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Irene Vallejo-Echoes of Feminine Voices In Ancient Rome

‘Woman with wax tablets and stylus’, National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inventory no. 9084). Roman fresco of about 50, from Pompeii (VI, Insula Occidentalis).


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Irene Vallejo’s ‘The infinity within a reed‘ (El infinito en un junco. La invención de los libros en el mundo antiguo) The invention of the book in the ancient world. At the moment, there is no English translation (!), so we will share in the coming days a few excerpts we will translate into English for you, good patrons and readers, so to behold an impression of Irene Vallejo’s story-telling talent and skillful scholarship. This one being the fifth excerpt. From the French translation of Anne Plantagenet, Editions de Belles Lettres, 2021.


In a landscape of shadows, she has a body, a presence, a voice. It is a unique case in Rome: a young independent and cultivated woman defending her rights to love; a poetess speaking herself about her life and her feelings with her own words, without any masculine interference.

Sulpicia lived at the time of the golden age of Emperor Augustus. She was an exceptional woman in many ways-the most important one: She belonged to the 1% of the roman population that we call nowadays the elite, finding herself at the top of a hardened and hierarchical world. Her mother was the sister of Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, powerful general and literary patron. In the villa of her uncle, she met with some of the most acclaimed poets of the time, like Ovid or Tibullus. Favored by her wealth and family connection, Sulpicia dared write autobiographical poems, the only love verses composed by a woman of the roman antiquity that have survived up to our time. In her poetry, a feminine voice is heard that claims something quite uncommon at the time: freedom and pleasure. Convinced that she could afford any audacity, she complained of her uncle’s supervision over her, whom she nicknamed with irony and cheekiness-‘a cruel parent‘.

Six of Sulpicia’s poems survived. Forty verses in total; six episodes of her passion for a man she calls Cerinthus. It is obvious that he is not the groom that her family has chosen for her. On the contrary, her parents and her uncle fear that she sleeps with him. She says herself, that some dread to the very idea that she would yield and would be led ‘to the bed of infamy’. Cerinthus certainly belongs to another world, another social class, perhaps even a former slave. Who knows? Anyway, he does not suit the ideal suitor for Sulpicia the aristocrat; a detail that the young woman couldn’t care less. If she suffers, and it does happen, it is for other reasons. For instance, she blames her lack of courage and feels anxious because of the weight of her education preventing her from showing her desire.

The poem of Sulpicia that touches me most is a public declaration, provocative and rebellious, of her feelings. I translate freely the distiches of the elegy:

Love has come at last, such love that to hide it in shame

would be worse than being spoken of for showing it.

Won over by my Muse, Venus of Cythera,

brought him, and placed him here in my arms.

Venus fulfils what she promised: let my joy be told,

spoken by him who has no joy of his own.

I wouldn’t want to order any of my letters sealed

so that none can read them before my lover does.

I delight in my sin: I loathe composing my looks

for public opinion: let them declare worth meets worth.

What happened to the lovers? We don’t know, but it is rather unlikely that their relationship survived to the family rebuttals. Sooner or later, the young girl must have yielded. In the aristocratic class to which Sulpicia belongs, the ‘paterfamilias’ decisions about marriage were based according to opportunistic strategic motives, not by passion. Dear Cerinthus would have probably been expulsed from Sulpicia’s life, and only remained the souvenirs and the poems-‘Deserted bed and blurry mirror, empty heart‘, Machado writes.

To rebels herself against sexual morality, even for a brief juvenile interlude, meant for Sulpicia a journey to the boarder of the abyss. We was committing an offence. Some time earlier, Augustus got a law approved -the Lex Iulia de adulteris– that reprehended in public trials women’s sexual relations outside of marriage. Also in the case they would be singles or widows. They were submitted, and those caught with them, to severe punishments. On the other hand, concubines and prostitutes were not affected by this law. It is for this very reason, so the story goes, that patrician women belonging to the senatorial or equestrian class, started to declare in public that they were going into the business of prostitution. This was a blatant act of civil disobedience, an open defiance towards the tribunals. Thanks to these protests, this law, in practice, was only very rarely applied. And, at the end of the first century, Juvenal, in his ferocious rant against women, yelled: ‘Where are you, Lex Iulia? You are, probably, sleeping‘.

Sulpicia’s other great transgression was to bring her feelings to the public and her rebellion through the mean of writing. Alike the Greeks, the Romans thought that speech, the very weapon of political struggle, was a masculine prerogative. These ideas were even translated in the religious world through a feminine goddess of silence called Tacita Muda. According to the legend, Tacita was a impertinent nymph that spoke too much and most of the time, ill-timed. To make her stop all this talking, and to make a clear point to whom belonged the verbal authority, Zeus cut her tongue. Thus, unable to speak, Tacita Muda became a eloquent symbol. The roman women were not allowed to work in public services or to participate into the political life. Only one generation allowed the existence of female orators, in the beginning of the first century B.C., but fast that activity was forbidden by law. Roman women from good families had access to reading, for sure, but reading orientated towards their role of mothers and teachers of future orators. Educated so to be able to teach, they would learn to speak well for the benefit of their children and not to practice for themselves, because that would have meant to overcome the limits of the private sphere that was allocated to them and to usurp a job in the field of masculine activities. Very few were the occasions to get noticed outside of the family frame. When Plutarch the biographer tried to replicate the success of his ‘Parallel Lives’ with a work focused on the prowess of Greek, Roman and Barbarian women. The welcome was very cold. In fact, this book did not attract much attention and study until quite recently.

The reasons that contributed to the survival of Sulpicia’s verses are rather telling. They were not preserved under her own name, but inserted among the poems attributed to a poet of her uncle’s circle, Tibullus. Tibullus’ great prestige allowed for the preservation of these poems for centuries, even though there were doubts about their authorship. Today, after careful philological analysis, scholars acknowledge quasi-unanimously that these poems likely bare Sulpicia’s craftmanship. Only few specialists continue to object that their content is too daring for a roman patrician woman. At the same time, a few years ago, it was ‘bon ton’ to under-estimate her, like she would have been a simple amateur-sad redundancy, because, at that period of time, no woman could take writing as a profession. Roman women did not have the possibility to make their writing known, nor to spread them. Most of them wouldn’t even think about the possibility of it. And most importantly, those who decide whether a book deserves to be preserved for posterity would certainly not take into account writings of women. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise that these poems only survived because they were inserted in the book of a male writer.

Despite these obstacles, Sulpicia was not the only woman to write. There are fragments, quotations and references preserved about twenty-four female writers. All had a common point: they were rich, belonged to important families and were writing under the protection of powerful men. As Aurora Lopez writes: ‘they had a dowry, a fortune and power over their slaves; city life gave them free time; they were managing a strictly private space, their homes, which, ultimately, they were the rulers‘. That means, as Virginia Woolf writes: ‘that they had money and a room for themselves, necessary conditions for a woman to write‘. Among them, stand out, Agrippina the Younger- daughter of Germanicus, Claudius’ wife, and Nero’s mother-whose lost ‘memoirs’ are known thanks to some librarian’s scholia-or Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, whom we have two uncomplete letters preserved.

But, the audacious patrician women who dared to ‘hunt into man’s private preserves’ were obliged to respect a few rules and limits. They were authorized to practice only forms considered minor or associated to inner life: Lyrical poetry with Hostia and Perilla. Praises with Aconia Fabia Paulina. Epigrams with Cornificia. Elegies with Sulpicia. Satire with another Sulpicia. Correspondences & letters with Cornelia, Servilia, Clodia, Pilia, Caecilia Pomponia Attica, Terencia, Tullia the Younger, Publia, Fulvia, Acia, Octavia, Julia Drusilia. Memoirs with Aggripina the Younger. We know only the name of three female orators that practiced during the brief period when it was allowed: Hortensia, Amaesia Sentia and Carfania, but not even an original paragraph of their speeches was preserved. There is no information about female writers of epics, of tragedies or comedies. Anyway, they would never have been allowed to have their plays staged.

The texts that these women wrote shattered. In their totality, we only need an hour or two to read them. Hence, we are able to foresee what has been lost. Sulpicia benefited from a mistake and her work was able to reach the modern time under the umbrella-name of Tibullus, not on her own merit. The others sank slowly into an oblivious silence. Within the male canon, they were scattered exceptions. Like Eurydice, they sink into obscurity every time someone tries to save them. When we follow their erased traces, we fumble in a landscape of shadows where only echoes are heard.

Mural remains in the city of Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79 AD. Picture by By Philippe Paternolli.

About the Author: 🌿About the French translation of ‘El_infinito_en_un_junco’: 🌿 More about the book’s other translations: 🌿About Sulpicia:
Irene Vallejo-Echoes of Feminine Voices In Ancient Rome

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