The emergence during the late Roman Republic of love poetry centered on the female figure of the puella is conventionally treated according to the different genres (neoteric, lyric and elegiac) in which it appeared. Such divisions are sensible, but nevertheless violate the strong affinity between the different generic forms in which the puella figure appears; consequently these generic boundaries are often transgressed by scholars (e.g. Lieberg 1962, Lyne 1980, Miller 2002; 2004). On a lexical level the frequency of the term puella increases conspicuously compared to that of amor during this literary development. The frequency of the term puella is very low in the works of Lucretius (puella: 2, amor: 26) and Virgil (10:122), relatively higher in Horace (24:49), and markedly increased in Catullus (46:53) and the elegists (Tibullus I-II, 32:50, Propertius, 121:158, Ovid c. 300:470). Although the increased frequency in the latter poets is not surprising, the word puella nevertheless seems to function as a generic marker.
This paper argues that the generic marker is therefore not only valid for elegy, but includes Catullus and the neoterics, even Horatian lyrics, as well as elegy in which the puella represents a subject position. Although the "puella poets" tend to favor one particular puella, there are many different puellae in this poetry â€“ and they are not always objects. There is the unique historical puella subject of Sulpicia (2.3, 3.1, 5.1) and the many fictitious puellae subjects of e.g. Ovid's Heroides. Furthermore, the increasing occurrence of the term puella emerges at a point of transition, at least so it seems, where the puer, related to the Hellenistic tradition of pederastic poetry, exemplified by Catullus' Juventius, Valgius' Mystes and Tibullus' Marathus, cedes to the very Roman puella.
Â Perhaps paradoxically, the eclipsing of the puer by the puella coincides with the appearance of Sappho, both as poet and puella, among the earliest puella poets. This paper will thus also gauge Sappho's influence on puella poetry, taking into account the female figure's subject position in puella poetry. As far as the extant Latin literature allows us to know, Catullus is the first puella poet, and as such he immediately establishes a connection between Sappho and the Roman puella figure through the name of Lesbia. Secondly, Horace notably also uses the term puella in connection with Sappho, both of herself (Carm. 4.9.12) and her lovers (2.13.25). Thirdly, the elegiac Epistula Sapphus, conventionally known as the fifteenth letter of Ovid's single Heroides, notably presents Sappho as a puella (Her. 15.100) and yet compares her love for the young Phaon to that of a man for a boy (Her. 15.85-6). What are we to make of this remarkable emergence of the puella both as love object and lover? By pursuing this and related questions, this paper aims to refresh our thinking around this crucial period in the history of Latin literature and the central role the puella plays in it.