Maecenas and His Friends
F or fifteen years at least, that is from before the Battle of Actium down to the year 16 B.C., C. Cilnius Maecenas was the most powerful man in Rome after Augustus. Perhaps we ought to except Agrippa, especially after his marriage with the Emperor's daughter Julia. But even then and indeed up to the time when he lost his master's favour, Maecenas was "the man behind the throne." Indeed he occupied a position that may be said to have been peculiar to the new regime, and that marked the change from liberty (such as it was in the latter days of the Republic) to despotism. For Maecenas held no office. To borrow a word from modern history he was "Vice-Emperor," but the function which he discharged cannot be described by any one word. He was never Consul, Praetor, or even Tribune. Nor was he Prefect of the city, an office that had its beginning in Imperial days. He never even sat in the Senate. At the very height of his honour he firmly refused to be raised out of the Equestrian rank into which he had been born. "Dear Knight Maecenas" his friend Horace calls him. It was his pride, and a very prudent pride it doubtless was, to be content with this dignity. And yet it is difficult to say what was the limit of his power when it was at its highest. Both foreign affairs and domestic came within it. And this position was, as has been said, characteristic of the Imperial regime. The Romans had two words for power, potestas and potentia. The first means the power of constitutional authority. The magistrates of the Republic exercised it; even when, as in the case of a Dictator, it became absolute and uncontrolled, it still had this character. And, nominally at least, this constitutional power was continued under the Empire. Augustus and his successors ruled under the old names. They were chiefs of the Senate, commanders-in-chief, perpetual tribunes, and whenever they chose to assume the office, Consuls. But underneath this show of legality there grew up an illegal, irregular power, which was described by the word potentia. This was what Maecenas exercised. He had absolutely no position in the country; but he had the Emperor's ear.
We are not, however, primarily concerned in this chapter with the political significance of Maecenas's position. But I may point out how admirably suited it was to the function in which he chiefly interests us, the part of literary patron. The patronage of a dignified official can scarcely fail to be burdensome to those who receive it. It can hardly coexist with the unselfish intimacy of friendship. These difficulties Maecenas, by his judicious refusal of all the paraphernalia of power, contrived to avoid. No one questioned his right to cultivate such intimacies as he chose. He infringed by them no dignity; he compromised no position. But all the revenues of the State were at his disposal. The Emperor actually entrusted him with his private seal, a confidence that is only inadequately represented by giving a blank cheque. He could do as he pleased, and he could do it without responsibility. Such a position, joined to liberality, a frank and generous temper, and cultivated tastes made the very ideal of a literary patron.
A brief description of the man himself and of his ways and life will not be out of place. The qualities of a soldier he probably did not possess, or, only in a moderate degree. Probably, it might be better to say, possibly, he accompanied Augustus on one or more of his campaigns, but he certainly never held an independent command. But as a statesman and a diplomatist he was consummately skilful. More than once he played with supreme tact the part of a mediator between Augustus and Antony, the two masters of the Roman world. His bonhomie, his moderation, his even temper made him an unrivalled mediator in such difficult conjunctures. Called in to act in the differences of less important persons, "accustomed" as Horace puts it "to reconcile private friends," he brought to the task of appeasing the jealousies, of soothing the susceptibilities, of the mighty masters of legions an unrivalled aptitude for the office of peace-maker. His work as a statesman we are less able to appreciate, but simply for want of information. Indeed the merits and the demerits of the unrecognized advisers of the powerful must always remain in great obscurity. But that he was a moderating influence cannot be doubted.
One story remains that is highly to his credit. On one occasion Augustus, carried away, as even prudent rulers will sometimes be, by personal animosities, was passing sentences of death with unusual frequency—being on the whole a clement prince. His minister, unable to approach the judgment seat, or perhaps unwilling to make any parade of interference, tossed into his lap a billet with the words "Surge, Carnifex!" "Rise, butcher!"
The private tastes of Maecenas were those of the highly artificial age in which he lived. He built for himself a great mansion in a central position in Rome. The place which he chose had been a squalid and neglected cemetery for slaves and paupers; hideous, we are told, to look at, and dangerous to health. He covered it to the depth of thirty feet with pure earth, and converted it into a beautiful garden in the midst of which he erected his villa. The most conspicuous feature was a lofty tower, from which he could command a view of the whole city.
Time has spared one room of this magnificent residence. At first it was supposed that this was a chamber set apart for readings and recitations, and it was said that in this very place the patron had listened to a first reading of Horace's lyrics, or Virgil's epic. This theory had to be abandoned. What had been thought to be seats round the walls were found to be stands for plants. The chamber in fact was not a hall but a greenhouse. Beyond a greenhouse indeed Maecenas's love of nature did not go. While Horace was enjoying the mountain air of his Sabine farm, the patron could not tear himself away from the "smoke and roar" of Rome. His personal habits were luxurious. Some of the peculiarities which his contemporaries regarded with disfavour have little significance for us, as that he allowed his tunic to hang about his knees like a woman's petticoat, and that he would cover his head with his cloak, when he sat on the tribunal. These, it would appear, were marks of effeminacy. He had a passion for collecting gems and other jewels, and wore these ornaments in a profusion that seemed undignified to sterner tastes. His love for costly perfumes was notorious. The Emperor himself condescended to satirize his Minister's "unguent-dropping curls." He was said to have been the first who used a warm swimming bath, and the invention was not put down to his credit. He had a great liking for the ballet and the pantomime, amusements which he recommended to his master as means of reconciling Rome to the loss of its liberty. He was at least for the latter part of his life an invalid with a strong tendency to hypochondria. In his last days he was tormented with sleeplessness, and deserted his favourite city mansion for a villa at Tibur where he could be lulled to repose by the distant sound of the falls of the Anio. His sufferings did not prevent him from clinging even passionately to life. One of the few fragments which survive of his writings—for he was a voluminous author—expresses this feeling with an undignified frankness:
Of Maecenas in his domestic relations there is little to be said that is to his credit. He had a wife of remarkable beauty, and passed his married life in perpetual quarrels and reconciliations. "He had one wife, but married her a thousand times," is Seneca's sarcastic account of his relation to Terentia. If there had been nothing worse in him than this foolish fondness, he might have been excused; but he was not constant; a bad example which his wife followed. It was through her indeed that he lost his position at court.
Of his relation to literature and literary men, we can speak with unmixed praise. His patronage was generous, and it was distributed with taste. The Emperor indeed ridiculed the crowd of guests that he gathered round his table; and doubtless there were some among them who had no genuine literary claims to his favour; but his friendship he reserved for men of real genius. In the inner circle of authors who shared his intimacy there was not one unworthy name, and not a few that were conspicuously great. Virgil probably owed his rescue from want, which threatened him when his patrimony had been handed over to one of the victorious soldiers of Augustus, to some other benefactor than Maecenas. It was Pollio who gave him back his farm, and Gallus, who probably interfered on his behalf when it had been again seized. But the Georgics are dedicated to Maecenas. He is credited with having suggested the subject. The position of this poem is probably to be placed between the years 36 B.C. and 26 B.C. Some time before this we find the poet on terms of intimacy with his patron, accompanying him on a journey which he was taking on state business. We know little of the after relations of the two, but there is every reason to suppose that they continued perfectly friendly up to the time of Virgil's death in 19 B.C.
The poet had his town house on the Aquiline, and so was the near neighbour of his patron. We may guess that it was Maecenas who introduced him to the Palace where he recited before the Emperor and his sister Octavia his splendid elegy on Marcellus, in whom the Emperor had lost a successor and Octavia an only son.
Another member of the circle tells us much more about it. Horace, the son of a poor man, but educated with a care out of proportion to his humble birth, had caught the republican enthusiasm whilst a student at Athens, and had fought, or at least appeared in armour, on the fatal field of Philippi. He came back to Rome, and contrived to purchase a clerkship, in the quaestor's office, an establishment that had something to do with the public revenue. He began to write verses—probably some of the Epodes are to be attributed to this period—and the verses got into hands that were capable of judging of their merit. Virgil mentioned the young poet's name to Maecenas, and Varius, another poet whose work, highly esteemed by his contemporaries, has almost wholly perished, seconded the recommendation. The great man sent for him. He presented himself, and managed to stammer out an account of himself and his circumstances. Maecenas made a brief reply.
Months passed without any further communication; then came an invitation. Horace passed at once into the circle of the Minister's intimate friends. Thus began an affectionate intimacy, which was never interrupted. Horace invites his august friend to his Sabine farm, itself a present from his patron, but tells him that if he wants a rare vintage and costly perfumes he must bring them himself. He gently satirizes his partiality for the artificial life of the city. He rallies him on the uncertain temper of his wife. He even remonstrates with him on his valetudinarian complaints and fears. Nor is any of the poems addressed to him more affectionate than the birthday congratulations, written when the patron had ceased to be powerful, and so had nothing more to give; and the end of this friendship was in pathetic harmony with its course. Years before Horace had sung:
Early in B.C. 8 Maecenas died, saying to the Emperor with almost his latest breath "Remember Horace as you remember me." Augustus gave the promise but was never called on to fulfil it. Six months afterwards the poet followed his patron to the grave.
A third poet has also contributed something to the fame of Maecenas. This was Sextus Propertius, a native of Assisium in Umbria, a town that, under its modern name of Assisi, is celebrated as the birthplace of St. Francis. He too had suffered from the confiscation which had followed the civil wars, had come to Rome to follow the profession of the law, and had found verse-writing more attractive than the courts. Of his introduction to Maecenas, we know nothing. The great man's name is prefixed to the first elegy in the second book, the poem is a defence of the author's devotion to love-poetry, and of his refusal to engage on more serious themes. The date of this poem is probably about 28 B.C. Another piece with the same dedication is, it may be conjectured, about five years later. Neither of them says much of the relations between the writer and his patron, though the tone seems to indicate a certain amount of intimacy. Propertius, like Virgil, had a house in the Aquiline. That he was well acquainted with the author of the Æneid, and had had a private sight or hearing of the great poem, we can guess from a reference to it in one of his elegies; "Something greater than the Iliad is in process of writing," he says. We are sorry to think that with Horace his relations were not so friendly. Propertius has no compliments for his lyric brother; Horace, there can be little doubt, satirizes the style and the pretensions of the elegist.
Some of Maecenas's literary friends are little more than names to us, Varius and Tucea for instance, Virgil's literary executors, to whom we are indebted for the preservation of the Aeneid, which its author directed to be destroyed, nor has any record been preserved of the life which they shared. What would we not give for a single volume of "Reminiscences" such as are now showered upon us in almost overwhelming profusion from the press! We must be content with knowing that the liberality, the good taste, and the tact of Maecenas made his name proverbial as the model of the patrons of literature; and the patron, we must remember, was a necessity till the public came into existence. Even now, when the production of monumental works for which no remunerative sale can be expected is concerned, his function is not altogether suspended. This chapter may be fitly concluded with lines from Martial: