Monday 12 June 2017

Sulpicia's birthday

by Antonia Senior 

It is mid-afternoon on a Saturday and I am in a pub. Alone. With no children. I am hanging around, waiting for child 1 to emerge from a dreadful, dark din of trampolines and neon, where she is at a birthday party. I seize the quiet. 

I am working on some translations of the poet Sulpicia. Partly for fun - now that I review books for a living, my lifetime devotion to reading for pleasure, relaxation and solace has been tainted. Books are work, now. A minor, personal tragedy. I need something to fill the book-shaped hole.

That aside, Sulpicia is a real (probably) and fascinating character, and she might find her way into the book I am writing which is set in Augustan Rome. So I have dusted off my latin dictionary, clutched a dog-eared Loeb, and set about translating her. 

Happiness. Quiet and Loeb.
Sulpicia is not widely known, and yet hers are the only surviving lyric poems written by a woman in Latin. According to Ellen Greene, editor of Women Poets in Ancient Greece and Rome, we know the names of about 100 Greek and Roman women writers; but only 50 of those wrote words which survived - mostly in fragment form.

Remarkably, we have 6 surviving poems by Sulpicia. Less remarkably, male critics have split into two camps on the poems. Camp 1 believes that the poems have no merit. Camp 2 insists that as the poems have merit, they cannot possibly have been written by a woman.

Sulpicia's poems have passed down to us as part of the Corpus Tibulliarum - a body of work written mainly by Tibullus and other members of the coterie surrounding Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus. A one-time co-consul with Octavian, he was also a patron of the arts - and, it seems, Sulpicia's Uncle and guardian. 

Sulpicia's poems are conventionally structured elegiac couplets about love - specifically the passion she feels for a man called Cerinthus. The fashion at the time was for love poetry addressed to pseudonymous objects of passion, who may or may not exist. 

Some critics, notably Thomas Hubbard, have suggested that Sulpicia is fake - an invention of Tibullus, to pastiche the feelings of a young, love-sick, aristocratic girl.  Professor Alison Keith, a leading classicist, has refuted this argument, citing the rather tortuous logic that Hubbard uses to reach his conclusion.

The reality is, that we don't know. All we have are the poems, that profess to be written by a woman. As a writer of historical fiction, I get to wade in with my hobnail boots, and declare that I choose to believe in Sulpicia's existence. There are few enough female poetic voices echoing down from Augustan Rome, without deciding that the one we have does not exist. And in the absence of facts and secondary sources, it is a choice; a leap of faith. 

When in Rome last week, I visited the frescoes kept in the Palazzo Massimo which were found in the ancient ruins of a mansion on the banks of the Tiber - in the grounds of the standing Villa Farnesina. Lord, they were magnificent. They are believed to have been painted in the Augustan era, perhaps even at the behest of his daughter, Julia. And the subject of all the frescoes were women; women at work, at play, at home, in the fields. Women as slaves. And women as enthusiastic lovers. 

A fresco from the Villa Farnesina in the Palazzo Massimo museum, Rome.

         IS it really too much of a leap to see Sulpicia's work being read aloud in this room? 

Anyway. Enough of unknowables. We have her words, and we should celebrate them. This is my favourite poem, with my bash at a translation. Forgive me, for I'm sure she put it better. 


Here comes my loathsome
I will be dragged to the odious countryside,
and without Cerinthus.

What is sweeter than the City?
No country-house suits this
Nor the freezing river of Arretium and all its

Now, peace, Uncle Messala!
Your eager care oppresses
Journeys are often
timed so very badly.

There, they take me.
Here, I leave my heart and soul.
Since power forbids me
to be
judge of my own life.

For those that are interested, Here is a picture of the Latin, with the Loeb translation by its side. Loeb translations are much more exact renditions of the Latin itself - but what sounds poetic in the rhythmic syntax of a Latin poem can sound stiltedly awkward when directly rendered. I'm a bit new to translating (apart from under exam duress 100 years ago) so please, tell me if you think I've messed it up!


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