Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.31

Clément Chillet, De l'Étrurie à Rome: Mécène et la fondation de l'Empire. Bibliothèques des Écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome, 373.   Rome:  École Française de Rome, 2016.  Pp. xii, 609.  ISBN 9782728312023.  €33.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Peter Mountford, University of Melbourne (

This is the second book in French on Maecenas to be published in the past two years. It follows Le Doze (2014) Mécène: Ombres et flamboyances. While each purports to be a biography of Maecenas, the approach of the two authors is very different. Le Doze’s book concentrates on presenting a biography of Maecenas, whereas Chillet’s biography is at times lost in the discussion of the social background of Rome and Italy in the first century BCE. Chillet’s at times very dense book has been developed from his doctoral thesis presented in Lyon in November 2012. He sets out his approach to the topic in the introduction (1-17). In this he lists previous works on Maecenas and bemoans the paucity. Strangely, he begins his list with the work of Frandsen (1843) and Feugères (1874), but, in so doing, he ignores the earlier work of Richer (1748), which was translated into English by Schomberg.1

The text of 484 pages is divided into three sections, each with three chapters. Each chapter is divided by many subheadings to indicate the structure and focus. After the text, there follow a series of appendices (486 – 515), an extensive bibliography (517 – 553), a list of epigraphical, numismatic and papyrological sources used (555 – 561), a list of all ancient sources used (563 – 588), an index of places (589 – 593) and of persons (595 – 603) and a more detailed reference to the contents (605 – 609). The first section (21 – 167) considers Maecenas’ Etruscan background, his possible links to Etruscan royalty and his decision to remain an eques. The second (171 – 331) discusses the roles which Maecenas played in supporting Octavian/Augustus, in bringing about the establishment of the Augustan principate and fulfilling roles in Rome and Italy on Octavian’s behalf. The third part (335 – 484) concentrates on Maecenas’ role as adviser to Augustus, his position and that of his household in the Augustan principate, and his relationship with others in Roman society, especially the poets. A look at Chillet’s previous and intended publications in the bibliography indicates his particular interests, notably Maecenas’ gardens on the Esquiline, the roles of magistrates in the first century BC and the Etruscan background of Maecenas. He has obviously undertaken very thorough research in preparation for writing the book. In spite of his very impressive list of various sources, there are several ancient texts which refer to Maecenas that he does not mention, such as Horace Carmina 2.18 and 2.20; Martial Epigrams 1.107, 11.3; Juvenal Satires 7.94-7; Suetonius Vita Vergili.

In Chapter one he produces as much evidence as he can to establish Maecenas’ Etruscan lineage, especially his links to the Cilnii of Arretium and any possibility that he can be said to be of royal descent. He also considers what it meant to be an Etruscan in the first century BC and how the Romans at that time reacted to Etruscans, especially, ones with claims to royalty. As there are very few Etruscan sources and the ancient Latin and Greek texts do not give us much information about Maecenas’ background, much of what Chillet suggests has to be hypothetical, as he himself frequently admits. He does not seem to provide proof that the Lucius Maecenas in Nicolaus of Damascus 31, 133 is in fact the father of Maecenas. Hall considers that Nicolaus is actually referring to Gaius Maecenas.2 Nor does Chillet take account of the fact that Richer states that his father was Menodorus and gives a genealogy going back to Porsenna.3

In Chapter two Chillet suggests various possibilities as to why Maecenas chose to remain an eques rather than become a senator. He concludes that Maecenas had nothing to gain by becoming a senator, as, by being a member of the equites with a noble Etruscan background, he had prestige enough in Rome. The third chapter concentrates on Maecenas’ lifestyle and the habits which seemed to offend the younger Seneca, whose criticism Chillet responds to, particularly by considering the new Italian society which was emerging under the principate.

Chapter 4, the first of the second section, concentrates on the changes being brought about to Italy in the first century BC, especially by the establishment of colonies of veterans, by conscription of soldiers and the imposition of taxes. He discusses the role that Maecenas may have played in these processes. He argues that Maecenas had an important role to play in winning Italy over to the new regime and the new order. In the following chapter he discusses the importance of the role played by Maecenas as a negotiator on behalf of Octavian in the 30s BCE and the possible financial support given to Octavian by Maecenas and his family. He argues that such support was generously repaid with estates in Egypt in 30 BC. He also considers Maecenas’ role in encouraging Virgil to write the Georgics in order to encourage a return to the land, which had been ignored during the Civil Wars and much of which had been given to veterans. He discusses at some length whether the poem was composed to meet the ideology of Augustus. In Chapter 6 he considers the role played by Maecenas in maintaining order in Rome and Italy at various times in the 30s BCE, the reasons why this role was important and what it achieved, such as the suppression of the plot of Lepidus. He then discusses at some length how Maecenas exercised power in this role and the legality of his actions, as his position predates the introduction of the praefectus urbi by Tiberius in AD 13. This second section might have benefitted from a greater focus on Maecenas and less on the socio-political background.

In Chapter 7 Chillet addresses the role of Maecenas as an adviser to Augustus after the establishment of the empire. Here Chillet lays to rest for good the proposition put forward by Earl and others, that Maecenas retired to the background in disgrace following the conspiracy of Murena.4 His careful use of the ancient texts suggests that this is highly unlikely. Chillet discusses whether the debate between Maecenas and Agrippa in Dio Cassius reflects possible effects on Augustan policy or whether it reflects the situation in the Severan age. He concludes that we cannot use the debate as a way of understanding Maecenas’ political thought. He finishes the chapter with a discussion of the composition of the consilium principis from which Maecenas’ equestrian status precluded him. Yet, he considers that Maecenas continued to have the ear of the emperor as on the question of succession in 23 BC. Chapter 8 concentrates on Maecenas’ family life and the difficult question of his relationship with his wife Terentia. He discusses the family of the Terentii at some length and concludes the chapter with consideration of what we can learn about Maecenas’ household from inscriptions to his slaves and freedmen. In Chapter 9 he considers the networks (réseaux) that existed in Roman society and the ties (liens) which bound people to each other and discusses the ways in which Maecenas was involved in such arrangements. He dislikes the use of the term ‘circle’ when used of the poets whom Maecenas supported, yet acquiesces in the use of the term elsewhere, as in ‘cercle des épicuriens de Campanie’ (405). Although he gives reasons for this dislike, they do not seem convincing. He discusses the reasons for gathering together such a group of poets and their use to Maecenas and to the principate. He brings the third section and the book as a whole to a conclusion with a summary of the political situation at the beginning of the empire as he sees it, and with a summary of the life of Maecenas which he believes can be drawn from the ancient texts and his research.

As one might expect of a book of this length, there are some errors which ought to have been avoided by proofreading. 5 Examples are: une repeated (192), rencensus for recensus (220), la question repeated (273), pas repeated (301), nous sources for nos sources (329), Le Doze, 2006 p 99-109 should (presumably) be 2009 (350 n.76), DC LV, 5, 2 should be LV, 7, 1-6 (355 n.98), Tenrentia for Terentia (377), Pseudo-Asconius for Pseudo-Acronius (381), le deuxième point seems to be le troisième (453). Some page references in the sources do not match the pages.

Much has been written about Augustus over the years. Many of those texts give ample coverage to the role of Agrippa under Octavian/Augustus, but pay little attention to the role of Maecenas. Any text which attempts to bring Maecenas into the spotlight is welcome. This text does just that and covers some ground not considered by previous books on Maecenas. For example, his discussion on the background of Maecenas, although often hypothetical, highlights what can safely be claimed about Maecenas’ origins and what cannot (Chapter 1). He deals more thoroughly with the question of why Maecenas decided to remain an eques (Chapter 2) and the possible role played by Maecenas in the wider context of Italy (Chapter 4). He also covers the family of Maecenas’ wife Terentia in greater depth (Chapter 8). At times, however, the main focus on Maecenas seems to be lost in too many hypotheses and distracting digressions. In spite of this, it will, no doubt, generate further discussion on this important figure of the Augustan age, and the wealth of references will be of great use to scholars. Much of what might be termed extraneous material in the text will also be of value to historians studying Rome and Italy in the first century BC.


1.   Richer, M. (1748) The Life of Maecenas, trans: Schomberg, M. (1766), London.
2.   Hall, C.M. (1923) Nicolaus of Damascus’ life of Augustus: a historical commentary embodying a translation, Northampton, Mass. See also Toher, M (2016) Nicolaus of Damascus: The Life of Augustus and the Autobiography. Edited with Introduction, Translation and Historical Commentary, Cambridge, 417. He considers that there has most likely been an error in transcription and that Nicolaus is referring to Maecenas, not his father. See also Gardthausen, V. (1891) Augustus und seine Zeit, Leipzig; Dessau, H. (1924) Geshichte der römischen Kaizerzeit, Berlin; Avalone, R. (1962) Mecenate, Naples; and Levi, P. (2012) 32 Virgil: a Life, London, 32. Le Doze, P. (2014) Mécène: Ombres et Flamboyances Paris, 23 argues a contrary view.
3.   Although Richer (2-3) does not give a source for his statement, he must have been following Pseudo-Acron ad Hor. C.1.20.5-6 (nam et Porsennae dicitur adfinis fuisse).
4.   Earl, D. (1968) The Age of Augustus London, 81, followed by Syme, R. (1986) The Augustan Aristocracy, Oxford, 389; Everitt, A. (2006) The First Emperor; Caesar Augustus and the Triumph of Rome, London, 229; Clark, M.D.H. (2010) Augustus, First Emperor: Power, Propaganda and Politics of Survival, Exeter 94 .
5.   Perhaps the fact that French is not my first language made me more aware of them than a native speaker.

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