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Ancient Roman Womens Writings

Sub Specie XXV Annorum


Judith P. Hallett
University of Maryland, College Park

I felt like a complete fraud twenty-five years ago when I received the
letter, from Germaine Greer herself, inviting me to serve on the editorial
board of the new Tulsa Studies in Womens Literature. Although she credited
this invitation to my work on the sixth-century BCE Greek female poet
Sappho of Lesbos, my work on Sappho was limited to a single article. It
was, moreover, an article outside my area of scholarly expertise. I specialize in Latin, not Greek, language and literature, and in ancient Roman,
not Greek, society of the so-called classical period (second century BCE
through second century CE). So, too, by the early 1980s my teaching and
research on the representation of women in Latin literature, and on sexuality and the elite family in Roman society, were taking me further and
further afield from Sappho and Greek poetry of the archaic period.
At that point in time, too, another project meriting attention in my
own area of specializationthat of exploring the reception of Sappho in
Latin poetryappeared to involve only the writings of various, already
canonical, Roman male poets. The first, chronologically speaking, wrote
in the mid-fifties BCE, at the end of the Roman republic: namely, Catullus,
who honored Sappho by translating and alluding to her lyrics, adapting her
distinctive meter, and referring to his beloved by the pseudonym Lesbia.
Two other poets, Horace and Ovid, who prominently cite Sapphos example and often allude to her works, date from the subsequent Augustan age
(44 BCE-14 CE). Towards the end of the first century CE, the epigrammatist Martial also attests to Sapphos abiding literary influence. When
Tulsa Studies came into being, however, the notion that Roman women
writers may have also invoked Sappho as a literary role model, or evoked
her thoughts and her words, did not to my knowledge figure in Latin literary scholarship.
In fact, during the early 1980s the scholarly consensus about what
writings by Roman women had managed to survive until the present day
did not offer much encouragement or opportunity to feminist Latinists
like me. We, after all, were eager to investigate how Roman women
represented themselves, and not merely how Roman women were represented. To be sure, various manuscripts of works by Catulluss friend and
contemporary, the historian and biographer Cornelius Nepos, contain two
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excerpts from a letter by a woman there identified as Cornelia, mother of


the Gracchi. In this letter, dated to 124 BCE, Cornelia, daughter of the
illustrious general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, eloquently addresses
her son Gaius Sempronius Gracchus. She employs compelling ethical and
emotional arguments to dissuade him from seeking to become tribune of
the plebs, the office held by his elder brother Tiberius when he was assassinated by political foes in 133 BCE. But by the early 1980s the female
authorship of this letter was a matter of serious scholarly dispute, largely
because of the imperious and angry tone of these excerpts as well as their
impressive Latin style.
Authorial challenges of a somewhat different kind had long complicated the study of an eleven-poem sequence, found in the manuscripts of
the Augustan elegist Tibullus, which features another noblewoman named
Sulpicia. Mainly written in the first person, these Sulpicia-elegies celebrate
her illicit love affair with a younger man whom she identifies by the pseudonym Cerinthus. Most scholars have been willing to assign her authorship
of the final six poems in this sequence. Nevertheless, because the first five
poems are longer and ostensibly more learned efforts, they are regarded as
the work of a male Sulpicia-impersonator, who supposedly instructs her on
how to do it right as an amatory elegist and is, for that reason, labeled
her amicus, friend.
Were that not enough, little heed was being paid a quarter century ago
to two lines of poetry by a female contemporary of Martial, also (and as far
as we can tell coincidentally) named Sulpicia, which celebrate her physical passion for her husband Calenus. Or to two of Martials own poems
praising this later Sulpicias work, indeed claiming that it surpasses that
of Sappho. Other than Cornelia and the two poets named Sulpicia, moreover, at the dawn of the 1980s no other Roman women of the classical
period were thought to have bequeathed extant writings to posterity, even
texts of contested authorship. No scholars were suggesting, either, that
the Roman male poets who invoke and evoke SapphoCatullus, Horace,
and Ovid as well as Martialmight be portraying or echoing the words of
actual Roman women poets.
But nowadays the study of Roman women writers has evolved into a
thriving enterprise, and a consuming scholarly passion of my own. Several
books by feminist classicists have helped effectuate this heartening development. Three that have smoothed my own path are Jane Snyders examination of women writers in classical Greece and Rome, The Woman and
the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome, Emily Hemelrijks
Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Elite from Cornelia to Julia
Domna, and Mathilde Skoies Reading Sulpicia: Commentaries 1475-1990.1
Much of the energy fueling this enterprise also emanates from research
informed by more speculative, and more outspokenly feminist, approaches
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to ancient Roman evidence on womens writing. In challenging the assumptions that women such as Cornelia and the Augustan elegist Sulpicia did
not writeand could not possibly have writtenwell-crafted, emotionally
powerful, and enduring words in Latin, this research has looked for support
and guidance to studies of later women writersthe business of Tulsa
Studies. We classicists have been cheered and inspired by these discussions
of female-authored texts from subsequent eras. The texts themselves have
affinities with writings by Roman women; the discussions furnish us with
argumentative models for authenticating and illuminating these writings,
historically and theoretically.
Further fueling our research into Roman womens writings has been the
discovery, in the late 1980s, of letters, dated to approximately 100 CE,
from Claudia Severa, the wife of one army officer, to Sulpicia Lepidina,
wife of another, at the Roman fort of Vindolanda in northern England.
These Latin texts furnish incontrovertible proof that women of advantaged but by no means elite and noble background, living far from the
imperial capital, communicated in elegant, emotion-packed, and literarily
flavored Latin. I learned of this discovery in 1989, at Tel-Aviv University,
when I was presenting a paper on Ovid's Tristia 3.7, a poem in the form of
a letter from exile to his young poetic protge Perilla.
In this poem Ovid invokes Sappho as providing the highest literary
standards to which women writers, Roman as well as Greek, could aspire.
In this paper I contrasted Ovids advice on writing about erotic topics
with the love poems of the elegist Sulpicia, in order to argue for Sulpicias
feminist stance according to the social and literary expectations of her
day. My Israeli audience contentiously, and rightly, asked why I did not
pay more attention to these newly excavated womens writings. Both this
discovery and their questioning soon altered my own research focus, and
did so dramatically.
Before too long I was tackling the evidence about the poetry of Martials
Sulpicia for an essay in a Festschrift honoring my mentor Joy King of the
University of Colorado. I then spotlighted this later Sulpicia in a special
issue of Classical World, with essays by Holt Parker, Amy Richlin, and
myself. Eventually, my four chapterson Cornelia, the elegist Sulpicia,
Martials Sulpicia, and Claudia Severain Women Writing Latin From
Roman Antiquity to Early Modern Europe2 placed these ancient Roman
women in their literary and historical contexts, as well as supplying both
Latin texts and English translations of their writings. More importantly, I
also defined their writings as generously and inclusively as possible.
For example, I took strong issue with scholarly ambivalence on the
authorship of Cornelias letter to her son Gaius. Noting unmistakable
echoes of Cornelias letter in speeches assigned to women of Cornelias
age and status, and addressed to their younger male relatives, in the writ63

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ings of the Augustan poet Vergil and historian Livy, I maintained that
these echoes presumed familiarity, on the part of the intended audience as
well as the author, with Cornelias letter. I took even stronger issue with
scholarly orthodoxy in maintainingon the basis of intertextual evidence,
much of it from Catullusthat the Augustan Sulpicia wrote all eleven of
the elegies about her.
My contrarian ideas keep encountering their detractors, but detractions
do not weaken my stance. When I lectured at the University of Tuebingen
in 2002, several of those in attendance adduced a passage of unknown
authorship quoted by the early first century BCE Rhetorica ad Herennium.
In addition to resembling the two excerpts from Cornelias letter in language and tone, it addresses her dead father Scipio Africanus and criticizes
the political conduct of her sons. My German audience vehemently, and
righteously, interpreted this passage as proof that the two excerpts from
the letter had to be fraudulent. I have since responded, at conferences and
in print, by hypothesizing that the passage might be a third excerpt from
the letter.
Closer to home, in the journal published by the Classical Association of
the Middle West and South, and at an American Philological Association
session on elegiac poetry over which I myself presided, two different critics have recently argued that if all eleven Sulpicia-elegies are the work of
a single poet, that poet was a male, and the torrid celebrations of illicit
love in those elegies are his wedding songs. In so arguing, one of these
scholars has even accused Holt Parker and me of manufacturing feminine
Latin merely for taking ancient texts at face value. Perhaps fear of such
unpleasant public treatment explains why contemporary feminist scholars
other than Parker seem reluctant to contend that Sulpicia wrote the first
five as well as the final six elegies about Cornelia.
Fortunately, Jane Stevensons even more recent Women Latin Poets:
Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century3
has made countering such criticism substantially easier. In it Stevenson
discusses, and convincingly identifies as Sulpicias work, an eight-line
inscription in elegiac couplets commemorating a lectrix, a female slave of
Sulpicias household who read aloud, named Petale. For over seventy-five
years scholars have ignored this inscription, which opens with the word
Sulpiciae, because it was unearthed and originally published in Italy during
the fascist era. But its thematic and linguistic affinities with the eleven
Sulpicia poems, its erudite and verbally playful style, and its celebration of
art, talent, and female beauty demand a new and more positive assessment
of what and how Sulpicia wrote.
Relying on a diverse body of ancient evidence, I have also recently writtenand finally overcome skepticism and outright resistence in trying to
publishan essay maintaining that Catullus recalls Sappho in publicly
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referring to his beloved as Lesbia because this woman, the noble matron
Clodia Metelli, was herself a poet. I even contend that Catullus represents
his beloved as sharing her own literary endeavors, and proffering literary criticism of his own work, in his own poetry. My next project entails
arguing that all four of the Roman women writers with whom I dealt in
Women Writing Latin were familiar with, and fond of evoking, Sapphos
poetry. Needless to say, the frequent invocations of Sappho by Catullus
and Horace, Ovid and Martial, as the gold standard for Roman womens
writings, play a vital role in my argument.
As they say in those public broadcasting announcements, my research
agenda has been made possible by the influx of women, and particularly
of feminist scholars and teachers, into our traditionally conservative,
male-dominated profession of classics over the past twenty-five years; by
the curricular changes they have wrought; and by the new scholarly directions they have taken. But I owe many of the insights I have gleaned, and
the courage I have been able to muster, to the support of feminist literary
scholars in other areas, and specifically to the change in the academic
climate fostered and achieved by Tulsa Studies in its first quarter century.
Vivat floreatque fortius longiusque!
NOTES
Jane Snyder, The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and
Rome (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991); Emily Hemelrijk,
Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Elite from Cornelia to Julia Domna
(London: Routledge, 1999); and Mathilde Skoie, Reading Sculpicia: Commentaries
1475-1990 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
2
See my Women Writing in Rome and Cornelia: Mother of the Gracchi,
The Eleven Elegies of the Augustan Poet Sulpicia, The Fragment of Martials
Sulpicia, and The Vindolanda Letters from Claudia Severa, in Women Writing
Latin from Roman Antiquity to Early Modern Europe, ed. Laurie J. Churchill, Phyllis
R. Brown, and Jane E. Jeffrey (New York: Routledge, 2002).
3
Jane Stevenson, Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from
Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
1

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