vulnerable through the skillful use of conventional literary techniques. A thoughtful study.

Hallett, Judith P., and Marilyn B. Skinner, eds. Roman Sexualities. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. A collection of essays in which feminist critical tools are used to explore the hierarchy of power in ancient Rome. It is pointed out that women writers like Sulpicia, who inverted the traditional gender roles of males as the pursuers and females as the pursued, were viewed as posing a threat to traditional power structures.

Heath-Stubbs, John. Preface to The Poems of Sulpicia, translated by John Heath-Stubbs. London: Hearing Eye, 2000. This volume contains a translation of Sulpicia’s poems by a highly respected English scholar. In his prefatory comments, Heath-Stubbs points out how much more favorably scholars now look on Sulpicia than they did in the past. He also deals with the issue of the two poems tentatively attributed to her and with the question of the Sulpicia mentioned by Martial.

Hemelrijk, Emily A. Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Élite from Cornelia to Julia Domna. New York: Routledge, 1999. Two chapters in this invaluable volume describe the education of upper-class women, thus providing a sound basis for conjectures about Sulpicia’s early life and education. Other especially useful sections of the book explore the attitudes of Sulpicia’s society toward women’s sexual behavior and their artistic endeavors. The chapter titled “Women and Writing: Poetry” contains a lengthy discussion of Sulpicia’s life and her work. Includes notes, bibliography, and indexes.

Parker, Holt N. “Sulpicia, the Auctor de Sulpicia, and the Authorship of 3.9 and 3.11 of the Corpus Tibullianum.” Helios 21 (1994): 39-62. Argues that two additional poems in Tibellius’s collection, traditionally included in a group by an unnamed writer, were in fact written by Sulpicia. Though controversial, this theory deserves consideration, for the poems have significant biographical content.

Santirocco, Matthew. “Sulpicia Reconsidered.” Classical Journal 74 (1979): 229-239. The author refutes the long-standing assessment of Sulpicia as merely an emotional amateur, thus setting the stage for serious study of her poetry as the work of a conscious artist.

Skoie, Mathilde. Reading Sulpicia: Commentaries 1475-1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Selections show how the attitudes toward Sulpicia and her works have altered over time. An appendix includes her six poems in Latin and in translation. Two bibliographies, one organized chronologically and the other alphabetically. Includes index.

Snyder, Jane McIntosh. The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. Explains the biographical references in Sulpicia’s poems and notes how her work fits into the established elegaic tradition. Includes map, bibliographies, and index.