The First Lady of Satire
(1st century Rome)
Satire existed all the way back in Jesus times, but it was different from the satire we have today. Ancient Romans didn’t have McSweeney's or The Onion or anything like that.
Instead, satire took the form of poems that could range from light-hearted to downright vicious.
The genre was invented by a dude named Lucilius and was typically formatted in dactylic hexameter.
What in the ever-loving heck is dactylic hexameter?!
It’s the same structure you see in epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is complicated to explain and honestly, who gives a shit?
Among the Satire Boys’ Club, there was one awesome lady kicking ass and taking names.
That was Sulpicia.
Yale classics scholar Amy Richlin describes her as “a lost Roman satirist, the only woman writer associated with any comic genre in antiquity.”
The ONLY known member of the ancient lady laughter literati! Whaaaaa!!
One of the sad things about being the first female satirist in recorded history is that we know very little about her life or her writing.
Only TWO lines of her work remain today. The rest has been lost to the ages. TWO LINES!
I mean, it was two thousand years ago, and nobody was going around being like “hey, we have to preserve this woman’s work for future generations!”
In the two lines that still exist, Sulpicia describes herself lying in bed with her husband, “stripped bare.”
That’s it! That’s all that’s left! It’s not even funny!
Thankfully, other writers and historians of the time knew all about Sulpicia, and THEY wrote about HER. And some of those writings still exist! So we have a bit more insight from the following folks...
Roman poet Martial said that Sulpicia “teaches chaste and proper loves, games, delights, frivolities. One who judges her songs rightly will say no woman is naughtier.”
A couple hundred years after her death, someone includes Sulpicia in a long poem that lists all the famous writers of the time and mentions her “sweet talking joke.”
Sidonius Apollinaris called Sulpicia “inimitable,” which is extra hilarious, because it’s thought by some that Juvenal, the famous woman-hating satirist, might have actually imitated (cough cough STOLEN) some of Sulpicia’s work and passed it off as his own.
Oh, the irony!
But we have Sulpicia to thank for being the first satirical female writer on record. THANK YOU, SULPICIA!