Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sulpicia I

I suppose that I should explain my choice of name Sulpicia (III). I just finished a long and hard-fought paper on a late Republican Latin love elegist named Sulpicia, whom I find fantastic. She is often known as Sulpicia (I), because of a later satyrist named Sulpicia (II) (1). Sulpicia is the only surviving female poet from Republican Rome. She wrote a cycle of six poems (2).

The poems are incredibly beautiful. They are written in a first person confessional style, using simple, pedestrian vocabulary and complex sentence structure. Looking deeper, the poems reveal an incredible cognizance of the changing political, social, class structures surrounding her at the end of Republic. For the poems, see the Perseus Project.

Most of the Roman love elegists, as well as the Hellenistic elegists on whom they based their poetry chose to used mythological names to refer to the lover (or lovers in the case of the Hellenistic poets or Tibullus) about whom they wrote. For the Roman poets, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid, these lovers are described with vague and contradictory details. This causes recent scholars to believe the names do not refer to real or single individuals, but that the names were rather a technique to hold the poetry together (3).

Unlike the other Roman love elegists, Sulpicia made her expression of lover-as-a-theme much more literal. The name Cerinthus itself comes from the Greek word that means “bee bread,” that which the bees feed to their young, but it has a natural connection to wax (4). This reinforces the servile connection in two ways, according to David Roessel in his essay "The Significance of the Name Cerinthus in the Poems of Sulpicia": "the evocation of wax in Cerinthus and the possible use of the name for servants (5) compliment each other nicely. For wax was the poets servant both in the process of creation and in the dissemination of her words" (6). This name, then, displays Sulpicia's tendency to imbue every aspect of her work with a piece of herself, in this case, making Cerinthus literally as well as figuratively the medium for her work.

Sulpicia's work discusses many themes with which I identify: love, reputation, gossip, familial obligation, the work of writing, and differences in class between self and lover, and self-presentation. Not being a Roman Citizen in the late Republic, I obviously have a different experience of these themes than does Sulpicia-- especially since the main difference in class between my own Cerinthus and I is intelligence or intellectual class rather than socioeconomic status. However, there is a timelessness to her work which I admire and my goal is to use her example and character names to discuss the modern themes of my own ever-changing surroundings.

  1. Yes, I know that I should not cite Wikipedia. However, I didn't know anything about Sulpicia (II) until I looked up Sulpicia (I) on Wikipedia and was not inclined to look further.
  2. There are five poems that precede these six poems in Book 3 of Tibullus, know as the amicus Sulpicae, but these can be ruled out as Sulpicia's own work because of the vast discrepancy in style. (For this claim, see: pp. 268-9 Kristina Milnor's "Sulpicia's (Corpo) Reality: Elegy, Authorship, and the Body in [Tibullus] 3.13" in Classical Antiquity vol. 21, no. 2, 2002).
  3. See Veyne, Paul. Roman Erotic Elegy. Trans. D. Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988 and Miller, Paul Allen. Subjecting Verses. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004 among others.
  4. Roessel, David. "The Significance Name Cerinthus in the Poems of Sulpicia," Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 120. Johns Hopkins University Press (1990). 243.
  5. Roessel 244.
  6. Roessel 245.

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