Spin Dramatists & Dilettantes: Poetics and Statecraft in Augustan Rome

Study I not o’ermuch to please thee, Caesar and court thee, / Nor do I care e’en to know if thou be white or black. – Gaius Valerius Catallus

Last week we saw how state sponsorship of the arts is older than PBS’ annual pledge drives, and how the right political patron can produce a golden age of intellectual creativity so profound that we still mourn its demise two thousand years later.

We will not run out of Library of Alexandria memes.

But the Ptolemies’ library is a good jumping off point for what I’d like to talk about this week, which is professional writing in the ancient world, and the interplay between art and politics. Aside from the mathematicians, geographers, physicians, and philosophers that populated the ancient intellectual set, creative writing was almost exclusively the domain of poets and playwrights, because Murasaki Shikibu wouldn’t invent the novel for another thousand years.

Murasaki: Some of us can write poetry and prose at the same time…

Poetry, with its prehistoric, preliterate roots in humanity’s oral past, was probably the older of the two, and while plays were hardly disreputable, they were still largely popular entertainment. Poetry was the elevated art. As we discussed last week, the most respected of the Library of Alexandria’s librarians were poets — even the mathematician Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who we know for his calculations, but was much better known for his poetics in his own time.

But the problem with poetry then as now is that it’s very difficult to earn a living on verse, so unless an ancient poet came from a wealthy family, patronage was the lifeblood of the creative world at this time in a way that publishing contracts and grants are today. While Head Librarian Zenodotus of Ephesus was cataloguing Homer and tutoring the future Ptolemy III, Ptolemy Philadelphus had at least one other poet lounging about in his confiscated codices, and that was the Alexandrian poet Callimachus.

Callimachus definitely benefited from the laissez-faire attitude of Ptolemy Philadelphus toward the scholarship of the Library, because he was a poet determined to eschew the dominant preference for epic poetry (like Zenodotus’ beloved Homer), and instead focus on shorter poems and epigrams. Callimachus was a bit of an intellectual snob who hated common things and old ways of thinking. He felt poets needed to “drive their wagons on untrodden fields,” meaning, at this time, to stop imitating Homer and write new kinds of poetry. This earned him few adherents in the epic-loving Alexandrian poetic circles, or even among those whom he taught as his students. Second Librarian Apollonius of Rhodes was one of those pupils, and they had constant, bitter epigram battles where they traded insults over Apollonius’ great epic poem, the Argonautica, for thirty years. It’s thought that this might have been one of several reasons Ptolemy chose Apollonius as Head Librarian over the contrary, volatile Callimachus.

Despite the (relatively) bite-sized nature of much of Callimachus’ poetry, most has come down to us only in fragments or in quotation from the later poets who took to his style more readily than his contemporaries did. Out of a supposed corpus of eight hundred works, we know of six hymns, sixty-four epigrams, and pieces of two longer works: the epic-esque Hecale, and the elegiac Aetia.

I see a couple of you have the wheels whirring in your head. Not exactly — it’s an interesting linguistic coincidence caused by moving between the Roman and Greek alphabets. Callimachus’ poem’s title in Greek is Αἴτια (“causes”); my girl’s name is a Latin feminization of the Greek ἀετός (“eagle”). Fun fact for all you Assassin’s Creed fans, the male version of Aetia’s name, Aetius, is the Latin forerunner of the Italian name Ezio. The more you know…

So why am I spending so much time on a Greek-Egyptian poet when I suggested we were going to talk about Rome?

Octavius: Good question!

Well, mostly because many of the writers of the late Roman Republic/ early Empire took to Callimachus like Mark Antony took all things “Egypt.”

Mark Antony: So woke…

A couple hundred years and Callimachus had finally found his disciples, first and most notably in the late Republican poet Gaius Valerius Catallus. Born into a prominent eques family in Verona, Catallus imitated Callimachus by writing biting epigrams about everyone and elegiac love poems to a fickle love interest name Lesbia (who was actually the very rich and very married Clodia Metelli). 

One of Catallus’ most famous clap backs, as we’ve seen before

Even someone as generally immune to embarrassment as Julius was forced to admit that Catallus’ sick burns had probably irreparably damaged his reputation in Rome, and in a rare moment of acquiescence, Catallus actually apologized to him. And Julius, with his famous ability to almost instantaneously let bygones be bygones, invited Catallus over for dinner the same day.

Where they presumably spent the meal high-fiving each other over their shade-throwing prowess.

Indeed, poetry was often the intellectual pastime of well-off young Roman men, either as an art pursued between government postings or as something to fill the days with when they were in the city. But the times, they were a-changing in Rome and the repercussions of that in the arts would soon become apparent, and the lounging armchair poets like Catallus, thumbing their noses at Caesars with impunity, would fade into the past along with the moribund Roman Republic. Octavius’ victory at Actium moved poetry back toward what it had been under Ptolemy Philadelphus in Alexandria — a state-sponsored art.

But before you bewail the distinctly imperial bend in the Appian Way we’re about to turn down, it’s not all bad news. With all the patricians caught up in the fallout from the civil wars, the field was cleared for a class of poets who possessed talent, but not the wealth of their playboy predecessors. But rather than finding such obscure artists himself, Octavius relied on a handful of powerful men in his inner circle to vet the pool and promote those whose poetry would show Rome as the new intellectual hub of the Mediterranean. The two most famous of these patrons were Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus and Gaius Cilnius Maecenas.

As evidenced by his voluble name, Messalla Corvinus came from an old Senatorial family, but that also explains why he was one of many men who flipped sides in the civil wars several times. He was smart enough to end up on Octavius’ side and survived with enough of his family fortune intact to dole it out to a highly literate group of young poets referred to as “Messalla’s Circle,” among them Tibullus, Ovid, and his niece, the rare Roman woman poet, Sulpicia. Although he had gone to school with the lower class poet Horace (who we’ll get to in a moment) and the hero of all class-jumping upstarts, Cicero, Messalla’s cohort had a decidedly patrician bent and his poets favored love elegies over more “substantial” themes. 

In imitation of Catallus’ Lesbia, the three most famous of his poets also had pseudonymous lovers: Tibullus has his Delia, who’s real name is thought to be Plania (shown above); Ovid, his mysterious Corinna, who has never been successfully identified; and Sulpicia, a young man named Cerinthus, thought to be her aristocratic acquaintance, Caecilius Cornutus.

So what gives? It is possible that Messalla had a soft spot for these young people because they shared his wealthy background and had been storm-tossed like him through the upheaval of the civil war years. In bygone times, Tibullus and Ovid would have been like Catallus — rich and perhaps coaxed toward a senatorial seat, but not needing a career, as such.

But remember how I said after the defeat of the Liberatores that while Mark Antony was out East derping around with Parthia and his new side piece in Egypt, Octavius’ job was to “settle the army”? That wasn’t a turn of phrase, he literally had to figure out how to disband the excess legions in Italy (since, recall, one isn’t supposed to have a standing army in Rome) and cash out their soldiers. And the most efficient way to accomplish that was to buy off the legionaries with land. Now, after Octavius and Antony had executed most of their serious opposition, they could use those people’s property to do that, but as ruthless as the proscriptions had been, they didn’t kill that many people. So in addition to dead men’s lands, Octavius organized the confiscation of many estates among the eques in the surrounding countryside, presumably to both punish men who hadn’t been sufficiently loyal and as a check on outlying local power. If everyone was at least a little worse off, they would be more dependent on the centralized government in Rome.

A running theme you will see in the lives of the men we consider the major Golden Age Roman poets is these confiscations. Every single one of them (save Sulpicia), despite varying levels of wealth and social status in their home districts, was a part of a family that was significantly reduced by this event. Ovid, and probably Tibullus, came from the richest, most well-connected of these various families, but the confiscations still affected their future enough that a backer like Messalla was important in a way he might not have been a generation prior. But you can tell that these two weren’t completely destitute, as evidenced by their generally fluffy content output. Not living hand to mouth, they could choose the easy-going Messalla’s patronage, rather than that of the man with a plan.

Maecenas: Stick with me, kids, we’re going places.

Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, unlike Messalla, was born into the less-exulted eques class, but his family was so old and wealthy it didn’t matter. Maecenas was descended from an ancient Sabine (the ethnic group that ruled Rome before the Latins showed up) family, and he was clearly proud of that heritage, as evidenced by the fact that Octavius offered to raise his rank to the Senatorial class and he refused the honor. So he remained humble Gaius Maecenas, and Octavius’ most long-standing and trusted advisor save for perhaps Agrippa. Unlike the flip-flopping Messalla, Maecenas had been with Octavius from practically the moment he showed up at Caesar’s funeral, and Octavius rewarded that loyalty with even more wealth and position. If someone was thought to hold Octavius’ ear, especially in those early, unsettled years, it was Maecenas.

Maecenas was also the architect of much of Octavius’ new order. He was the one reconciling parties whenever possible, and figuring out the administrative nuts and bolts. The historian Marcus Velleius Paterculus described 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.” Paterculus would be an adherent of the taciturn and active Emperor Tiberius, so he no doubt meant the second half of that statement as a criticism, but Maecenas’ “effeminate” tastes would be the ones that would harness the greatest artistic talents of a generation and tie them to Octavius’ star.

Maecenas realized that best post-republican model of government for Octavius to emulate was the enlightened Hellenistic kingdoms, many of which Rome had just absorbed into its territory. For the reasons previously discussed, overt royalty was out of the question, of course, but state sponsorship of the arts was something Maecenas knew could be useful. And like the Ptolemies, Octavius could profess that these artists weren’t beholden to promote his Rome, while Maecenas could guide them toward a style and subject matter that would support Octavius.

Maecenas’ poets generally came from his (slightly lower) social strata, people Messalla was less likely to encounter. He discovered Virgil, son of a Lombard eques family on hard times after the confiscations, and his schoolboy poet friends, Lucius Varius Rufus and Gaius Cornelius Gallus from similarly obscure origins, and brought them into Octavius’ orbit.

At his arrival in Rome, Virgil was the pastoral poet of the Eclogues, and while he’d still write the equally bucolic Georgics (dedicated to Maecenas) later, Maecenas’ patronage would bend Virgil’s talents toward larger themes and Octavius in particular. There is a lot of debate if Virgil’s dependence on Octavius was a blessing or a curse, in part because the Aeneid is a masterpiece of Western literature, but it is at its heart a piece of Augustan propaganda. Virgil might have always been fated to write the Aeneid, but would have it been even better if it hadn’t been chained to the admittedly contradictory Octavius? We’ll never know, but the fact remains it took Virgil a decade to write the still unfinished poem we possess, and that was with the leisure to write afforded to him by Maecenas and Octavius’ support. Its basis in panegyric doesn’t negate its undeniable quality, and there have been plenty of readers through the ages who have detected the numerous subversive threads in this Homeric epic that suggest Virgil’s genius was adept at embedding criticism of Octavius within its lines just as easily as his praises.

Aeneas always does the right thing, but it can’t be a mistake that Virgil often makes us like those who suffer at his hands more than his hero. He’s too good of a writer for that.

Aside from the Lombard poets above, Maecenas scooped up the elegiac poet Sextus Propertius and his other big find, the lyric poet Horace. Propertius is a bit of an outlier in Maecenas’ set, having more in common with Messalla’s fast young things, but he remained in Maecenas’ good graces despite never being successfully turned to state service.

Propertius spent most of his life chasing his courtesan muse, Cynthia.

Horace is perhaps the most interesting, and the most reliable, of the whole group. Horace’s father had been a slave, meaning Horace’s lineage was in another social galaxy than even the most humble of the poets we’ve discussed so far. But slavery in Ancient Rome operated with some crucial differences to say, African slavery in the American South. Because Roman slavery was often the result of arbitrary, common misfortunes like warfare, and wasn’t tied to markers like race, slaves could more easily earn their freedom, and there wasn’t especial stigma attached being a freedman (or woman). This is particularly true after many of the policies of Julius, and later Octavius, made social mobility a little easier. Slaves who earned or were awarded their freedom by their owners often remained in their former master’s employ as trusted retainers, like Virgil’s loyal amanuensis, Bros, or the succession of powerful freedmen who would be the kingmakers of Octavius’ family by the time of Claudius and Nero.

Anyway, Horace’s father earned his freedom before the poet’s birth, so Horace, while not socially elevated, could at least claim the free birth of his Roman peers. His father must have been a hardworking, motivated man, because he not only earned his freedom, but managed to build enough capital to have his son excellently educated alongside the likes of Messalla and Cicero. Horace is always deprecating of his talents, but he couldn’t have been a slouch, either.

Horace gets the most flak of any of Maecenas’ poets for being the most flattering and court jester-y of the group, but I think his background is the reason for this. It’s easy to be Ovid and irreverent when you know where your next meal is coming from. And aside from this, I think Horace’s posture came from some genuine gratitude to Octavius. The poet was still a young man studying in Athens when Brutus arrived waving his bloody pugio and declaring he’d saved Rome. Horace and many of his fellow students got swept up in his enthusiasm and joined up with the Liberatores. He was shipped off to Philippi and the whole lot of them got absolutely trashed by the Triumvirate forces. Messalla could use his connections to buddy up to Mark Antony, but who could the son of ex-slave turn to? But then Octavius, in one of those rare Julian moments, offered pardons to everyone, and Horace never forgot that. His later satires might poke fun at everyone, but Octavius always knew he could count on his loyalty, be it for a complimentary ode, or to take care of the notoriously hypochondriac Virgil.

And while his support of Virgil and Horace was probably the greatest gift he could have given Octavius, Maecenas’ poets were as diverse as their backgrounds, and the results show that. As I said, he was never totally able to control Propertius; Varius was a devoted friend to Virgil until the end of his life, but his poetry is mediocre at best; and poor Gallus is more famous for his death than his poetry. As a reward for his loyalty, Octavius made Gallus the first Praefect of Egypt, the praefecture being the lead administrative position in the province. Octavius didn’t trust Egypt to a traditional governor (proconsul) because he thought any proconsul would steal the kingdom and its two Caesarian legions out from under him. And despite knowing his boss’ paranoid view of Egypt, after he put down a revolt in Thebes, Gallus erected an obelisk celebrating his personal victory. One imagines the Egyptians were amused, but Octavius was decidedly not. Gallus was recalled in such disgrace that he was forced to commit suicide to salvage his dignitas. Octavius made a point vis á vis Egypt, and his poets were reminded this was not the Caesar that cheerfully made up with the foul-mouthed Catallus.

After the crap Antony pulled in Egypt, you guys think I’m going let people parade around like pharaohs there while I’m away?

But all of this isn’t to say that these two circles ostensibly under Octavius’ aegis didn’t intersect. Ovid and Propertius were known friends, and everybody like Horace too much to confine him solely to one group. And like the great literary colonies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in cities like Paris, it’s the interaction between the members that give us the best window into this world. It’s easy to envision Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus cruising the notorious Subura district for girls, while Maecenas and Messalla roll their eyes and try to keep the worst from Octavius. Horace uses his poems to tease Propertius for his lovelorn elegies and scold Virgil to take care of himself, while usually begging Maecenas for some indulgence or another. Sulpicia apes the masculine style of her friends so effectively that for centuries her few surviving poems are attributed to Tibullus. Ovid might mock Virgil and Horace for kowtowing to Octavius’ opinion, but Virgil’s Aeneid would push Ovid to produce his epic Metamorphoses, his most technically brilliant poem. Even Propertius, long Virgil’s friend, would dip his toe into “serious” verse toward the end of his short life. 

For Ovid, trying to walk Octavius’ line might have been too little too late, but that’s a story for another time…

For all the potential tawdriness of an army of poets assembled to make a deeply paradoxical ruler like Octavius look good, the art that came out of a somewhat cynical project is some of the best Western literature has ever produced. Ovid is laugh-out-loud funny two thousand later, and Horace’s inspired ability to bring his friends to life with his writing makes them feel like your friends, too. Propertius and Sulpicia write about love with a way that is completely relatable, and Virgil is Virgil, who for all the arms and men he sings to us of, was the first to remind us that omnia vincit Amor (Eclogues, Book X, line 69). That Love conquers all. Empires have been bolstered by far less.

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