Sappho and Sulpicia Dethroned by William A. Percy

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Most feminists, especially lesbians, will be disappointed, if not enraged, to learn that the few surviving fragments attributed to Sappho may well have been composed by males around 600 BC. That famous poetess of Mytilene recited her verses. Afterwards, Mitiline was repeatedly racked by civil strife and foreign invaders. Therefore, her songs were conveyed primarily thereafter by males in symposia until they were finally written down about two hundred years later, probably in Athens. After that when they were composed in various written forms they were then edited by another succession of males in Alexandria but at least those males were working from written rather than oral texts. Oral texts necessarily, even if you try hard to repeat the originals, you change. Of course Sappho sang in Aeolian and the symposiasts reciting them were probably speaking Ionian or Dorian Greek which made it even harder to transmit them accurately.

This was unlike the case of Alcman, who also composed similar maiden songs around 600 BC in Sparta. Of course Sparta was never attacked for centuries and choruses of maidens kept singing Alcmon’s songs so that when they were finally written down, also probably around 400, they had remained less altered than those of Sappho. Greek and Latin sources refer to about half a dozen Greek poetesses but hardly any fragments of them survive except from two, Corinna and Nossis. Both of them flourished in the fifth century BC and they are the only other Greek poetesses of whom any lines at all survive.

Even more troubling to the ardent lesbian feminists, who are themselves often rejected by the hetero-feminists, is the case of the only Latin poetess of whom any significant number of lines survive, namely Sulpicia. The poems attributed to Sulpicia survive however only within the corpus of Tibullus and may have been composed by Tibullus himself using a female name. They sometimes resemble some of his poems. Several mentions in both Greek and Latin texts mention Roman poetesses but none of them mention this particular Sulpicia.

The Tibullian corpus was put together between 30 and 26 BC. A few have surmised that Martial, c. 80-100 AD, paraphrased lines from a contemporary of hers, also named Sulpicia but that Sulpicia composed erotic poems directed to her husband. This real Sulpicia must have existed because of Martial’s testimony. Niklas Holzberg has revived the theory that all the poems attributed to Sulpicia are male-authored. Stefanie Kletke, who in her graduate work, was primarily interested in the authorship of [Tibullus] 3.8-18, the identity of Sulpicia, the historical context of the poems, and post-classical constructions of Sulpicia, has a blog to this effect, “Why is a Sulpicia a Woman" However, the theory that S.’s poem were male authored is not original to Holzberg, but goes back many decades. See the article by R.S Radford, “Tibullus and Ovid: The Authorship of the Sulpicia and Cornutus Elegies in the Tibullen Corpus,” American Journal of Philology, 44, no. 1 (1923). His theory is that Ovid authored these poems as well as the other poems in the Appendix Tibulliana plus the Appendix Vergiliana and the Priapeia. He makes reference to earlier articles of his to this effect. Thomas Hubbard, has suggested that the poems attributed to Sulpicia in the Tibullian were composed by a male poet, possibly by a Tibullus himself. The Tibullian corpus includes a pentagenric eulogy of Messala, the patron of Tibullus, a long but very amateurish piece. This proves that extraneous material was indeed included in the Tibullian corpus.

Beert Verstraete adds that Tibullus himself must have been the author of the poems composed in elegiac couplets, but that the other and far more amateurish poems in the Tibullian corpus, attributed to a female, were composed by someone else, perhaps the author of the third part of the eulogy of Messala, the Panegyrians Messalina. Messala was the patron of a literary circle far less well known than that of Maecenas, the patron of the famous circle that included Vergil, Horace, and Propertius and was closely associated with Augustus. Verstraete further adds that the dactylic hexameters in the Panegyricus Messalae can be charitably characterized as being amateurish, as were the pieces attributed to Sulpicia. The poems attributed to Sulpicia in the Tibullian Corpus fall into two categories: 1) short poems composed in elegiac couplets which are quite polished and might have been written by Tibullus; 2) a much shorter section of very brief poems which are very different metrically from the poems consisting of elegiac distichs and express intense emotions often conveyed in tangled syntax.

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