A snippet here, scribbled rapidly on a Saturday afternoon before the FA Cup final (in the event, I shouldn’t have scribbled so rapidly), from the research I’m doing toward Horace: A Very Short Introduction. The issue here is a detail, and quite a significant one given Roman snobbery, of the poet’s biography.
Horace’s stellar career, according to Horace himself, owed a lot to his father. But was his father born a slave?
If so, Horace’s career even prior to his success as a poet is stunningly unconventional. For instance, he enjoyed the Roman elite’s equivalent of higher education in Athens, hobnobbing with the most privileged stratum of Rome’s highly stratified society, and thereafter as tribunus militum, a rank again reserved for the Roman elite, he seems to have commanded a legion at Philippi. Rome was an intensely status-conscious place, and while the extremities of civil war brought inevitable compromises, that remains an unexpected CV for the son of an ex-slave.
Now, there is no question that Horace was in some sense “the son of a freedman”, his father a slave who had secured his freedom. Satire 1.6, which will feature a lot here, is clear that Horace was so considered by detractors at least (libertino patre natum, 1.6.6, 45-6). But an influential (and clever) article by Gordon Williams, “Libertino patre natus: true or false?”, in S.J. Harrison, Homage to Horace (1995), has argued that Horace was exaggerating the humbleness of his origins for effect (an important theme of the poem is the consideration due to people of lower social status), and that Horace’s father was only an ex-slave in a technical sense.
What Williams proposed was that Horace senior had been captured, in his youth, when the Romans took the rebel city of Venusia, Horace’s home town, at the end of the Social War in 88 BC. Once in captivity, he would likely have been considered a slave, Williams suggests with reference to known parallels, but his status might have been reversed fairly easily, in which case he could have quickly returned to his previous existence as a free inhabitant, potentially quite prominent and prosperous, of Venusia. In literal terms a freedman, then, but in social status far from a typical example.
Well, Williams’ argument rests on detailed readings of Satire 1.6, and I think it’s fair to say that Horace’s chatty style in the Satires (they are designed to read like the conversations of Romans at dinner) makes it hard to pin down precisely what he’s saying about himself—hard for Williams to ground his theory securely, but hard also for me to dispute it. But a word that features a lot in connection with Horace’s father seems to me important, and this is ingenuus. It can be used loosely to mean something like “respectable” or “gentlemanly”, but its core meaning is “freeborn”, and in a poem where social categories are at issue, in general and with reference to Horace’s father, that implication must be readily felt.
By Williams’ theory, Horace’s father was “freeborn”, ingenuus, his enslavement a temporary inconvenience of his early years. But on three occasions in Satire 1.6 Horace’s father is, to put it no stronger than this, associated with a lack of ingenuitas, freeborn status. The question is whether we can walk away from this poem seriously doubting that he was born unfree.
In the first case Horace credits Maecenas, his powerful friend and patron, with attaching no importance to quali sit quisque parente/ natus, dum ingenuus, “of what kind of parent anyone is born, so long as he be ingenuus” (7-8). Here I think the natural sense of ingenuus is “freeborn”, and while Williams suggests that Horace might in this clause be describing the father rather than “anyone”, that seems to me a stretch. In context it is Horace’s status that is the primary issue here, and Maecenas’ unconcern for the status of an individual’s father. There may be an implication that Horace’s father was not freeborn, unlike his son, but no more than that.
In the second passage, the most important for us, Horace is stating, and also accepting (somewhat unexpectedly), that people of low birth will not get far in political life: namque esto populus Laeuino mallet honorem/ quam Decio mandare nouo, censorque moueret/ Appius, ingenuo si non essem patre natus/ —uel merito, quoniam in propria non pelle quiessem, “For let’s grant that the people would rather entrust office to a Laevinus than to a Decius with no family background, and that Appius the censor would exclude me from the Senate if I weren’t born of a freeborn father—rightly perhaps, since I’d not have rested quietly in my own skin” (19-22).
To repeat, getting the nuance of satirical Latin is not straightforward, and this does not say outright that Horace’s father was not freeborn—that is stated as a remote condition, strictly speaking—but it is hard to explain why he raises this of all possible objections to himself (and in terms that so clearly recall the earlier statement of Maecenas’ point of view), not to mention the following acknowledgement in principle of the validity of the imagined sanction by the censor (an official responsible among other things for policing the qualifications of senators), unless Horace wants this understanding of himself and his paternity to be seriously entertained.
Finally, 89-92, which won’t clinch anything either: nil me paeniteat sanum patris huius, eoque/ non, ut magna dolo factum negat esse suo pars,/ quod non ingenuos habeat clarosque parentis,/ sic me defendam, “While of sound mind I would never regret having such a father, and the way the majority say it’s not their fault that they don’t have freeborn or distinguished parents isn’t how I would defend myself.” Here ingenuos might, I suppose, just entail “respectable”, if at any rate a reader could fail even toward the end of the poem to be thinking of more precise kinds of social differentiation. For a sense of the contemporary significance of being not just free but freeborn, the story of Augustus’ refusal to dine in the company of Menas/Menodorus, the turncoat freedman of Pompey, until he had been assertus in ingenuitatem, deemed legally (if not actually) freeborn, is suggestive (Suetonius, Life of Augustus 74, cf. Appian, BC 5.338, ἐλεύθερον εὐθὺς ἀπέφηνεν ἐξ ἀπελευθέρου).
Williams’ argument needs to be read to be properly assessed, and I can’t do it justice here: it’s also included in Kirk Freudenburg’s collection Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Horace, Satires and Epistles (2009). All I can do is say that my own impression at the end of Satire 1.6 is that Horace has strongly implied that his father was born a slave. If this is correct, it is not, I think, something that a poet in Rome would state of his background unless it were substantially true.
“And so what?” you might say at this point.
I think to me it matters because it restores to Horace’s life story some of its dramatic quality. It reinstates major obstacles that Horace and his father had to overcome for the Horace we know and can write books about to emerge.
The turning point in Horace’s early life, described in this satire and in more oblique terms in his famous ode on the Bandusian Spring, was his father’s decision to secure for him an education at Rome, 200 miles from Venusia. If we conclude that Horace senior was a conventional Venusian who had simply experienced some misfortune (widely shared among his fellow townsmen) as a youngster, that still counts as a courageous decision, but it is vastly more so if a man born a slave refused to let his talented son be limited by his own accident of birth, in a culture that continued to set great store by such things.
Some of the most impressive figures from Greco-Roman antiquity are those whose exceptional ability had secured their escape from slavery: here is such a person, for instance. Horace’s remarkable rise to the very heights of Roman society—including his composition and performance of the hymn at the Secular Games in 17BC, perhaps the ideological acme of the Augustus’ principate—had as its catalyst the fatherly ambition that took him to Rome, and I’m loath to lose the sheer, splendid audacity of that decision by a man born enslaved without better reason than Williams seems to give us.