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  • Spectacle in the Eleven Elegies of SulpiciaTo Marcus Colyer, M.D., and Joseph Pasternak, M.D.
  • Judith P. Hallett (bio)

My paper closely examines the text of Tibullus Book 3, poems 8–13, the eleven elegies about, and to my mind by, the Augustan poet Sulpicia, through the lens of "the visual."1 It concludes by reflecting on what I would regard as an Ovidian echo of one particularly memorable visual detail in these elegies. Like Tibullus—whose death in 19 BCE Ovid laments, and whose poetry he evokes both reverentially and playfully in Amores 3.9—Ovid testifies that he benefited from the literary patronage of Sulpicia's maternal uncle, the influential general and statesman Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus.2 For that reason alone, Ovid was likely to have been acquainted with Sulpicia and her writing. And although Ovid never mentions Sulpicia by name as he does Tibullus in his poetry, he often appears to evoke her poetry as well, although never in a reverential or playful way.3

I will argue that in her eleven elegies Sulpicia depicts herself as a dynamic, self-actualizing visual spectacle. Then, more briefly, I will maintain that Sulpicia's mode of self-representation contrasts with the tendency of Ovid and the other male elegists to portray their female inamoratae as immobile, passive art objects. In this context, I will contend that in the first book of the Ars amatoria Ovid evokes the opening two lines of the first Sulpicia elegy, 3.8, so as to recall, much as he does in both the Amores and Metamorphoses, Sulpicia's elegies. I will claim as well that he does so to critique Sulpicia's verses, unfavorably commenting upon the dynamic, self-actualizing, physically appealing, expensively adorned, and erotically successful female persona central to the visual spectacle these verses create.

An attention-arresting elegiac couplet begins the first of the eleven Sulpicia elegies: Sulpicia est tibi culta tuis, Mars magne, kalendis / spectatum e caelo, si sapis, ipse veni (Great god Mars, Sulpicia is arrayed for you on your Kalends. If you have any discernment, come down from heaven to look at her yourself).4 Summoning the god Mars on the first day of 'his' own month, the poem commences with the poet's own name in the [End Page 195] nominative case, Sulpicia, immediately establishing her as the sentence's subject. The second line opens with the rare (and, not insignificantly, metrically elided) supine spectatum (in order to look at), immediately characterizing her as engaged in public performance.

The eleven elegies that these two lines introduce represent Sulpicia in performance, as a physically attractive visual spectacle. Lines 5 and 6 of elegy 8 initially foreground her eyes themselves as firepower for the god Amor: "From her eyes [illius ex oculis], when he wishes to set the gods on fire, fierce Love lights his twin torches." The rest of the elegy, describing Sulpicia in the third person and thereby underscoring her qualities as a visualized object, emphasizes Sulpicia's active physical movements and changes of appearance while viewed, indeed gazed upon, by Mars.5 Its next eight lines call special attention to her physical attractiveness through an etymological figure incorporating a personified noun, impersonal verb, and adverb which derive from the stem dec- (to be attractive, look good).6 Lines 7 and 8 note that "attractiveness [Decor] stealthily grooms and follows behind her whatever she performs [agit], wherever she wends her way [quoquo vestigia movit]." Lines 9 and 10 assert "if she loosens her hair, it is attractive [decet] for her to wear flowing tresses; if she arranges it, she must be revered." Lines 11 and 12 claim that "she sets hearts aflame, if she has wished to go out [procedere] in a Tyrian gown; she sets hearts aflame, if she comes out [venit] gleaming white in a snowy robe." Lines 13 and 14 then liken the physical appeal bestowed on Sulpicia by her varied wardrobe to that of the Olympian deity Vertumnus, "who wears a thousand modes of dress, and wears a thousand attractively [decenter]."

The next six lines describe the expensive Tyrian wools, Arabian fragrances, and Indian gems that adorn Sulpicia. Finally, four...


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