This paper examines the construction and transgression of female space in the final stanza of Horace, Odes 2.5. In this surprising stanza, Horace compares the beautiful Lalage to a male figure named Gyges “who, if you set him in a chorus of girls, would amazingly trick even wise guests, difficult to distinguish with his flowing hair and ambiguous looks” (2.5.21-4). I first suggest that the female chorus, a prime site for gender performance in the Greek world, is the ultimate space in which to present Gyges subverting gender norms and diverting the ode’s narrative of female desirability. I then argue that this space is invested with a complex range of associations: the reader is invited to confront the tensions between vulnerable virginity and available sexuality that arise when a female body is displayed in choral performance. Like the figure of Gyges himself, the space into which he steps partakes in ambiguity and hybridity that is constructed in the process of reading. Horace’s manifold response to Greek choral poetics contributes to the creation of an imaginary landscape of erotic display.
I begin by demonstrating the central role of Greek choral poetics in the ode’s final turn.When Horace concludes his catalogue of female desirability with the subversive figure of Gyges, he asks the reader to conduct a thought experiment by placing him in a “chorus of girls” (puellarum...choro, 21). The venue is coded as female, and the word chorus further evokes Greek performance spaces where young women performed their status as objects of male desire. Gyges’ ability to pass as a woman in a traditional venue of female performance demonstrates the extreme flexibility of his identity. I then trace the multiple spheres of reference of this choral space, demonstrating how each of its associations with Greek chorality is activated and revised. On the one hand, the ode’s imagery depicted Lalage as a model of young female virginity on the cusp of readiness for a husband (maritum, 16). The other figures of comparison, Pholoe and Chloris, further contributed to an impression of skittish and modest maidenhood (fugax, 17; pura, 19). With this in mind, the reader might well imagine the “chorus of girls” as a maidenly group of parthenoi in the Greek tradition, where the chorus acts as a space that mediates between potential bride and potential husband. However, line 22 causes this interpretation to be revised as a piece of new information is added: an internal audience of “guests” (hospites, 22). Suddenly the associations are sympotic, and Gyges is part of a more overtly sexualized troupe of “dancing girls” where the term puella takes on a more loaded sexual meaning. The exact valence of Gyges’ transgression is ambiguous, but in both cases he destabilizes the viewer’s ability to posit normative gender distinctions in a space where sex is active currency between viewer and viewed.
The final part of my paper posits a comparison between the final stanza of Odes 2.5 and Lycomedes’ manipulation of female chorality in Statius’ Achilleid. The reading both confirms my interpretation of Odes 2.5 and offers new insight into Statius’ narrative. It is well known that Horace’s Gyges is an important model for Statius’ treatment of Achilles’ sojourn on Scyros, where the hero both participates in and disrupts the choral rites of Lycomedes’ daughters. I suggest that the influence of Odes 2.5 can be further seen in Lycomedes’ decision to woo his guests (hospites, 1.823), Ulysses and Diomedes, by transforming his daughters’ ritual chorality into a sympotic entertainment that puts them on display. As Peter Heslin has recently argued, Lycomedes’ behaviour distorts the boundaries between different kinds of female performance in an act of profanity. I argue that Statius thematizes the ambiguity of female chorality in a way that makes more explicit the manipulation of choral space in Odes 2.5.