Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.24

Mathilde Skoie, Reading Sulpicia: Commentaries 1475-1990.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.  Pp. 362.  ISBN 0-19-924573-8.  $74.00.  



Reviewed by Costanza Mastroiacovo, University of Rome "La Sapienza" (costanzamastroiacovo@libero.it)
Word count: 3494 words

"She didn't write it. She wrote it but she shouldn't have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art. She wrote it but she had help. She wrote it but she's an anomaly. She wrote it BUT..." These sentences from the cover of Joanna Russ' famous How to Suppress Women's Writing (Austin 1983) could have been a good epigraph for Skoie's book about the reception of Sulpicia's poems, for the history of Sulpicia's reception is really a history of sexual/textual harrassment.

Skoie's theme is the ideological, cultural and hermeneutic analysis of seven commentaries written between 1475 and 1990 on the six poems of Sulpicia ([Tibullus] 3.13-18 = 4.7-12, around forty lines in total) from 1475 to 1990. Sulpicia is the only Roman woman poet whose work has survived from antiquity, and Skoie is of course particularly interested in issues of gender and morality, that is in the ways male philologists have confronted a female-produced text according to their different ideological and cultural preconceptions.

The very issue of female authorship has always been a problematic one in the case of Sulpicia's poems, since they are transmitted as part of the Corpus Tibullianum, and it was not until 1838 that they were attributed, by the German scholar Otto Gruppe, to a real Augustan Sulpicia instead of to Tibullus himself, or to another man pretending to be Tibullus, pretending to be "Sulpicia." But, even after Gruppe, yes, Sulpicia wrote it, BUT she wasn't really an artist, and it wasn't really art: it was autobiography, it was a diary, it was an amateurish work. The real turning point in Sulpicia's reception was the publication of Matthew Santirocco's article, "Sulpicia Reconsidered," CJ 74 (1979) 229-39, where for the first time Sulpicia's poems began to be evaluated as poetry, and not as a male fiction or biographical document. Considering Sulpicia's work as a real woman's poetry is now the current trend (the most recent contribution is Kristina Milnor, "Sulpicia's (Corpo)reality: Elegy, Authorship, and the Body in [Tibullus] 3. 13," Classical Antiquity 21 (2002) 259-282), even if in recent years we have seen a kind of backlash regarding the issue of Sulpicia's sexual identity in the articles of Stephen Hinds ("The Poetess and the Reader: Further Steps toward Sulpicia," Hermathena 143 (1987) 29-46) and above all Niklas Holzberg ("Four Poets and a Poetess or Portrait of a Poet as a Young Man? Thoughts on Book 3 of the Corpus Tibullianum," CJ 94 (1998-99) 169-191); and another attempt at suppressing Sulpicia's femininity has been made by Thomas Hubbard in an unpublished paper (see abstract).

Skoie's book is articulated in six chapters, preceded by an introduction, and followed by a conclusion, two appendices, and two bibliographies (Sulpician scholarship and works cited). Each of the book's chapters focuses on one commentary: those of Cyllenius (1475), Scaliger (1577), Heyne (1755-98), Dissen (1835), Smith (1913), and Tränkle (1990). The fourth chapter pairs Dissen's commentary with Gruppe's virtually contemporary monograph on Die römische Elegie (1838).

In the Introduction, Skoie presents her methodological and theoretical premises: "...it is the proposition of this study that the genre of commentaries is hermeneutic by nature, that is, it is fundamentally a genre that deals with the act of interpretation" (p. 1). The rest of Skoie's theoretical propositions invoke Jauss, Fish, and above all Gadamerian hermeneutics (pp. 3-8). Maybe a little more engagement with feminist literary theory, especially regarding the interpretative and ideological (a word Skoie very rarely, or maybe never, uses) struggles around the issue of female authorship, could have been useful for Skoie's arguments -- but she is clearly more interested in the textual analysis of the commentaries she discusses than in theoretical statements.

Ch. 1 ("The First Steps: From Antiquity to Cyllenius' Fifteenth-Century Commentary") deals with the very first commentary on Sulpicia and the Corpus Tibullianum, made by the Renaissance humanist Bernardinus Cyllenius and first printed in Rome in 1475. Cyllenius treats the Sulpician poems as he treats the rest of the Appendix Tibulliana -- as the work of Tibullus. The question of authorship is never raised as an issue, nor is the identity of Sulpicia. Cyllenius "normalizes" Sulpicia, creating what Skoie calls a Sulpicia togata.

Ch. 2 ("Confronting a Sibylline Leaf: Scaliger's Sixteenth-Century Commentary") deals with the notes on Sulpicia written by the great Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609) in his commentary on Catullus, Propertius, and Tibullus, the so-called Castigationes (1577). Scaliger's comments on Sulpicia's poems show not only his well-known cleverness as a textual critic but also a great interest in literary, and moral, interpretation. In the introduction to his Castigationes Scaliger, in accordance with his Calvinist orientation, claims that he will not dwell on the immoral content of the poems he studies, comparing the reading of poets to a dangerous sea, and the interpreter to a sailor who has to avoid the reefs of immorality. Here Skoie perhaps goes a little too far in suggesting that Scaliger may have in his mind the image of the sexually explicit Sulpicia as a predatory Siren (p. 78), but she is surely right in emphasizing Scaliger's efforts at rendering Sulpicia's sensuality less disturbing by construing her as a male poetic fantasy. Unlike Cyllenius, Scaliger offers his readers an extensive paraphrasing of Sulpicia's poems, and he even tries to fill in the many gaps of the love story between Sulpicia and Cerinthus by imagining that Messalla himself was in love with her. Accordingly, he identifies Sulpicia with the heroida praised by Messalla in his Greek poetry according to [Verg.] Catalepton 9. Furthermore, Scaliger is the first to confront the "femininity" of Sulpicia's poems, even if he does not question their Tibullan authorship. He is also the first to give a (very positive) aesthetic evaluation of them, and he does so using a "feminine" critical vocabulary for example when he praises 3.14 as being "mollissimum et delicatissimum epigramma." In his comment on 3.16 Scaliger calls the poem a "Sibylline leaf": Skoie argues interestingly that this could imply that in his view the poems are narrated by a voice which is both female ("Just as the Sibyl is a mouthpiece for the male god, Sulpicia is the mouthpiece for the poet (Tibullus)," p. 109) and as enigmatic as the Sibyl.

Ch. 3 ("Male Chivalry: Heyne's Eighteenth-Century Commentary") is devoted to the reading of the three editions of Christian Gottlob Heyne's commentary on the Corpus Tibullianum published between 1755 and 1798. As Skoie says (p. 111), these are the first commentaries to give Sulpicia "a room of her own": Heyne is the first commentator to mention Sulpicia in his title (Albii Tibulli Carmina Libri Tres cum Libro Quarto Sulpiciae et aliorum), and above all he is the first one to suggest the possibility that these poems might have been written by a real Augustan puella. Just as she does for the other commentators she discusses, Skoie gives a detailed description of Heyne's life and cultural background (to the bibliography at 114 n. 9 add Luigi Marino, I maestri della Germania (Göttingen 1770-1820) (Turin 1975) esp. 254-70; see also Gioachino Chiarini, Enciclopedia Virgiliana 2 (1985) 846-49, s.v. "Heyne"). Heyne thinks highly of Sulpicia's poems: for example, he calls 3.13 "suavissimum poematium puellae dulcissimae," and he refers to Sulpicia's poems in general as "venustissima et mellitissima." We have here a new attitude on the part of the commentator, which can be seen as an anticipation of the movement from Aufklärung to Einfühlung that was to take place in the second half of the eighteenth century. Heyne makes a display of male chivalry towards the (possibly) female poet. Not only does he use a "feminine" aesthetic vocabulary, but he does not make any distinction between poetics and erotics, between the evaluation of poetry and the evaluation of the puella who wrote that poetry. In accordance with his chivalrous attitude, Heyne goes so far as to address Sulpicia's bones in the very middle of his commentary, quoting Tibullus 2.4.49-50. In the second and third editions of Heyne's commentary we also find significant illustrations representing Sulpicia in a Muse-like attitude (discussed by Skoie at 133-43).

But Heyne too, for all his appreciation of Sulpicia's poems, gives a quite cursory commentary on 3.13: in order to get over the embarrassment created by the woman's exuberant sexuality, he emphasizes her great stylistic and syntactic audacity, and so diverts the reader's attention from her "real" behavior. This interpretative strategy is all the more necessary since Heyne treats Sulpicia as a real historical woman, who describes the real events of her own private life.

In Ch. 4 ("Subtle Poetry or Feminine Fiddling? Two Nineteenth-Century Commentaries") Skoie contrasts the monograph Die römische Elegie (Berlin 1838) by Otto Gruppe with the commentary on the Corpus Tibullianum by Ludolph Dissen (Göttingen 1835).

Dissen and Gruppe were very different characters. Ludolph Dissen (1784-1837) was a professional classicist, professor at the University of Göttingen, where he had been a pupil of Heyne; Otto Gruppe (1804-76), on the contrary, was a scholar with wider interests who had no academic position and was very interested in the connections between ancient and contemporary societies. Even if they shared an interest in aesthetics as well as the will to go beyond the mere grammatical facts, both their critical starting points and their interpretative conclusions were totally different.

Gruppe develops Heyne's cautious proposal, and is the first to state firmly and explicitly that the author is a real Augustan Sulpicia. Her elegies are to be viewed not so much as poems in the fullest sense of the word but rather as private love letters written by a real girl, as well as the material on which the "Amicus Sulpiciae" (whom Gruppe identifies as Tibullus himself) draws in fashioning his own truly poetic cycle. According to Dissen, on the contrary, the author of the Sulpician garland is surely Tibullus. This different position regarding authorship implies a different evaluation of the artistic quality of the poems: Dissen views the linguistic and syntactic anomalies of these texts as signs of (male) poetic originality whereas Gruppe views the same anomalies as signs of a feminine amateurish writing. Gruppe looks for marks of a "feminine Latin" in order to prove female authorship, Dissen looks for marks of originality in order to prove male authorship. The argument is substantially circular. Engendering the author has manifold implications both on the level of grammatical analysis and on the level of general interpretation.

Very interesting is the discussion of how Dissen and Gruppe treat the issue of what Skoie calls (using Kate Millett's well-known phrase) the "sexual politics" of the poems. As usual, it is poem 3.13 that creates the main problems for the commentators: it comes as no surprise that in this case Gruppe renounces his idea of female authorship and attributes the poem to Tibullus. The attribution of this poem to a male author is fundamental to preserving the image of a decent and acceptable Sulpicia. Nevertheless, both commentators take care to defend not only the real author (a real Augustan puella cannot have made the reference to sexual intercourse in 3.13.10 cum digno... fuisse, so the author must be a man) but also the female fictional character. So, both commentators adopt three main strategies in order to preserve the innocence of the fictional puella of 3.13: it is just a poetic image, it is the representation of female hyperbolic imagination, and in any case this moral disorder is destined to settle down when the story will culminate in the (totally hypothetical) happy ending of marriage (p. 197).

In Ch. 5 and 6 Skoie deals with Sulpicia's reception in the twentieth century. In Ch. 5 ("Sulpicia Americana: Smith's Twentieth-Century Commentary") Skoie looks at the well-known and still used commentary on Tibullus (books 1, 2 and 3.8-20 = 4.2-14) by Kirby Flower Smith (New York 1913). In order to evaluate this truly American commentary, Skoie gives a fairly detailed picture of American classical scholarship between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, paying due consideration to the figure of the founder of the American Journal of Philology, Basil Gildersleeve (1831-1924), and to his programmatic "Americanism." This Americanism promoted independence from German scholarship, a connection of classical studies with the American sphere of life, and also a special emphasis on interpretation that has ever since that time been typical of American classical scholarship. K. F. Smith (1862-1918), pupil of Gildersleeve and then professor at Johns Hopkins, is a champion of this Americanism. Influenced by the strong development of psychological and evolutionary theories in the contemporary United States, he theorizes a basic similarity between the erotic spheres of Augustan Rome and of America in his own time (as reflected in elegy and in the psychological novel, respectively) and gives special attention, in quasi-evolutionary terms, to the concept of literary genre (or "department," as he calls it). His commentary on Tibullus is characterized by a constant attention to elegy as a highly rhetorical genre and by a rejection of the "biographical" approach to elegiac poetry. But his attitude becomes completely different when he approaches Sulpicia's poetry: according to Smith, her poems are to be viewed as documents, never intended for publication, of a real love story. When confronted with a woman's poetry, Smith develops a kind of analysis that is totally different from the one he applies to Sulpicia's male colleagues, and to Tibullus himself. In the commentary on Sulpicia's poems Smith does not make any references to the author's elegiac repertoire; the poems are first of all interesting as biographical evidence. In accordance with his real-life approach, Smith shares with his predecessors the concern to create a morally acceptable Sulpicia: peculiar to him is the application of American moral standards, through which he shapes the character that Skoie calls "Sulpicia Americana." For all the embarrassment caused by poem 3.13 (about which Smith makes some incredibly paternalistic and sexist comments), his Sulpicia is an essentially innocent girl who writes about her passion only for herself and her beloved, a paradigmatic representation of "audacious innocence" and of true American womanhood. Ch. 6 ("The Commentator as Collector: Tränkle's 1990 Commentary") deals with the most recent commentary on Sulpicia, Hermann Tränkle's commentary on the Appendix Tibulliana (Berlin and New York 1990). With Tränkle's commentary, according to Skoie, Sulpician scholarship takes a step backward after the important development in the critical debate that followed the publication of Santirocco's article (1979). Actually, Tränkle's bibliography includes only one work on Sulpicia's poems (Esther Bréguet, Le roman de Sulpicia (Geneva 1946)). His work is deliberately old-fashioned and programmatically "non-hermeneutic," aiming at promoting an image of the commentator as a collector of facts rather than an interpreter -- even if Skoie easily shows how this mask of philological "purity" cannot hide definite strategic and hermeneutic behaviors on the part of the "collector." For Tränkle Sulpicia's poems are again an example of real incidental poetry, the work of an amateur, and an expression of Augustan Frauendichtung -- substantially something quite similar to Gruppe's notion of "feminine Latin." In conclusion (pp. 300-4), Skoie effectively shows how Tränkle's total lack of interest in issues of gender is actually part of an implicit hermeneutics of femininity which is especially apparent in his emphasis on the concept of Frauendichtung as the explanation of the (supposed) second-rate status of these Augustan poems.

In her concluding chapter ("Conclusion: The Hermeneutics of Commenting", 308-14), Skoie draws together the threads of her argument.

There follow two Appendices. Appendix 1 offers the text of Sulpicia's poems according to J. P. Postgate, Oxford Classical Texts, 2nd edition (1915), followed by the Loeb translation by Postgate himself (1912) as revised by G. P. Goold (1988). This is quite a strange choice, since at least in one case Postgate's OCT is different from the Loeb text: so in 3.15.2 Skoie's reader has "Now I can be at Rome upon my birthday" as a translation of "natali Romae iam licet esse tuo."

Appendix 2 contains illustrations representing some pages from the analyzed commentaries.

The "Bibliography" is divided into two main sections: first, a chronological bibliography of secondary material on Sulpicia's poems, which in its turn is divided into a bibliography of editions, commentaries and translations, and one of criticism on Sulpicia; second, a bibliography of works cited.

The first category "claims to be as comprehensive as possible" (p. viii). It is very rich indeed; nevertheless one misses at least the mention of Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford 1991) 121-2 and 302-3; Maurizio Bettini and Gianni Guastella, "Personata vox," in Renato Raffaelli (ed.), Vicende e figure femminili in Grecia e a Roma. Atti del convegno Pesaro 28-30 aprile 1994 (Ancona 1995) 343-69, esp. 360-9; Aurora López, No sólo hilaron lana. Escritoras romanas en prosa y en verso (Madrid 1994) 75 ff.; Emily A. Hemelrijk, Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Élite from Cornelia to Iulia Domna (New York and London 1999) 154-64. On Roman women writers see also Joseph Farrell, Latin Language and Latin Culture (Cambridge 2001), Ch. 3 "The gender of Latin," 52-83. A brilliant example of strong re-vision of the canon is the chapter devoted to Sulpicia in Alison Sharrock and Rhiannon Ash, Fifty Key Classical Authors (London-New York 2002) 291-6. (The last two titles are obviously too recent to have been included in Skoie's list.)

There is only a general index. The lack of an Index locorum is regretable, since it reduces the usefulness of the book as a tool for those interested in the exegesis of specific passages of Sulpicia's poems.

As I hope is clear from the preceding summary, this is a very interesting book. Nevertheless, it is not an easy read. The argument is expressed with prolixity, and there are continuous repetitions of the same concepts, and sometimes even of the same sentences (even in the same page: cf. e.g. p. 37 lines 1-3 and n. 51). One has the impression that the book would have greatly benefited from more careful editing and from a certain amount of reorganization as well. There are in addition some factual mistakes: for example, the author of the Cornucopia is called "Mariotti" instead of "Perotti" at p. 42 (and "Mariotti, Niccolò" is the entry in the Index). The rare references to the so-called "second Sulpicia" are a bit inaccurate: the very denomination of "Sulpicia, the satirist" (as in the Index entry) is misleading; there is indeed an article by Amy Richlin that has the title "Sulpicia the Satirist," CW 86 (1992) 125-40, but this is nevertheless a wholly unsatisfactory way of designating the second Sulpicia, whose poetry most probably did not belong to the satiric genre. At p. 127 Skoie says that the second Sulpicia is "mentioned in Martial 10.35 and transmitted in the manuscripts of Juvenal's satires": actually Sulpicia II is mentioned also in Martial 10.38 (and in Auson. Cento nupt. p. 139 Green, Sidon. Apoll. Carm. 9.261-2, Fulgent. Myth. 1, pp. 3-4 and 12-3 Helm, not to mention the Sulpiciae Conquestio = Epigr. Bob. 37); and, to be precise, her two iambic trimeters are transmitted in the so-called Probus Vallae ad Juv. 6.537.

Unfortunately, misprints abound. Quotations in Italian are especially inaccurate: in the bibliography one finds, for example, p. 331 "Augosto"; p. 333 "Bolletino" ("Bollettino" correctly in the same page), and "Piastro" ("Piastri" twice correctly in the same page; p. 335 "Perche" (Perché); p. 346: "Bullettino senese de storia patria"; p. 344: "Commento inedita"; p. 345: "Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerce"; p. 349: "Città del Vaticana"; p. 350: "Le Mounier" (instead of "Le Monnier"); p. 351: "Lagodi Garda." Outside the bibliography, for example, p. 41 n. 70 "Biblioteca Communale"; in the quotation from Italo Calvino at p. 306 n. 126 three words lack their accent, and "nuvole" is written as "nuovole." But cf. also Latin "Cuiacanum" (p. 144 n. 105), "pecasse" (p. 298), "Res Publica Literarum" (the journal, p. 347), English "insistance" (ibid.).

Furthermore: the first name of Holzberg is "Niklas," not "Nicklas" (right at p. 13, wrong both at p. 265 and in the Index); the correct name is "H. McL. Currie," not "H. Mac Currie"; p. 4 n. 7: "Roman Jakobsson." Even editorial conventions as far as regards bibliographical references and quotations are often inaccurate in a way that it is rather surprising in an OUP book.

The book's flaws (mainly its prolixity and repetitiveness, and its lack of careful editing and proof-reading) are regrettable, particularly because as a whole it is so good and so interesting. Skoie has given us an excellent addition to Sulpician scholarship, one that will be of interest to classicists as well as feminist theorists. The book should also be welcomed by those interested in the history of classical scholarship since the author gives detailed and well-informed descriptions of the cultural background of the commentators she discusses in a way that goes far beyond the immediate sphere of her analysis, that is the history of the commentaries on Sulpicia's poems.

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