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  • Sulpicia: An/other Female Voice in Ovid’s Heroides:A New Reading of Heroides 4 and 151
  • Jacqueline Fabre-Serris (bio)

Ovid’s Heroides represent a distinctive Latin literary phenomenon: words of women, directly spoken, independent of a male narrator. These women are portrayed as writing letters to men who have abandoned them. To be sure, the actual author of these letters is a male poet, Ovid. Nevertheless, as familiarity with the workings of intertextuality has taught us to look for other presences behind that of the author, apparent or real, it is legitimate to ask whether other voices may be behind these letters, female voices, which Ovid may have chosen to evoke so as to accord his heroines a more authentic sounding manner of speaking.

In the last of the individual letters, Heroides 15, the female speaker and supposed author is the great Greek poet Sappho. As recent scholars (e.g., Gordon 1997, 281; Hallett 2005) have established, allusions to the poetry of the historical Sappho figure prominently in this letter. Some are direct allusions, others indirect as they echo the poems of Catullus who imitated her words.

Among other Roman writers who emulate Sappho is a female author of erotic epigrams: Sulpicia. In one of her poems (Tibullus 3.13), she refers successively to two earlier models, Cornelius Gallus and Sappho. The opening line of this text, tandem venit amor, perhaps recalls the renowned phrase attributed by Vergil to Gallus at Eclogue 10.69, omnia vincit amor. To judge from the many other appearances of this phrase in Latin literature, omnia vincit amor is either a direct quote or a slight variation of a verse in Gallus’s lost Amores. The word tandem may seek to evoke Gallus’s poetry as well, specifically his verses discovered in the Qas’r Ibrim papyrus: tandem fecerunt c[ar]mina Musae / quae possem domina deicere digna mea (Finally the Muses have created poems, worthy of my mistress, of the sort that I was able to utter).2 The context of Sulpicia’s tandem venit amor also supports a reference, either direct or oblique, to Gallus, for two lines later, at 3.13.3–5, she too proclaims that the Muses have decisively intervened in her efforts to win her love: exorata meis illum Cytherea Camenis / attulit in nostrum deposuitque sinum. / exsoluit promissa Venus (Moved by [End Page 149] my Camenae, Cytherea has brought and placed him in my arms. Venus has kept her promises). By noting that the Muses have enlisted the aid of the goddess Venus, and referring to her by the epithet Cytherea, Sulpicia also calls to mind the actual name, Cytheris, of the woman Gallus celebrated by the pseudonym Lycoris.3

In her reference to the mediation of the goddess Cytherea, Sulpicia simultaneously embraces another literary model, Sappho. The verses exorata meis illum Cytherea Camenis / attulit in nostrum deposuitque sinum. / exsoluit promissa Venus have affinities with Sappho, fragment 1, in which she successfully implores Venus’s Greek counterpart, Aphrodite:4


And you, blissful, your immortal face all laughter, asking what troubles me this time, why again I call you down, what ardent desire was in my wild heart: “Who is she that persuasion fetch her, enlist her and put her into bounden love? Sappho, who does you wrong?” If she balks, I promise, soon she’ll pursue you. If she’s turned from gifts, now she’ll give them. And if she does not love you, she will love, helplessly she will love.

Furthermore, as Stephen Hinds (2006, 185) has suggested, the verb venit in the Sulpician phrase tandem venit amor involves etymological wordplay: the first three letters of venit evoke the name Venus, which finally appears in line 5, and, according to Balbus in Cicero, De natura deorum 2.69,5 the name of Venus itself derives from venire. But Sulpicia may have another reason for choosing this form of this verb, since it may equally allude to Sappho, fragment 2.46: [End Page 150]

You came: you did well. I desired you ardently: you inflamed in my soul a desire that consumes it.

The communis opinio is that Sulpicia was the niece of...


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