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American Journal of Philology 124.3 (2003) 489-492

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Mathilde Skoie. Reading Sulpicia: Commentaries 1475-1990. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xii + 362 pp. 10 black-and-white ills. Cloth, $74.

Interest in the Sulpicia elegies has revived over the past two decades, and Reading Sulpicia offers a fresh look at the tradition of scholarship that the poems have inspired. Through close study of seven commentaries, Mathilde Skoie traces the reception of Corpus Tibullianum 3.13-18 (4.7-12), a cycle of poems that scholarly opinion now generally attributes to a Roman woman of the Augustan period, Sulpicia. Reading Sulpicia is both a history of Sulpicia's reception and a sophisticated investigation of the commentary as a genre with its own interpretative conventions.

Skoie's approach is grounded in the reader- and reception-oriented theory of critics such as Stanley Fish and Hans Robert Jauss, although she gives herself room to maneuver by using their work as a "point of departure" and a heuristic tool, rather than applying any one method rigidly (3-5). At the beginning of her study, Skoie proposes that individual commentaries document modes of reading a text at particular times and in specific cultural and intellectual settings; each reading is the product of a dialogue between a historically situated commentator and a text. She also suggests that the enterprise of philology is inescapably hermeneutic: even the ostensibly objective procedures of establishing a text or citing parallel passages require "acts of interpretation" and a sense of context. Although the claim that philology is a hermeneutic activity is not new, as Skoie herself points out, one of the most attractive features of her book is the adroit way in which she demonstrates her point. In her survey of commentaries, Skoie documents how each commentator is also "a creator" who constructs "the character of Sulpicia" from "the materials of her text" (20). In the case of the Sulpicia elegies, moreover, the construction of Sulpicia is manifestly a product of reading, since external evidence about the authorship and provenance of the poems is lacking (13).

In examining the "interpretational agenda" of the commentaries, Skoie pays particular attention to the ideas about gender and morality implicit in the commentators' responses to the poems (20). This approach pulls her wide-ranging study into sharper focus, and it opens up a productive field of inquiry, since the elegies themselves challenge the reader (and commentator) on these very grounds. Generically unconventional, they feature a female speaker rather than a male, one who voices her own desire and, in 3.13, joyously announces the consummation [End Page 489] of her love. Skoie's most nuanced discussions concern the commentators' verbal responses to the poems, but she also justly treats physical aspects of the commentaries—e.g., illustrations and other decorative elements, page design, and how the poems are grouped—as a part of the poems' reception. Readers who do not have ready access to some of the older commentaries will appreciate her detailed descriptions of their organization, her appendix of sample pages from the commentaries, and her practice of including generous excerpts from the texts that she discusses.

The book's first chapter examines the commentary on the Tibullan corpus (1475) of the Italian humanist Bernardinus Cyllenius. In the fifteenth century, as Skoie notes, classical texts were frequently used as rhetorical models or read—allegorically, if necessary—as a source of moral exempla. Both the difficult syntax of the Sulpicia poems and their frank eroticism could thus pose a challenge to the commentator who wished to present them as models. Skoie argues that Cyllenius confronts the poems' problematic sexuality by "normalizing" it and by treating the elegies written in Sulpicia's voice as he does those spoken by a male narrator. While he freely admits that the Sulpicia of 3.13 has made love with Cerinthus, Cyllenius shifts attention away from the unorthodox features of the poems, declining to stress the fact that the speaker is both female and unmarried (56-59).

Chapter 2 examines Joseph Scaliger's edition of Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius (1577). Here...


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