Sulpicia was a Roman of noble stock. Her father was Servius Sulpicius Rufus, consul in 51 BC. Earlier, in 62, Sulpicius had prosecuted Lucius Murena for bribery in the consular elections; Cicero's speech for the defense survives. There are letters between Cicero and Sulpicius in book 4 of Cicero's collected letters: letters 1-4 and 6 are from Cicero, letter 5 is Sulpicius's letter of condolence on the death of Cicero's daughter in March 45, and in letter 12 Sulpicius tells Cicero about the assassination of Marcellus in May of that year. Sulpicius died in 43, and Cicero's ninth Philippic argues in favor of giving him a public funeral.

Sulpicia's guardian was her uncle Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, who proposed the measure giving Augustus the title pater patriae in 2 BC (see Suet. Aug. 58). Messalla had fought on the side of Brutus and Cassius at the start of the civil war, but ultimately joined Octavian's side. He was consul in 31 along with Octavian. Messalla is best known now, however, as the patron of a group of writers including Tibullus and the other poets of the Corpus Tibullianum, one of whom was Sulpicia. Messalla lived from 64 BC to AD 8.

We know little about Sulpicia's own life. It is clear from poem 2 that Messalla has patris potestas over her; we can conjecture, then, that she is not yet married and that her father is dead. She may have been roughly the same age as Tibullus and Propertius (both born in the late 50s or early 40s), or perhaps a couple of years younger. We do not know who Cerinthus was, or even whether Sulpicia used a pseudonym for her lover, as male love poets conventionally did.

The Sulpicia mentioned in Martial 10.35 and 10.38 is a different woman, a contemporary of Martial's at the end of the first century AD, hence about 100 years younger than our poet.

Sulpicia's poems have come down to us as part of the Corpus Tibullianum, the collected works of Tibullus and his friends. In this group of poems, books 1 and 2 are by Tibullus. The remaining poems, which may be counted as one or two more books, include a long poem in praise of Messalla, a group of short poems called the "Garland of Sulpicia" because, like Sulpicia's own poems, they are about her and Cerinthus, and some other unconnected elegies by other poets. Sulpicia's poems are numbers 13-17 in book 3, or 7-11 in book 4. The "Garland" are the immediately preceding poems, 3.8-12.

Sulpicia's six poems are love elegies, that is, they are written in elegiac couplets and they are about love. Gaius Cornelius Gallus (roughly 69 BC - 26 BC) is generally considered the first important writer of love elegy, although his works do not survive. After him, Propertius and Tibullus wrote collections. Ovid's Amores follow the generic conventions established by these poets; his Ars Amatoria, Heroides, and other elegiac poems expand the limits of the genre. There are no more significant poets in this style after Ovid.

While the poems of Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid are relatively long (typically 20 to 100 lines), Sulpicia's are quite short, not unlike some of the shorter elegiac poems of Catullus (for example, 70, 75, 85, 87, and perhaps 76). In Rome as well as in Greece, the elegiac couplet was originally used for short poems, including epigrams for dedications or on funeral monuments (ROL epitaph 10, 135 BC). Greek poets were writing longer poems in this metrical form, however, as early as Tyrtaeus in the seventh century BC, and the elegiac couplet quickly becomes a general form, not tied to any particular genre. This is how Catullus uses the form; his elegiac poems range from short, pithy epigrams like 85 and 93 to longer poems like 67, and their subjects include insults and sarcasm (as in, say, 84), Lesbia (70 and many others), literature (for example, 95), and Catullus's brother (101). Sulpicia's elegies are like Catullus's in their length, but like those of the later elegiac poets in their consistent focus on her love affair.

Sulpicia's prosody and meter are straightforward. Her metrical practice is similar to her contemporaries', and more like theirs than like Catullus's. In 15 of the 20 hexameters, the principal caesura is the masculine caesura in the third metron. The other five (1.5, 2.1, 2.3, 2.5, 5.1) have the feminine caesura there, along with masculine caesurae in the second and fourth metra; 3F is arguably the principal caesura in 5.1, but not in the other four lines. The pentameters all end with disyllabic words except for 4.4, which ends with the poet's own name. This had become a rule by Sulpicia's time; while Catullus often ends pentameter lines with longer words, and occasionally with monosyllables, the later elegists almost invariably close with disyllables. There are, of course, no "spondaic" lines (hexameters with contracted biceps in the fifth metron) in these poems; by this time, Latin poets were systematically avoiding them.

There are only six elisions in the forty lines of Sulpicia's verse (1.2, 2.4, 4.1, 4.2, 4.5, 4.6), most of them in the angry outburst of poem 4. The only hiatus is after the exclamation a in 5.2. Except for poem 6, which is one sentence six lines long, the couplets are self-contained, with strong punctuation at the end of each pentameter.

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hide References (29 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (29):
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 4
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 4.1
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 4.12
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 4.5
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 4.6
    • Catullus, Poems, 101
    • Catullus, Poems, 67
    • Catullus, Poems, 70
    • Catullus, Poems, 75
    • Catullus, Poems, 76
    • Catullus, Poems, 84
    • Catullus, Poems, 85
    • Catullus, Poems, 87
    • Catullus, Poems, 93
    • Catullus, Poems, 95
    • Cicero, Philippics, 9
    • Cicero, For Lucius Murena, 1
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 58
    • Ovid, Epistulae
    • Ovid, Ars Amatoria
    • Sulpicia, Poems, 1
    • Sulpicia, Poems, 2
    • Sulpicia, Poems, 4
    • Sulpicia, Poems, 5
    • Sulpicia, Poems, 6
    • Ovid, Amores, 1.1
    • Sextus Propertius, Elegies, 1.1
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 10.35
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 10.38
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