— Sulpicia

1. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, “The Favourite Poet” 1888.


2. Josephine Balmer, Women Classical Poets (1996: 96-97):

“This mischievous insistence on the equality of relations between the sexes informs all of Sulpicia’s poetry, providing an invaluable and precious glimpse into the emotional consciousness of Roman women, seen elsewhere only through the distorted mirror of the male elegists’ often sub-pornographic characterisations. Her sexual honesty, her witty sensuality and teasing innuendo, too, present an image of womanhood far from the traditional ‘silent women’ of Rome.”

3a. Sulpicia no. 86 (Balmer): “Sulpicia Thwarted”:

Hateful birthday, here again, and I must pass a tedious
tearful trip to the country — all without Cerinthus.
For what’s more charming than the city? Is a draughty villa
fit for the girl about town? Arno’s freezing river?
Too much now, Messalla, you’re stifling me — give this girl a rest,
since travel, uncle, does not broaden every mind.
For if my body’s carried off, then I’ll leave my thoughts behind,
since you won’t let me judge what I know — or love — the best.

3b. Sulpicia no. 87 (Balmer): “Sulpicia Saved”:

Have you heard, I’ve been released? Yes, the weight of that dull journey
has been lifted from your girl, freed from rural humdrum
to celebrate her birthday in Rome; a treat for all which comes
to you by surprise, my love — and with it, of course, me.

3c. Sulpicia no. 88 (Balmer): “Sulpicia Angry”: 

Here’s a pleasant thought: now you’ve become so careless over me
there’s no sad chance that I might take a sudden tumble.
So take more trouble for some rag-bag tart in tatty toga
than for Sulpicia, Servius’ non-servile daughter;
there are those who trouble about me, those whose greatest grumble
is that I might now let it slip — and for nobody.

3d. Sulpicia no. 89 (Balmer): “Sulpicia Sick”: 

Have you no respect, Cerinthus, no concern for your sweetheart
now fever fires up my feeble frame, allows no rest?
Oh, but I don’t desire a cure, an end to torrid torment
if you don’t want it too, won’t play your own willing part.
For what good are cures, why conquer cares, if you could not care less,
can bear this heat so coolly, all your compassion spent?

3e. Sulpicia no. 90 (Balmer): “Sulpicia Sorry”: 

Don’t carry a burning torch for me, my love, my fierce bright light,
— as I thought perhaps you might have done these past few days —
if I have ever done anything more foolish in my life,
anything I could confess to you that might outweigh
this grievous greatest crime of leaving you alone late last night
desiring only to disguise my own red-hot blaze.

3f. Sulpicia no. 91 (Balmer): “Sulpicia’s Advice to a Lover on His Birthday”:*
*Sulpicia or auctor de Sulpicia?

This festive day, Cerinthus, this day which delivered you to me,
will be sacred forever, our own blazing portent.
For when you were born the cruel Fates cried down fresh slavery
on women, made you harsh overseer, searing torment.
And I burn more than most. But I’ll take my pleasure on these coals,
Cerinthus, if my fierce fires can somehow fire you too;
on our tender tinder love, and to your own slow sparking soul,
I’m praying that this same desire will catch hold in you.

So I’ll make the sacrifice, birth spirit, fan his dying flame;
you turn his thoughts to mine, make his body yearn for mine.
But if by chance he’s smouldering at the sound of some new name,
then leave his hearth-fires smoking, desert that faithless shrine.
And you, Venus, play us fair; either forge us both together
slave to branded slave, or release me from my bondage —
no better make it together, and with your strongest fetter,
the links not even time can corrode or disengage.

You see, the man has his wants but still says silent as he’s wont,
too shamed (so far) to speak those three small words out loud.
But in my brazen birthday suit, my love, here’s my binding vow:
you’ll be damned if you do, but damned (by me) if you don’t.

3g. Sulpicia no. 92 (Balmer): “To Cerinthus at the Hunt”:
*Sulpicia or auctor de Sulpicia

Don’t toy with my boy, ugly boar, as your roam the great outdoors,
poring over crooked paths, your hidden mountain lairs —
and please, don’t think to sharpen those tough old tusks; this isn’t war:
Love, protect him for me, just return him unimpaired;
for he’s been captured for the chase, and Diana’s all the rage
(oh those dark woods can pine away, hounds go to the dogs).
What frenzy’s this, what sort of scheme, to use forests for a cage
or wound those oh so supple hands, give self-harm the nod?
And what pleasure’s here, among wild beasts, to penetrate their hides,
brand with thorns those milk-white thighs, endure such stinging barbs?
So here’s the plan, Cerinthus, clear: let me wander by your side,
bear your tangled, twisted webs along such shady paths;
yes, I can rake the cooling traces, track down your own fast deer,
slip the leash, unchain the dog, swoon at the scent of hare
(oh these dark woods can give such pleasure, if you, my light, stay near).
So let’s make love — to prove the point — by the sets and snares;
and we’ll let wild beasts walk by our mesh, retire again intact
(crashing boars could never jolt the joy of our caress).
But don’t play Venus without me, make Diana’s virgin pact:
be chaste, not chased, my own true boy, cast your purest nets.
And if some girl should stalk my love, mark him our for secret prey,
then let the beasts tear out her heart, you just cut her charms;
the chase’s thrill is not for you, leave your father to the fray,
except, of course, for this charge — into my waiting arms.


Women poets.

— Corinna
— Telesilla
— Praxilla

1. Fragment of a marble head of a woman from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, c. 550-530 BCE. Cover of Josephine Balmer’s Classical Women Poets. Image: British Museum.


2a. Josephine Balmer, Women Classical Poets (1996: 9):

“In the first century AD [=CE], Antipater of Thessalonica‘s enthusiasm for classical women’s poetry was hardly excessive; apart from his nine earthly ‘Muses’ — Praxilla, Moero, Anyte, Myrtis, Erinna, Telesilla, Corinna, Nossis and Sappho — modern scholarship has unearthed the names of at least thirteen additional Greek women poets, while the Roman period yields another seven — twenty-nine names in all. Yet today the question asked first about their poetry is not the customary ‘is it worth reading?’ (although that often comes later), but rather, ‘is there any left to read?’ Here Tillie Olsen’s dictum that ‘we who write are survivors‘ [1978: 39] has a material as well as a metaphorical resonance…And of these twenty-nine, the work of only sixteen is extant, often fragmentary.”

2b. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (1986: 15):

“When Darwinian theory dominated historical thought, pre-history was seen as a ‘barbaric’ stage in the evolutionary progress of humankind from the simpler to the more complex. That which succeeded and survived was by the fact of its survival considered superior to that which vanished and had thus ‘failed.'”

2c. Tillie OlsenSilences (1979/2003: 39):

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3. Josephine Balmer, Women Classical Poets (1996: 20):

“This is a particular problem with early poetry, originally performed to musical accompaniment, which, like song lyrics, can seem disappointing on the page. Such tampering might appear as cultural arrogance, casting the freshness of classical poetry as ‘inferior’ to the more tortuous semantic complexities of modern (and particularly modernist) poetry. In the case of women poets, there is also the danger of implying — as has often been the case — an ineptitude based on gender.”

4. Corinna, 5th c. BCE? 3rd c. BCE? Tanagra, Boeotia. 


4a. Josephine Balmer, Women Classical Poets (1996: 33-34):

“To complicate matters futher, although some ancient commentators claim she was a contemporary with Pindar, a Boeotian male poet of the fifth century BC (and that both were pupils of the poetess Myrtis whose works is now lost), the distinctive spelling conventions found on the surviving manuscript of her work, the Berlin Papyrus, date from the third century BC. An academic debate has ensued…[p34] the arguments seem inconclusive on both sides.”

4b. Pausanias (2nd c. CE), Description of Greece (9.22.3): 

Corinna, the only lyric poetess of Tanagra has her tomb in a conspicuous part of the city, and in the gymnasium is a painting of Corinna binding her head with a fillet for the victory she won over Pindar at Thebes with a lyric poem. I believe that her victory was partly due to the dialect she used, for she composed, not in Doric speech like Pindar, but in one Aeolians would understand, and partly to her being, if one may judge from the likeness, the most beautiful woman of her time.

4c. Josephine Balmer, Women Classical Poets (1996: 34):

“Modern scholarship has been even less kind; Corinna’s poetry, like that of Sappho and so many other women poets, has often been accused of parochial homeliness and ‘extreme simplicity.’ Feminist critics have been even harsher, charging Corinna’s often brutal mythologies of perpetuating a male-dominated literary tradition — the ‘male value system’ — with her female world.”

5a. Corinna no. 9* (Balmer): “Songs of Old”:
* transmitted by Oxyrhynchus papyrus, P. Oxy. 2370 (c. 200 CE). Attributed to Corinna because of citations by 2nd c. CE Hephaestion (Ench. 16.3) and 2nd c. CE Antoninus Liberalis (25).

On me my Muse has served her summons
to sing these beautiful songs of old
for Tanagran women in their dawn-
white dresses; as the city takes such
pleasure in my teasing-trilling songs.

for whatever great [deeds great heroes
might perform,] still taller tales [are told,]
the earth their open field for battle.
And so I’ve reset our father’s tales,
[reworked their crown with these new jewels]
as I take up my lyre for my girls:

Often I’ve polished tales of Cephisus,
our country’s own first founding-father,
often of Lord Orion, the fifty
high-and-mighty sons he brought into
being — with help from their mother nymphs;

and then at last I sang of Libya,
[Thebes’ fair fore-mother…]

5b. P. Oxy. 2370 (c. 200 CE). Fragment of Corinna (=5a).

P 2370 Corinna Balmer 9.jpg

6. Telesilla, 5th c. BCE. Argos


6a. Pausanias (2nd c. CE), Description of Greece (9.20.8-9): 

Above the theater [at Argos] is a sanctuary of Aphrodite, and before the image is a slab with a representation wrought on it in relief of Telesilla, the lyric poetess. Her books lie scattered at her feet, and she herself holds in her hand an helmet, which she is looking at and is about to place on her head. Telesilla was a distinguished woman who was especially renowned for her poetry. It happened that the Argives had suffered an awful defeat at the hands of Cleomenes, the son of Anaxandrides, and the Lacedaemonians [494 BCE]. Some fell in the actual fighting; others, who had fled to the grove of Argus, also perished. At first they left sanctuary under an agreement, which was treacherously broken, and the survivors, when they realized this, were burnt to death in the grove. So when Cleomenes led his troops to Argos there were no men to defend it.

[2.20.9] But Telesilla mounted on the wall all the slaves and such as were incapable of bearing arms through youth or old age, and she herself, collecting the arms in the sanctuaries and those that were left in the houses, armed the women of vigorous age, and then posted them where she knew the enemy would attack. When the Lacedaemonians came on, the women were not dismayed at their battle-cry, but stood their ground and fought valiantly. Then the Lacedaemonians, realizing that to destroy the women would be an invidious success while defeat would mean a shameful disaster, gave way before the women.

6b. Telesilla no. 35* (Balmer): “Artemis”:
*transmitted by 2nd/3rd c. CE Athenaeus (Deipnosphistae 11.567); 2nd c. CE Hephaestion (Ench. 11.2); 2nd c. CE Pausanias (2.28.2).

on the round
of the threshing-floor


[sing now of] Artemis, my daughters,
through Alpheus‘ watery fingers


of her mountain temple
on the peaks of Coryphum

6c. Pausanias (2nd c. CE), Description of Greece (2.28.2):

As you go up to Mount Coryphum [at Epidaurus] you see by the road an olive tree called Twisted. It was Heracles who gave it this shape by bending it round with his hand, but I cannot say whether he set it to be a boundary mark against the Asinaeans in Argolis, since in no land, which has been depopulated, is it easy to discover the truth about the boundaries. On the top of the mountain there is a sanctuary of Artemis Coryphaea (of the Peak), of which Telesilla made mention in an ode.

7. Praxilla, Sicyon (Gulf of Corinth). 5th c. BCE. 


7a. Jane Snyder, The Woman and the Lyre (1989: 56):  

“[Praxilla’s] association with such songs [=skolia] has led to one quite unreasonable conclusion, drawn not surprisingly by Wilamowitz (whose distortions of Sappho’s poems were discussed in chapter 1). He concluded, in essence, that only a woman who was not a lady could have written drinking songs and that therefore Praxilla must have been a hetaira, roughly the ancient equivalent of a Geisha girl. There is no evidence of such an assumption.”

7b. Praxilla no 38* Balmer:
*transmitted by commentary tradition to 5th c. BCE Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae (528):

[in love

a scorpion waits
under every stone

7c. Praxilla no 39* Balmer: “Adonis in Hades”:
*transmitted by 2nd c. CE Zenobius (4.2). Zenobius translated by Campbell Loeb (1990); Praxilla by Balmer, p55.

In her hymn this Praxilla represents Adonis as being asked by those in the underworld what was the most beautiful thing he left behind when he came, and giving as his answer:

“The loveliest sight I’ve left behind is the sun’s light
or clear stars on a dark dark sky, a full-faced moon;
and fruits in summer — ripe cucumbers [σίκυος, Sicyon?], apples, pears…”

For anyone who lists cucumbers and the rest alongside sun and moon can only be regarded as feeble-minded.

7d. Praxilla no 41* Balmer: “Snatches of Song”:
*parodied in 5th c. BCE Aristophanes’ The Wasps (1236, with commentary):

If you want to cheat death like Admetus could,
my friend, let’s keep up and keep in with the good.
In the meantime let’s drink, let’s live and let’s learn:
bad company can bring only bad return…