A biography of Maecenas is one of the real desiderata for the scholarly literature on the intensively discussed era of the Augustan revolution and the Golden Age of Latin literature. Although the contributions to this subject are so many that they merit a research report,1 the most recent monographs on Maecenas were written a long time ago. It is easy to criticise a descriptive book like the one by Avallone from 1963, which mainly mirrors the sources.2 It is also easy to reject the psychologizing essay by André from 1967, who wanted to portray the richness of Maecenas’ soul.3 It is easy to reject approaches like these because they do not fit into our age. But it is very difficult to find an appropriate way to cope with the difficulties a biography of Maecenas necessarily evokes.
Philippe Le Doze has tackled this challenging task. A specialist on the period, he has written many articles on related topics,4 and recently, he has published his dissertation on poetry and politics during the age of Octavian/Augustus.5 No doubt, Le Doze is the man to write the biography in question here. Yet, “Mécène se refuse à une biographie classique” (p. 14). Though Maecenas certainly was one of the important men in the ambit of Octavian/Augustus, his profile is heavily shaped by poets dependant on him like Horace, or by later perceptions of his prominence for the transformations Rome was going through at this period. The question is thus how to face the problem of the sources. Le Doze opts for getting closer to Maecenas’ personality by approaching him from the contemporary contexts, e.g. from the general outline of literary patronage at Rome. To say it with Le Doze’s words: “Aller du général au particulier” (p. 14), or: “Il faut s’éloigner de lui pour le retrouver” (p. 14).
The book is divided into three parts: the first dedicated to politics (“Le politique”, pp. 17-112), the second dedicated to literary patronage (“Le protecteur des lettres latines”, pp. 113-189), and the third dedicated to different topics like portraits of Maecenas, his literary “circle”, and his Etruscan affiliation (“Singularités”, pp. 191-271). An introduction (“Avant-propos”, pp. 11-15) and a résumé (“Epilogue: Iocosus Maecenas”, pp. 273-276) frame the chapters; a list of important dates from his life-time (“Repères chronologiques”, pp. 277-279), a catalogue in Latin with French translations of the extant fragments of Maecenas’ own literary production (“Fragments de Mécène”, pp. 281-283), a bibliography (“Bibliographie”, pp. 285-296), and an index of persons (“Index”, pp. 297-301), complete the monograph.
The two terms of the well-chosen subtitle, “ombres et flamboyances”, are leitmotifs throughout the book. First, they allude to the differences of Maecenas’ profile in the spheres of politics and literary culture. Accordingly, the first part, dedicated to political history, plays with the metaphor of the “ombre” (e.g. pp. 21, 33), whereas the second introduces Maecenas as the protector of Latin literature with the following emphatic sentence: “L’ombre parfois s’efface. La lumière reprend ses droits et irradie de ses rayons une destinée qui, alors, surgit dans toute sa flamboyance” (p. 115). But it is not only due to the sources that the politician Maecenas is shadowy to us. Le Doze is convinced that Maecenas made a conscious decision to conduct a shady life in politics (p. 104), while excelling as a patron of the greatest poets of his time, thus being present, flamboyant, and finally immortal through them.
The chronologically organized account of the political events between the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C. and the Augustan restoration of the political structures in 29, 27, or 23 B.C. (“Le politique”, pp. 17-112) is mainly a handbook story giving a lot of context to a person who, at least in the first chapter, hardly ever appears. Le Doze frequently states: “Ici encore, les sources sont muettes quant au rôle joué par Mécène lors des événements (...)” (p. 27, cf.), or he speaks of “conjectures” (e.g. pp. 24, 28); and indeed, everything else would turn the biography into a novel. What we can deduce, however, is that Maecenas seems to have excelled in diplomatic capacity in 37 and that he was something like a praefectus urbi in 36 B.C. Although, according to Le Doze, Maecenas was indispensable during the following years, his legitimacy depended on Octavian/Augustus (pp. 60-72). As an Etruscan knight, he did not belong to the senatorial order, which Augustus needed in order to consolidate the new state. Le Doze concludes therefore that, after 29 B.C., Maecenas retired from official positions but remained close to Augustus until the end of his life and participated in the conceptualisation of the new order. Finally, he served him best by promoting literature on the most outstanding of all principes (pp. 84-112).
The second part, dedicated to Maecenas as the famous literary patron (“Le protecteur des lettres latines”, pp. 113-189), begins with detours: the background story of the Roman Empire awaiting consolidation (pp. 117-128), and the question of identity via literary production during the first century B.C. (pp. 128-132), which – following Le Doze – led Maecenas to choose poetry to sing, or to let others sing, about the glory of Rome, and to promote the Latin language (pp. 130-131). After general remarks on literary patronage at his lifetime (pp. 133-165), the most prominent poets among his literary clients – Varius, Virgil, Horace, and Propertius – are introduced (pp. 167-186), before the enormous success of the literature that was at least partly enabled by Maecenas, is stressed (pp. 186-189).
The third part treats the qualities of Maecenas outside his undoubted achievements in politics and literary patronage, the qualities that made him attackable (“Singularités”, pp. 191-271). To quote the opening words of Le Doze: “La figure de Mécène prend corps. Le politique, le protecteur des lettres révèlent un homme soucieux de la gloire de Rome, une personnalité active, payant de sa personne, efficace, déterminée. Passionnée par les lettres. Mais Mécène fut bien plus que cela. Il fut une figure hors norme, un modèle ou un contre-exemple selon les sensibilités” (p. 193). First, Le Doze discusses the apologetic character of the Elegies on Maecenas (pp. 193-200). He then deals with the Epicurean attitude of Maecenas (pp. 200-213). By mentioning that Epicurus, like Maecenas, preferred the shade to the light (p. 201), the assumption of Maecenas’ being an Epicurean is affirmed (cf. the statement p. 234: “Mécène était épicurien.”). In addition, Le Doze explains Seneca’s hostility towards Maecenas by stressing their comparable ambition to promote the best of all principes (Maecenas succeeded, Seneca did not), and their differences in political engagement as well as in philosophical positions, leading to a personal rivalry (pp. 213-227). A second chapter discusses the question of a presumed literary circle around Maecenas (pp. 229-43). Le Doze concludes that personal bonds, mainly amicitia, constituted the Maecenean network. Finally, the influence of his Etruscan origins on Maecenas’ personality is debated (pp. 245-271) to conclude that they had no influence on his positions in politics, but that this influence can be sufficiently explained with his status as a knight (p. 271).
In order to get closer to a personality that otherwise escapes us, Le Doze chose the method to relate the contemporary contexts of Maecenas’ life. In contrast to Avallone, he does not equate Maecenas with the person characterized in the ancient sources; Le Doze’s detailed comments on the Elegiae in Maecenatem especially illustrate his sceptical reading of the ancient texts (pp. 34-37, 193-200). Nor does he pretend to delineate Maecenas’ character psychologically, as André intended to do: “Symbole de la versatilité, le dieu étrusque était tout et son contraire. (...) Les ambivalences relèvent du constat. Elles ne suffissent pas à révéler une personnalité. En faire le catalogue ne saurait donner la clef d’une âme” (p. 273). However, the poetic style of his presentation does not let him escape from slightly psychologizing remarks, e.g. when stating: “Mécène aima les lettres plus que tout” (p. 115), or when summing up: “Il fut maître de sa vie, maître de ses choix. (...) Mécène, lui, aimait la nouveauté (...) et n’hésitait pas à l’occasion à en être à l’origine” (p. 276). Although giving life to a character, remarks like these suggest realities that are not knowable to us. Maecenas certainly is understandable only when one considers the political and social contexts in which he was living and acting. And Le Doze is well aware that almost everything he is going to say about Maecenas is a “peut-être” (p. 14). But in the reviewer’s opinion, it would have been even more consistent to extend this peut-être , to extend the dominion of the “ombre” to every dimension of his character and volition.
Le Doze clearly knows his subject very well, and he obviously knows the scholarly literature on the extended debates lurking behind many aspects discussed in this book. Yet though Le Doze extensively quotes ancient testimonia and establishes a dialogue with the ancient sources, he rarely directly names other scholars, and scholarly positions different from his own are hardly ever referred to explicitly. Maybe this is due to the primary audience for the book. The critique mentioned may mainly stem from different scholarly traditions and expectations a German, or an English, reader might have in contrast to a French one with a view to presenting research. While German readers might miss references and annotations, English readers might ask for brevitas, bewildered by the many accounts of contemporary contexts of Maecenas’ life they are confronted with – according to Le Doze’s motto of getting away from Maecenas in order to find him (“Il faut s’éloigner de lui pour le retrouver”, p. 14). This reviewer is far from being able to judge what a French reader might experience when consuming the monograph. Certainly, he like everyone else will be enchanted by the beautifully written, poetic text, which is a piece of art itself and exposes all the aspects a biography on Maecenas could be about.
1. L. Graverini, "Un secolo di studi su Mecenate", Rivista storica dell’Antichità 27 (1997) 231-289.
2. R. Avallone, Mecenate, Napoli 1963.
3. J.-M. André, Mécène. Essai de biographie spirituelle, Paris 1967.
4. To name but a few: Ph. Le Doze, "Aux origines d’une retraite politique: Mécène et la Res publica restituta", in: F. Hurlet, B. Mineo (ed.), Le Principat d’Auguste. Réalités et représentations du pouvoir. Autour de la Res publica restituta. Actes du colloque de l’Université de Nantes, 1er-2 juin 2007, Rennes 2009, 101-118. Ph. Le Doze, "Elegiae in Maecenatem. Un regard sur Mécène", Athenaeum 100 (2012) 291-301. Ph. Le Doze, "Horace et la question idéologique à Rome: considérations sur un itinéraire politique", Revue historique 664 (2012) 863-886. Ph. Le Doze, "Quomodo Maecenas uixerit: à propos du Mécène de Sénèque", Latomus 71 (2012) 734-752.
5. Ph. Le Doze, Le Parnasse face à l’Olympe. Poésie et culture politique à l’époque d’Octavien/Auguste (Collection de l’Ecole française de Rome 484), Rom 2014.