Sulpicia:  Elegies

 

A number of other Augustan poets wrote elegy, but none whose work survives comes near to equaling the achievements of Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid. One of these minor elegists, however, will be of interest to modern readers because her work, though tiny in volume and narrow in range, is in its way exquisite, and because it provides us with a rare example of Roman literature written by a woman. Included in our manuscripts of Tibullus are half a dozen elegies, totaling forty lines, by Sulpicia, daughter of Servius Sulpicius and ward and (probably) niece of Messalla. These poems tell of her passionate love for one Cerinthus, obviously a pseudonym for some Roman youth whom she met in the glittering circle which formed around her uncle. They have a beautifully fresh charm. The word they immediately bring to mind is “girlish:”  they are naive, vivacious, spontaneous, and totally lacking in the aesthetic “distance” between author and subject which to modern criticism is the hallmark of literary sophistication. Their style lacks the polish one would expect of a professional poet, but they display a great deal of natural talent. Scholars have almost universally assumed (surely correctly) that these poems, in which Sulpicia discreetly but unmistakably indicates that her affair with Cerinthus went beyond sighs and holding hands, describe an actual situation, and that they were circulated in Sulpicia’s, which is to say Messalla’s, circle. This raises some extremely interesting questions. Are we really to believe that a young Roman woman of noble family could admit so openly to a love affair? Did Augustus approve of such a flaunting of respectability by the adopted daughter of one of his closest advisors? In all probability these questions will never be answered. But we must be grateful that the scythe of time has spared these few delicate flowers for our admiration. 

 

Sulpicia I

 

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.            10

 


 

Notes to Sulpicia 1  

 

The first of Sulpicia’s series of love elegies purports to have been written the day after she has finally made love with the man she has long desired (we learn later that his name is Cerinthus). The use of the word “joys” in line 6 and the wording of line 10 imply discreetly but unmistakably that their relationship has now passed beyond the Platonic stage. At least one important element of this short piece may be considered a direct reflection of the author’s sex, and that is the obsessive concern with reputation which runs through it and is indeed its central unifying motif. A failure to understand the nature of this concern has led many commentators to misinterpret the poem by translating lines 7-8 to mean, “I prefer to send my tablets unsealed . . .” Then lines 9-10 would have to mean, “I am going to let the world know of our love.” This interpretation turns the poem into an apologia on the part of the poet for making her love public. It is equally possible, however, to translate lines 7-8 as in the present translation, following Smith, to mean, “I wish I didn’t have to seal . . .” This makes for much better poetic and psychological sense: Sulpicia is torn between a natural desire to tell the world of the beautiful and powerful thing which has happened to her and her need as a woman of the Roman aristocracy to protect her own and her family’s honor by maintaining an unsullied reputation for chastity. Smith’s comments are worth quoting: “She would like, she tells him, to cast prudence to the winds. If she does not, it is entirely because she cannot, not because she is ashamed of what she has done; on the contrary, she glories in it. . . . Sulpicia chose to state her wishes not as the positive, so to speak, of what she would like to do, but as a negative of what she is obliged to do. The underlying thought, e.g., of 1-2 is, ‘if I told anyone, I should be ruined,’ of 5-6, ‘if anyone tells on me, I am ruined,’ of 7-8, ‘if anyone at all ever reads one of my letters, I am ruined’ . . .”  

 

3  This line implies that Sulpicia had previously written poems in which she prayed to Venus for Cerinthus’s love.  

5  promise Evidently Sulpicia believed she had received some omen which indicated that her prayers to Venus would be granted.  

7-8  The standard method of writing notes and poems was to scratch them on wax tablets, which could then, if desired, be sealed for confidentiality’s sake.  

 


 

Sulpicia 2

 

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.

 


 

Sulpicia 3

 

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!

 


 

Note to Sulpicia 2 and 3  

 

Sulpicia’s uncle Messalla has decided to give her a special treat by taking her to his country villa at Aretium for her birthday. But such a present is the last thing Sulpicia wants, since it means separation from Cerinthus. In the following poem, we learn that the trip was cancelled, much to Sulpicia’s joy. 

 

 

 

Sulpicia 4

 

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.

 


 

Notes to Sulpicia 4 

 

Sulpicia has reason to believe that Cerinthus has become interested in a prostitute, and she is furious at the insult. The translation of this poem is uncertain; I have followed the interpretation of Smith for the most part and have made my rendition more free than usual in order to bring out what I believe is the meaning.  

 

1-2 These lines should be understood as a bitterly ironic expression of gratitude: “Thank you for feeling so sure of my affection that you think you can treat me any way you like. You have taken great pains to show me what sort of man you really are and thus to prevent me from making the mistake of allowing our relationship to progress to a stage of serious commitment.” Under this interpretation, this poem was written before Sulpicia 1, where the relationship has obviously progressed to a stage of serious commitment, and after Sulpicia 6, which is probably the occasion referred to by the words “almost let possess me.” (There is no reason to believe that the poems as we have them in the manuscripts are supposed to be in chronological order.)  

3 The three things mentioned in the Latin are: 1) A toga. This garment was not worn by women except for those who were prostitutes; thus it could symbolically mean “prostitute.” 2) A basket of wool. Spinning wool for one’s own family was respectable, but hiring oneself out to spin wool for others was a menial occupation conducted by poor women who had no family to support them. Thus a “spinning-girl” would be lower class and of suspect morality. 3) A scortum, the term for the very lowest class of prostitute.  

4 She speaks her family name with great pride, since it was one of the most eminent in Rome. The contrast with the nameless whore is pointed.  

5-6 These lines are obscure, perhaps deliberately so. Smith comments that in this last sentence, “which is doubtless quite as clear as the writer intended it to be, . . . there was the suggestion that she had plenty of admirers who appreciated her worth and were anxious to see to it that she did not lack for consolation.”

 


 

Sulpicia 5

 

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?

 


 

Note to Sulpicia 5  

 

Sulpicia is ill and sends anxiously to Cerinthus to ask if he is concerned. The illness of the mistress was a standard episode in erotic elegy; see e.g.T.I.5.9-16, P.II.28c, and O.II.13 and 14. 

 

 

Sulpicia 6

 

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.

 


 

Note to Sulpicia 6  

 

This piece tells, in a compact and indirect but clear manner, an episode in the courtship. Several days previously (such is the implication of 1-2) Cerinthus had made a passionate declaration of love to Sulpicia, and she has agreed to a nocturnal tryst. When she met him on the appointed night, however, she became so alarmed at the strength of her own feelings that she suddenly left him. The next day, in remorse, she wrote this poem of apology. 



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