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The Other Sulpicia

Translation and notes copyright © 2000 John T. Quinn; all rights reserved.

        Me -
the linen, the slinging restored -
naked, making love with Calenus.
Exposed.
  
<si me> cadurc<i> restitutis fasciis
nud<a>m Caleno concubantem proferat

The Other Sulpicia, the wife of Calenus, was a poet who frankly celebrated her conjugal love (1). She predeceased her husband, dying sometime before 98 CE, when the poet Martial released a revised version of his tenth book of epigrams, containing poems in her honor.

Sulpicia's erotic verse seems to have enjoyed a renaissance in late antiquity, when it is mentioned by Ausonius and other writers. Ausonius also speaks of Sulpicia as a moral critic; this may be a reference to the poetic Complaint attributed to her, but whose authenticity is often denied by modern scholars.

All that survives of the poetry for which she was most famed is a fragment consisting of two lines preserved by a grammarian as a gloss on a Latin word for "linen". This fragment is difficult to interpret because some of the words are subject to different meanings; even the actual wording is, in places, uncertain. Readers are urged to consult Diotima's bibliography of the two Sulpicias for various attempts at a full understanding. Since confidence cannot be placed in any one interpretation, I've offered an impressionistic version.

Note:

(1) In their introduction to Martial 10.35, Lefkowitz & Fant suggest that Sulpicia's poetry lacked passion and immediacy. Reading Martial's poem in light of the fragment and of the other evidence leads many of us to a far different evaluation.

 

Evidence for the Life & Poetry of The Other Sulpicia

A. Martial 10.35 (98 CE, or shortly before)

B. Martial 10.38 (98 CE, or shortly before)

        Tender, Calenus, were those fifteen years
the god granted and brought to completion,
the years of marriage to your Sulpicia.
Every night, every hour counted out
5on costly gemstones from the Indian shore!
What tussles, what entanglements initiated
by each of you did the bountiful bed see --
or the lamp, drunk on the perfumer's showers.
Fifteen years old, you say, Calenus,
10you are, measuring a whole lifespan
only by the sum of its married days.
If the Fates brought back the light
of one such day (long since wished),
you'd forego four times Nestor's age.

C. Ausonius, prose apology at the end of Nuptial Cento (ca. 380 CE)

        "My page is lewd; my life is pure," as Martial (1.4.8) says. Moreover, let my learned critics remember that ... Sulpicia's book is sexually exciting, but her own brow furrowed (i.e., in a sign of moral censure).

D. Sidonius Apollinaris, Poems, 9.261-262 (ca. 477 CE)

Sidonius was already a Christian bishop when he informed readers what they should expect to find in his own verses:

        Not the smooth-sounding words written
by Sulpicia's Muse in sport to Calenus

E. Fulgentius the Mythographer, Mythologies (ca.500 CE)

In the wake of the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, Fulgentius incorporated into his writings as much classical learning as was consonant with his Christian piety. Sulpicia's poetry did not, apparently, meet his test.

1.4the nerve of that darned Sulpicia
1.23the tell-all talk of that darned Sulpicia mentioned by Ausonius
        

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