Were there female poets in Rome? Story of Sulpicia.

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.

Suplicia- Corpus Tibillianum


Are there female poets in Ancient Rome? Well, short answer is, yes. Although we only know of a few of them. A handful to be exact. You have to understand, Rome was a man’s world. Men were in charge, men made all the decisions, ruled, and owned their family. This was the age of Paterfamilias. Paterfamilias translates to head of the house. And in a high patriarchal society, there was little room for a woman to really branch out. Women had the choice of being married to whomever in their class by their fathers or become sex workers to be more “free” very few owned their own businesses. They would be taught some basics, but mostly would be continued in education at home from mom on how to be a “good obedient wife and mother”. The skills of writing and such probably took a back seat to the other stuff as it was more important for a woman to keep up the home and pop out babies. And if they did inherit things, the senate would appoint someone to keep tabs on the woman, a guardian if you please. Women did not have many rights in Rome. Greece was just as bad after the downfall of the “Minoan” people.

Egypt was more progressive though out ancient history than anywhere else.

Elagabalus, was the first to put women in the senate. But, they were his mom and grandmother. Still, he/she tried. Elagabalus was also the first transgendered person to identify as female. So, it is no surprising the teen emperor wanted to have a little more fairness in the senate. Also, she was pressured by mom and grandma to do so. It would not last though, after her assassination the women were taken out of the senate and once again Rome was a man’s world.

With all that being said, there were some women who went against the grain. Who wrote and studied. They took the man’s perfect world and roughed it up. So, who are they? Where did they go? What happened to many of their writings?

First for today, let’s talk about the woman who’s writing we still have some of. Her name was Sulpicia (SUL-PEE-KEEAH) She lived during the first century BCE, She was born around 40BCE living in the reign of Augustus. You know, Octavian. She was the daughter of Severius Sulpicius Rufus and probably Valeria was her mother.Her uncle, the well known and thought of Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus,he was the one who launched Ovid’s career, her uncle was also a commander for Augustus.So yeah, family was very well off, and had many connections with the Emperor Augustus. Which, if you are going to be a writer of the female gender it is always good to have connections like that.

Sepulcia’s work was only a few short 6 poems written in an elegaic style. They were part of a book or collection of poetry . Book 3 of Corpus Tibullianum. Her poems are addressed to Cerinthus . Cerinthus may very well be a pseudonym just like Catullus’s Lesbia and Propertius Cynthia. People, historians argue whether this is referring to an aristrocrat named Caecilius Cornutus. Although, no one knows for sure.

And of course as most things done by women, men have issue with it. Mainly some argue that it was actually written by a man. Based on how it comes across, it doesn’t seem feminine. Other historians say this is bonkers. Then some say she never existed in the first place. I think she existed and think her poetry is amazing.

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.

Sulpicia Corpus Tibullianum

Her poems, all 40 lines of them, were simple but give us a glimpse into Ancient Rome and the people who lived there. Not just the emperors and the sex, or the assassinations, but the people who did the arts. And I am so glad I could share her story with you.

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