Classics Maecenas
Philippe Le Doze
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0395


Maecenas, a descendant of Etruscan kings and a friend of Emperor Augustus, was a leading figure in both the late Roman Republic and the early Empire. During the civil wars that followed Julius Caesar’s death, he acted as a diplomat, a close adviser to the future Augustus, and for a time was even in charge (with Agrippa) of the government of Rome and Italy. He is also believed to have played a major role in the emergence of the imperial regime. Although rarely present on the battlefield, he is often seen as Caesar the Younger’s right-hand man. Above all, from the late 40s BCE, he was the patron of some of the most famous Latin poets. He symbolized from very early on the golden age of literary patronage and it is mainly to this activity that he still owes his fame today: for example, Virgil’s Georgics and Aeneid, Horace’s Odes or Propertius’s Elegies were composed under his aegis. He also left behind the image of a bon vivant with an unusual, one might even say eccentric, personality, and of an epicurean who preferred staying in the shadows to the limelight. The very limited and scattered data from ancient sources (even his date of birth is uncertain) derives in part from opponents who did not appreciate the fact that a simple knight, who had refused to be a magistrate and privileged his personal relationship with Caesar the Younger, played a leading role in Rome at a time when the city was in the throes of transformation. The singularity of his behavior, in a very normative society, accentuated certain misunderstandings. Thus, Maecenas left a controversial image which is still widely debated today. In all likelihood, if he became involved in Roman politics, alongside the future Augustus during the civil wars, it was out of duty, as he was probably convinced that troubled times required action. After Caesar the Younger’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra, in 31–30 BCE, he felt the need to regain his freedom and, at the end of what was a political epiphany (Maecenas remained in the political limelight for only a few years), only retain his role as a discrete personal advisor. He also continued to spearhead a movement to turn Rome not only into a political and military power, but also a cultural one. The death of this faithful and loyal companion in 8 BCE was experienced by Augustus, his friend, as an irreparable loss.

General Overviews

The political and cultural context explains to a large extent, despite Maecenas’s oddities, the modalities of his political action and cultural work. Rome changed profoundly at the time of Augustus’s Principate and, even though a political culture endured, institutions and society underwent transformations that distinguished it in part from Republican Rome. In this framework, the personality of the prince, Augustus, friend of Maecenas and man of literature, was pivotal (Le Doze 2020). Because of his authority and the accumulation of powers, all eyes were on him. His reformist policies, including their traditionalist dimension that should not be overlooked, shaped a new Rome after the civil wars (Hurlet and Mineo 2009, Rivière 2012). However, others than the prince contributed to the transformation of the empire’s capital (Morrell, et al. 2019) and to the profound developments of this period, which are not limited to institutional changes (Galinsky 1996, Galinsky 2005, and Wallace-Hadrill 2008). The triumviral period (Osgood 2006, Pina Polo 2020), which preceded the establishment of the Principate, generated a lot of anxiety, and created a context that influenced poetic production. Zanker 1988 is an excellent introduction to the debates that surround Maecenas, for the author studies how the values advocated by the Augustan regime permeated Roman society through images: similarly, historians have often suggested that Maecenas exploited poets to serve Augustus’s interests.

  • Galinsky, Karl. 1996. Augustan culture. An interpretative introduction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A study of the transformation of Roman society under Augustus’s principate. The notion of auctoritas and the diffusion of Augustan values are at the heart of the various chapters, which analyze art, architecture, literature, and religion during this period.

  • Galinsky, Karl. 2005. The Cambridge companion to the age of Augustus. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521807964

    A reasonably complete, if not exhaustive, and stimulating overview of Augustan Rome. So-called “Augustan” literature is not forgotten since four studies by eminent scholars (A. Barchiesi, J. Griffin, P. White, K. Galinsky) evoke poetry during this period from different angles.

  • Hurlet, Frédéric, and Bernard Mineo, eds. 2009. Le Principat d’Auguste. Réalités et représentations du pouvoir. Autour de la Res publica restituta. Rennes, France: Presses Universitaires de Rennes.

    The book is a thorough overview of Augustan Rome through the prism of res publica restituta, i.e., the need to present the new regime as the continuation of the Republic. The situation of Maecenas in the aftermath of the civil wars is addressed in one of the studies, as well as the examples of Virgil, Horace, Livy, and Ovid.

  • Le Doze, Philippe. 2020. Auguste, prince républicain. Paris: Ellipses.

    A nuanced view of the Augustan regime that emphasizes the republican heritage, which was inescapable despite the establishment of a monarchical regime. Presentation of the period of the triumvirate and of Augustus’s main collaborators (including Maecenas) and his overall liberal attitude toward literature. His determination to make Rome not only a political and military power but also a cultural one is also discussed.

  • Morrell, Kit, Josiah Osgood, and Kathryn Welch, eds. 2019. The alternative Augustan age. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The interest of the book stems from its focus on themes and figures (notably Maecenas, but also Agrippa and Asinius Pollio) rather than the prince, which allows us to approach Augustus in a different way and to shed new light on the period.

  • Osgood, Josiah. 2006. Caesar’s legacy: Civil war and the emergence of the Roman Empire. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The book is thorough, well-informed, and precise, and provides a clear approach to the period of the triumvirate, which is often neglected in modern historiography. The literary texts, especially the poetic ones, which are cited insofar as they reveal the period’s tragic events, are rigorously analyzed. This brilliant work clarifies the new situation born of the unrest that followed Caesar’s assassination.

  • Pina Polo, Francisco, ed. 2020. The triumviral period: Civil war, political crises, and socioeconomic transformations. Zaragoza, Spain: Prensas de la Universitad de Zaragoza.

    An interesting approach to the period of the triumvirate during which many poetic works were composed by Maecenas’s protégés. The book brings together some of the best specialists in Roman history to study a period that has generally been neglected by scholars.

  • Rivière, Yann, ed. 2012. Des réformes augustéennes. Rome: Collection de l’École française de Rome.

    This collection of articles questions the notion of reform in Rome and, more precisely, in the time of Augustus, who was considered a great reformer while posing as a restorer. The various studies examine continuities and disruptions in various fields: institutions, administration, the army, literature, etc.

  • Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. 2008. Rome’s cultural revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The author takes a step further than R. Syme’s Roman Revolution by showing that the revolution was not only political and social (with, in particular, the advent of new elites), but also cultural. This book recontextualizes Maecenas in a period of change, including clothing, and raises the issue of Roman identity, particularly in the distribution of Greek and Italic heritage.

  • Zanker, Paul. 1988. The power of images in the age of Augustus. Translated by Alan Shapiro. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.12362

    An essential read to understand, through images, the gradual transformation of Rome in the Augustan era and the spread of the regime’s values in Italy and the empire. The original edition was published in German: Augustus und die Macht der Bilder (Munich: Beck, 1987).

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