BMCR 2005.11.05

Women Poets in Ancient Greece and Rome

, Women poets in ancient Greece and Rome. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005. xxi, 234 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0806136634 $16.95 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Ellen Greene plays her part in this book as both editor and scholar. She publishes, with a very clever introduction, nine papers about some ancient women poets, with a precious appendix and an interesting bibliography (though her references are nearly all English and American). In this book, two men and seven women present six Greek women poets and one Latin poetess. They study the relationship between gender and genre and consider that many female poems are first composed for female audiences. Most of them try to explain what is typically feminine in each poetess’s work, often resorting to Freudian or Lacanian psychoanalysis. Each female voice is seriously considered according to chronology.

Sappho is the first and the best known, though we cannot read the whole of her poems. She was an aristocrat and she had a large public because she approached many political and ethical problems, in spite of Lesbian separatism.

Two long fragments of Corinna follow, the contest of Cithaeron and Helicon and the lament about the fate of Aesopus’ daughters, both connecting with local cults. Corinna did not simply write “women’s poetry”. Finally, the rivalry between Corinna and Pindar is discussed from all points of view.

Like Sappho, but in another way, Erinna lamented a dead companion (Baucis) who became her Muse. She also composed some epigrams and transformed the traditional woman’s lament into a public literary form.

About Moiro, we have a very curious kind of testimony: she is presented as another Homer by Christodorus of Coptus. Moiro wrote a Mnemosyne where she used Hesiod and told the story of Alcinoe punished by Athena, and we can also read two elegiac quatrains.

Eleven quatrains by Nossis are analysed one by one; they contrast with the traditional strategies of epigrams. Nossis wrote an autobiographical one (a sort of sphragis), two dedications of Aphrodite’s statues and four descriptions ( ekphraseis). We may prefer the young Thaumareta to Callo, whose name signifies beauty, or Sabaethis, almost ‘a divine epiphany’. Only twice, do we find subjects dealing with men instead of women: a Locrian victory and Rhinthon. Nossis especially composed an exaltation of desire and a prayer. The art of Nossis, which men romanticized or denigrated, is ‘a woman identified’ one.

Anyte used Homeric vocabulary, but she ‘overtuned’ the masculine genres of epic and epigram when celebrating girls and women. Nevertheless, she also celebrated dead warriors and dissolved the limits of public and private areas.

Sulpicia, whose identity has long been discussed (the last to deny her existence is N. Holzberg), is the subject of two papers. About [Tibullus] 3.13, it is pointed out that Sulpicia’s verses are not only emotional. Obviously, Sulpicia had learned the Iliad and enjoyed mythological allusions ( to Venus, the Muses and so on). The analyses of 3.13, 3.16 and 3.18 prove how Sulpicia ‘develops an authoritative elegiac rhetoric . . .within her scenarios of disclosure’ (p. 187).

This very interesting book is typically an American one, written mostly by feminine scholars whose research deals with gender and genre. I am sure that its reception will be as positive as possible among American specialists. My first impression, as coming from a country where psychoanalysis is not constant or common, is that the originality of female voices, in literature and especially in poetry, is evident, from Sappho to the women poets of our time. This originality does not need to be proved by long demonstrations if we have a good approach to literature and problems of aesthetics. Yet, I admit that a difficulty exists about the Antiquity because many feminine poems have been lost for lack of copying by male readers. We have to insist about all those feminine figures if we want to protect them. So, the good and serious work of Ellen Greene and her team deserves congratulations.

Nevertheless, knowing Freud and Lacan, I am pleased to read what E. Manwell wrote about analysts who explain poetic identity or even individual identity (pp.173-174). I tried to use analysis, for example, when writing a paper about some ambivalent characters of Ovid’s Metamorphoses like Hermaphroditus or Caeneus. Simply, I cannot accept a kind of joke like ‘Why Propertius is a Woman’1 and I prefer the attitude and the conclusions of Micaela Janan in her book about Propertius IV.2

Such a kind of research cannot be limited to sexual inquiry and the definition of a liking for housekeeping; Holt Parker rightly says that “male poets, too, talk about dress” (p.13). For women as for men, poetry is born from sensibility and love of art, and must not be reduced by this manner of reading. I like very much the long paper of Marilyn B. Skinner about Nossis Thêlyglôssos which is clearly presented and gives particularly clever information. But I am afraid when reading on BMCR3 that in her last book she says that sexuality is the only tool for interesting pupils and students in ancient literature. Perhaps, the practice, here, is better than the theory.

About Sulpicia, I expected some allusions to Mathilde Skoie’s important book.4 Yet, the proposal by C.U. Merrian concerning the order of the poems is a very interesting one and would magnify Sulpicia’s originality if accepted.5

As a conclusion, this book is full of literary, psychological and historical inquiries. It is at the same time a traditional and new approach of women-poets, and it will be very useful among scholars and students everywhere in our limited world.

I have not seen any factual errors to remark and the book’s appearance is as satisfactory as possible. I especially enjoyed the beautiful representation of Sappho on the front page.

List of participants and titles:

Ellen Greene, Introduction, XI

Holt Parker, “Sappho’s Public World”, 3

David H.J. Larmour, “Corinna’s Poetic Metis and the Epinikian Tradition”, 25

Diane J. Rayor, “The Power of Memory in Erinna and Sappho”, 59

Elizabeth Manwell, ” Dico ergo sum : Erinna’s Voice and Poetic Reality”, 72

Marilyn B. Skinner,”Homer’s Mother”, 91

Marilyn B. Skinner, “Nossis Thêlyglôssos, The Private Text and the Public Book”, 112

Ellen Greene, “Playing with Tradition; Gender and Innovation in the Epigrams of Anyte”, 139

Carol U. Merriam, “Sulpicia and the Art of Literary Allusion:[Tibullus] 3.13”, 158

Barbara L. Flaschenriem, “Sulpicia and the Rhetoric of Disclosure”, 169.


1. P.A.Miller, “Why Propertius is a Woman: french Feminism and Augustan Elegy”, CPh, 2001,96(2), p.127-146.

2. M. Janan, The Politics of Desire, Propertius IV, University of California Press, 2001

3. BMCR 2005.09.82 about M.B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture, Oxford, 2005.

4. Mathilde Skoie, Reading Sulpicia, Commentaries 1475-1990, Oxford University Press, 2002.

5. My paper, “La poétesse comme personnage élégiaque. De Sulpicia ou Cynthie à la Sappho de la probable XVe Héroide“, will be soon published in the Acts of the “Congrés International de l’Association Guillaume Budé” (Orléans, 2003).