Glimpses of Love: The Two Sulpicias and the Private Lives of Roman Women 

He who shall weigh well her poems will say no maid was so roguish, will say no maid was so modest.” (Martial, Epigrams, 10.35, 11-12)

We’ve spent a fair amount of time (some, I’m sure, would argue too much) talking about Roman poets and their work. But at end of the day, the poets, indeed all of the ancient writers except for Sappho, we’ve discussed are men. Women writers in antiquity are as rare as hen’s teeth in the historical record for many of the reasons we’ve also touched on: female literacy wasn’t a priority in many ancient cultures; as a result, women’s literature was traditionally oral and not preserved to us; writing and publishing were public occupations denied to women of the rank most likely to be literate, etc.

However, this lack of historiography doesn’t and has never meant that women weren’t writing, and this is true of women in Rome as much as other women across the ancient world. Though denied the careers in literature enjoyed by men of their class, affluent, literate Roman women were, despite a whole lot of male grumbling about it, granted a greater presence in the public sphere than similarly-situated women in, say, Greece. Able to interact with men socially, this afforded them unique opportunities to place their work before mixed company, which was really the only way to ensure its survival beyond their lifetimes. And yet even with this slight edge, the remains of any literature by a Roman woman from pre-Christian antiquity remains shockingly low. We have poetry from only two women: both named Sulpicia, both living in 1st century AD, and both managing to crawl their way down to us only because a little of their poetry got smuggled into a man’s work for posterity.

For the first Sulpicia, we have six short poems, plus two more written by her male peers about her lover; and for the second, a mere two lines of iambic trimeter and a doubtfully-attributed hexameter poem of seventy lines. But if we restrict ourselves to the six poems of the first Sulpicia and the couplet from the second, we get a surprisingly holistic, surprisingly intimate portrait of Roman womanhood, at least in the leisured, patrician class. It also gives us a very manageable corpus to cover in its entirety within a single blog entry—so let’s dive in!

The first Sulpicia (born c. 40 BC) we’ve already mentioned in passing in my entry about Augustan poetry, but let me try to flesh out the bare-bones biographical details we have about her. She came from the highly influential Sulpicii, an ancient Roman gens which first held the consulship less than a decade after the end of the monarchy in 491 BC. It is believed her grandfather was the respected late Republic jurist Servius Sulpicius Rufus (c. 105–43 BC), and her father was his son of the same name by his wife, Postumia. The elder Rufus was a friend of Cicero’s and an ally of Pompey’s (which solidifies the Sulpicii’s vaunted status in society as optimates), but Sulpicia’s father was an ally of Caesar’s and Suetonius claims her grandmother Postumia was one of Julius’ numerous mistresses in Rome. The rumor is what makes Postumia also gets the dubious honor of immortalization in one of Catallus’ bitchy polymetrics, where he calls her the “wine-mistress more addicted to drink than a drunken grape” (Catallus 27). 

Sulpicia’s mother is believed to be from the Valerii gens, another equally ancient clan that held positions of authority from the monarchical Tarquin period all the way through to the end of the Empire. We have deduced this because we know through her poetry that Sulpicia was the niece of Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, the other great Augustan art patron besides Gaius Maecenas. It has been thought given her apparent familiarity with her uncle and his circle of poets (including Tibullus, Horace, and Ovid) that Corvinus was likely Sulpicia’s paterfamilias by her teens and that she lived with him in his opulent Palatine Hill villa that had once belonged to Mark Antony.

As for Sulpicia herself, we only know what she tells us in her poems, which are the remnants of what appears to be her first love with a young man named Cerinthus (almost certainly a pseudonym). Much scholarly ink has been spilled trying to figure out who Cerinthus might have been, with some scholars pointing to Caecilius Cornutus, an aristocrat who would have been in Sulpicia’s orbit at her uncle’s salon. But this identification mainly comes from his mention in several of Tibullus’ poems and may be a holdover from the period when Sulpicia’s poems were also thought to be written by Tibullus, plus a tenuous Greek/Latin etymology of Cerinthus’ name and nom de plume (the Greek and Latin words for “horn”—keras and cornu—making similar constant sounds in Cerinthus). But I think the obvious origin of Cerinthus’ name is staring us right in the face in Sulpicia’s first poem, where the poet has received some confirmation of mutual esteem from her beloved:

Love has come at last, and such a love as I
   should be more shamed to hide than to reveal.
Cytherea, yielding to my Muse’s prayers,
   has brought him here and laid him in my arms.
Venus has kept her promise.  Let people talk, who never
   themselves have found such joys as now are mine.
I wish that I could send my tablets to my love
   unsealed, not caring who might read them first.
The sin is sweet, to mask it for fear of shame is bitter.
   I’m proud we’ve joined, each worthy of the other.

Here Sulpicia first addresses the goddess Venus by one of her most well-known epithets, Cytherea (“Lady of Cythera”), the name of the island off the coast of which the goddess supposedly first rose out of the sea. “Cerinthus” is pretty clearly a male Latinization of Cytherea—basically “Man of Cythera.” Sulpicia gives her lover this name to compare his beauty and his love to that of Venus herself, or to emphasize what she says in lines 3-5: that he is a gift from the goddess to her. 

My hateful birthday’s come, which must be spent in gloom
   in the boring countryside—without Cerinthus!
What’s nicer than the city?  What girl would want some cabin,
   and the chilly river of Aretium’s fields?
Now do stay put, Messalla; you try too hard to please me:
   trips, my uncle, are not always welcome.
My heart and soul will stay behind, although I’m gone,
   since you won’t let me act as I would wish.

Guess what?—that gloomy trip is off your girl’s mind.
   We’re going to spend my birthday now in Rome!
Now all of us can celebrate that birthday here,
   a piece of unexpected luck for you!

From Poem #2 we get the first biographical information about the poet herself and first call Cerinthus by his pseudonym. Sulpicia is dreading her birthday because her well-meaning uncle Corvinus (the “Messalla” of line 5, using one of his other cognomens) is planning to take her to his country villa in Aretium as a treat to celebrate, but leaving Rome means being away from Cerinthus. She’s clearly threatened to refuse to go, but the last line suggests Cerinthus has talked her out of it, probably because despite her earlier disdain for secrecy in Poem #1, this is likely a clandestine relationship. The short sequel to this episode continues in Poem #3, where for one reason or another the trip has been called off and she will have a party in Rome instead that she is confident Cerinthus will be invited to. This suggests that the Aretium party would have been a family-only affair, while in Rome, Corvinus’ house was basically always open to his clients, poets, and friends, of whom Cerinthus must have numbered.

I’m glad you take me for granted enough to show me now
   what kind of man I almost let possess me.
Go chasing after hookers and spinning-girls and whores:
   forget Sulpicia, daughter of Servius.
But I have friends who care, and who will spare no pains
   to see that no cheap tart humiliates me.

Ah, Poem #4 is the first fight between Sulpicia and Cerinthus, where the poet is clearly feeling emotionally or physically neglected by her beloved. Most of the commentary on Poem #1 interprets its emphasis on shame to mean that Sulpicia and Cerinthus’ relationship had become overtly sexual, but either Sulpicia had pulled back from that, or had perhaps engaged in sexual activity short of intercourse that would have still been verboten to a girl of her class. Either way, she seems convinced that Cerinthus is getting his jollies with someone else, likely prostitutes or servants (the “spinning-girls” of line 3, i.e., girls who spin wool for others, not their own households). She reminds him of who she is—the other major piece of biographical information we get from her work—that she is “Sulpicia, daughter of Servius” (line 4). Holding out her place among the exalted Sulpicii, is meant as a warning that she is not to be trifled with like some lower-class trollop (in her view). She also summons her friends in the last two lines, saying they will gladly defend her against Cerinthus and his side pieces. And when you remember that her friends are Tibullus and Ovid at their most irreverent and Horace at his most satirical, that is one heck of an ultimatum. The granddaughter of disgraced Postumia knew what a poison pen epigram could accomplish in a pinch.

Do you feel loving care, Cerinthus, for your girl,
   since fever now torments her wearied limbs?
Ah, I would not wish to live through this disease
   unless I knew you also wished it too;
for what good would it do me to live through this disease,
   if you can bear my troubles with calm heart?

Sulpicia and Cerinthus’ relationship seems to have survived the last poem, but in this fifth one, the poet is sick and still feeling a little bit abandoned. She asks Cerinthus if he’s thinking of her during her convalescence and whether he’s worried about how she’s recuperating (lines 1-2). But Sulpicia then goes into full dramatic teenager mode, insisting that if he isn’t sufficiently concerned about her condition that she’d sooner die. This is just another instance of verisimilitude that I feel like really defeats the skeptics of Sulpicia’s, or more broadly a woman’s/non-Tibullus-or-Ovid, authorship of these six poems. I tolerate Tibullus and think Ovid was a genius, but even at their best, neither of these guys could emulate the posture of an adolescent girl this believably. These poems are often criticized for their very loose technical structure that bears a passing resemblance to Tibullus’ style, but that sounds exactly like what a 14-16 year old (based on her implied unmarried status) who spent a lot of time hanging out with Tibullus and Ovid would come up with. You can practically hear Sulpicia throw herself down on a couch theatrically because her secret boyfriend didn’t send her a get-well card, or possibly looked at some girl she knows must be a ho bag while he wasn’t with her. The over-the-top highs and lows of these poems are the moth-eaten emo verses all of us have crammed in a drawer somewhere gathering dust from our awkward years.

As I still hope, my light, to be your fierce desire
   as much as it seemed I was the other day,
I’ve never been so foolish in my young life, I swear,
   or done one thing that I’ve regretted more,
than going from you last night and leaving you alone,
   trying to hide how desperately I love you.

But this doesn’t mean that Sulpicia was just a spoiled rich girl acting out her personal drama on wax tablet because TikTok hadn’t been invented yet. Her last poem is mature, wistful, self-reflective… and leaves us the audience on a cliffhanger as to the future of her relationship with Cerinthus. In poem #6, she describes sneaking out to meet her beloved the previous evening, but while they’re together, she becomes so overwhelmed by the depth of her feelings that she cuts their tryst short (lines 5-6). Now in the cold light of day, she’s afraid that Cerinthus will mistake her flight for flightiness of feeling when the opposite is true (lines 3-4) and writes him this poem as an apology. It’s hard to imagine the jealous girl of poems 4 & 5 copping to a fault, but in this poem she fully admits how stupidly she acted and asks for forgiveness. She is also skillful enough to arrange her lines so her pledge of desperate love isn’t lost in the weeds of her apology and is the note she ends on, as if to give Cerinthus no room to doubt her sincerityBut like Sulpicia waiting for his reply to her poem, we’re left waiting as to whether he forgives her or not. Just as we’re left wondering what became of this clever, headstrong girl. Was she able to marry her boy to whom she was a “fierce desire” (line 1)? Did Corvinus marry her off to someone else? Did she simply end up dying young, as so many girls did at that time? We’re still waiting to receive the poem that tells us of Sulpicia’s fate.

If you think what we know of Sulpicia Servi is a lot of conjecture, just wait until you meet our second Sulpicia, sometimes referred to as Sulpicia Caleni or Sulpicia the Satirist. This Sulpicia was supposedly living in the later half of the 1st century AD during the reign of the emperor Domitian (51-96 AD) and was the wife of a man named Calenus, possibly a patron of the poet Martial (c. 38-104 AD). She comes up in two of Martial’s epigrams, one that praises her poetry and compares her with Sappho (10.35) and one that talks about her marriage with her husband (10.38).

But this is all we know of this Sulpicia. From these two epigrams where Martial speaks of her poems’ “endearing raillery” and the things he gleefully thinks Calenus’ marital couch had witnessed after fifteen years of wedded bliss, writers and scholiasts from late antiquity onward have deduced that the second Sulpicia wrote erotic love poems and possibly satires, albeit ones confined within the bounds of her marriage. This entire presumption rests on Martial’s tattle and the sole surviving couplet attributed to Sulpicia Celani, as quoted from a scholiast writing about the Roman poet Juvenal:

If [something] reveals me lying naked with Calenus when the linen bed-band has been restored

This is indeed salacious poetry for a Roman matron to write, let alone apparently let her male friends read. But I’m sure some of you have already asked the same question that some academics have: what if these aren’t two separate Sulpicias at all? What if Martial wasn’t writing about a women he knew, but rather a poet whose work he’d read? Martial was eminently familiar with the earlier Augustan poets and referenced Virgil and Ovid often; it’s hardly a stretch that he had also read poetry from the original Sulpicia that has been lost between him and us. Indeed, while epigram 38 talks about Sulpicia as a married woman, as you see in my flavor text at the top, in epigram 35, she’s suddenly a maid again, suggesting a larger passage of time than what we’re privy to. And just last week we talked about the hurdles facing literature as it moves between eras and cultures; what early modern monks and scholars could forgive in Ovid’s frankness they might have been less blind to in a women poet. It has also been posited that Martial is using “Sulpicia” as a pseudonym for his contemporary lady-poet, but that too seems to suggest that OG Sulpicia was famous enough during Domitian’s reign a century later that her name was a byword for “woman poet,” which is a big deal for someone we see now as a very minor poet of juvenilia.

As a woman who’s written throughout all her life’s stages, I confess that this almost-certainly unprovable version of Sulpicia is the most satisfying one. This version of Sulpicia did grow up, did get married to a man whose name may or may not have been Calenus (which is just as possibly a pseudonym as Cerinthus was), and through it all kept writing. She remained as passionate as she’d been on the cusp of adulthood and wasn’t afraid to write of pleasure just as boldly as her childhood friends Tibullus and Ovid. Only, unlike them, she was able to find that fulfillment inside her marriage and, based on Martial’s assessment, may have encouraged others to do likewise with her poetry. Roman wives usually get caught in the classic madonna/whore vise of history while their agency largely gets tossed out the window. What an amazing thing it would be to have a united Sulpician legacy to show us in a handful of verses that they were rounded individuals who thought and felt much as we do, and that a smart, loving girl with an unusual upbringing could be remembered as a person in a culture where all her aunts and sisters would have shared her exact name. Martial calls his Sulpicia a describer of “pure and honest love”; if that’s not the young woman who once loved Cerinthus so desperately, she found a worthy successor.

[An illustration of Sulpicia (Emily Johns, 2000)]
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