Rome’s Patron: The Lives and Afterlives of Maecenas 
by Emily Gowers.
Princeton, 463 pp., £38, February, 978 0 691 19314 4
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If you look up​ ‘patron of the arts’ in most European languages, you will find a variation on the name of Gaius Maecenas: mécène in French, mecenate in Italian, mecenas in Spanish, Mäzen in German, mecenas in Polish, mecenáš in Czech, mécenás in Hungarian, меценат in Ukrainian, Russian and Bulgarian. The term has been in use since at least the composition of Laus Pisonis (‘Praise of Piso’) by an unknown author in the first century ce. Edmund Spenser’s shepherds complain that there is no ‘Mecoenas’ in England in the 1570s. Voltaire told the Duc de Brancas that he was tired of poets comparing their patrons to Maecenas and wasn’t going to bother. Count Vronsky is ‘the Russian Maecenas’ in Anna Karenina, and the poet H.D. called the lover who rescued her from a breakdown ‘baby Maecenas’.

Gaius Cilnius Maecenas was born at some point between 78 and 64 bce, in or near Arretium (now Arezzo). He claimed ancient Etruscan and even royal ancestry – a daring assertion in the republican discourse of Rome – via the Cilnii, perhaps through his mother’s family. He and Marcus Agrippa became the right-hand men of Octavian, the future Augustus. Having amassed a great deal of wealth, some of it confiscated from proscribed individuals, he gathered around him a circle of the most renowned poets in Rome, including Virgil and Horace, helping to foster the Golden Age of Latin literature that accompanied the transition from republic to empire. He is credited with influencing the poets in his circle to address affairs of state, but inspired more than just dutiful verse: Virgil’s Georgics, the first three books of Horace’s Odes and the first book of his Epistles are all dedicated to Maecenas. He wielded great political power without holding a formal position (he chose to remain among the ranks of the equites, one rung below the senatorial class). He served as Rome’s caretaker in Octavian’s absence and was invested with a copy of the emperor’s seal-ring, allowing him to unseal, alter and reseal official correspondence.

Maecenas might have acted as Augustus’ proxy but he also had a reputation for loose living. He is described by Velleius Paterculus as ‘dripping with effeminacy’ and by Seneca as a gender-fluid, orientalising pleasure lover who conducted business in the company of two eunuchs ‘more man than he was’. He was known to be a superfan of the pantomime actor Bathyllus – Tacitus says that he ‘overflowed with passion’ for him – an infatuation enabled by Augustus, who instituted popular dramatic performances. In turn, rumours circulated that Maecenas allowed Augustus to sleep with his wife, Terentia. It was said that when Terentia’s brother, Murena, was discovered to be embroiled in a plot against Augustus, Maecenas revealed the discovery to her, giving Murena a chance to escape (he didn’t, and was executed in 22 BCE).

At some point after that, Maecenas disappears from the record. Perhaps because of the Terentia affair, or because he was no longer politically useful, he seems to have ended his days on his luxurious estate on the Esquiline Hill, located partly within the boundaries of Rome, which allowed him, as Tacitus puts it, ‘to retire within the city as if he were abroad’. After Maecenas’ death, the estate passed to Augustus and became the pleasure garden of the Roman emperors who succeeded him: Tiberius lived there for a while and the (perhaps apocryphal) Tower of Maecenas is said to have been the spot from which Nero watched Rome burn.

The trouble with even this basic outline of Maecenas’ life is that there aren’t any reliable biographical sources. Contemporary evidence consists mainly of the words of Augustan poets (above all Horace), who were more interested in fashioning the image of the patron they needed than in faithfully recording Maecenas’ life and character. Later imperial sources follow their own varied agendas, from Seneca, who links Maecenas’ lack of stylistic self-control in his writings with his reputation for loose morals, to Martial and Juvenal, for whom he represents a lost, more privileged age.

Philologists have diligently collected the fragments of Maecenas’ own work, but these are just as hard to be sure of. It’s possible, as Emily Gowers suggests, that Seneca invented some of the many ‘quotations’ from Maecenas that have been extracted from his work, or that what is taken as the title of a lost work, De cultu suo (‘On His Own Style’), wasn’t a title at all. Two letters purportedly written by Augustus to Maecenas are recorded by Suetonius (around 100 ce) and Macrobius (around 400 ce), one urging Maecenas to chivvy Horace to accept a job as Augustus’ private secretary (‘leave your parasitic table and come to this royal one’), a position Horace declined, and the other poking fun at Maecenas’ ornate literary style (Augustus is said to have described it as ‘ringlets dripping with perfume’). The first may well be genuine – Suetonius had access to the imperial archives until he was booted out by Hadrian – but as Gowers warns, they ‘line up almost too perfectly’ with the style and subject of a fragment of Maecenas’ own work.

Modern scholars have used the same evidence to come up with a multitude of Maecenates. Recent monographs (at least three in the last decade) have tended to tackle the problem through careful reconstructions from ancient sources within the wider social and political contexts of the late first century bce, but as Philippe Le Doze put it in 2014, ‘Maecenas defies conventional biography.’ Gowers has not attempted a conventional biography. Instead, she has produced what she calls an ‘anti-biography’, taking in the many lives Maecenas has acquired in reception, from ancient poetry to modern scholarship.

Maecenas was far from the first patron of the arts in the ancient world, or even in Rome. Homer describes bards singing for a place at court, and lyric poets wrote songs for autocrats all over the Greek world. The poet Ennius (b.239 bce) benefited from the support of Roman statesmen and generals. His Annales, the great epic of Rome before Virgil’s Aeneid (it survives only in fragments), included a well-known episode describing a ‘good companion’, fit to share the ‘table and conversation’ of his patron, which was read in antiquity as a self-portrait of the poet.

The relationship between Maecenas and the poets he supported remains opaque. Virgil and Horace must have benefited materially: he is said to have given Horace his precious Sabine farm, while Virgil was worth at least ten million sesterces and owned a villa next to Maecenas’ own. But it would be a mistake to reduce these relationships to the exchange of material possessions for poetic immortality or a corpus of texts to serve the propaganda demands of the Augustan regime. What Virgil calls Maecenas’ ‘un-soft commands’ (haud mollia iussa) must have been double-edged, in as much as they were commands at all, and his reputation for soft living could easily be enlisted by poets who wanted to avoid the higher, more ‘manly’ genres of politically inflected epic.

Roman poets are slippery constructors of lives in verse. The Maecenas who emerges from their texts is bound up with their own literary and biographical self-positioning, both in the present (how to negotiate between Maecenas and the increasingly powerful Octavian/Augustus) and the future (how posterity will remember their poetic achievements). Maecenas is mentioned sparingly by Virgil and only rarely by Propertius (who may not have been patronised by him), but he is a key presence in Horace’s poetry. Gowers, who has also edited Horace’s first book of Satires, plots the unfolding drama of literary patronage as Horace presents it in his texts. In Satires 1.6, a conversational poem addressed to Maecenas, Horace describes their first meeting. The interview was awkward: Horace was a freedman’s son and came without the backing of a famous father or the trappings of fancy horses and estates; he didn’t even blow his own trumpet as a poet (his friends Virgil and Varius had already done that for him). Instead, he presents his younger self as a country bumpkin who could barely speak (‘I blurted out a few words; bashful shyness prevented me from saying more’). It’s a neat reversal of the usual encounter between poet and patron, in which the poet tries to show off his skills or begs for favour (like the poetaster whom Horace encounters later in the Satires, desperately angling to be admitted to Maecenas’ circle). As Gowers puts it, Horace seems to have ‘patronage thrust upon him’. Later, in Epistles 1.7, an older, more confident Horace seems to chart the end of the road in their relationship. He compares himself to a fattened fox in a grain bin, unable to squeeze back out through the narrow gap it crept in through, and wonders if freedom has been too high a price to pay, even for his beloved Sabine farm.

Horace’s Odes represent a different act in the drama of patronage. In the dedication to Maecenas that opens the first book, Horace refers to his patron’s ‘royal ancestors’ and appears to flatter him further by saying that he needs only Maecenas’ high estimation of his poetry for his head to ‘strike the stars’ (sublimi feriam sidera vertice). In Book 3, he invites Maecenas to drink with him to celebrate a close call with a falling tree and lay down the concerns of state. It’s a compliment to Maecenas as statesman and right-hand man of the victorious Augustus. But as in other odes addressed to Maecenas, the suggestion of real friendship between patron and poet comes through as strongly as the flattery. Was this how Maecenas wished to be seen, not as a lofty commissioner but a friend and confidant of writers? Or is it just part of the ‘Maecenas trail’ which Horace lays in his poems, allowing him to produce the kind of verse he wants to write?

There are further complications. In Book 2 of the Odes Horace writes that he cannot live beyond Maecenas, who is not only his ‘pillar of prosperity’ but ‘part of my soul’. Yet a few odes later he claims that he, Horace, being a poet, won’t taste death. Is Maecenas assured immortality, too, as the poet’s patron? Will Horace carry (feram) his patron’s name to the stars like other protégés, or is it the poet himself whose head will bump into them (feriam)?

Because Maecenas is closely interlinked with Horace’s own fictional persona (Gowers juxtaposes ut tuus est mos, ‘as is your manner’, of Satires 1.6.60, with sicut meus est mos, ‘as is my manner’, in Satires 1.9.1), we should perhaps assume that these rhetorical developments trace Horace’s poetical aspiration rather than any real-life dynamic between the two men. The Latin word patronus could describe the relationship of a former master to his freedman. So when Horace, ‘whom everyone disparages as a freedman’s son’, calls Maecenas his ‘sweet friend’, a partner in an amicitia of equals, he is constructing the relationship he needs in the Satires (a genre which goes back to Lucilius, who was famously patron-free), while the Maecenas that emerges in the Odes, ‘offspring of royal ancestors’, is the kind of figure Horace requires as an ally in his ascent to a higher genre.

None of this tells us very much about the real Maecenas, but it ensured that the character ‘Maecenas’ remained at the heart of discussions about artistic patronage long after the man had disappeared. As patronage shifted in the imperial period from the blurred boundaries of amicitia to a much more hierarchical system of indulgentia, Maecenas became a figure of both admiration and disparagement. Augustan poetry had left one half of the relationship silent. Where Virgil is taciturn about his connection to Maecenas (who gets only four mentions in the Georgics), the Appendix Vergiliana – a collection of what purport to be the early works of Virgil, most of which are now considered spurious – is much more forthcoming. It includes a pair of poems, or perhaps one poem in two parts, known as the Elegiae in Maecenatem (the date is contested but they are probably Neronian), which insert themselves into what must have been a thriving posthumous tradition. The first poem consists of a lament for the dead Maecenas, picking up the much-repeated motifs of the standard biographical narrative while softening Maecenas’ faults. The second, addressed to Augustus, is spoken by Maecenas himself on his deathbed in 8 bce (Virgil died in 19 bce). If the real Maecenas was a blank in Augustan poetry, here, so the fiction goes, he takes charge of his own narrative (‘I controlled my own life’), finally speaking as the one and only Maecenas, both hard man of state and soft man of leisure.

After antiquity, Lives of Maecenas proliferated in the salons and court culture of 17th-century France. Ben Jonson put him on the English stage in Poetaster (1601). ‘To Maecenas’ (1773) by Phillis Wheatley, the first recorded African American to publish a book of poetry, appeals not simply to a patron of the arts but to the patronus as former master, part of a broader struggle for freedom from enslavement. Nowadays, the name ‘Maecenas’ is used in all sorts of context to evoke wealth and patronage: a silver Montblanc pen for signing those philanthropic cheques (others in the ‘Patron of Arts’ series include ‘Augustus’ and ‘Andrew Carnegie’); a website offering ‘fractional interests in great works of art, using … blockchain technology’; and various schemes promoting private or corporate giving. However little we know about the real Maecenas, his shifting role as the archetypal patron of the arts – shaped by the Roman poets he supported – has defied oblivion in ways that not even Horace could have predicted.

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