Sulpicia Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman poet{$I[g]Roman Empire;Sulpicia} Sulpicia wrote at least six brief but well-crafted elegies, the only substantial body of poetry written by a Roman woman that has survived.

Early Life

Sulpicia (suhl-PIH-shuh) was a descendant of the most aristocratic of Roman families. In one of her poems, she proudly identifies her father as Servius (Servius Sulpicius Rufus), who, critics now agree, was the son of the distinguished jurist of the same name. Sulpicia’s grandfather was a close friend of Cicero, the Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher. In 50 b.c.e., Cicero approached the elder Servius Sulpicius, praising his friend’s son for his good character and his intellectual gifts and proposing that the son become the third husband of Cicero’s daughter Valeria. It is assumed that Sulpicia was born of that union.

Sulpicia’s father was a highly educated man, a polished orator, and a poet. Evidently he died young, and his wife chose not to remarry. Valeria’s brother, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, who, like his father, was a prominent statesman and orator, may well have been named his niece’s guardian. At any rate, Sulpicia’s uncle Messalla obviously played an important role in her life during her early years, and the second of her elegies shows that their close relationship continued after she became an adult.

As an upper-class girl growing up in the first century b.c.e., Sulpicia would probably have been educated by private tutors. Although her sex would have precluded her being trained in oratory, her education would not otherwise have been much different from that of a boy, in that it was liberal in nature, stressing fluency in both Greek and Latin as well as knowledge of the literatures in both languages. Sulpicia would have been free to make use of the family library. Moreover, because both her father and her uncle Messalla wrote poetry, she may have learned from her association with them.

Life’s Work

There is no way to know at what age Sulpicia began writing poetry, but it is obvious from her surviving elegies that at the time they were written she was a young woman and almost certainly unmarried. The fact that her poems survived is due to her belonging to a literary coterie, a group of friends who reviewed one another’s works before they were “published” (meaning circulated from hand to hand, made available for sale in bookshops, and placed in public libraries).

Sulpicia is the only Roman woman who is known to have been a member of such a coterie. She owed this distinction to Messalla, who was one of Rome’s most important literary patrons. Recognizing Sulpicia’s poetic talent, he undoubtedly encouraged her to write, made suggestions about her work, and helped her to publish, just as he did for other young poets in his coterie, including Ovid and Tibullus, who became one of the most famous poets of his time but who, ironically, is now remembered primarily because of his connection with Sulpicia. It is in the collection bearing his name, the Corpus Tibullianum, which contains works not only by Tibullus but also by several other poets, that Sulpicia’s poems appear.

In keeping with the long-standing notion that modest women keep their feelings to themselves, for centuries it was assumed that Sulpicia’s poems were meant merely to be read by the persons addressed and that she would never have permitted them to be published during her lifetime. However, as scholar Matthew Santirocco and others point out, if the poem now usually printed first is read as an introduction to the elegies, one must note that in it Sulpicia rejects the idea of secrecy. In fact, she explicitly states her intention of making her feelings about her lover known to the world. Moreover, in this poem she credits the Muses for persuading Venus to send her a worthy lover. This makes it clear that Sulpicia did not merely dabble in poetry. She was a devotee of the Muses, a conscious artist, whose seemingly simple poems are in reality as carefully crafted as those of her contemporary, the poet Catullus, to whom Sulpicia is often compared.

The six poems whose authorship is not in question relate a brief history of a love affair. In the introductory poem, Sulpicia emphasizes her joy that at last she has found a man worthy of her love. Not until the second poem does she give his name, and even then she uses the pseudonym “Cerinthus.” This is significant, for by admitting her identity while shielding that of the lover, Sulpicia is reversing the traditional pattern of love poetry. In this case, it is the woman who glories in the relationship, while the object of her love is not identified....

(The entire section is 1938 words.)