Colin Sydenham suggests that the poet Horace may have fathered a child.
Horace did not marry, and he left his property to Augustus(1). We may take it therefore that he had no legitimate child, but it does not follow that he was never a father. In this article I want to suggest that there are respectable literary grounds for believing that he fathered at least one child.
As I am going to base this suggestion on a single ode, I should start by saying that I do not embrace the autobiographical fallacy. That is to say, I do not assume that Horace is telling us the literal truth about himself whenever he speaks in the first person in the Odes. On the contrary, I am well aware that a masterful game of self-presentation is being played. He shows us what he wants to show, and what he expects us to want to see. He is not on oath. He is not committed to telling us the whole truth and nothing but the truth any more than is Housman in The Shropshire Lad. Nevertheless, I believe that he tells us more of the truth than Housman, and that in some places he can be taken more seriously than others. I will return to this point. Meanwhile please suspend your natural scepticism while I develop my suggestion.
The ode to which I refer is one of the very shortest, 3.22. The full text, with a translation, is as follows:
The poet is honouring Diana. A charming little dedicatory poem, illuminated by the vivid sketch of a vigorous young animal, and by no means overdone, since two Sapphic stanzas are Horace’s absolute minimum. No doubt the idea can be traced to some Greek original. What more is there to be said? Well, for a start, is there not something a little odd about the first stanza? The triple nature of the goddess is invoked, and this is an allusion to her functions on earth and also above and below it, as Diana, Luna and Proserpina respectively, but it is only her terrestrial functions as custodian of the countryside and childbirth which are addressed, while Luna and Proserpina are sidelined. And then the second stanza: the poet makes a double offering, by dedicating a specific tree and vowing an annual sacrifice of a healthy young boar. Why? What has prompted this twofold honour, and therefore the poem? This is the critical question, my starting point.
I suggest that the answer stares us in the face. It is in the first stanza, which is dominated by the reference to delivering a mother from a difficult birth – difficult enough to fill her, and no doubt those near to her, with fears for her life. There has been such an event; the goddess has been duly invoked, and perhaps a vow has been made; and the mother, and we may infer the child too, have come through safely. There is thus a symmetry between the dual functions of the first stanza and the twofold offering in the second: one line for the countryside (and the tree), and the rest for the successful birth (and the annual sacrifice).
So Horace has been closely affected by a difficult birth, closely enough, perhaps, to have promised at the crisis an offering to Diana, and certainly to have made a carefully conceived double offering. Again, why? A little thought supplies the obvious answer. The double offering is emphatic. It is produced by genuine emotion, by alarm followed by relief. The prospect of the mother’s death has affected Horace because he cared for her, and if he cared for her, it is a small step to conjecture that the child was his.
A small step, but is it a plausible one? I believe so. To the reader of the Odes it is obvious that Horace was fond of women. It is true that by the time of Odes IV his deepest affection is expressed for a boy, Ligurinus, (3) but he wrote too often and too warmly about too many women for it to be supposed that he took no interest in them. What kind of woman might the mother have been? It is easy to rule out many of the names he mentions. Some are too young: Pyrrha the fickle (1.5), Chloe the tremulous (1.23), Chloe (possibly the same Chloe) the disobliging (3.26), Neobule the restless teenager (3.12), Pholoe the flighty (2.5, 3.15), and so on. Others are mere targets for his satire: Lydia the superannuated tart (1.25), Barine the reeking courtesan (2.8), raddled Lyce whom he fancied once (4.13). But there are a few names spoken of with genuine affection: Tyndaris, to whom he offers a refuge in the country (1.17), Phyllis, his finis amorum (4.11), and Cinara, of whom we know only that he speaks of a period when she was good to him, and that her years were short (4.1, 4.13); there is even Glycera, of whom he twice uses words of passion (1.19: urit repeated, and 3.19: torret). Women like this could have borne him a child. The candidate, or rather the type of candidate, I favour is the Lyde of 3.28 (Festo quid potius die). This is the last love poem of the first collection of Odes. Understated, but unmistakably about love (4), it has been described as Horace’s intended farewell to love. (5) Strenua he calls this Lyde; (6) she is evidently a member of his household, bustling about to do his bidding, available and talented enough to accompany him in an antiphonal duet, and available also as night closes in.
Is there anything more we can say about the mother of this putative child? Perhaps. Let me move diffidently into the treacherous territory of connections between neighbouring odes.
There are some suggestive cases, (7) is there anything helpful here? Let us look at the next stanza, the first of 3.23. We find this:
Two connections at once: the moon (Diana) and the sacrificial pig, or more accurately, sow. And to take a further step, the connection may be extended to the whole of 3.23, which tells us that Phidyle is a figure unique in the Odes, the wife of a vilicus (estate bailiff), not wealthy but responsible. Why does Horace give us this touching glimpse of a character so different from his usual gallery of notables, friends and girlfriends, and pasteboard figures? It is a sufficient answer to this question to remember that Horace’s country estate comprised five tenant farms (9) for which he would have needed a vilicus; it is his country concerns which have prompted the ode, just as they prompted his nearby prayer to Faunus. (10) It is not necessary to suppose that we are being pointed to a particular person, but the juxtaposition may carry a hint of the kind of woman who could have been the mother of Horace’s child. Furthermore the contrast in the sex of the two sacrifices may carry another coded message. The normal practice was for the victim of a sacrifice to be of the same sex as the deity concerned. (11) Perhaps the male sacrifice to Diana tells us that the baby was a boy. The fact that the annual sacrifice will mark the birthday of the child strengthens the conjecture that a birth is being celebrated.
Finally, to complete the conjecture, let us glance back at the preceding ode, 3.21 (O nata mecum). It is a light-hearted parody of a hymn, which at the end of the first stanza turns out to be addressed not to a deity, but to a wine jar. The last stanza, nearest to our ode, reads as follows:
Here we find Bacchus and Venus in conjunction, and the Graces loosing their girdles, though with proper reluctance; the evening lamps are still burning as the sun rises. The story is clear enough. This is about how, not who. Is it another hint, or coincidence?
Let me now return to the point I mentioned at the start. Although I disclaim the autobiographical fallacy, it is implicit in everything I have said that I believe it possible to draw from the Odes a picture of Horace the man, his likes, his views, his attitudes, and even concrete details of his life. This is not gullible or naive, it is inevitable. It is impossible to make an intelligent approach to understanding the Odes without being prepared to attempt some assessment of Horace’s tone in each one. It varies from the high political seriousness of the Roman odes to the empty abuse of ageing prostitutes, and in between there are countless gradations of warmth and genuineness. To disbelieve everything factual he says is as foolish as to believe everything. What is necessary is to discriminate. When he tells us (more than once) that he was nearly killed by a falling branch, I believe there was some such incident, because it obviously made a lasting impression on him; when he makes the event a pretext for theatrical abuse of the tree, I think he is exaggerating his indignation in order to amuse himself and us and to lead us up to more serious points (2.13). (13) When he hints with tantalising brevity that he suffered a narrow escape at sea near Cape Palinurus (3.4.28), I believe him because it explains his consistent denigration of sea travel, and because his very reticence is eloquent. When he says that a wolf ran away from him, I am quite prepared to believe him, but when he describes the beast’s diabolical size, I smile, and when he says that he was thinking of Lalage at the time, I disbelieve, since I note that she is the peg on which he hangs a witty literary surprise (1.22). I do not believe Mercury wrapped him in a cloud to save him from the field of Philippi (2.7), but I believe in the genuineness of his delight at the restoration of his old comrade, Pompeius.
These examples are simple enough, but how does one discriminate? The only possible answer is by acquiring familiarity and applying judgment. There are no rules, but there are pointers. Some of these are obvious. For example the identity of the addressee: if it is Maecenas, expect a larger proportion of truth than if it is Chloe. But to assist my conjecture I want to single out a less obvious pointer. It is noticeable that when Horace takes the trouble to describe a sacrifice that he intends to make, he is using it as a badge of personal involvement. Several examples can be given. In 2.17 Horace says that he will strike down humilem agnam, and in 3.8 he says he has vowed to Bacchus album caprum. Both odes are addressed to Maecenas, and both sacrifices, curiously, are linked to his escape from that fateful branch. Both are somewhat hyperbolical in expression, but the stressed personal ritual helps us to perceive the undertone of genuine friendship for his patron. In 3.13 Horace addresses the Bandusian spring. He devotes more than a stanza to the haedus he proposes to offer instead of the customary wine and flowers. He is making a special bargain, and this lingering over the victim’s fate shows us how serious he is. 4.2 is another place where he describes the victim at some length – vitulus .. niveus videri, cetera fulvus. The occasion is one of public rejoicing to celebrate the return of Caesar from abroad. He is telling us that his observance is more than mere civic formality. In 4.11 he is about to sprinkle the altar immolato agno. It is an occasion of double significance to him; he is organising a party to mark Maecenas’ birthday, and inviting his last love, Phyllis.
These are all contexts in which we can see that the described sacrifice points to a more than casual degree of personal engagement on Horace’s part. In 3.22 there is so little information that it is at first sight difficult to form any judgment about that. But what we do have is another case of a closely observed victim. Let us not fall into the anachronism of supposing that Horace is soliciting our sympathy for the beast. He is guaranteeing that it will be a properly vigorous offering, not some worthless weakling. More to the point, I suggest that the examples I have given help us to conclude that the care taken in describing the victim implicitly reveals a personal involvement, which, here for obvious reasons, Horace prefers not to make explicit. Thus the examples serve to support the conjecture I have advanced.
I do not claim to have proved anything. I cannot prove that Horace fathered a child any more than I can prove that he had genuine affection for Maecenas, or Phyllis, or Ligurinus, or anyone else he names. All I have suggested, and sought to establish, is that this is a plausible hypothesis. But what is the value of the hypothesis? Does it matter whether Horace was a father or not? Very little, perhaps not at all; what matters about Horace is not the intimate conduct of his private life, but what he wrote. What is important here is whether the inquiry illuminates the meaning of 3.22, or, more generally, does it illuminate Horace’s ways of communicating information indirectly in the Odes. To lovers of Horace both questions matter. (14) Horace’s meaning is not always apparent at first glance; he often requires a degree of interlinear reading, especially in his monologues (15). Am I justified in suggesting that he has indicated his parenthood by such oblique means? I should prefer to pose this question the other way round. Granted the sensitivity of the message which I believe he implies, could he, within his chosen medium, have conveyed it more directly without compromising an understandable desire for personal reticence.
(1) The Vita says that he died herede Augusto palam nuncupato.
(2) All the translations in this article are from my Horace The Odes 2005, Duckworth, now Bloomsbury
(3) 4.1.29-40, 4.10.
(4) L.P.Wilkinson Horace and his Lyric Poetry 1951, 148-9.
(6) Contrast the Lyde of 3.11, who ludit exsultim metuitque tangi.
(7) For example there is an apparent link between 1.16, a recantation which reminds us of the famous palinode of Stesichorus about Helen, and 1.17, whose addressee bears Helen’s patronym (Tyndaris).
(9) Epist.1.14.1 ff. and Lyne Horace behind the Public Poetry 1995, 6 ff.
(11) Nisbet and Rudd Commentary on Horace Odes Bk 111 2004, 256.
(13) The event figures again in 2.17, 3.8 and at 3.4.27.
(14) This idea was originally floated at a meeting of the Flaccidae held at the Garrick Club in April 2008, when the only learned support I had found was an observation of Quinn that there is perhaps a “hint that H .. could claim more than token status as father” (Horace the Odes 1980, 282). Since then the publication of Nisbet and Rudd’s commentary has provided further qualified but heavyweight support (op cit, 257, where it appears that the original thought may have come from R.S.Conway in 1927). I can also claim the support of the poet, James Michie (deceased), who, as the Penguin translator of the Odes (1967), was intimately acquainted with them. In his Last Poems (2008, 32) there is a poem (Ancient Yoof ) in which he attributes to a bust marked Horace, a monologue including the following:
(15) A favourite example of mine is I.9 (Vides ut alta): see the Note in my Horace The Odes, (fn 2 above).