The Poetess Sulpicia

We only have six poems from her…. But hoboy, they are different from other Augustan-era poetry.

The first one, like a lot of classic poetry, has echoes in a famous song in English.

“Tandem amor venit” literally means, “At last, love has come.”

I’m surprised that I’d never heard of this poetess before today, because I guarantee you that I read every single “famous women of ancient times” and “famous women writers” book that I could get ahold of, back in the Seventies and Eighties and Nineties.

But apparently there was some controversy over whether she were a real person or a fictional persona, and just why her stuff was in the third volume of the poet Albius Tibullus’ collected works, along with commentary poems by an unknown “amicus Sulpiciae”, and so on. There’s another later poet also named Sulpicia, who was a satirist in the days of Domitian, but this apparently isn’t her.

The second issue is that she was apparently a woman of the Sulpicius clan who was living at home, not yet wed, and therefore was likely to have been well under eighteen years old. (Although the Augustan era had a lot of variation in the ages of women’s first marriages, and she could have been well over eighteen, too.)

The third issue is that she has apparently not just been holding hands and making eyes at her dude, “Cerinthus,” because the first poem has very clear implications to the contrary. So she’s not exactly a good Christian example. She’s not even a good Roman matron.

And the fourth issue is that she is into a guy, not a girl or anything weirder. So there goes the academic Sappho fans.

On the other hand, her poems are short and memorable, so they probably should get more attention than they have. They may give us a better idea of what popular songs and poetry were like, in her time. And they certainly give us an idea that some Roman young women were smart and impassioned, whether or not they had high wisdom scores.

And her poetry has survived, so somebody liked her a lot. For centuries.

I’m sure it’s wishful thinking… but the first poem sort of implies that Cerinthus was a suitable marriage partner, and that maybe she was just running ahead of the formalities. The Camenae were domestic goddesses of springs, marriage, and childbirth, and Venus in Rome was a goddess of marriage too. But the other poems don’t sound like that.

Shrug. I guess I need to look up the other poems, and see what the scholars think.

UPDATE: Ha! There’s a poem after the Sulpicia poems and Amicus comments, which is straight up from the poet Tibullus to his friend Cornutus, congratulating him on his marriage, wife, and birthday. And a lot of scholars have thought that Cornutus is “Cerinthus,” and that his wife is Sulpicia. So maybe I’m not crazy, or at least I’m part of a crazy majority!

Again, I’m not condoning this… but given the disorder of Roman society at the time, you can understand why an engaged couple might “slip up.” They were pagans, they didn’t know better, and their society was busily discarding all the old virtues. So if they kept their promises to each other (mostly) and found respectability afterwards, that’s not so bad.

The Latin text of Sulpicia’s poems. Her first poem is ten lines long. The others are shorter.

A translation into English, by Anne Mahoney, dividing the poems up into six different pages.

Here’s my version of a translation:

At last now, love has come — one better for my name
If it were stripped bare naked than (as now) clothed with shame.

Persuaded by my Camenae, the Cytherean blest
Brought him into my cloak’s folds, snugged him to my breast.

Venus paid her promise off. And she could tell my pleasures,
If anyone could say it who will never hold his treasures.

(I hate to have to seal this up before I hand it over,
But what if someone reads what’s mine before you do, my lover?)

So having slipped up — pleases me. A pure face put on – bores me.
A worthy woman’s worthy of that worthy man won for me.

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