BEHIND THE POETIC MASK
Maecenas
 

When we look back on Roman history we are peering through layers of preconceptions. A century or so ago - or even less - there was a very English conception of the Roman nobility: solid dependable types such as you might meet in a gentleman's club, exemplified by that great statesman M. Tullius Cicero, author of the much admired 'Tully's Offices'. Behind this lies the imagination of William Shakespeare, and even if we can throw off all such influences, we are still left peering through a screen of Augustan propaganda.

Who was Maecenas? The descriptions found in the literature hardly seem appropriate. An almost standard wording is trotted out without (it feels) any thought at all. A 'trusted advisor to Octavian.'1   'One of Octavian's principle advisers.'2   'Chief adviser to Octavian/Augustus.'3   'A wealthy, cultivated eques and personal adviser to the emperor.'4   Or even 'a Minister.'5

But these are anachronisms. After the fall of Anthony, Maecenas was potentially one of the most powerful men in the world. He was an ally of Octavian, not an an 'advisor' or 'minister'. He was also a potential threat.6   We know that Octavian was to become Caesar Augustus, but Octavian had no such foreknowledge. His predecessor had been assassinated only a few years after a similar victory.

We make difficulties for ourselves. we term the uneasy joint rule of Anthony, Octavian, and Lepidus the Second Triumvirate (although no such term existed at the time), but by doing so we make a distinction with the alliance between Octavian, Agrippa, and Maecenas, which was possibly equally uneasy.7   Both the First and Second Triumvirates ended in civil war: the post-Actium alliance could have done so as well if Octavian had not proved himself so able. All talk of Agrippa being 'Octavian's General' or Maecenas being 'Octavian's advisor' is anachronistic distortion.

A case in point is the question of the seals which Octavian is supposed to have given Maecenas and Agrippa.8   These allowed Maecenas and Agrippa to open Octavian's official correspondence, make what changes they deemed fit, and then reseal the documents. This is supposed to demonstrate how Octavian trusted his subordinates Maecenas and Agrippa. But of course this is rubbish! Has such a thing ever happened before or since? Has a British Prime Minister ever given his Chancellor keys to his dispatch box? Has a US President ever handed out keys to the Oval Office?

The story could easily have started merely as a waggish joke to demonstrate who was really running the ship of state. But if there is any truth behind this story, it doesn't point to Octavian's trust in Maecenas and Octavian, but to the power that Maecenas and Agrippa had over Octavian and there lack of trust in him. Too often Roman History has been distorted by the once-prevailing 'great man view of history'.9   We forget that Octavian didn't achieve power merely by his own efforts, and that group dynamics played a significant role.

Maecenas was a powerful man in his own right, and as such he would need subordinates who could effectively assist in advancing his projects. That is men to whom tasks could be delegated and who would have the clout to carry them through, i.e., people of the right rank. A man such as Horace would fit the bill. An eques who had military experience but was currently out of favour due to a change in the political situation, would welcome a chance to save his skin and renew his aspirations by serving Maecenas.


NOTES

1     
D. Mankin, Horace Epodes (Cambridge 1995), pp. 2.
2
D. West, Horace Odes I: Carpe Diem (Oxford 1995), p. xi.
3
P. M. Brown, Horace Satires I (Warminster 1995, p. 90.
4
B. Radice and W. G. Shepherd, Horace: The Complete Odes and Epodes with the Centennial Hymn (London 1983), p. 13. Here the title 'emperor' is also an anachronism.
5
? A MINISTER
6
For the tensions within the group see Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford 1939), pp. 340 ff. However his view of Maecenas as 'effeminate and sinister' (p. 341) is unfortunate, being ultimately derived from Augustan propoganda. Syme quotes Pliny, but why should we trust Pliny's repetition of old gossip?
7
Syme, op. cit., pp. 340 ff
8
This derives from Dio 51.3.5-6. It is repeated unchallenged by R.O.A.M. Lyne, Horace Behind the Public Poetry (New Haven and London 1995), p. 133.
9
For a typical view of this type see Syme, op. cit., pp. 347. Syme approvingly quotes Velleius 'Statesmen require powerful deputies and agents', but this is of course to classify Octavian as a 'statesman' and Maecenas and Agrippa as mere 'deputies' or 'agents'. In reality they are all three ambitious men, one of whom is in the ascendant, but not necessarily permanently.


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