Something in the water (does not compute)

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.

**Pg. 72

***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).

*****Pg. 40

******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).

*******Pg. 49

********Thinking of the character of Lito Rodriguez in Sense8 here.


Sulpicia is believed

In addition to my standing Google Scholar notification for any new Sulpicia things, I semi-regularly look up the Wikipedia page for Sulpicia, in the hopes that someone has changed the entry to be more balanced (i.e., explain that her identification isn’t actually known to be true), rather than having it simply reflect the current consensus. While I know I could’ve changed it myself long ago, I felt like this was a conflict of interest of sorts. And so, I’ve simply been hoping someone else would take it upon themselves.

In the time I’ve been looking up the entry, very little has changed, other than separating Sulpicia I from Sulpicia II. About a year ago, it actually became more restrictive, as an editor removed “is said to have” from the first sentence “Sulpicia is said to have lived in the reign of Augustus…,” giving the following explanation for their edit:

Life: added revision; these details of her life are pretty much accepted as the citation indicates.

Sigh. This past weekend, however, it looks like a kindred spirit decided to tidy things up a bit, adding an opening paragraph that not only puts the “is said to have” idea back in but also has a bit more context (see screenshot below, green = added, red = deleted), with the explanation “to make the article more balanced.” I think the choice of ‘believed by some’ rather than ‘is said to have’ is key, whether the editor, Kanjuzi, intended it to be or not.


Thank you, Kanjuzi, whoever you are.

“…there is no light without Darknesse and no Substance without Shaddowe”

I’ve had a Google Scholar alert set up for “Sulpicia” since the final stages of my thesis writing, and it’s been rather shocking how little has been published in the last four years, particularly anything that has something different to say than the status quo, by way of analysis, commentary, editions, or translations. And so, I was rather happy to see the “sulpicia – new results” email in my inbox the other morning, as it alerted me to the fact that new scholarly translations of the Sulpicia poems – all eleven – have just come out.

The translations, by Elizabeth Young, appear in the just-released 2nd edition of Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry (published by Routledge), an anthology edited by Diane J. Rayor and William W. Batstone. As the point of this anthology is to provide an introduction for students to some key Latin poetry via accurate English translations (sadly, without facing Latin text), it wasn’t really the translations that made me track down a preview-able online version of the book,* but rather Batstone’s name. As discussed in a previous post, Batstone is the first person (that I’m aware of) to cite my work on Sulpicia, particularly my Mouseion article.

For the 2nd edition of the Routledge anthology, Batstone provides a commentary for each section of translations. The Sulpicia poems are split into two groups (of course…), with poems 13-18 (Sulpicia) coming first, followed by poems 8-12 (“Garland of Sulpicia”) (again, of course…). And in Batstone’s commentary to the first group, if you don’t blink, you’ll see this:

Most recently, Kletke (2016) has reviewed both sides [of male vs. female authorship and Sulpicia vs. the Garland of Sulpicia] and argued for a complete reexamination of the issue in the pre-Gruppean terms.

Yep, it’s me! I’m pretty stoked about this, to be honest. Even though it’s a single sentence mention, the fact that Batstone’s brief summary of my article mentions Gruppe is key. (And interesting, since Batstone doesn’t mention Gruppe in his chapter “Sulpicia and the Speech of Men” in Life, Love and Death in Latin Poetry, which cited me first publication date-wise, but was developed out of the anthology commentary.)

Erasing the damage that Otto Gruppe has done is a key goal of mine in my work on the poems. In the narrative that is the scholarship on the Sulpicia poems, Gruppe is the bad guy, the antagonist to the author, readers, and scholars of the poems. If Peter Ackroyd had written this narrative, Gruppe is Ackroyd’s Nicholas Dyer,** now largely ignored but perhaps praised by some for creating, a couple hundred years ago, the still-standing architecture that is an Augustan Sulpicia plus the supposedly true Sulpicia poems separated from the so-called Garland of Sulpicia, but with some sinister not-so-secret secrets buried in the foundation of that architecture. The ‘secrets’ being sexist opinion devoid of any evidence. And so, the fact that Batstone’s summary could potentially point the reader to consider what ‘pre-Gruppean’ even means is a huge win. I’d honestly be so happy if feminist scholars rejected the interpretation of an Augustan Sulpicia based on Gruppe’s work – just completely dismantled the entire creepy building, to keep up the Hawksmoor metaphor – and outright claimed the interpretation for themselves. I wouldn’t agree with said interpretation, but it would be an honest one.

That said, Batstone’s summary, in both this anthology and in his previous citation, really only touches on the first step of my Mouseion article, setting up the reasons why the consensus is on shaky ground. The other part of my article is full of suggestions of what it could mean if we erase what Gruppe has done and reconsider what it could mean if the poems – all eleven of them, if not all in Book 3 of the Corpus Tibullianum – were written by a man. In particular, I provide what an actually evidence-based interpretation of the poems could look like, namely that:

it is quite likely that the Sulpicia poems should be considered as pseudepigrapha, namely as intentional chronological pseudepigrapha or fakes, written in a cultural context in which fakes were a common and accepted form of literary discourse, thus allowing for the reading of them not as the autobiographical account of a Roman poet named Sulpicia, but as anonymous reception texts for the genre of Latin love elegy.***

Granted, in the 29-page article, the discussion of this suggested interpretation takes up less than 15% of the space. It simply takes that much remaining space to, as I mentioned, dismantle the entire creepy building. But I can’t help but hope someone soon will comment on my proposed interpretation(s)…

*I should also admit I’m partial to the translator of poems 13-18 in the 1st edition, the wonderful Mary Maxwell, who I actually thanked in my thesis acknowledgements.

** (and title quote) Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor (1985)

***Pg. 641 of Mouseion article

A feminist Sulpicia

One of the themes that came out of writing my manuscript on the Sulpicia poems was the fear I have of being hated by other feminists for my stance on their authorship. Specifically, my questioning of the existence of a Roman poet named Sulpicia, and thus my potential/supposed ‘destruction’ of both a talented woman and all extant female-authored poetry from ancient Rome.

From 1979 until today, the poems have been praised for being female-authored, and for being good. The dialogue around the poems largely (and understandably) comes from feminist scholars. Anyone who has dared argue or merely suggest that they may not be female-authored has been accused of being a misogynist (note: until me, all such people have been men.)

But from their writing until 1838, the poems were either assumed to be male-authored, or were ignored completely. Then in 1838, the poems were decided to be female-authored, because they weren’t very good.

In other words, it is believed today – and vehemently argued by feminist scholars – that we have the poetry of a Roman woman, because a misogynist decided these poems weren’t good enough to have been written by a man.

Contrary to the pages devoted to this over the last 40 years, the topic at its core is not about feminism and feminists, who is and who isn’t. But the world that has been created around the topic – the spectator stands that surround the actual stage and from which come the only sanctioned commentating, the stage having been empty for hundreds of years – this world is controlled by (a small group of) feminists. Well-meaning feminists, yes, but:

All ages. No cameras allowed. No outside food.
You must be this feminist to enter.

Yep, I know the rules. Here’s my bag, feel free to search it. One ticket, please.

As far as I know, I am a feminist.

But, because I’m writing this, I’m not.

I’m not allowed in.*

The main reason I was drawn to this topic was my personal driving force of discovering why we believe what we believe. This topic had the metaphorical piscine odour. It didn’t make sense how a + b somehow = c. And, well, it was a topic I could write a large term paper out of to get my Honours BA in Classics, and still have words left over to write a graduate thesis and get my MA in Classics.

But to actually publish my research on the topic, to have feminist scholars read my work but not meet and talk with me to realize that I’m not some female misogynist, brainwashed little twit, that was a scary thought. It is a scary thought.

I’ve always had weird relationships with other females. I’ve had many close girlfriends, but they are nearly all gone, none by my active choice. Many probably due to growing up, changing schools, moving away, changing jobs. But some, I worry/suspect, because I’ve never been a very feminine person, or have at least always rejected the stereotypical things a feminine person is supposed to like/do/be. I wasn’t into makeup, wasn’t into boys, wasn’t into frilly pink things, wasn’t into Brad Pitt. And, as long as I can remember, I’ve never wanted kids, have never wanted to even hold a baby. That latter one, I think, has had a bigger role in ending some of my girlfriendships than was immediately obvious at the time. At any rate, I didn’t have much in common with other girls, and the little I did wasn’t enough, I guess, to continue our relationship.

I’ve also always found the definition of feminism to always be out of my grasp. I was raised in a patriarchal, religious environment where women had particular roles. I was encouraged to go to university, but was also expected to get married and have kids early. Feminism in that context was a bad word, and only referred to heathen bra burners. When I took Intro to Women’s Studies as an undergraduate student, my amazing prof, an African woman, tried to teach us that being a feminist means fighting for equal rights for everybody, regardless of sex, gender, or race. But my (white) classmates argued against her, citing their unshaven legs as evidence for hating men being the key skill she should be teaching. And then I started wearing makeup, I got married, I got into fashion, I understood the appeal of Brad Pitt, I shaved my legs. I believed in equal rights for everybody, I bought a copy of The Feminine Mystique, I sought out manual, physical jobs over administrative work, I still didn’t want kids. What did that make me?

So, I was/am used to being a bit of a loner in the world of women. Perhaps because of this, 10+ years ago I felt (kind of sort of) comfortable enough with the challenge of taking on an argument that would have me butt heads with other feminists. What did I have to lose, really?

And now, in 2018, in the era of female artists being bullied off of social media, tennis rulers vs. Serena, MeToo, the world becoming a huge dumpster fire…I don’t really want to butt heads with other women over a few silly poems. I am a woman, I am a feminist, I believe women, I look up to women, my favourite writers, artists, and researchers are women.

In my view, Sulpicia probably wasn’t a woman. And so, to me, I’m not actively working against the existence of a woman. But my theories happen to clash with those of women who believe in her existence, who think it’s a matter of being feminist or not. However that is viewed by the few women who have heard of or read my work, it has thus far largely gotten me the silent treatment.

But if I publish my thoughts on the poems, I’m not sure which would be worse from women readers, the silent treatment, or being called an anti-feminist. Either way, I don’t want to be closed out once again by other women, and for reasons I don’t actively choose. Sulpicia’s existence isn’t my choice, and neither are my conclusions to years of research, really. Publishing my conclusions, however, is my choice.

Is there ever a good time to publish research as a woman that argues against other women? Is there ever a bad time? I just don’t know.

What I do know is that a feminist Sulpicia might just possibly mean, well, no Sulpicia at all. What do I do with that?

*Quote from my manuscript, in its current form anyway.


My copy of Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar play came in, and the notes I transcribed in the last post were indeed paraphrasing from the play. Particularly, my notes referred to the last scene, in which Leonard (played by Alan Rickman), a once famous writer who supposedly doesn’t write anymore after a bit of a scandal, is found out by one of his seminar students (Martin, played by Hamish Linklater) – he does in fact still write, and simply doesn’t have any interest in publishing any of it. To quote (from p.68-9):

LEONARD. …I actually don’t like people scraping their eyeballs on my words.

MARTIN. Why not?

(He takes the pages from MARTIN, and goes to the desk. Picks up all the pages and dumps them in a drawer.)

LEONARD. (beat, simple) I have no skin anymore. Once it’s written I can’t – live with it. I can’t sit in offices and talk to people about it. I can’t look at “cover art.” I can’t talk to editors… It makes more sense to just put it out on the sidewalk and let it blow away. Not blow away, not – Jesus. I have no skin. After I write, I want to evaporate… It’s not the writing that’s the problem. It’s everything else.

When I saw the play, I hadn’t yet started my grad degree and was just there to see Alan Rickman in person, so I paid the most attention to Leonard’s words, rather than identifying with the students. Unbeknownst to me, I would soon after identify with the students, having a prof who was rather similar to the intimidating and harsh (if not somewhat cruel) character of Leonard. But now, after re-reading the play, I identify again much more with Leonard (at least when he’s actually being honest and not a complete a–hole), happier (or at least resigned) to work as an editor (my day job), helping others get their work published rather than my own.

As of yesterday, I’ve completed yet another draft of my manuscript on the Sulpicia poems, about three drafts removed from the first one I let someone see.* And now that I am actually happy with it (today, anyway), I can’t help but think it’d be better to just stick it in a drawer now, never to be seen by anyone else. For the current version, I revisited every single piece of criticism I got on my work while in grad school, and dealt with that all over again, along with all the self-doubt involved with my ideas and the right to share my ideas and the potential backlash I could receive for my ideas. For me, it’s my ideas that are the most important – that’s where all the work was, and I haven’t backed down on any of them, four years after arguing that those ideas warranted my getting an MA.

As for the writing? I’m not sure I want or need anyone’s approval or validation on my writing. I just want it to be over. Pace Sulpicia, non ego signatis quicquam mandare tabellis uelim. Or, I – the ‘I’ as a writer of all things Sulpicia – want to evaporate.

*Thanks again, Susan!