How nice that you feel so sure of my affections.
I wouldn’t want to suddenly make a fool of myself
Go ahead, chase that cheap, wool-spinning
whore rather than Servius’ daughter Sulpicia.
I have people who care about me, and their greatest worry
is that I might fall into bed with some worthless nobody.– Sulpicia, Poems 4
(My own translation)
Sulpicia is among the few female writers whose work has come down to us from antiquity. She was a Roman poet writing in the late first century BCE. Her surviving poems chart a tempestuous love affair with one Cerinthus. Like the lovers described in poetry by her male contemporaries, we cannot be sure whether Cerinthus was a real person or just a literary invention.
Sulpicia’s poetry relates in interesting ways to the major philosophical movement among Romans of her time: Stoicism. Stoicism was an originally Greek school of thought that emphasized emotional steadiness through the ups and downs of life. This idea appealed to Romans, who traditionally valued discipline and dispassionate self-control. Many Romans among the elite espoused versions of Stoic philosophy as a guiding principle.
Controlling one’s emotions first requires observing and understanding them. This is where Sulpicia’s poetry fits in. Her poems are like little gems of precisely observed emotion. This one captures the cold, controlled anger that comes of holding in a rage that is about to explode. Another poem expresses the exasperation of a young person at well-meaning but clueless relatives.
While other Romans were exploring Stoicism as a philosophical idea, Sulpicia was turning it into art.
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