The Latin diminutive noun puella and its “sexualization” in Latin lyric and elegiac poetry – Judith P. Hallett (Maryland)
The Oxford Latin Dictionary provides four definitions of the Latin noun puella :
1. a) “A female child, girl” [with examples from Plautus, Terence, Cicero, Horace, Ovid, Tristia 3.12.5 ; the elder Seneca, Petronius, Tacitus, Juvenal, Paulus] and “[with gen. or poss. adj.] b) “a daughter” [examples from Horace, Martial, Gellius].
2. a) A young woman (married or otherwise), girl, maiden” [examples from Plautus, Catullus 2b on Atalanta, Horace, Carmina 3.22.2 ; Tibullus 1.6.15 ; Ovid, Fasti and Epistulae ex Ponto ; Germanicus, Martial, Tacitus, Suetonius, Galba, Apuleius] and b) “applied to nymphs, goddesses” [examples from Vergil, Propertius 184.108.40.206 ; Martial].
3. a) A young woman as an object of sexual interest” [examples from Horace’s Epistulae, Propertius 1.1.5 ; Petronius, Martial, Juvenal] and (spec.) b) “one’s girl, sweetheart” [examples from Catullus 2.1.1, passer deliciae meae puellae ; Tibullus 1. 10. 59 ; Ovid, Ars Amatoria 2 ; Martial]
4. A slave girl [examples from Terence, Horace, Tibullus 1. 3.87 ; Martial, Juvenal]”
The OLD also contains entries on puellaris [“of, befitting, or characteristic of a girl, girlish,” with examples from Ovid, the elder Seneca, Mela, Quintilian, the younger Piny, Juvenal and Martial] ; puellariter [“in a girlish manner”, example from the younger Pliny] ; puellasco[“to become girlish or effeminate”, example from Varro] ; puellitor [“to act like a girl”, example from Laberius] ; puellula [“a young girl or maiden”, examples from Terence, Pomponius, Catullus 57.9 and 61.175 and Sulpicius] ; and puellus [“a. a young boy and b. (in erotic context) a catamite”, with examples from Ennius, Lucilius, Varro, Lucretius, Suetonius, Apuleius and b. Inc. Poetae”]. Of these six words etymologically connected with puella—an adjective, an adverb, two verbs and two nouns—only puellula describes a quality, mode of action, individual or activity associated with mature, sexually active females.
The noun puella is technically the feminine form of the final noun cited above : puellus, a diminutive of puer, “little boy”. It should, for that reason, denote a “sexually immature young girl”, and is frequently used in that sense by the earliest Roman authors who employ it : Plautus and Terence in the early to mid-second century BCE. There it often connotes a young female who is accorded high emotional value.
The comic playwrights most commonly employ puella for newborn babies. When used of older girls, puella usually refers to slave women or sexually inexperienced free-born young women pretending to be sexually experienced, fee-charging, one-client-at-a-time courtesans (meretrices), or in the possession of a leno, a male manager and profiteer from the ownership of female prostitutes.
Yet puella acquires a different and specialized meaning among male Latin lyric and elegiac poets of the mid-first century BCE though the early first century CE : Catullus, Horace, Propertius, Tibullus, Lygdamus, and Ovid. They use it to designate “women whom they depict not only as sexually mature and active, but also emotionally and erotically valued by themselves in their literary roles as poet-speakers and, and as bestowing their erotic favors out of wedlock and apparently free of charge.”
Their female colleague, the Augustan elegist Sulpicia, employs this noun in her poems to characterize herself as both poet-speaker and desirable, affectionately regarded love-object who does not take payment for her erotic favors : see [Tibullus 3.] 8.15 and 24, 10.1 and 11, 11.3, 12.2 and 9, 14.3, 15.1 and 17.1
Puella can also be used as a term for prostitute in Latin. In texts from the late Republic onward, puella rarely occurs in epic poetry and “educated prose.” The “preferred word in educated prose [for a young female child] was uirgo.”
Although Catullus uses puella to describe sexually inexperienced young girls other than his female beloved—in, e.g., 34.2 and 4 (the hymn to Diana)— he more often employs it for his female beloved, and for the female sexual partners of other males.
Catullus’ decision to use puella in this sense may be attributable to its metrical versatility. A first declension trisyllabic noun consisting of a short syllable, a long syllable, and a final syllable that can be either short or long (depending on its case and position), it works well in hendecasyllabic, elegiac, dactylic hexameter, limping iambic and Sapphic verse. Subsequent Latin love poets appear to have adopted this usage of puella from Catullus.
During the Augustan principate, the noun puella seems to have become associated with women, both elite and non-elite, whose sexual conduct transgressed the marriage and moral laws enacted by Augustus in 18-17 BCE.
The association of puellae with sexually transgressive behavior helps account for its use by post-Augustan writers to describe prostitutes. Its negative connotations at this time might also explain why Ovid does not use the word puella to describe young women in two of his elegies from exile that seek to justify his life and exonerate his poetry : Tristia 3.7 (addressed to a young female poet thought to be his stepdaughter) and the autobiographical 4.10 (which mentions the woman called Corinna in Amores). By the time Ovid left Rome, in official disgrace, in 8 CE, puella had become sexualized, and associated with illicit erotic activity.
See J. Hallett, “Intersections of Gender and Genre : Sexualizing the Puella in Roman comedy, lyric and elegy”, Eugesta 3. (> Texte intégral / Full text pdf)
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The Latin diminutive noun puella and its “sexualization” in Latin lyric and elegiac poetry – Judith P. Hallett (Maryland), EuGeStA Lexicon, 15 May 2014