Sulpicia (c. 40 BCE – date of death unknown)
Born c. 40 BCE, Sulpicia was a noblewoman, who lived during the Augustan Age of the Roman Empire. As the legal ward of her uncle Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus (64 BCE – 8 CE), a military commander to Emperor Augustus and patron of an eminent literary salon, which included the famed elegiac poet Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BCE – c .19 BCE), scholars believe that Sulpicia was literate and well-educated. Corpus Tibullianum, a renowned collection of Latin poetry, may have been deliberately assembled to represent the literary works of the poetry salon under Messalla’s patronage. Divided into four books, Books I and II of the Corpus consist entirely of love elegies attributed to the poet Tibullus.
The Augustan love elegy was composed of couplets of hexameter and pentameter, or groups of six and five poetic feet. As a Latin poetic form, the Augustan elegy was deeply indebted to the poet Catullus (c. 84 BCE – c. 54 BCE), who filled his verses with personal observation and emotion. He embraced the idea of a “subjective” poetic narrator, in which the poet writes from their own perspective about love, relationships, and desire, employing pseudonyms for their real, and sometimes imagined, love interests.
In Corpus Tibullianum’s third book, six love elegies are attributed to Sulpicia as author and poet. She details a clandestine romantic relationship with Cerinthus, her lover under pseudonym, and she boldly expresses her desire throughout the myriad turns of their relationship, which may have been upended by a difference in social rank within Roman society. As we meet Sulpicia for the first time, she prays to Venus to “gift” her the perfect lover: Cerinthus. She claims, perhaps naively, that with the god’s blessing, they will be forever united. Triumphantly, Sulpicia longs to tell the world of her love, writing, “How I’d hate to keep what I’ve written under seal where none could read me sooner than Cerinthus.”  In the second elegy, with her prayers now answered, Sulpicia becomes furious with her Uncle Messalla for organizing a household trip to his country estate on her birthday. She vents that her celebration will be ruined without Cerinthus, who remains in Rome.
In the third elegy, with a sudden reversal of fortune, Sulpicia is permitted to remain in the city for her birthday. She plans to celebrate with Cerinthus, who, once skeptical of their relationship, should now be assured of her devotion. The fourth elegy marks dissolution: Sulpicia and Cerinthus’ relationship has ended. As she bitterly observes him with another, Sulpicia’s wounded pride and classist prejudice overwhelm her. By the fifth elegy, we are left to wonder: has the couple reunited? Sulpicia is now sick with fever, and she waits to hear from Cerinthus, interpreting his silence as lack of interest. At the sixth and final elegy, Sulpicia meets Cerinthus secretly once again, but ultimately departs, “favoring as I did that once to hide my own fire.”  Sulpicia worries that, by guarding her own emotions and desires, she has forfeited her relationship. In this moment, Sulpicia’s six love elegies conclude abruptly, leaving the audience to imagine the couple’s fate. Sulpicia’s date of death is unknown, and after the publication of the Corpus Tibullianum, she completely disappears from the historical archive.
In her seven-song cycle Sulpicia’s Songs (2015) for voice and piano, composer Jessica Krash sets to music modern English translations of Sulpicia’s Augustan love elegies by writer, translator, and scholar Mary Maxwell. In constructing a seventh song with text from Sulpicia’s first elegy to conclude the overall cycle, Krash and Maxwell arguably engage in an act of reclamation, envisioning a musical resolution to Sulpicia’s story, one in which she and Cerinthus find some semblance of happiness together. As a personal, interpretive gesture in retaining the historical ambiguity of Sulpicia’s “end,” I take the long way there excerpts six of the cycle’s seven songs in their original order. Through film, we imagine each of Sulpicia’s elegies as a portrait, preserved within its historical frame, yet also as a living representation.
As visual inspiration, we gathered images of Roman noblewomen, collected by the National Archeological Museum of Naples, from various Roman frescoes in Pompeii, Italy. They depict a host of activities: women gathering with one another, writing with stylus and tablet, painting, preparing their toilette, and gathering flowers. While these frescoes were constructed over a century after Sulpicia’s lifetime, the images still provide a fascinating visual context in which to imagine our protagonist and her environment, especially since no single artefact of Sulpicia’s likeness has survived.
The story of Sulpicia, however, does not end on the papyrus scrolls of the Corpus Tibullianum. From the sixteenth century until the present day, criticism of Sulpicia’s verses within the field of Classical studies has attempted to negate her contributions as author and poet. Wielding a gamut of gendered arguments, critics claim that her poetry was conceived by a male author in her uncle’s circle, or allege that, if a Roman female author indeed created the poems, they remain amateur in construction and expression. Since the 1980’s, however, Classical feminist critique has wholly rejected the erasure of Sulpicia’s authorial voice through research and analysis into the literary output of women in ancient Rome. To this day, Sulpicia’s six love elegies remain the only extant examples of Roman Latin poetry by a female author.
Sulpicia’s Songs envisions an embodied Sulpicia, manifesting the joys and sorrows of her romantic life. Through her own words, Sulpicia’s voice occupies a liminal space between antiquity and our present world. As song cycle, Sulpicia’s Songs operates as a vital contribution in support of feminist critical attempts to reclaim Sulpicia’s personhood, as it textually and musically reframes and performs her first century poetic voice through the perspectives of twenty-first century creative women as translator, composer, and performer.
Sulpicia’s Songs by Jessica Krash
Eric Sedgwick, piano
i. At last, it’s come
ii. The hated birthday approaches
iii. Did you hear?
iv. I’m grateful
vi. No longer care for me
vii. Let it be known! (piano only)
- Mary Maxwell, Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry: An Anthology of New Translations (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 83-87.
- Maxwell, Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry, 83-87.
Sulpicia’s Songs was featured on the film-recital project, I take the long way there. For more information about the repertoire on this program, check out my projects.