1902 Encyclopedia > Maecenas

(full name: Gaius Cilnius Maecenas)
Ally and political advisor to Octavian (Caesar Augustus) and patron of Augustan poets
(70 - c. 8 BC)

MAECENAS, C. Ciutius, is, from two' different points of view, a prominent representative man of the ancient world. He was the first, and one of the most capable and successful, of those who filled the office of a great minister under the Roman empire. He was also, if not the first, certainly the most fortunate and influential among the patrons of Roman literature. It is in the latter capacity that he is best known. Among all the names, royal, noble, or otherwise eminent, associated with the patronage of letters, none either in ancient or modern times is so familiarly known as that of Maecenas. Vet, if we had any contemporary history of the establishment of the empire, possessing same permanent interest which the poetry of Virgil and Horace possesses, it is probable that his influence in shaping the political destinies of the world would have been as amply recognized as his influence on its literature.

The date and place of his birth are unknown. He first appears in history in the year 40 B.C., when he is employed by Octavianus in arranging his marriage with Scribonia, and afterwards in negotiating, along with Pollio and Cocceius Nerva (" aversos soliti coniponere amicos," Hor., Sat., i. 5, 28), the peace of Brundisium, and the reconciliation with Antony, which was confirmed by the marriage of the latter with Octavia. From the fact that he was then the most trusted friend and agent of the future emperor it is likely that he had been associated with his fortunes from the .time when he came forward to claim his inheritance after the death of Julius Caesar; and expressions in Propertius (ii. 1, 25-30) seem to imply that he had borne some share in the campaigns of Mutina, Philippi, and Perusia. He may have been a few years older than Octavianus, who began to play the foremost part in Roman politics before he was twenty years of age. The men of the Augustan age great in action and literature were all born within a few years of one another. Agrippa, the right hand of Augustus in war as Maecenas was in peace, was born in the same year as his master ; and there is no indication in the relations of Maecenas to Augustus or to his friend Horace that he stood towards either of them in the relation of an older to a younger man. Although the place of his birth is unknown, we learn from Horace and Propertius that he prided himself on his ancient Etruscan lineage, and claimed descent from the princely house of the Cilnii, who, as is recorded by Livy (x. 3), excited the jealousy of their townsmen by their preponderating wealth and influence at Arretium in the 4th century before our era. He probably prized the glories of his paternal and maternal ancestry (Hor., Sat., i. 6, 3) as compensating him for his original social inferiority to the members of the great Roman houses ; and the fact dwelt on so prominently by his panegyrists, that, through all his life, he preferred the position of a great commoner to the new honours of the senate and of the Roman magistracies, may have been the result as much of pride in his provincial ancestry as of a politic desire to disarm the jealousy of his master or of the Roman aristocracy. Cicero, in his defence of Cluentius, speaks of a C. Maecenas as one of the most substantial members of the equestrian order during the tribunate of Drusus (91 B.c.), and as one of those Who preferred the position their fathers had enjoyed before them to the higher rank obtainable through office (Cic., Cluent., 56, 153). From the identity of the preenomen and the rarity of the cognomen it is not unlikely that he may have been the grandfather, or perhaps the father, of the future minister. It was in accordance with the policy of Julius Caesar to choose his confidential friends from men of this order, as he chose his tools from a less reputable class ; and the two most trusted friends and ministers of his successor would both have been regarded as " novi homines " by the representatives of the great senatorian families. The testimony of Horace (Odes, iii. 8, 5) and his own literary tastes imply that he had profited by the highest education of his time. His great wealth may have been in part hereditary, as there was no district of Italy in which the inequalities of wealth and station were greater than in Etruria ;1 but he owed his position and influence in the state to his early adherence to and close connexion with Augustus. Among the charges brought against him by Seneca, one of the most prominent is that he had been spoiled by his excessive good fortune.

From the year 40 B.C. his influence as the confidential adviser of Octavianus seems to have been thoroughly established. It was in the following year that Horace was introduced to him, and he had before this received Varius and Virgil into his intimacy. In the " Journey to Brundisium," which took place in the year 37 B.C., Maecenas and Cocceius Nerva are described as " missi magnis de rebus uterque Legati," and were again successful in patching up, by the treaty of Tarentum, a reconciliation between the two claimants for supreme power. Duri-ng the Sicilian war against Sextus Pompeius in 36 B.c., he was sent back to Rome, and was entrusted with supreme administrative control in the city and in Italy. He is again found acting as vicegerent of Octavianus during the campaign of Actium, when with great promptness and secrecy he crushed the conspiracy of the younger Lepidus ; and during the subsequent absences of his chief in the provinces he held the same position. During the latter years of his life he fell somewhat out of favour with his master, or his services were less needed. Perhaps the freedom with which, in the earlier stages of his career, he had offered advice and told unpleasant truths had become distasteful. One cause for a comparative coolness between the old friends was said to be the emperor's relations with Terentia, the wife of Ma-Tenas, to whom he was uxoriously attached. Perhaps the ennui resulting from the cessation of a life of constant vigilance and activity may account for the state of sleepless restlessness and fever in which he passed the last three years of his life. He died in the year 8 B.c., leaving the emperor heir to his wealth, and affectionately commending his friend Horace, who only survived him a few days, to his protection.

Opinions were much divided in ancient times as to the personal character of 11.Icenas ; but the testimony as to his administrative and diplomatic ability was unanimous. He enjoyed the credit - or discredit, as the adherents of the republic must have regarded it - of sharing largely in the establishment of the new order of things,2 of reconciling parties, and of carrying the new empire safely through many dangers. To his influence especially was attributed the humaner policy of Octavianus after his first alliance with Antony and Lepidus. Even Seneca, who shows a very bitter animus against him, admits that he deserved the credit of clemency, - although he attributes it to effeminacy rather than to true humanity. The highest tribute paid to him in his capacity of minister is to be found in the least eminent of the poets whose genius he fostered. "The true trophies of Maecenas," says Propertius, " will be his loyalty." r And in another elegy he addresses him as " fidele caput." One great testimony both to his loyalty and to his tact is the saying of Augustus, when he had made public the scandal concerning his daughter Julia, " that all this would never have happened if Agrippa or Miecenas had lived" (Sen., De Ben,., vi. 32). The only instance in which he is said to have acted with indiscretion as a minister was in his betrayal to his wife Terentia of his knowledge of the conspiracy in which her brother Licinius Muraena was involved.

The best summary of his character as a man and a statesman is that of Velleius (ii. 88), who describes him as " in critical emergencies of sleepless vigilance far-seeing and knowing how to act, but in his relaxation from business more luxurious and effeminate than a woman." The latter is the aspect of his character on which Seneca chiefly dwells. He draws attention to-the enervating effect which his good fortune had even on his literary style. We need not ask how far "the stately mansion on the Esquiline" outdid in luxury the "gardens of Seneca the millionaire" (" Senece praidivitis hortos").2 Miecenas was certainly a man who combined an epicurean love of pleasure with a thorough devotion to business ; and verses of his own are quoted against him indicative of an unmanly clinging to life after the loss of all that makes life valuable. These may have been written in the feverish unrest of his last years, when he was no longer himself ; but expressions in the Odes of Horace (ii. 17, 1), written at a much earlier period, seem to imply that he was deficient in the robustness of fibre characteristic of the average Roman. His •style of dress and his indolent lounging walk.exposed him to animadversion; and the Maltinus of Horace's Satires (i. 2, 25) was supposed by some ancient Commentators to be a sketch of the great man, drawn before the poet was admitted to his intimacy. Probably there may have been some affectation or politic dissimulation in this assumption of a character so alien to the standard of the aspirants to public honours at Rome. It was an exaggerated form of that indifference to appearances and conventionalities which made him satisfied with the position of an eques, and induced him to choose his intimate associates from poets of obscure and provincial origin. His ambition was to be the second man in the empire, and to enjoy the reality without the show of power. A similar character, is attributed by 'Tacitus to Sallustius Crispus, who, after the death of Miecenas, most enjoyed the favour of Augustus.

His character as a munificent patron of literature is not only acknowledged gratefully by the recipients of it in his own time, but is attested by the regrets of the men of letters of a later age, expressed through the mouths of Martial and Juvenal. His patronage was exercised, not from vanity or a mere dilettante love of letters, but with a view to the higher interest of the state. He recognized in the genius of the poets of that time, not only the truest ornament of the court, but a power of reconciling men's minds to the new order of things, and of investing the actual state of affairs with an ideal glory and majesty. The change in seriousness of purpose between the Eclogues and the Georgics of Virgil was, in a great measure, the result of the direction given by the statesman to the poet's genius. A similar change between the earlier odes of Horace, in which he declares his epicurean indifference to affairs of state, and the great national odes of the third book is to be ascribed to the same guidance. He endeavoured also to divert the less masculine genius of Propertius from harping continually on his love to themes of public interest.

But, if the motive of his patronage had been merely politic, it never could have inspired the affection which it did in its recipients. The great charm of Maecenas in his relation to the men of genius who formed his circle was his simplicity, cordiality, and sincerity. Although not particular in the choice of some of the associates of his pleasures, he admitted none but men of worth to his intimacy, and when once admitted they were treated like equals. That loyalty which was his own distinction in his public life was, if we may trust the evidence of Horace, the characteristic Of his own relations to his intimates, and of their relations to one another. But, while loyal to all, to Horace he was bound by a closer tie. Among the great friendships of history, none is more certainly attested, or more honourable to both parties, than that between the poet and the statesman. Much of the wisdom of Maecenas probably lives in the Satires and Epistles of Horace. • It has fallen to the lot of no other patron of literature to have his name associated with works of such lasting interest as the Georgics.of Virgil, the first three books of Horace's Odes, and the first book of his Epistles. Such a fortune can scarcely have been altogether undeserved. Acceptino.° as literally true the disparaging statements of Seneca, admitting the weakness, and perhaps the vanity, which were the blots in his character, and considering at the same. time the difficulties of an unprecedented position, we must allow that few ministers of an irresponsible monarch have accomplished so much with such immunity from the baser and more violent passions, for the gratification of which that position holds out unlimited opportunities. As a minister and friend of the emperor he compared favourably, both as regards capacity and character, not with men 'of the stamp of Sejanus and Tigellinus, but with Seneca. Few men have used the influence of a grand seigneur with such enlightened beneficence, with such lasting results on human culture and civilization, with such genuine simplicity and cordial loyalty. (w. Y. s.)

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