BEHIND THE POETIC MASK
Octavian's letters to Maecenas
Part of equestrian bronze of Octavian
last decade BCE. VRoma archive
These letters rarely get the attention they deserve. They are usually read in the spirit that they confirm what we already know about Horace, and merely add a few facts, such as his height and nickname. And yet if these letters have been accurately transcribed, or précied, they tell us a lot about the relationships between Horace, Maecenas, and Octavian (or Augustus as he had now become).
The first thing to notice is that, to use modern terminology, Octavian is "going through channels". Octavian wants the use of Horace's services, and proposes that he is transferred from Maecenas employ, to his own. Horace had not been approached directly, or at least not officially, and Octavian writes to Maecenas to make the request.
Maecenas isn't having any of this, but he can hardly refuse. So he does what anybody who has served in an army would recognize; you don't stand up and be counted, you just go sick. In this case of course it is Horace who goes sick, and Maecenas writes back to Octavian to inform him, regretfull, that Horace's health would make him incapable of being useful to Octavian.
But Maecenas is up against one of the wiliest man who ever graced this planet. (Certain US Presidents excluded of course.) Octavian now has an excuse to approach Horace directly. So he writes to him, solicitously asking after his health, with a little added banter to set Horace at his ease. The inference is that he would be amongst friends, just as much as he would be if he stayed with Maecenas.
And there, unfortunately, the correspondence ends. But what we have does raise certain questions. When was it written, and why was it written.
In about 20 BCE Maecenas lost power. History tells us that some members of his family were discovered to be plotting against Octavian. Maecenas, who was an innocent party, was advised of this, and torn between his duty to Octavian and his duty to his family, advised the conspirators to remove themselves from Rome. This demonstrated to Octavian that Maecenas could not totally be trusted, and from then on he was sidelined, "out of the loop", and no longer a political force at Rome.
Of course this is the sanatized version after Octavian's and Maecenas spin doctors had been to work. What really happened is lost. But it is possible that Maecenas was actually involved in the plot. After all, why not? It would put Maecenas top of the heap.
Whatever was the truth, whether Maecenas was innocent or not, the story about Maecenas innocence must have originated from Maecenas. Perhaps Octavian chose
to believe it. Maecenas was too powerful a man to be challenged directly about the affair, but the discovery of the plot would mean the end of his political ambitions. The spin put on the affair was the best way out for both of them. Octavian would not want it bandied around that an erstwhile associate who had been always at his side, had now turned against him. The great Augustus Caesar, who Octavian know was, must not appear to be subject to the machinations of mere mortals.
It is tempting to see the letters as part of the process of side-lineing Maecenas. Previously, when Maecenas had been Octavian's ally, there would have been affairs that Maecenas would have handled for Octavian, which no doubt he would have passed down the line to people like Horace to sort out. If Horace was transferred to Octavian, Maecenas would effectively be bypassed, but the work would get done just the same.
It may be objected that Augustus letter only mentions that he needs Horace to write a few letters, to which I would reply, but it would, wouldn't it? One has only to consider the sort of thing that trusted lieutenants are asked to do by the boss in a modern business. A stand at a major trade exhibition is proposed - someone on the staff is delegated to make sure "those assholes in public relations have got it right this time". One of overseas divisions is giving problems - someone will be sent to bring back a personal report as to who should get kicked. So too in Octavian's day. A general in the field has requested yet more troops - Horace would be the type of person who would be asked to check just how many legionaries the incompetent had already managed to kill, and to draft a suitable reply for Octavian to sign.
Whether or not Horace left Maecenas for Octavian is unknown. But from what follows, it can be assumed he did not.