The Roman love elegists depict their beloveds as inspirations for, and consumers of, poetry, ideally their own. As Sharon James (2003) has argued, the generic elegiac woman is an independent courtesan who depends financially on male sexual desire. In this poetic-erotic commerce, the lover offers poems, while the puella demands material offerings. But her profession does not mean that she is purely mercenary. If we take seriously the docta puella's appreciation of poetry, we can see, behind the smokescreen of lovers' complaints, a woman whose profession and predilections may be profoundly at odds. Hers would be a life of constant contradiction and tension, as long as she supports herself by sex. This paper explores those contradictions, considering the puella as a social subordinate who (like a scriba) is more literate and erudite than many of those who patronize her services, and who finds real pleasure in the arts—arts that are sometimes turned against her. If the puella is so learned, and really loves Alexandrian poetry, how might she experience her professional love life?
Many women in Rome had to support themselves by sex, and they cannot always have enjoyed their work. Elegy acknowledges that puellae sometimes accept generous clients, but it constructs them as unattractive, and insists that the puella cannot enjoy sex with them. In such moments, we can perceive—focalized through the highly prejudiced lover-poet—the distasteful elements in the puella's sexual work. In Prop. 2.16, Cynthia is joined (seiuncta) for seven days, "pouring her shining arms" over a "hideous man" (23-24), a barbarus (27). In Tibullus, the repulsive elderly lover has frigida membra (1.8.29) and gouty feet that the culta puella flees (1.9.73 -74). In Am. 3.8, the solder "fed on blood" is scarred (10, 19). The lena Acanthis tells the puella to ignore her clients' unattractive features (the sailor's calloused hand, the soldier "not made for love," 4.5.49-60). The lovers are aghast, but how does the puella feel? Plautus' Bacchides gives a hint: embracing the old man is loathsome, odiosum, says Bacchis II—but she must do it (1152-53). Terence's Thais truly loves Phaedria (199-201), but must give temporary priority to a soldier, whom she dislikes. The elegiac puella, constructed as loving poetry in a way not seen in the comic meretrix, experiences further tension, as her profession requires her to be less discerning about sexual partners than about poetry.
Since the puella cannot often indulge her literary tastes, she may praise poetry without admitting the poet gratis (Prop. 2.24c, Am. 3.8). Yet she may want to admit an attractive man for free (Am. 1.8.67-68), and his attraction is not always beauty. The (non-elegiac) puella of Catullus 35, Sapphica…musa doctior (16-17), is set on fire by Caecilius' incomplete poem on Cybele (hardly love poetry). Likewise, the puella of Prop. 2.26 says her lover's poems make her hate rich men (25)—she would not reject him even for legendary wealth (see also 1.8.29-41): non, si Cambysae redeant et flumina Croesi, | dicat 'De nostro surge, poeta, toro' (23-24). No girl has ever cultivated poetry so devotedly (26), he says. She may be merely flattering him—but she may also be sincere. In 2.33, Cynthia (observing Isis' celibacy ritual) postpones sex with not only drinking but verse: she recites her lover's poems. If poetry is here a substitute pleasure for the puella, the pleasure satisfies her more than the poet himself. This paper explores such moments, asking: can the puella be both sensitive and hardened? how might she feel, reading a beautiful poem that excoriates her? We read her through the lover-poet, so we cannot know how a puella might feel. We can think about her position, her life, and her experience, but the nature of the position, as described in the poetry, is objective—and the position itself is impossible: a combination of aesthetic refinement and sexual subjection that bespeaks the desire of the poet.