Philobiblon: A lovely image of two Ancient Roman women

Friday, November 04, 2005

A lovely image of two Ancient Roman women

From a hugely important and fascinating book, Women Latin Poets, by Jane Stevenson (on which more soon) comes a lovely image of a rich, aristrocratic poet Sulpicia and her slave Petale, who was employed as a lectrix ( reader-aloud, as it is rather inelegantly put in English), around the start of the common era. The slave may well have been Greek, for she had a son with a Greek name, Aglaos. (I know that male Greeks of this time not uncommonly sold themselves into slavery as a way of making their way in the world; perhaps this was true for women too?)

On the slave's gravestone is a poem stating her age, 34, achievements, and virtues of the deceased in a conventional way. Stevenson suggests it is likely Sulpicia wrote the words. "The lack of any clauses referring to the grief of those she left behind produces a relatively impersonal effect, which would not be inappropriate for a mistress memorializing a valued servant whose role would necessarily have caused them to spend considerable time together".

Passer-by. Observe the ashes of Sulpicia the lectrix/the lectrix of Sulpicia,
to whom the slave-name 'Petale' had been given.
She had lived thrice ten years plus four,
and on earth, she had brought forth a son, Aglaos ('glorious');
She had seen all the good things of nature, and was strong in artistry;
she was splendid in beauty, and had grown [mature] in intellect.
Envious Fortune was unwilling that she should spend a long time in life:
the Fates' distaff itself failed them.

(I've put the Latin at the bottom of this post, for those who can benefit from it. Sadly, I can't.)

Stevenson: "The emphasis on this as a servile name implies she had a non-servile name, suggesting that Petale was manumitted on her deathbed." (She would then have taken on the name Sulpicia.)

Just imagine in happier times, the two of them, Sulpicia reclining in her chambers, listening to poetry, perhaps while mulling over her own verses - an antidote to all of those I, Claudius images.

Sulpiciae cineres lectricis cerne viator
Quoi servile datum nomen erat Petale
Ter denos numero quattuor plus vixerat annos
Natumque in terris Aglaon ediderat
Omnia naturae bona viderat arte vigebat
Splendebat forma, creverat ingenio
Invida fors vita longinquom degere tcmpus
Noluit hanc fatis defuit ipse colus.

(This all from pages 42-44)

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