It suddenly feels like a lot has recently been published on Sulpicia, at least relatively speaking. Something in the 2018 water, perhaps. At the bottom of this post is a list of 2018 publications directly discussing Sulpicia that have piqued my interest to varying degrees, one in particular that I would recommend (and have added to my Bibliography for Sulpicia). I’ve discussed the first two in the list, William Batstone’s work, in previous posts (here and here); the last two – Jacqueline Fabre-Serris’ chapter on all 11 poems (3.8-18) and Jessica Westerhold’s article comparing Ovid’s Byblis to poems 3.13-18 – just hit my radar and, well, I have some thoughts.
To be honest, I have a hard time reading Fabre-Serris’ chapter, as it basically launches fully-formed from the head of the current consensus, not questioning questionable things such as the existence of Sulpicia as an Augustan poet, the existence of a so-called ‘circle of Messalla’, or the attribution of the 11 poems to two separate authors.* Fabre-Serris assumes that the biography modern scholars have created for Sulpicia is accurate and therefore Sulpicia was a contemporary of Ovid, and proceeds to discuss what this then means in terms of the reception of the poems Sulpicia herself supposedly wrote, including the supposed contemporaneous creation of the rest that she didn’t, the supposed contemporaneous arrangement of all 11 poems, and Ovid’s supposed reaction to all the poems in his Heroides. As well, Fabre-Serris seems to opt for an autobiographical reading (i.e., the scandalous love affair discussed in the poems literally happened in real life to the real-life Sulpicia), and therefore there seems to be no other option but to have to date to the poems to “probably before the enactment of the Julian laws” (pg. 75), laws which could’ve gotten someone doing the things in the poems exiled or worse. As Fabre-Serris states:
Obviously the [author of the Sulpicia poems not written by Sulpicia herself] was guided by the concern of correcting the scandalous image that Sulpicia had presented of herself [in the poems she wrote herself]. Anyway it would have been impossible for a poet of Messalla’s circle to impersonate the identity of his niece and frankly evoke her illicit love affair and erotic enjoyments.**
Sigh. While there are some interesting general observations in the chapter in terms of intratexuality between the 11 poems and intertexuality with Ovid (and Gallus), I can’t help but let my eyes glaze over when certain things – certain assumptions – are stated as fact. Pull one thread, and it all falls apart.***
Westerhold’s article, meanwhile, also addresses intertexuality with Ovid, and also shows some biases in not really arguing against any of our biography for Sulpicia and assuming both the existence of a ‘circle of Messalla’ and the warranted separation of the poems into two groups (choosing to discuss only 3.13-18). Westerhold is, however cautious to say that Sulpicia was definitely the niece of Messalla (“If Sulpicia is indeed the niece of Messalla…”) or definitely the author of the poems (“Should we have a genuine female writer in Sulpicia…”),**** or that Ovid is necessarily the one responding to the Sulpicia poems rather than the other way around (“Whether Ovid is looking toward Sulpicia for a model of feminine Latinity, whether the pseudonymous Sulpicia is looking toward Ovid’s Byblis, or whether Ovid has written them both…”).***** And because of that very welcome caution, I was able to read unglazed, and appreciated the fresher take on a so-called ‘feminine Latinity’ that pointedly has nothing to do with Otto Gruppe’s baseless ‘weibliches Latein’, and thus a more nuanced argument for female authorship of the poems.******
Indeed, if I wasn’t already entrenched in my own theories, I could perhaps be persuaded by Westerhold’s arguments. However, the question remains what we are to make of the other Sulpicia poems, 3.8-12, and whether Westerhold’s arguments would hold up if poems 9 and 11 – the other first-person poems – were also considered to be by Sulpicia (as Fabre-Serris argues), or, say, all 11 poems. Also, I can’t help but feel that the idea of feminine Latinity, even one free of Gruppe, strongly suggests an autobiographical reading. Westerhold states that:
While a male writer like Ovid can mimic a stereotypical female writing subject, the material realities of women demand a ‘double- or triple-consciousness.’ A privileged group can safely ignore the material circumstance of the marginalized, but the marginal subject is forced to know and navigate both the world as they experience it and the world as it is perceived by those who define their marginal status.*******
For us in 2018, this is a pretty straightforward idea, and one frequently encountered in modern media when, for example, a white person is cast in a movie instead of a POC as the character was originally written in the book/comic the movie is based on, or when a cis-gendered person is cast for a transgender character. While a skilled actor could potentially do justice to the specific role, the community that character may speak to often and quite understandably prefers someone actually from their community to be cast in the role. Knowing the actor’s real-life background can make their performance more believable to the audience, and sharing similarities with their character can make the actor’s performance more nuanced.
One thing that we cannot forget, however, is that, if our biography for Sulpicia is true, if she wrote of her real-life love affair in 3.13-18/the first-person poems, and if the poems were made public while she was alive, she could’ve been exiled or worse for the content of the poems, even long after the fact – Augustus exiled his own daughter under the leges Juliae de adulteriis et de maritandis ordinibus for her sexual ‘misbehaviour’ a decade before. It’s not simply then a matter of being able to write the experience of a marginalized person. Would Sulpicia really have put herself in danger just to share these poems? Continuing with the modern cinema example, just as an actor in a country with strict laws/views on homosexuality could affect the roles a closeted gay actor would be willing to take,******** does it not seem likely that a writer living during Augustus’ strict morality laws would protect themselves from having their artistic work interpreted as autobiographical? And if the poems were meant to be private for Sulpicia’s entire lifetime, how does that change our interpretation of them, particularly the claim in 3.13 that keeping the affair quiet would be more of a cause of shame than the affair itself?
On the other hand, if we accept that the love affair described in the Sulpicia poems did not actually happen, should we necessarily assume that a female writer would have enough actual lived experience to write more convincingly on such a topic than a skilled male writer, particularly one who works with a genre used to point out the absurdities of the political and social environment around him, fully immersing himself in a character unlike himself? Could an unmarried woman write about a married woman’s life or a virgin girl write about a sexual relationship more convincingly than a male writer simply because she is female? And at what point does an un-lived, fictional experience become “a stereotypical female writing subject” that a male author could mimic? As we currently hold these poems to be the only extant poems written by a female poet, it’s pretty impossible to say what a stereotypical female writing subject could possibly be, is it not?
- Batstone, William W. “Notes on the Poems: Sulpicia, ‘Garland of Sulpicia’.” In Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry: An Anthology of New Translations, 2nd Edition, edited by Diane J. Rayor and William W. Batstone. New York: Routledge, 2018.
- Batstone, William W. “Sulpicia and the Speech of Men.” In Life, Love and Death in Latin Poetry, edited by Stavros Frangoulidis and Stephen Harrison, 85-110. Berlin: De Gruyter; 2018.
- Fabre-Serris, Jacqueline. “Intratextuality and Intertextuality in the Corpus Tibullianum 3 8-18.” In Intratextuality and Latin Literature, edited by Stephen Harrison, Stavros Frangoulidis, and Theodore D. Papanghelis, 67-79. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018.
- Westerhold, Jessica. “Byblis’s ‘Feminine Latinity’ in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 9.450-665.” Helios 45, no. 1 (2018): 37-67.
*Granted, Fabre-Serris is building on their previous work (“Sulpicia: An/other Female Voice in Ovid’s Heroides,” Helios 36 (2009): 149-173), which does not appear in my thesis/Mouseion article/Bibliography for Sulpicia. Fabre-Serris argues that poems 9 and 11 were written by Sulpicia, in addition to poems 13-18, and the rest (8, 10, and 12) by an anonymous male.
***For example, in Fabre-Serris’ conclusion (pg. 78), they state the following – my questions are in square brackets, bolded and in all caps for, uh, emphasis:
The accurate, ingenious way in which all these poems have been gathered to create such a refined composition makes sense only if Sulpicia was alive [BUT WHAT IF SHE NEVER EXISTED?]… Another final argument is that the arrangement of Sulpicia’s and the amicus’ poems into a small collection could have made both more famous and also account for Ovid’s frequent references to both the former and the latter [BUT WHAT IF THEY WERE ALL WRITTEN BY ONE AUTHOR? AND/OR WHAT IF THEY WERE WRITTEN RESPONDING TO OVID, NOT VICE VERSA?]. Conversely, assuming that the Sulpician cycle is later than Ovid [OKAY FINALLY, HERE WE GO…], why would someone have created this refined collection of poems at a time when all the protagonists, Messalla included, were dead? [SIGH. FIRST OF ALL, THERE’S A LOT WRITTEN ABOUT MESSALLA AFTER HE DIED AND, SECOND OF ALL, THERE’S NO WAY HE’S A PROTAGONIST. BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, WHY DO WE HAVE TO IDENTIFY POETIC CHARACTERS – I.E., WRITTEN CHARACTERS IN A FICTIONAL MEDIUM – AS REAL?]
****Granted, no arguments are given against. Quotes from pg. 39 and 38, respectively. Interestingly, Westerhold cites my Mouseion article as a source of further bibliography for Messalla, particularly the page in which I explain that he is written about in both contemporary and later poetry, and that his presence in poem 3.14 doesn’t need “to be factually explained or pinpointed to a particular time” (pg. 628).
******Westerhold cites my Mouseion article as a further source “on Sulpicia’s ‘feminine Latinity’,” particularly the pages where I discuss Gruppe’s effects on Sulpician scholarship (pg. 646-48).
********Thinking of the character of Lito Rodriguez in Sense8 here.