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Sulpicia's Complaint: On the State of the Nation and the Age of Domitian

Translation and notes copyright 2000 James Lawrence Peter Butrica; all rights reserved.

Introduction

The "Conquestio Sulpiciae" survived antiquity in a single copy preserved at Bobbio in northwestern Italy and formed part of a collection of epigrams and other light verse now known as the Epigrammata Bobiensia. Only a few bits of the manuscript now survive (none containing this poem, however), and scholars have to rely on four sources that derive from transcripts that were made when it was first examined by scholars in 1493 (it has been thought that two transcripts were made directly from the Bobbio manuscript, but the sheer number of errors suggests instead that only one transcript was produced and that our four sources derive from two transcripts of that original copy). One of these transcripts was rediscovered by Augusto Campana in the Vatican library (Vaticanus latinus 2836), while the other (now lost) was the source of the text that was printed in three early editions of Ausonius, all of which had independent access to it (Venice 1496; Parma 1499; Venice 1507). Reconstructing the lost copy at Bobbio is made the more difficult by the fact that the editors of these three editions sometimes incorporated their own corrections, but it is clear that the text had survived in extremely bad condition, with errors not only in individual words but also in the order of lines; and this situation was in no way ameliorated by the fact that the Bobbio manuscript was in a very difficult early minuscule script.

Modern scholars have long been reluctant to accept the attribution to Sulpicia; before the discovery of the Vatican manuscript, some even suspected that it was a forgery of the Middle Ages or Renaissance. Reference is invariably made to Emil Baehrens' Habilitationsschrift of 1873 "De Sulpiciae quae vocatur satira" as the definitive demonstration that the poem is a forgery from the age of Ausonius, but no-one ever seems to cite any of the arguments that Baehrens used. It is certainly true that the memory of Sulpicia was still alive in that period (she is mentioned by both Ausonius and Sidonius Apollinaris as well as the mythographer Fulgentius), but her reputation was exclusively as a writer of sexy poetry about sex within marriage--which would seem to make her an unlikely figure to appropriate for an exercise in denouncing Domitian's expulsion of philosophers from Rome. I do not myself know the arguments that Baehrens used, but they probably involved a very few metrical anomalies, which could well be the result of textual corruption, and a very few close parallels in phrasing between this work and later poets like Prudentius and Dracontius, which could as easily be explained by their dependence upon her as by this author's upon them. While not an undiscovered masterpiece, the work (as far as we can tell given the wretched condition of the text) is competent and effective, and there seems to be no sound reason why it should not be taken at face value, as a work written by the same Sulpicia, wife of Calenus, who was known to Martial.

Summary

The author, accustomed to writing in lyric meters, now appeals to Calliope for help in writing dactylic hexameters, the meter of epic (but also of satire). Though this is to be a tale of peace (accepting a necessary correction of Heinsius; see note 1 below), the author professes to be alarmed at the current state of affairs. What is Jupiter up to? Is he reversing the course of human development and returning the whole world to its primitive state, or is it only Rome that he is attacking? Thanks to a combination of native courage and Greek wisdom, the Romans have conquered the world and ruled it well, but now Domitian, Rome's degenerate "king," has decided to expel Rome's wise men as if they were the invading Gauls of old. From this point the text seems to have suffered substantial losses. The author certainly contrasted Scipio Aemilianus and Cato the Censor for their attitudes, positive and negative respectively, to the reception of Greek philosophy and culture, but the subject seems to shift slightly to the question of whether Rome is more likely to prosper in adversity or in prosperity; perhaps the expulsion of the philosophers was represented as one symptom of the deleterious effects of extended peace. There seems to have been an elaborate comparison (now severely truncated) between the behavior of wasps and bees and the current state of Rome, where everyone is lazy and overfed. The author then ends her story and (in a passage that is especially corrupt) probably asked Calliope for advice on whether she and her husband ought to leave Rome, then was reassured on the authority of Apollo and the Muses that Domitian's end was in store.

Sulpicia's Complaint: On the State of the Nation and the Age of Domitian

Note: the Latin text is available at the Curculio site.

        "Muse, grant to me the weaving of a little tale of peace [1]
in the meter that you use when you celebrate wars and heroes.
For you I have drawn aside, renewing with you [2]
my intimate counsel; hence I'm not flowing along in Phalaecus' song
5or in trimeter or in the one, always lame in the same foot,
that learned [3] its bold anger under the guidance of the Clazomenaean. [4]
And furthermore, as for the rest, the thousands of light verses that once I wrote [5]
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and was the first woman to teach Roman women [6] to vie with Greek
and to vary with fresh wit, I pass over with equanimity
10and approach you in the meter in which you are first
and most eloquent: descend at your client's entreaty and hear.
Tell me, Calliope: whatever does that father of the gods
have in mind? Is he changing the world to the age of our ancestors [7],
and is he snatching away the skills he once gave to mortals [8]
15and forcing us, speechless and bereft of reason now
just like when we rose up at the beginning of time,
to sink again to acorns and unmixed water [9]?
Or is he amicably keeping the rest of the world and its cities safe
while he eradicates [10] the Ausonian race and Romulus' nurslings [11]?
20What reckoning are we to make? To be sure [12], it is through two things
that Rome has raised huge its head, courage in war and wisdom in peace:
32on these it stood, for without them it could not have withstood [13],
33or else Diespiter is shown to have told his wife [14] in vain
34and falsely long ago, 'I have given empire without end.'
But courage, set in motion at home [and] [15] in the wars against the Latins [16],
jumped to the straits of Sicily and the citadel of Carthage
and the other empires as well, and the prize it took was the whole of the world.
25Then, as does the victor who faints alone in the Greek stadium
and collapses though his courage remains steadfast with itself [17],
so likewise Rome's gang [18] once they ceased
to struggle and bridled peace with long reins.
It was while reviewing in peacetime the laws and discoveries of the Greeks
30that they ruled with counsel and gentle reason
all the prizes of war acquired on land and sea:
35and so now the man who is ruling as a king among the Romans,
a degenerate not with his beam but with his back, and white in the throat [19],
has commanded both scholarship and the name and race of wise men
all to get out and take their leave of the City!
What are we doing? Didn't we conquer the cities of the Greeks [20]
40so that Rome's gang [21] could be educated with them as their teachers?
But now, the same way the Gauls took flight when Capitolinus <and> Camillus
routed them and they left the cash [22] and the weighing-scale behind,
so our old men are forced to scatter and to carry off
their books themselves like some deadly load.
45So where Scipio of Numantia and of Africa [23] went astray is in the fact
that he grew as his teacher from Rhodes molded him,
and the other bunch eloquent in the Second War [24],
among whom oldfashioned 'Cato's godlike pronouncement' [25]
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
would have valued greatly having the gods know [26] whether
50Roman stock stood in prosperity or rather in adversity.
In adversity of course: for, when armed defense
is what patriotism urges, and the thought of a homeless wife [27],
it is appropriate, as for the wasps whose house is on Moneta's citadel [28],
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
a swarm with drawn swords bristling all over their yellow bodies;
55but when the bee has returned carefree, forgetting her own [29]
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
both plebeians and patricians alike die in their overfed sleep:
And so the Romulids' long and heavy peace is their destruction.
This is how the little tale makes its end. In future, esteemed
Muse, I should like you, without whom there is no pleasure for me [30]
60to live, to tell me, as once #for the people of Smyrna# was perishing,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
#Now may s/he wish to move in the very same way. Or finally whatever
Or, goddess, seek something else: only gladden# Rome's walls
for Calenus and equally fend off the Sabines."
My words--then the goddess begins to deem me worthy of a brief response:
65"Lay aside your rightful fears, my devotee: behold [31], extreme hatred
looms over the tyrant, and he is going to die in our honour.
For we inhabit Numa's laurel-groves and the same springs,
and with Egeria at our side we mock his pointless efforts [32].
Live, fare well: this pretty pain has a reputation of his own in store [33].
70The chorus of Muses pledges it, and Rome's Apollo."

Notes

The text of the Conquestio is so corrupt that editions vary widely, as would translations based upon them if they existed (the only other English version known to me was published in the Bohn Classical Library late in the nineteenth century). I have had three texts available to me, the one (of unspecificied origin) printed in the Corpus Poetarum Latinorum published in 1875, Peiper's in his Teubner text of Ausonius, and Speyer's in his Teubner text of the Epigrammata Bobiensia; none is wholly satisfactory, and so in the end I produced my own text, using Speyer as my source for the readings of the Vatican manuscript and the early editions and Speyer and Peiper as a source of conjectures. The following notes have two chief purposes: to give some of the factual background necessary for understanding the poem; and to explain places where I have translated a reading (whether my own conjecture or someone else's) different from that printed by Speyer (on the other hand, I have not pointed out cases where Speyer's edition incorporates a correction adopted in the other editions as well).

[1] "Peace" translates Heinsius' conjecture pacis rather than paucis, transmitted as the last word of the line; this gives a rhetorical balance with arma and provides a sound reason for the poet to request the Muse's assistance--not to mention that the effect of peace on Rome is indeed a major theme of the poem (cf. line 57). If paucis were right, it would mean instead, "allow to me to weave a little tale in few words," but at a minimum length of 70 lines, the poem seems too long for "a few words."

[2] The author adopts the "Du-Stil" (with repeated forms of "you") typical of ancient prayers.

[3] Here didicit ("learned"), a conjecture of Vinetus, seems required in place of the transmitted discit ("learns").

[4] The author appeals to Calliope presumably because she normally writes in the lyric meters named here: hendecasyllabics (called "Phalaecean song" from the Greek poet Phalaecus), regular iambic trimeters, and scazons or choliambics (an iambic trimeter "with the same foot maimed" because it regularly has a spondee as its last unit; "the Clazomenaean" is Hipponax, a resident of Clazomenae after being exiled from his native Ephesus, who invented this meter and used it in poems of abuse). Line 5 is corrupt as transmitted, though there is no doubt about the general sense intended. I have translated my own version, which deletes the unmetrical iambo as a gloss and inserts semper before pede; something like semper ("always") seems to be required for "lame in the same foot" to give acceptable sense.

[5] The text here is difficult (I have translated Heinsius' conjecture quondam quae instead of the transmitted quod denique, which is unintelligible); since there is an apparent lack of continuity in grammar (though not in context) between 7 and 8, while uariare in 9 seems to need a direct object, perhaps a line has been lost after 7.

[6] I have adopted the early conjecture Romanas ("Roman women") in preference to the transmitted Romanos ("the Romans"); Sulpicia may have said that she was the first Roman woman to write in a variety of meters (something that a number of men had done, including Catullus).

[7] I have translated Heinsius' conjecture in rather than the transmitted et, which would mean "changing the world and its [or his] ancestral ages," but of course it is the present, not the past, that Jupiter seems to be changing.

[8] I have translated Hoeven's conjecture mortalibus ("mortals") in preference to the transmitted morientibus ("the dying").

[9] Acorns were food for swine in Classical times but were thought to have formed the diet of the earliest humans; "unmixed" water (purae in the Latin) no doubt means "not mixed with wine." "Ausonian" is a synonym for "Italian."

[10] I have translated Baehrens' conjecture extirpat ("eradicates") rather than the transmitted exturbat ("drives out").

[11] "Romulus' nurslings" cannot be right, since Romulique does not scan; Pithou conjectured Remulique (a diminutive of Remus, but not attested elsewhere), while I wonder whether Sulpicia wrote lupulaeque, "the nurslings of the little she-wolf"; for all Romans as "nurslings" of the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, see Propertius 4.1.37-38.

[12] Editions punctuate this line Quid? Reputemus enim: ("What? Let's consider:"), but this involves an unusual intransitive use of reputo (even if no object is expressed, one can generally be drawn from the context) and it is never clear just what the reader is invited to consider. I have translated the line in a repunctuated version Quid reputemus? Enim, with enim used in the first sense recorded in the OLD, "To be sure, of course," in answering questions (enim is seldom first in its clause outside Roman Comedy, but the usage is probably not too casual for a satirical poem like this).

[13] I have tried to reflect the wordplay in the original on stare ("stood") and its compound constare ("withstood"). It appears that "these" and "them" refer to the same thing; where the line is transmitted, however, that must be the nearest noun, "the prizes of war," but it is on courage and wisdom that Rome stands, not her captured territories. I have accordingly transposed 32-34 to after 21; it must be remembered, however, that all modern editions of the Conquestio already incorporate a transposition of the original lines 16-18 as transmitted to after 19 (and, unfortunately, renumber the lines accordingly, so that they are now numbered 20-22). The displaced lines originally formed a block of 6 (= 20, 21, 32-34, 22 in the numbering of modern editions); perhaps the entire block was omitted at some point, then replaced incorrectly in two different groups of 3, or perhaps the 6 lines were lost in two separate phases, first 32-34, then 20-22, with each group again replaced incorrectly.

[14] Since Jupiter in fact says this to Venus at Virgil, Aeneid 1.279, Burmann proposed to replace uxori ("wife") with Veneri ("Venus"); the alteration is palaeographically plausible, but this is perhaps a case of correcting the author.

[15] The deletion of et ("and") is another conjecture of Baehrens.

[16] The text as transmitted calls these "social wars," but that is impossible on the chronology that the author sketches; "social wars" refer very specifically to the wars between Rome and her allies (socii) that took place in the early 1st century BC, after--not before--the conquests of Italy, Carthage, and various kingdoms mentioned in the next two lines. Hence I have translated my own conjecture Latialibus for socialibus; the two words are virtually indistinguishable in minuscule scripts, while the presence of domi and the familiarity of the Social Wars could have encouraged the unconscious substitution. The author's conception of Rome's development resembles that found in the historian Florus (though without the terms derived from the stages of human life that Florus uses): both emphasize the sequence "local" wars in Latium--conquest of Italy--conquests across the seas, and both emphasize the speed with which Italy was conquered (here expressed by the verb "jumped").

[17] It is difficult to see the precise point of this comparison between Rome and a victorious but exhausted athlete, especially in the punctuation of modern editions, which make the sentence run on to 31, and the text is uncertain at points. "Alone" in 25 seems pointless, while secum, translated here as "with itself," has often been thought corrupt, though no plausible correction has been suggested; I have ended the comparison at 28, with "faints and collapses" to be supplied as verbs with "Rome's gang" as their subject.

[18] The author uses Romana manus ("Rome's gang") as a synonym for "Romans"; at Petronius, Satyricon 5.15 it means "Roman authors" rather than "Romans," but Ausonia manus, meaning "Italians," can be found already in Virgil, Aeneid 8.328.

[19] Somewhat obscure; the first part of the line seems to denounce Domitian as the passive rather than active participant in anal intercourse, but the meaning of the second part is less certain; Rostagni has interpreted it as "white from gluttony," others might think of the presence of semen in his throat.

[20] Lines 39-40 as transmitted (especially Graios hominumque relinquimus urbes in 39) offer substantial difficulties of both grammar (the imperfect subjunctive foret in 40 is incompatible with the present tense relinquimus transmitted in 39) and sense ("we are leaving the Greeks and the cities of men"). The text that I have translated, Graiorum nonne reuicimus urbes, combines three conjectures, Fuchs' Graiorum, my own nonne (namque and nempe are also possible), and Munari's reuicimus.

[21] Here I have translated Burmann's conjecture manus ("gang" again) instead of the transmitted magis ("rather"). For the transmitted Romana to stand on its own here without a noun to modify, we must understand urbs from urbes above, giving the meaning "the Roman city," i.e. Rome (the other possible interpretation, "the Roman woman," does not suit the context).

[22] Ensibus ("swords") is the transmitted reading, but I have translated Withof's censibus ("cash"), an allusion to the gold with which the Romans were supposed to buy off the Gauls who invaded ca 390 BC. For fuller accounts, see Livy 5.48-49 and Plutarch, Camillus 28.4-29.5: the Romans, under the military tribune Q. Sulpicius, agreed to the ransom; the Gauls, however, brought false weights (Livy) or tampered with the scales (Plutarch), and Brennus even threw his sword onto the scale (uttering the celebrated phrase uae uictis, "woe to the vanquished"), whereupon the dictator Camillus arrived like the cavalry in a Western (declaring that Rome was to be redeemed with steel, not gold) and told them to take their scales and go. (Some might wish to argue that the transmitted ensibus is a reference to Brennus' sword, but in that case we would expect a singular, not a plural.) In 41, "Capitolinus and Camillus" translates an emendation of my own, the addition of et after ueluti. Without et, we must understand "Capitoline Camillus," which is meaningless; with et, the defeat of the Gauls is attributed to Camillus and to M. Manlius, subsequently called Capitolinus for thwarting the Gauls' surprise attack against the Capitol. Though only Camillus is recorded as involved in the episode of the scales, both men were credited with saving Rome from the Gauls; cf. Florus 1.7.19 post adsertam a Manlio, restitutam a Camillo urbem. In 43 I have translated Baehrens' conjecture adiguntur ("are forced") rather than the transmitted dicuntur ("are said").

[23] P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus Numantinus (185-129 BC; here called "Libycus" rather than "Africanus"), conquerer of Numantia and of Carthage (in the Third Punic War), was an important figure in the reception of Greek culture and especially philosophy in Rome as head of the so-called "Scipionic Circle." Since in isto (literally "in this") is unclear on its own, I have adopted and translated Cannegieter's conjecture quod for qui in the next line ("in the fact that"); the whole is an incredulous and sarcastic utterance which I would punctuate with an exclamation point if it were possible to tell where the sentence ends. The author alludes to the belief that Panaetius of Rhodes, a prominent figure in the Scipionic Circle, was in some sense the teacher of Scipio (Cicero normally emphasizes the friendship of the two men, but at De officiis 1.90.12 he calls Scipio Panaetius' auditor [almost "disciple" rather than "student"], Porphyrio's commentary on Horace, Odes 1.29.13 calls Panaetius the praeceptor ["teacher"] of Scipio, and the Suda entry for Panaetius says that he "taught" Scipio [kaqhgh/sato]). But Panaetius could not have taught Scipio as a child, and so creuit in the next line (literally "grew") must be used in the sense "flourished in his career" (see the OLD s.v. cresco 7, "To advance in wealth, power, popular esteem, etc."), though no doubt the idea of intellectual "growth" into a sort of philosophical adulthood is present as well.

[24] "The Second War" as a reference to the Second Punic War is impossible unless the First has already been mentioned, but there seems to be little point in assuming a lacuna to accommodate such a reference, and taking bello secundo as meaning "when war is successful" or the like seems just as pointless. Probably the text is corrupt, and perhaps Sulpicia wrote bello facunda domique or bello facunda togaque, both of which would mean "eloquent in war and peace."

[25] A reference to M. Porcius Cato (234-149 BC) in connection with Greek philosophers inevitably recalls his reaction to the legation of philosophers (comprising Carneades, Diogenes the Stoic, and Critolaus) that visited Rome in 155 BC. He supposedly remarked that when Carneades spoke it was impossible to tell what the truth was (Pliny, Natural History 7.30), and wanted them out of town as quickly as possible; it also appears from Plutarch, Cato 22 that he was concerned about the effect of Roman youth listening to these men instead of to "the laws and magistrates." The phrase "Cato's godlike pronouncement" is quoted from Horace, Satires 1.2.32. There it referred to macte uirtute esto, Cato's words of congratulation to a young man on visiting a brothel (in preference to seducing the wife or daughter of a Roman citizen). Since that sentiment would be irrelevant here, it seems that we have lost whatever the author presented as Cato's "pronouncement"; it could well have been a version of an opinion that Pliny (above) says he expressed often--that every last philosopher should be driven out of Italy (ille semper alioquin uniuersos ex Italia pellendos censuit).

[26] Text and meaning again uncertain, especially if a line or more has indeed been lost just before; for example, adeo has been proposed for deos, giving the sense "he would have valued greatly knowing whether..." There seems to be a shift in theme to the effects of extended peace, of which the expulsion of the philosophers was perhaps presented as an example.

[27] "The thought of a homeless wife" translates Peiper's conjecture caritura (lit. "a wife who is going to lack a home"); the transmitted captiua ("a captive wife") seems impossible.

[28] Text and interpretation again uncertain. One can choose between arce mouente, read by Vat. lat. 2836 and the Venetian edition of 1498, and arce monetae, given by the other two printed editions. The agreement of the Vatican manuscript and any of the printed editions ought to give the reading of the Bobiensis, and arx, though not attested in the sense "hive," would be an appropriate term to use, but arce mouente remains meaningless. Faute de mieux, I have translated arce monetae, though with no confidence that it is right; no-one else mentions wasps in the temple of Juno Moneta. It is probably only a coincidence that this temple was built on the site of the home of the Manlius who is referred to as Capitolinus in 41. I follow Baehrens in supposing that something has been lost after this line; but the brevity of the bee-comparison suggests that one or more lines have also been lost after 55.

[29] The Bobiensis seems to have read suorum ("her own"); this could mean the other bees of the hive, but suggestions for correction have included fauorum ("the honeycomb"), laborum ("their labors"), and furorum ("their anger"); on the other hand, it is also possible that suorum is correct and that the noun that it modified has been lost in the lacuna that follows.

[30] Lines 59-63 are perhaps the most desperately corrupt passage in the entire poem, and the sense cannot be followed with any certainty. (In editions of Latin texts, daggers or obeli are conventionally used to mark off a text that is hopelessly corrupt; in the translation I use the pound sign #.) In 59 I have taken optima as feminine singular, modifying Musa ("esteemed Muse"); but it could also be feminine singular, modifying fabella ("my excellent tale makes its end") or neuter plural and object of moneas ("advise me of the best course"). In 60 the Bobiensis probably read zmyrnalibus (or smyrnalibus) peribat, which does not scan, while the -que added to z/smyrnalibus in all witnesses except Avantius' edition (which instead leaves a brief lacuna) is probably an interpolation to repair the defective meter; the sense, however, remains uncertain, but it seems likely that there is an allusion here to the story told in Herodotus 1.94 about the migration of Lydians to Italy in response to an extended famine. It may be that the author asked Calliope's advice on whether she and her husband Calenus ought to leave Rome as the Lydians left Smyrna or remain; some have thought that Calenus himself was one of the banished philosophers, but in that case no choice would be possible--it is probably the general state of Rome under Domitian (described in the truncated wasp and bee similes) that inspires thoughts of departure. Perhaps Domitian was represented as "king" of the hive (the term the Romans used for the bee we call the queen, and cf. 35 for Domitian as rex), while the Romans in general were depicted as overfed, lazy drones. While I generally leave these lines in their corrupt condition (hence the apparent incoherence of the translation), I have incorporated two small changes. One is my own conjecture uel for ut as the first word of 62; "as a goddess" seems impossible, and uel correlates with uel in 61. The other is Kroll's conjecture iucundes ("gladden"), which I have translated in preference to the transmitted iucundos in 63 (which would presumably modify Sabinos, but Sabines are never merry or pleasant), even though it introduces an extremely rare active voice of iucundare, a verb normally found (in Christian Latin at that) only in the passive, with the meaning "be glad." "Sabines" probably refers to Domitian, whose family was of Sabine stock.

[31] I have translated Heinsius' conjecture ecce at the start of 66 instead of the transmitted haec; haec ("this extreme hatred") makes no sense when no "hatred" is mentioned or alluded to elsewhere, while ecce supplies an appropriate gesture for the divine utterance.

[32] Curiously, Martial 10.35.13-14 also connects Sulpicia with Numa and Egeria, though in a rather different way; Martial says that Sulpicia's poetry is probably like the ioci that Egeria cracked "within Numa's soggy grotto."

[33] "This pretty pain" is probably either a direct reference to Domitian's original youthful good looks (often a source of charges like the one in line 36) or else an ironic one to his later, far less svelte appearance; there might also be a hit at the vanity evident in the fact that he composed a work on the care of the hair while losing his own (cf. Suet. Dom. 18).

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