Quotes: I Wouldn’t Want to Suddenly Make a Fool of Myself

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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Quotes: The Dumb Countryside

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.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.