Gaius Maecenas Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman statesman{$I[g]Roman Republic;Gaius Maecenas[Maecenas]} Maecenas was one of the most powerful men in Rome of the first century b.c.e., often functioning as diplomatic arbiter and city administrator. His most significant role was as patron to a circle of writers who became known as the poets of the Golden Age of Latin literature.

Early Life

Gaius Maecenas (mi-SEE-nuhs) was born in Arretium (modern Arezzo, Italy) to a wealthy equestrian family that traced its origins to Etruscan kings. Nothing is known of the first thirty years of his life, but he must have received an aristocratic education, for he knew Greek as well as Latin. He first emerges in the works of ancient writers as the intimate friend and financial and political supporter of Octavian (called Augustus after 27 b.c.e.), the heir of Gaius Julius Caesar, the junior member of the Second Triumvirate, and the future first emperor of Rome.

Maecenas greatly preferred the life of a private citizen, but he shocked Rome. He hosted extravagant parties, drank excessively, and wore his tunic unbelted (in opposition to proper Roman fashion). Two eunuchs frequently accompanied him through the streets. Although he became notorious as self-indulgent and effeminate, Maecenas appears to have been popular with the Roman people.

Octavian also liked, and trusted, Maecenas. In the years directly following 44 b.c.e., the year of Julius Caesar’s assassination, the young heir found himself faced with the monumental task of avenging his adopted father’s murder and making all Italy safe from disenfranchised Romans. Initially, Octavian struck an alliance with Marc Antony, then with Sextus Pompeius (Pompey the Younger), whose bands were raiding the southern coast of Italy. Repeated setbacks with these two, however, convinced Octavian to enlist the aid of friends. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa became his general and Maecenas his diplomat and politician.

At Octavian’s request, Maecenas arranged an engagement between Octavian and Scribonia, Pompey’s sister-in-law, in the hope of allying Octavian with Pompey. When relations grew strained between Octavian and Antony, Maecenas helped arbitrate reconciliations at Brundisium, in 40, and at Tarentum, in 37 b.c.e. For unknown reasons, he was present at the Battle of Philippi (42 b.c.e.), where Octavian and Agrippa defeated the forces of Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus, the major surviving assassins of Julius Caesar. Octavian again inexplicably summoned Maecenas to Actium (31 b.c.e.), where the troops of Antony and Cleopatra VII of Egypt were defeated. Maecenas may also have been present at the campaigns against Pompey.

When Maecenas’s services were not required in the field, he was governing Rome and the rest of Italy. Octavian had entrusted Maecenas in his absence with temporary administration of the city, hoping to bolster popular support for himself and quash any resurgent popularity for his opponents. Maecenas now held all the powers of City Prefect but without the title. His power even extended to issuing official proclamations. He quelled a civil riot in 37 b.c.e., and in 30 b.c.e. he quietly crushed the assassination plot against Octavian that was led by the son of the recently deposed Triumvir, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Maecenas made the city streets safe after dark and may have helped rid Rome of magicians and astrologers. All these duties without benefit of public office endowed Maecenas with powers greater than those of any elected official.

Life’s Work

Octavian’s return to Rome in 29 b.c.e. ended Maecenas’s role as public servant but not his influence in Rome. While he had been acting as diplomat and administrator, Maecenas had also begun befriending at Rome a number of writers whose talents he could use to the advantage of Octavian’s new political order. With this growing group of friends he had assumed the position of literary patron, a role to which he now devoted all his energy. Literary patronage frequently included gifts of money or possessions. In addition, it usually included a larger audience for a poet’s writings, circulation of his poems, and their publication. Maecenas entertained certain of his friends at his mansion to provide these benefits. Scholars disagree as to what extent Maecenas actually used his patronage to foster a state propaganda literature, but the works of his poets make it clear that they realized some expectation on the part of Augustus. In several of his Odes written in 23 b.c.e. (English translation, 1621) the poet Horace answers with a polite refusal (recusatio) a request from his patron to write on a suggested topic. Sextus Propertius does the same when Maecenas suggests a change in theme from love to state matters. Because the literary refusal was standard in Alexandrian verse, it is uncertain how strongly Maecenas actually made his requests for propaganda poems. He may have done no more than give general guidance.

Maecenas’s circle included many people who have become little more than names to posterity: Gaius Melissus, Lucius Varius Rufus, Domitius Marsus, and Plotius Tucca. His three most famous poets, however,...

(The entire section is 2140 words.)