At the moment, I am toying with the idea of including the poet Sulpicia in The Third Daughter. A female poet who made it in the world of literature – given that, like so many aspects of life, it was overwhelmingly male – is an intriguing thought. It is not completely surprising that in the Lucius Sestius books, I decided that Lucius’ elder sister Albinia would be a poet. I have no idea of course whether the real Albinia would have enjoyed poetry, but given that all we know about her is her name, I hope she doesn’t mind. I always felt that in those heady days of the late Republic and early Empire, when so many poets were making their mark in the literary salons, some Roman women would have been inspired. After all, many upper class women were extremely well-educated, and some displayed alarmingly independent thought and behaviour. Poetry would not have been a closed book to all of them, surely?
Sulpicia’s poems were at first thought to be the work of a male poet writing in the persona of a young Roman noblewoman, and some people still think this. Many scholars ascribe them to Sulpicia though, the niece of Valerius Messalla Corvinus, one of the most influential people in the Augustan regime. She would have been born round about 40 BCE, and her uncle’s literary salons would have given her an introduction to the poets Tibullus and Horace, and maybe others from the literary world surrounding the upper echelons of Augustan society. How her poems came to be included in the works of Tibullus, we don’t know, though we can have fun speculating. In an article in Ancient World by Anne-Marie Lewis it is suggested that she may be the mother-in-law of Ovid, putting her firmly in the midst of the glitterati of Augustan literature, even if Ovid was in exile for most of the time Sulpicia was related to him.
And yes, as usual, the evidence is not the best, but nobody in the ancient world ever makes things clear for the aspiring novelist. I’m happy to go with these ideas and imagine a Sulpicia who spends her life in the midst of some of the most interesting people of her time, and certainly is one of most interesting among them! Too interesting for me to resist anyway.
A very free translation of Sulpicia’s first poem
Love has come at last!
I’m not going to be shy – yell it out!
My Muses begged the goddess and she dropped him into my lap.
Venus kept her promise. She tells my joy to anyone who doesn’t believe.
No messenger for this poem – the boy will be the first to read it.
Being a bad girl is fun! Reputation? Hah!
I’m his, he’s mine, all I need anyone to know.