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Being Better than Sappho: the Social Life of a Poeta Docta, c. 100 CE

Hannah Mason

University of Southern California

This paper re-examines the assessment that Roman women were barred from attendance at literary recitations, and, therefore, from participating in one of the most important avenues of intellectual life.  Recent work on the education of Roman women and their production of literature (e.g., Hemelrijk (1999) and Shelton (2013)) frequently assumes, with comparatively little discussion, that conventions of feminine modesty would have prevented women from even attending recitationes, let alone presenting their work at these gatherings.  This assumption deserves further consideration partly because it is not well-supported by the sparse surviving evidence, but also because it has some serious repercussions for the composition and reception of poetry written by Roman women.  If these female poets were excluded from the literary communities of men, particularly as poet-reciters, must we assume that there was a distinctly feminine tradition of writing and reading poetry in private and publishing it purely in written form?  And how would the existence of such a tradition affect our interpretation of their work?

Focusing primarily on a period when recitationes were at the height of their popularity (around the end of the 1st Century CE), this paper uses a range of literary evidence to argue that the conventions associated with the engagement of women in Roman socio-literary life were not so clearly defined.  The case of Pliny’s wife Calpurnia, hidden behind a curtain at her husband’s recitationes in Ep. 4.19, is cited most frequently as an indication that women did not participate in these events (cf. Hemelrijk (1999), 42; Shelton (2013), 358, n. 89).  However, this depiction of Calpurnia is part of a collection of polished and ideologically conservative letters, and seems to be coloured by Pliny’s concern for his wife’s modesty.  Given that Pliny’s ideal recitatio is more formal than that of his peers (cf. Ep. 1.13), there is every reason to suspect that Calpurnia’s segregation may not be indicative of the realities of Roman women’s behaviour.

A broader survey of the surviving evidence from the period supports this hypothesis.  For example, Tacitus describes C. Lutorius Priscus reciting political poetry in front of women (Ann. 3.49); Pliny congratulates a mother after her son recites (Ep. 5.17); Sulpicia Caleni, along with her husband, seems to have been a part of Martial’s literary circle (Mart. 10.35; 10.38; 1.99).  While Roman women evidently were often obliged to navigate a tension between modesty and learnedness, I argue that this tension was not insurmountable.  On the contrary, the strength of Roman familial relationships and the flexibility of the recitatio as a social institution give us every reason to believe that Calpurnia’s exclusion was the exception to the rule, and that at least some Roman women had greater opportunities to participate in socio-literary life.

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Women and Agency

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