Maecenas is the second most prominent of the close advisers of Augustus after Agrippa. Like Agrippa, very little is known for certain about his background and he certainly did not come from a family distinguished in the politics of Rome. He was possibly with Octavian by 43, if Propertius’ suggestion that he weave Maecenas into the epic story of the war against the assassins is not ironic.
Maecenas emerges into history as a fixer in early 39 BC. He negotiated Octavian’s marriage to Scribonia (Appian, Civil Wars 5.53). He then led negotiations at Brundisium on behalf of Octavian (Appian, Civil Wars 5.64) and continued to liaise with Antony over the next years (Appian, Civil Wars 5.92). But when the war with Pompeius was going badly. Maecenas was sent to Rome to ensure order and to prevent who might have been loyal to Pompeius from revolting (Appian, Civil Wars 5. 99).
Maecenas was also left in charge of Rome in 31 BC when Octavian headed off to fight Antony. In this context, Velleius gives us a miniature pen portrait of Maecenas
While Caesar was engaged in giving the finishing touch to the war at Actium and Alexandria, Marcus Lepidus, a young man whose good looks exceeded his prudence — son of the Lepidus who had been one of the triumvirs for the re-establishment of order in the state and of Junia the sister of Brutus — had formed plans for the assassination of Caesar as soon as he should return to the city. The guards of the city were at that time under the charge of Gaius Maecenas, of equestrian rank, but none the less of illustrious lineage, a man who was literally sleepless when occasion demanded, and quick to foresee what was to be done and skilful in doing it, but when any relaxation was allowed him from business cares would almost outdo a woman in giving himself up to indolence and soft luxury. He was not less loved by Caesar than Agrippa, though he had fewer honours heaped upon him, since he lived thoroughly content with the narrow stripe of the equestrian order. He might have achieved a position no less high than Agrippa, but had not the same ambition for it. Quietly and carefully concealing his activity he unearthed the plans of the hot-headed youth, and by crushing Lepidus with wonderful swiftness and without causing disturbance to either men or things he extinguished the portentous beginnings of a new and reviving civil war. Lepidus himself paid the penalty for his ill-advised plot. Servilia his wife must be placed on a parity with the wife of Antistius already mentioned, for by swallowing live coals she compensated for her untimely death by the lasting memory of her name.
Maecenas was the man Octavian chose to enforce his will in Rome. Velleius was a supporter of the imperial regime. He approved of Maecenas’ actions in crushing Lepidus, but the devil here is in the detail.
- The investigation was secret.
- The crushing of Lepidus was quiet and the man was killed.
- His wife killed herself in an astonishingly painful manner (was this even possible?), suggesting a determination to resist Caesar to the point of death.
- There is no mention of a trial or due process. It is like praising the secret police for secretly disappearing someone.
Whether Lepidus was conspiring or not, Maecenas moved with extreme force. One suspects that his preparedness to act with violence and in defiance of law and convention made him a man to be feared. He was just the man Octavian needed to keep Rome in order in dangerous times.
For Velleius there was a contrast between the forceful actions of Maecenas and characteristics which were seen as unmanly: notably a lack of ambition for formal honours, a fondness for luxury, and what appears to be a lurking accusation of effeminacy. Such a line is the sort of clue that historical novelists love, but its relationship to the truth is at best questionable.
But perhaps more useful is the claim that Maecenas was of distinguished lineage. Such origins are mysterious, but are mentioned in Horace’s Odes 1.1 where Ovid talks of him as a descendant of ‘ancient kings’. Those kings have to have been leaders in one of the towns of ancient Etruria.
The accuracy of this claim must also be open to doubt. These lineages stretched back into the mists of legend and it is perfectly possible that a prominent and
rich individual fictionalised such connections. But to do so, the family of Maecenas must have been plausibly prominent, but not part of the traditional Roman aristocracy.
So, we have a close adviser to Augustus who claimed descent from kings, whose luxurious habits were such that it might recall for Romans the behavior and morals of kings, and whose political actions towards citizens had more than a hint of the tyrannical authority exercised by kings. One might think that he was the worst nightmare of the traditional senatorial elite.
Maecenas was sufficiently prominent and powerful that he married into that Roman aristocracy. His wife was Terentia and Terentia was widely believed to be the lover of Augustus: this was a close group (Dio, 54.19). There were persistent stories about his relationship with Terentia, wife of Maecenas, including scandalous stories that he made Terentia and Livia appear nude before so that he could judge their relative beauty (Dio, 54.19; Suetonius, Augustus 69). Suetonius includes stories of Augustus having Roman matrons and unmarried girls paraded naked before him so that he could make his choice. He also has the best excuse ever for infidelity: Augustus supposedly slept with the wives of leading Romans so that he could learn their husband’s secrets. Whereas other men would be exiled for the crime against the state that was adultery, Augustus committed adultery for the state.It was Terentia who supposedly leaked the discovery of Murena and Caepio conspiracy in 22 BC.
It is possible that Maecenas’ influenced waned after 22 BC and as a result of the crisis of that year. In 16 BC, when Augustus went to Gaul and Agrippa was in Syria, Augustus did not leave Rome to his control (Dio, 54.19).
Maecenas is perhaps best known now as the patron of poets. Propertius, Horace and Virgil all proclaimed a connection to him. He was also a patron of the theatre, having actors within his social circle (Dio, 54.17).
Such activity has encouraged moderns to see him as a sort of culture minister, making a counterweight to Agrippa the soldier, but that would be to simplify and diminish his role and to think in modern bureaucratic terms. Maecenas had responsibilities under the Augustan regime, but his most important role was friend and confidante of Augustus, a position of enormous power and influence and trust.
Dio also provides a miniature pen portrait of Maecenas, on the occasion of his death in 8 BC.
All these things filled him with pride; but he was grieved at the death of Maecenas. He had received many benefits at his hands, for which reason he had entrusted him, though but a knight, with the oversight of the city for a long period; but he had found him of especial service on occasions when his own temper was more or less uncontrollable. For Maecenas would always banish his anger and bring him to a gentler frame of mind. Here is an instance. Maecenas once came upon him as he was holding court, and seeing that he was on the point of condemning many people to death, he attempted to push his way through the bystanders and get near him. When he was unable to do this, he wrote on a tablet, “Pray rise at last, executioner!” Then he threw the tablet into the lap of Augustus, as if it contained some indifferent matter, and the emperor imposed no death sentences, but arose and departed. Indeed, he not only was not displeased at such liberties, but was actually glad of them, because whenever he was led into unseemly outbursts of passion by his natural disposition or by the stress of his affairs, these were corresponded by the frank speech of his friends. This also was a supreme proof of Maecenas’ excellence, that he not only made himself liked by Augustus, in spite of resisting his impulsiveness, but also pleased everybody else, and though he had the greatest influence with the emperor, so that he bestowed offices and honours upon many men, yet he did not lose his poise, but was content to remain in the equestrian order to the end of his life. Not only for these reasons, then, did Augustus regret his loss exceedingly, but also because Maecenas, although vexed at the emperor’s relations with his wife, had left him as his heir and had empowered him to dispose of all his property, with very few reservations, in case he wished to make gifts to any of his friends or others. Such was the character of Maecenas and such was his treatment of Augustus. He was the first to construct a swimming-pool of warm water in the city, and also the first to devise a system of symbols to give speed in writing, and he used Aquila, a freedman, to train a considerable number in the system.
His wife’s serial infidelity with his friend may have irritated, but Maecenas was an urbane and diplomatic figure. His ability to advise and restrain and speak truth to power were valued by Augustus. This was an essential requirement for friends. Their relationship gives the lie to the stereotype of the modern Great Man, whose greatness allows none to stand in its way. For Romans individual power required the operation of reason and restraint and the great man needed his friends to keep him in place.
Maecenas and Augustus appear to have got over any difficulties in a working friendship that spanned at least 32 years. Maecenas was one of the reasons Augustus succeeded.