Faltonia Betitia Proba – c. 306/c. 315 – c. 353/c. 366 – Rome

Ancient Rome

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Faltonia Betitia Proba was an early Christian Roman woman who was inspired by her faith to create one of the most influential poems of late antiquity (4th – 6th Centuries).

Born into a wealthy and noble family, Proba was the daughter of a Roman consul. She was clearly highly educated and made a politically useful marriage to the Prefect Clodius Celsinus Adelphus in 351.

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Faltonia Betitia Proba teaching the history of the world since the creation through her Cento Vergilanius de laudibus Christi. From a 15th Century manuscipt of the De muliberibus claris by Giovanni Boccaccio. (Source)

Though she had been raised in the Roman pagan religion, at some point during adulthood Proba converted to Christianity, a relatively new cult which was increasing in popularity in Rome at this time. Devout in her beliefs, Proba influenced her husband and two sons to convert as well.

There are two poems attributed to Proba, the first of which is believed to have been written before her conversion. Known as Constantini bellum adversus Magnentium, it told the story of the war between emperor Constantius II and the usurper Magnentius. This poem no longer exists, and some scholars think that Proba may have personally had it destroyed due to its pagan themes.

Following her conversion, Proba completed her master work; the  Cento vergilianus de laudibus Christi.

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An image of Faltonia Betitia Proba holding a scroll. Underneath is the beginning of her Cento. (Source)

A cento is a poem which is entirely composed of verses or passages taken from other authors, reworked to tell a different story. Proba used verses by the ancient poet Virgil combined with biblical passages to create an epic style poem about the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

In 694 lines, Proba tells the story of the bible, from the Old Testament stories of creation, the fall of man, the great flood and the story of Moses, to the New Testament and teachings of Jesus.

De Laudibus Christi was hugely popular upon publication. It was written in a style which was accessible and entertaining, which led to the work being shared and taught in schools. Faltonia Betitia Proba was praised well into the medieval period for her work.


References:

Early Christian Women Writers: The Interesting Lives and Works of Faltonia Betitia Proba and Athenais-Eudocia – Cătălina Mărmureanu, Gianina Cernescu, Laura Lixandru 

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. By various writers. Edited by Sir William Smith

On Wikipedia:

 

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Cornificia – c.85 – 40 BCE – Roman Republic

Ancient Rome

“Not satisfied with excelling in such a splendid art, inspired by the sacred Muses, she rejected the distaff and turned her hands, skilled in the use of the quill, to writing Heliconian verses… With her genius and labor she rose above her sex, and with her splendid work she acquired a perpetual fame.”

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Cornificia was born into a family of wealth, status and talent.

Her brother, Cornificius was both a praetor and an augur for the Roman Republic, as well as a poet. This upbringing likely afforded Cornificia a good education which inspired her own love of poetry.

Unfortunately, as happens too often, Cornificia’s work has all been lost. Her work is described as ‘distinguished’ by St Jerome in the 4th Century CE, inferring that the poet’s work did survive and was read for four hundred years after her death.

Cornificia and her brother were immortalised by a monument in Rome which still stands today. She was also praised by early feminist renaissance writer Laura Cereta who passionately wrote:

“Add also Cornificia, the sister of the poet Cornificius, whose devotion to literature bore such a fruit that she was said to have been nurtured on the milk of the Castalian Muses and who wrote epigrams in which every phrase was graced with Heliconian flowers.”


Notes:

The opening quote of this post is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s On Famous Women (De mulieribus claris)

praetor was a magistrate and/or military commander, while an augur was a priest whose task was to ‘take the auspices’, interpreting the will of the gods by studying the activities of birds.


References:

Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth CenturyJane Stevenson

Famous Women Giovanni Boccaccio, Virginia Brown

On Wikipedia:

Anyte – fl. 3Rd Century BCE – Tegea, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Anyte was a famous writer in her own time, well known for her epitaphs and epigrams. She was one of the first to describe nature and landscapes in her work.

She is considered unusual as rather than writing of masculine triumphs and achievements, Anyte’s work expresses sorrow for the deaths of young women. She is the first poet to write epitaphs for animals.

Fellow poet Antipater of Thessalonica named Anyte as one of the nine ‘earthly muses’ and we have more complete poems by Anyte than by any other Greek woman.

Anyte’s striking descriptions of nature are clear in the following epigram, which speaks of a statue of Aphrodite (often known as the “Cyprian”):

This is the site of the Cyprian, since it is agreeable to her

to look ever from the mainland upon the bright sea

that she may make the voyage good for sailors.

Around her the sea trembles looking upon her polished image.”

"Aphrodites Rock". Licensed via Commons

“Aphrodites Rock”. Licensed via Commons

According to some sources, Anyte led a school of poetry and literature on Peloponnesus, which also included the poet Leonidas of Tarentum.


References:

Translation and notes by Marilyn B. Skinner

On Wikipedia:

Nossis – c.300 BCE – Locri, Italy

Italy

How tenderly she stands! See how greatly her charm blooms!
May she fare well: her way of life is blameless.

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Nossis made her living writing epigrams (memorable statements) to be inscribed on votive offerings at the temple in Locri, southern Italy. Her patrons were almost exclusively women from various walks of life including wealthy matrons, new brides and sex workers.

The poem below commemorates the donation of a robe to the goddess Hera on the occasion of a woman’s wedding:

Most reverend Hera, you who often descending from heaven

behold your Lacinian shrine fragrant with incense

receive the linen wrap that with her noble child Nossis

Theophilis daughter of Cleocha wove for you.

 

Roman statue of Aphrodite, circa 4th Century BCE

Roman statue of Aphrodite, circa 4th Century BCE

Twelve of Nossis’ epigrams (one of which may not have been written by her) survive in the Greek Anthology. Meleager of Gadara, in his Garland, includes her among the most distinguished Greek poets and Antipater of Thessalonica ranked her among the nine poets who deserved the honor to compete with the Muses.

Not only were Nossis’ poems dedicated to female goddesses and paid for by women, they were also intended for a female audience, unlike most Greek poetry. In the following poem, she invites other women to go and see a gilded statue commissioned by the hetaera (courtesan) Polyarchis in the temple of Aphrodite:

Let us go to Aphrodite’s temple to see her statue,
how finely it is embellished with gold.
Polyarchis dedicated it, having made a great fortune
out of the splendor of her own body.

The fact that she is giving other women – particularly historically marginalized women – a voice makes Nossis very special. She writes with warmth and honesty, refusing to hide the pride many of these women feel in their professional successes.


References:

12 Epigrams of Nossis – Locri Epizephrii’s Historical Figures

Nossis and Women’s Cult at LocriMarilyn B. Skinner

Epigrams by Women from the Greek AnthologyMarilyn B. Skinner

On Wikipedia:

 

Moero – 3rd Century BCE – Byzantium, Greek Empire

Ancient Greece

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Moero (sometimes Myro) was a poet from the city of Byzantium (later Constantinople, now Istanbul). Antipater of Thessalonica included her in his list of famous women poets. Little remains of Moero’s work, but we know she wrote epic and lyric poetry as well as eulogies.

She is mentioned a number of times in the Suda (an ancient encyclopaedia), which states that she married a man named Andromachus and had a son who also wrote poetry.

Moero was also mentioned in The Deipnosophists by Anthenaeus, where her poetry is praised and quoted:

“Myro the Byzantian admirably caught the feeling of Homeric poems saying in her poem titled ‘Memory’ that the Pleiades convey ambrosia to Jupiter.”

(Pleiades – Seven Sisters consellation)


References:

The Suda entry on Moero

The Deipnosophists, or, Banquet of the learned of Athenæus
volume II Book XI – Athenaeus of Naucratis

On Wikipedia:

Cleobulina – fl.550 BCE – Rhodes, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Cleobulina is most well known for her poetry, which took the form of witty riddles. Her reputation for playfulness and wisdom was held in high regard by three learned men of the time; Aristotle, Plutarch and Diogenes.

As with the majority of ancient Greek women, we know hardly anything at all about Cleobulina’s life. She was born in Rhodes and her father was Cleobulus, one of the seven sages (or wise men) of Greece. He may have educated his daughter, as she became skilled in writing poetry in hexameter and writing riddles.

The philosopher Thales described Cleobulina as having ‘a stateman’s mind’ and nicknamed her Eumetis – ‘wise counsel’. This indicates that beyond her poetry and enigmas, Cleobulina must have been an intelligent political thinker, and possibly advised her father, the ruler of Rhodes.

A thousand years after her death, Bathusa Markin used Cleobulina as an example of the triumphs of learned women to advocate the education of noble women in his own time.


 

References

The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers – Diogenes Laertius

Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An AnthologyIan Michael Plant

An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen by Bathusa Makin

Sappho – c.630/12 – 570 BCE – Lesbos, Greece

Ancient Greece

“Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!

Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.”

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Plato called her ‘wise Sappho’. Solon of Athens once said that he would be happy to die having learned one of her songs; Horace described her work as sacred. Sappho was as celebrated and respected for her art as any man or woman in the ancient world.

800px-Alkaios_Sappho_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2416_n2She was included as the only woman among the nine Greek lyric poets who were studied by the Alexandrians (Greeks) and later the Romans. Sappho is still well known today, despite much of her work being lost. There are about 200 remnants of Sappho’s poetry still in existence, all of varying lengths. As well as manuscripts copied by scholars over time, her poetry survives on papyrus fragments and pieces of pottery.

She wrote about heroic deeds and praise for the Gods – but is most remembered for her passionate love poetry and razor sharp wit:

“She keeps her scents
in a dressing-case.
And her sense?
In some undiscoverable place.”

“Vain woman, foolish thing!
Do you base your worth on a ring?”

Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos to a noble family and had three older brothers. She may have had a daughter who she named Cleïs after her mother.

What we know of Sappho’s life is based on her own poetry, and the writings of a few contemporary and later Greek historians. She spent most of her life on Lesbos, though she lived during a politically turbulent era and at one point was exiled for a short time. Her fellow poet and friend Alcaeus described her as ‘Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho’ and most physical descriptions agree that she was small and dark haired.

Sappho and her Lyre by Jules Elie Delaunay

Sappho and her Lyre by Jules Elie Delaunay

Sappho’s immense reputation surpasses many other poets of antiquity – she was called the tenth muse, was studied by Greeks, Romans and later the Victorians, odes were written to her, paintings and statues were created in her image. She is often praised for the clarity of language in her love poetry and her sharp descriptions – she is the first writer known to describe the moon as ‘silvery’.

“You have returned!
You did well to not depart
because I pined for you.
Now you have re-lit the torch
I bear for you in my heart,
this flare of Love.
I bless you and bless you and bless you
because we’re no longer apart.”

It would be difficult to discuss Sappho without stumbling upon a number of references to her sexuality. Her poetry focused on love and passion for people of both sexes. The word lesbian comes from Lesbos, the island she lived on, and she is also the origin of the word Sapphic. These words did not come to be applied to gay women until the 19th Century, and the poet’s reputation for same-sex relationships did not come about until 300 years after her death, nevertheless the rumor has become legend.

“Once more I dive into this fathomless sea,
intoxicated by lust.”

It was not uncommon for male poets such as Alcaeus and Pindar to form romantic relationships with both men and women in their social circle, so it might be assumed that Sappho adopted a similar attitude. Later philosopher Maximus of Tyre compared her relationships with women to Socrates relationships with men, claiming that they were simply ‘captivated by all things beautiful’.


References:

New Poems by Sappho – Dirk Obbink

English Translations of Sappho’s Works

In Our Time: Sappho – BBC Radio 4 programme

Great Lives: Sappho – BBC Radio 4 programme

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong is a fiction novel based on the life of the poet.

Erinna – c. 600 BCE – Rhodes, Greece

Ancient Greece

Deep into the wave you raced,
Leaping from white horses,
Whirling the night on running feet.
But loudly I shouted, “Dearest,
You’re mine!”

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A friend of Sappho and just as famous during her lifetime, Erinna is one of the few female Greek poets whose work is extant (still in existence).

She came from Rhodes, or one of the surrounding islands and wrote her most famous poem, The Distaff, when she was only nineteen years old. The poem is a lament for her friend Baucis, who died shortly before her wedding. The 300 line poem, which is written in hexameter verse, gives us the only information we have about the life of Erinna as she mourns her childhood fiend:

These things I
Lament and sorrow, sad Baucis.
These are for me, O Maiden,
Warm trails back through my heart:
Joy, once filled, smoulders in ash;
Young, in rooms without a care,
We held our miming dolls—girls
In the pretense of young brides
(And the toward-dawn-mother
Lotted wool to tending women,
Calling Baucis to salt the meat);

The poem is deeply heartfelt and recalls the act of weaving (a distaff is a spindle for spinning wool) using it as a metaphor for poetry and the thread of life. Erinna’s poetry gives us a rare and important glimpse into the lives of ancient Greek women as well as their relationships with each other.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Erinna was the most famous of Greek women poets after Sappho and was well known at least three hundred years after her death. Her praises are sung by other Greek writers, and she was compared favorably with Homer. Some biographies mention that Erinna died very young, shortly after having written The Distaff, making her accomplishments even more impressive.


References:

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology

The Distaff

On Wikipedia:

Praxilla – 5th Century BCE – Sicyon, Greece

Ancient Greece, Uncategorized

“My friend, look out for a scorpion under every stone…”

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Praxilla was a famous lyric poet who wrote hymns and drinking songs (scolia). She was enough of a celebrity that a bronze bust was sculpted in her honour, and her songs were sung at parties for over three hundred years.

Praxilla was so well known that the playwright Aristopanes parodied her poetry in two of his plays – indicating that he both knew her work and expected his audiences to be familiar enough with Praxillion verse to laugh at his spoofs.

Of course, everyone is a critic, and Praxilla was later mocked for her hymn to Adonis which read:

Finest of all the things I have left is the light of the sun.

Next to that the brilliant stars and the face of the moon,

Cucumbers, apples and pears.

"Sikyon ancient Theatre"  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Sikyon ancient Theatre”
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Comparing the beauty of the night sky to cucumbers was considered somewhat misplaced, giving rise to the proverbial expression ‘Sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis’. However, when it is considered that the Greek for cucumber ‘sicyos’ is very similar to the name of Praxilla’s hometown of Sicyon, a case can be made that this was actually a clever pun.

Strange and silly or clever and original, Praxilla achieved fame and praise for her writing across the Greek world for centuries.


References:

Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology – I.M. Plant

Girls and Women in Classical Greek WritingMatthew Dillon

Selected fragments of Praxilla’s writing on Stoa.org

On Wikipedia:

Telesilla – fl. 510 BCE – Argos, Greece

Ancient Greece

This woman was renowned for her poetry, but also legendary for her bravery as a warrior…

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The life of Telesilla was distinctive in many ways. As a young woman, she suffered from ill-health and travelled from her homeland Argos to Delphi to visit the Pythia. The Oracle told her: τὰς Μούσας θεραπεύειν – Serve the Muses. So when Telesilla returned to Argos she devoted her life to poetry.

Only two lines of any of Telesilla’s poetry remains – part of a song meant for a chrorus of women to sing, but she was well known during her lifetime for her talents.

However, she was to be remembered for another reason…

In 510 BCE, Cleomenes of Sparta invaded the Argives. The men of Argos left for battle and were slaughtered, leaving Argos undefended. Cleomenes and his army of Spartan warriors began to march towards the city.

Spartan warrior "Cratère de Vix 0011 cropped" by Michael Greenhalgh Licensed via Wikimedia Commons

Spartan warrior
“Cratère de Vix 0011 cropped” by Michael Greenhalgh Licensed via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately for Argos, the Pythia had spoken another prophecy which would be fulfilled by Telesilla:

“the time shall come that the female conquers in battle, driving away the male and winning great glory in Argos. Then many wives of the Argives shall tear both cheeks in their mourning.”

With the Spartans closing in on the weakened city, Telesilla sprang into action. She gathered all of the slaves of the city, as well as elderly or young men who were usually excempt from service, stationing them at the city walls. She also armed all of the women of Argos, placing them in position for battle and standing at the head of the army.

When the Spartans arrived and saw Telesilla’s army, they made a battle cry in an attempt to frighten them. But Telesilla’s troops stood firm, and fought bravely. Eventually Cleomenes realized that he could not face the shame of being defeated by an army of women, and nor could he defeat them in good conscience, so he ordered the Spartans to leave the city.

It is said that after her victory, a statue was built in Telesilla’s honour. The statue portrays her placing a warrior’s helmet on her head, with her poetry scattered at her feet.


References:

Pausanias Book 2: 20:8 

On Wikipedia: