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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.


Maecenas, Gaius (Cilnius), Roman patron of letters, was probably born between 74 and 64 B.C., perhaps at Arretium. Expressions in Propertius (II.1.25‑30) seem to imply that he  p297 had taken some part in the campaigns of Mutina, Philippi and Perusia. He prided himself on his ancient Etruscan lineage, and claimed descent from the princely house of the Cilnii, who excited the jealousy of their townsmen by their preponderating wealth and influence at Arretium in the 4th century B.C. (Livy X.3). The Gaius Maecenas mentioned in Cicero (Pro Cluentio, 56) as an influential member of the equestrian order in 91 B.C. may have been his grandfather, or even his father. The testimony of Horace (Odes III.8.5) and Maecenas's own literary tastes imply that he had profited by the highest education of his time. His great wealth may have been in part hereditary, but he owed his position and influence to his close connexion with the emperor Augustus. He first appears in history in 40 B.C., when he was employed by Octavian in arranging his marriage with Scribonia, and afterwards in assisting to negotiate the peace of Brundusium and the reconciliation with Antony. It was in 39 B.C. that Horace was introduced to Maecenas, who had before this received Varius and Virgil into his intimacy. In the "Journey to Brundusium," (Horace, SatiresI.5) in 37, Maecenas and Cocceius Nerva are described as having been sent on an important mission, and they were successful in patching up, by the Treaty of Tarentum, a reconciliation between the two claimants for supreme power. During the Sicilian war against Sextus Pompeius in 36, Maecenas was sent back to Rome, and was entrusted with supreme administrative control in the city and in Italy. He was vicegerent of Octavian during the campaign of Actium, when, with great promptness and secrecy, he crushed the conspiracy of the younger Lepidus; and during the subsequent absences of his chief in the provinces he again held the same position. During the latter years of his life he fell somewhat out of favour with his master. Suetonius (Augustus, 66) attributes the loss of the imperial favour to Maecenas having indiscreetly revealed to Terentia, his wife, the discovery of the conspiracy in which her brother Murena was implicated. But according to Dio Cassius (LIV.19) it was due to the emperor's relations with Terentia. Maecenas died in 8 B.C., leaving the emperor heir to his wealth.

Opinions were much divided in ancient times as to the personal character of Maecenas; but the testimony as to his administrative and diplomatic ability was unanimous. He enjoyed the credit of sharing largely in the establishment of the new order of things, of reconciling parties, and of carrying the new empire safely through many dangers. To his influence especially was attributed the humaner policy of Octavian after his first alliance with Antony and Lepidus. The best summary of his character as a man and a statesman is that of Velleius Paterculus (II. 88), who describes him as "of sleepless vigilance in critical emergencies, far-seeing and knowing how to act, but in his relaxation from business more luxurious and effeminate than a woman."

Expressions in the Odes of Horace (II.17.i) seem to imply that Maecenas was deficient in the robustness of fibre characteristic of the average Roman. His character as a munificent patron of literature — which has made his name a household word — is gratefully acknowledged by the recipients of it and attested by the regrets of the men of letters of a later age, expressed by Martial and Juvenal. His patronage was exercised, not from vanity or a mere dilettante love of letters, but with a view to the higher interest of the state. He recognized in the genius of the poets of that time, not only the truest ornament of the court, but a power of reconciling men's minds to the new order of things, and of investing the actual state of affairs with an ideal glory and majesty. The change in seriousness of purpose between the Eclogues and the Georgics of Virgil was in a great measure the result of the direction given by the statesman to the poet's genius. A similar change between the earlier odes of Horace, in which he declares his epicurean indifference to affairs of state, and the great national odes of the third book is to be ascribed to the same guidance. Maecenas endeavoured also to divert the less masculine genius of Propertius from harping continually on his love to themes of public interest. But if the motive of his patronage had been merely politic it never could have inspired the affection which it did in its recipients. The great charm of Maecenas in his relation to the men of genius who formed his circle was his simplicity, cordiality and sincerity. Although not particular in the choice of some of the associates of his pleasures, he admitted none but men of worth to his intimacy, and when once admitted they were treated like equals. Much of the wisdom of Maecenas probably lives in the Satires and Epistles of Horace. It has fallen to the lot of no other patron of literature to have his name associated with works of such lasting interest as the Georgics of Virgil, the first three books of Horace's Odes, and the first book of his Epistles.

Maecenas himself wrote in both prose and verse. The few fragments that remain show that he was less successful as an author than as a judge and patron of literature. His prose works on various subjects — Prometheus, Symposium (a banquet at which Virgil, Horace and Messalla were present), De cultu suo (on his manner of life) — were ridiculed by Augustus, Seneca and Quintilian for their strange style, the use of rare words and awkward transpositions. According to Dio Cassius, Maecenas was the inventor of a system of shorthand.

There is no good modern biography of Maecenas. The best known is that by P. S. Frandsen (1843). See "Horace et Mécène" by J. Girard, in La Revueº politique et littéraire (Dec. 27, 1873); V. Gardthausen, Augustus und seine Zeit, I.762 seq.; II.432 seq. The chief ancient authorities for his life are Horace (Odes with Scholia), Dio Cassius, Tacitus (Annals), Suetonius (Augustus). The fragments have been collected and edited by F. Harder (1889).

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Page updated: 18 Nov 17