Arts / Classical/ Ancient

“Keep your whore with her wool baskets!”: Sulpicia answers back

By Susannah Darby

Roman elegy was a very one-sided conversation. Male poets would write to women, both in praise, and in criticism, of them. Although they demanded that their girlfriends be “doctae puellae”, educated girls, and although Sappho was celebrated as the Ninth Muse, we rarely hear the other side of the story. Many, if not all, were written to amuse male friends rather than seduce a woman, and can tip over into misogyny, “Hic mihi servitium video dominamque paratam” (Tibullus 2.4.1, here I see my servitude and my fated mistress). A lone female voice survives: Sulpicia.

Slotted into a manuscript containing works by the male elegist Tibullus are six poems, apparently written by the female poet Sulpicia. These poems reveal a startlingly original poet, with a refreshing disregard for the strictures Roman society placed upon women. The compositions may be short, but this lends an incredible emotional intensity, a quality lacking from the longer works of her male contemporaries. The six poems form a cycle, chronicling a love affair from its first delicious realisation, through tests of separation and infidelity, until Sulpicia’s very life depends on her love, and her love on its poetic expression.

Sulpicia is the antithesis of the dutiful Roman daughter. She spurns traditional morality, concluding her first poem, “peccasse iuvat, vultus componere famae/taedet: cum digno digna fuisse ferar” (1.8-9, It pleases me to sin, it bores me to compose my face for the public eye: may I be reported to be a worthy woman with a worthy man). She believes posterity will hold her in equal regard with male contemporaries, a sentiment which has shocked centuries of commentators.

Sulpicia still hopes for a good reputation: elegists had developed their own alternative moral code. Lovers were expected to be loyal and consistent, to prioritise love above all. In this, Sulpicia is scrupulously moral, claiming that her only regret is that she once left her boyfriend alone, “ardorem cupiens dissimulare meum” (6.6, wanting to imagine away my passion). The poems value emotional honesty, and are intended as educational paradigms, instructing on how to love; it matters little whether they chronicle a real love affair.

This new morality is a key part of Sulpicia’s creative identity. In her fourth poem, where she rages at her disloyal boyfriend, “Sit tibi cura togae potior pressumque quasillo/ scortum quam Servi filia Sulpicia” (4.3-4, May you care more for your toga and your whore with her wool baskets who you slept with more than Servius’ daughter Sulpicia). What does she mean, “Care for your toga”? The colour and width of the stripe on a man’s toga marked his social status, so she rebukes him for prioritising reputation over love: in elegy, love was the only career choice. Propertius claims, “Non ego sum laudi, non natus idoneus armis: hanc me militiam fata subire volunt” (1.VI. 29-30, I was not born suitable for praise or soldiery, this [love] is the military service that fate wants me to endure).

A “toga” was also a derogatory term for a prostitute who wore men’s clothing. Sulpicia does not dignify her boyfriend’s fling with the terminology of romantic love. The image of the “pressumque quasillo scortum” is paradoxical: the woman sitting at home, working with wool, was often held up as a moral paragon, the opposite of the whore. We can imagine the situation: Sulpicia’s boyfriend, concerned for his political career, has dumped her and sought a respectable wife. With rhetorical skill and poetic daring, Sulpicia persuades us that her boyfriend’s “commendable” ambition is no more than sleeping around.

Sulpicia rejects traditional morality because it is dull and runs counter to elegy’s morality. In her first poem, Sulpicia boldly insists that writing poetry, and her involvement in a sexual relationship, causes her to disdain all conventions prescribed for women: “Tandem advenit amor, qualem texisse pudori/ quam nudasse alicui sit mihi fama magis” (1.1-2, At last Love has arrived, of a sort which my reputation would shame me more to veil than to lay bare). Sulpicia uses the language of sex to write about writing poetry. Her relationship is her poetry: her verse, not her boyfriend’s, won round Venus, who obligingly dropped a lover into Sulpicia’s lap. Now, to keep her lover, she must write about her love: “Mea gaudia narret, dicetur siquis non habuisse sua” (1.6-7, Let her tell my joys, let anyone who does not have their own be told). Sulpicia’s love is created and sustained by poetry.

Sulpicia plays with elegy’s commonplace devices. Unlike other Augustan poets, who considered the countryside a peaceful retreat from city corruption, she dismisses it as boring. She even describes herself as “abducta,” (2.6, kidnapped). As others had pointed out, how can there be any joy when her beloved is not with her? When he ignores her, she tries to provoke a response by reporting her illness, a common trope. Sulpicia wonders—in mercantile language—how she might “profit” from her illness. First she claims she would not survive unless her boyfriend wished it, then she claims there’s no point surviving if he doesn’t care. The poem implies that illness is such an overused trope, even true illness fails to have any emotional effect. Her creative identity will not be restricted by the expectations of poetry any more than those of traditional morality.

The poems attributed to Sulpicia are the earliest Latin poems to be attributed to a woman. They form a tightly crafted cycle, the sixth poem picking up the original theme of love’s loyalty. Thus, a complete relationship is described through six intense moments. Sulpicia’s self discovery as a poet parallels her self discovery as a lover. By attempting to play a man’s game in literature and love, she willingly casts off the shackles of a woman’s duty, in favour of fidelity to love and poetic reputation. Sulpicia’s poems show that neither gender roles, nor the assumptions and commonplaces of elegiac poetry, were binding codes. It seems that only she had the gall, the heart, to question them.

References:
Text and commentary of the poems available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/, edited by A. Mahoney (2000)
The Poems of Sulpicia, Translated by J Heath Stubbs (Hearing Eye, 2000)
Reading Sulpicia: Commentaries 1475-1990., M. Skoie, (Oxford University Press, 2002.)
Sulpicia digna PD Habel, (http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Classics/bcj/07-06.html)
Sulpicia Reconsidered, M Santoricco, Classical Journal 74, 1979, pp 229-39.

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