It’s my stupid birthday again and—poor me!—I’m being dragged off
to the dumb countryside away from my Cerinthus.
Is there anything better than the city? Is the old farm
off by the lazy Arno and Arretium’s fields any place for a girl?
You’re making such a fuss over me, Mesalla, settle down!
Uncaring uncle, this is no time to hit the road!
My heart and mind will stay in Rome even if you take me away,
but you just won’t let me have my way.
– Sulpicia, Poems 2
(My own translation)
Sulpicia is one of the few women whose writings have come down to us from the Roman world. She lived around the late first century BCE. We know very little about her except that she lived with her uncle, Mesalla Corvinus, who was a close friend of the statesman and orator Cicero. In this poem, a teenaged Sulpicia complains about being dragged off to the family’s country estate to celebrate her birthday, leaving her lover Cerinthus behind in Rome.
Cerinthus may not, in fact, be a real person. It was common for Roman poets of the time to write poems to or about imaginary (or at least heavily fictionalized) lovers. The most famous may be Catullus, whose poems chart a tempestuous affair with a woman he calls Lesbia. Often, male poets wrote about their longing for absent lovers or complained about women who stayed away too long. Sulpicia takes that genre and turns it on its head, writing from the point of view of the absent lover and pointing out that it wasn’t her fault she had to be away. A young woman of her age in high Roman society, dependent on the charity of well-meaning but obtuse relatives, had very little control over her own movements.
Roman poetry also often voiced a nostalgic longing to escape the bustle and filth of Rome and return to an idealized country life. Sulpicia turns this convention upside-down as well, disparaging the countryside as dull and lifeless and longing to stay amidst the excitement of the city. And well she might—the charm of the countryside for rich men was in large part the idleness enabled by the labor of slaves, tenant farmers, and the women of the household. A young woman like her would have few opportunities for being on her own or doing what she liked there.
What reads at first glance like a spoiled teenager’s tantrum reveals itself as a clever critique of popular poetic conceits. It’s a shame that more of Sulpicia’s poetry hasn’t survived, but what we have provides a valuable alternative view to set alongside the work of her male contemporaries.
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