You are here

Sulpicia’s Ashes: Gender, Literacy, and Inscription(s)

Stephanie Frampton


My title comes from the text of a marble tombstone (AE 1928, 73) which documents the life and achievements of a Roman freedwoman who was born into slavery and who had served the family by which she had been enslaved as a “lectrix,” or reader:

Sulpiciae cineres lectrìcis cerne, viator,

quoì servile datum nomen erat Petale.

Ter dénos numeró quattor plus vìxerat annós

natumque in terris Aglaon ediderat;

omnia naturaé b́ona viderat, arte vigebat,

splendebat forma, creverat ingenió.

Ìnvida fors vìta longinquom degere tempus

noluit hanc, fatìs defúit ipse colus. (ERD 73075)

She is one of only a handful of specific individuals whom we know to have performed that common role of reading aloud for an élite household and one poignantly tied to the family that gives us the only Roman woman poet whose work survives in the manuscript tradition from antiquity, also called Sulpicia.

Attending in particular to the dimensions of gender, class, and ethnicity raised by Sulpicia Petale’s tombstone, this paper explores the evidence for the roles of invisible actors in the production and consumption of literary texts in elite Roman contexts, with especial attention to elogia and graffiti. Using the framework of what Heidi Brayman Hackel has called in the Early Modern Context “invisible readers,” a category in whichshe includes women, children, and slaves, I focus on the instances in which those readers visible as the notional authors of literary texts, such as Sulpicia lectrix, a reader who becomes the subject of her own epitaph, and Sulpicia poeta, an elegiac docta puella who in turn produces her own poetry. It is one of the hallmarks of the reception of these texts in traditional scholarship to question the very identities of these female voices. Setting aside ongoing debates about the identification of Sulpicia’s poems within the Tibullan corpus, in the original publication of the inscription above, for example, Carcopino perversely proposed that Sulpiciae be taken as a genitive, making the honorand “Sulpicia’s (the poet’s) reader” rather than “Sulpicia the reader,” a misapprehension that continues have purchase in secondary literature a century later. Another example is the literary graffito, CIL 4.5396, addressed from one woman to her pupula, “dear girl”: a homoerotic text whose female authorship troubled many twentieth-century readers (as per Milnor 2014, 191–232). These willful misreadings must be taken as artifacts of the discourses surrounding women’s voicelessness that have their origins in antiquity. But by looking at this evidence within the context of the new paradigm of “literacies” rather than “literacy”— that is, “literacy not in the sense of whether 10 percent or 30 percent of people in the ancient world could read or write, but in the sense of text-oriented events embedded in particular sociocultural contexts” (Johnson 2009, 3)—we are better able to recuperate the signal role that women played as producers and consumers of texts who left visible traces on the epigraphic and literary records.

Session/Panel Title

Inscriptions and Literacy

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy