To celebrate the NYRB Classics reprint of John Williams’ Augustus, we’re excerpting a section from the book: a letter from the poet Gaius Maecenas to the historian Livy. See more about the book here.
IX. Letter: Gaius Cilnius Maecenas
To Titus Livius (13 B.C.)
Some years ago my friend Horace described to me the way he made a poem. We had had some wine and were talking seriously, and I believe that his description then was a more accurate one than that contained more recently in the so-called Letter to the Pisos—a poem upon the art of poetry which, I must confess, I am not particularly fond. He said: “I decide to make a poem when I am compelled by some strong feeling to do so—but I wait until the feeling hardens into a resolve; then I conceive an end, as simple as I can make it, toward which that feeling might progress, though often I cannot see how it will do so. And then I compose my poem, using whatever means are at my command. I borrow from others if I have to—no matter. I invent if I have to—no matter. I use the language that I know, and I work within its limits. But the point is this: the end that I discover at last is not the end that I conceived at first. For every solution entails new choices, and ever choice made poses new problems to which solutions must be found, and so on and on. Deep in his heart, the poet is always surprised at where his poem has gone.”
I thought of that conversation this morning when I sat down to write you once again of those early days; and it occurred to me that Horace’s description of the making of a poem had certain striking parallels to our own working out of our destinies in the world itself (though if Horace heard this, and recalled what he said, he would no doubt scowl dourly and say that it was all nonsense, that you made a poem by discovering a topic, disposing the topic properly, by playing this figure against that, by this disposition of the meter against that sense of the language, and so forth and so on).
For our feeling—or, rather, Octavius’s feeling, in which we were caught up as the reader is caught in a poem—was occasioned by the incredible murder of Julius Caesar, an event which seemed more and more to have simply destroyed the world; and the end that we conceived was to have revenge upon the murderers, for the sake of our honor and the state’s. It was as simple as that, or it appeared to be. But the gods of the world and the gods of poetry are wise, indeed; for how often they save us from the ends toward which we think we strive!
My dear Livy, I do not wish to play the father with you; but you did not even come to Rome until our Emperor had fulfilled his destiny and was master of the world. Let me tell you a little of those days, so that you might reconstruct, these many years later, the chaos that we confronted in Rome.
Caesar was dead—by the “will of the people,” the murderers said; yet the murderers had to barricade themselves in the Capitol against those very people who had “commanded” the act. Two days later, the Senate gave its thanks to the assassins; and in the next breath approved and made law those very acts of Caesar for the proposal of which he had been killed. However terrible the deed, the conspirators had acted with bravery and force; and then they scattered like frightened women after they had taken their first step. Antonius, as Caesar’s friend, roused the people against the assassins; yet the night before the Ides of March he had entertained the murderers at dinner, was seen speaking intimately with one of them (Trebonius) at the instant of the murder, and dined again with those same men two nights later! He aroused the populace again to burn and loot in protest against the murder; and then approved their arrest and execution for that lawlessness. He made Caesar’s will to be read publicly; and then opposed it enactment with all his power.
Above all, we knew that we could not trust Antonius, and we knew him to be a formidable foe—not because of his shrewdness and skill, but because of his thoughtlessness and reckless force. For despite the sentimental regard in which some of the young now hold him, he was not a very intelligent man; he had no real purpose beyond the moment of his will; and he was not exceptionally brave. He did not even perform his own suicide well, and he did it long after his situation was hopeless, so that it was too late for it to be done with dignity.
How do you oppose a foe who is wholly irrational and unpredictable—and yet who, out of animal energy and the accident of circumstance, has attained a most frightening power? (Looking back on it it is odd to remember that once we construed Antonius to be our foe rather than the Senate, though our most obvious enemies were there; I suppose instinctively we felt that if such a bungler as Antonius could manage them, we should not have that much trouble with him either, when the time came.) I do not know how you oppose him; I only know what we did. Let me tell you of that.
We had seen Antonius and had been brusquely dismissed by him. He was the most powerful personage in Rome; we had nothing except a name. We determined that our first necessity was to get recognition from him. We had not been able to get that by overtures of friendship; thus we had to try the overtures of enmity.
First we talked—among Antonius’s enemies and among his friends. Or, rather, we questioned, innocently, as if we were trying to understand the events of the day. When did they suppose Antonius would give attention to Caesar’s will? Where were the tyrannicides—Brutus, Cassius, the others? Had Antonius gone over to the Republicans, or was he still faithful to Caesar’s Party of the People? That sort of thing. And we were careful to insure that reports of these conversations got back to Antonius.
At first there was no response from him. We persisted. And then at last we heard descriptions of his annoyance; retellings of insults he gave to Octavius began making the rounds; rumors and accusations against Octavius passed from lip to lip. And then we made the move that had to bring him into the open.
Octavius had, with some small assistance from me, composed a speech (I may have a copy of it somewhere among my papers; if my secretary can discover it, I will send it on to you), in which he sorrowfully announced to the people that despite the will, Antonius would not release Caesar’s fortune to him, but that he (Octavius), having taken Caesar’s name, would fulfill Caesar’s obligations—that the bequest would be paid them out of his own pocket. The speech was made. There was nothing really inflammatory in it; the tone was one of sorrow, regret, and innocent bewilderment.
But Antonius acted precipitately, as we had hoped he would. He at once introduced legislation into the Senate which would prevent the legal adoption of Octavius; he allied himself with Dolabella, who at that time was co-consul with him and who had been close to the conspirators; he enlisted the support of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who immediately after the assassination had fled Rome and gone to his legion in Gaul; and he made open threats against Octavius’s life.
Now you must understand that the position of many of the soldiers and citizens was extremely difficult—or at least so it seemed to them. The rich and powerful were almost without exception against Julius Caesar, and thus against Octavius; the soldiers and the middle citizenry almost without exception loved Julius Caesar, and hence favored Octavius; yet they knew that Marcus Antonius had been Caesar’s friend. And now they were witnessing what they took to be a destructive battle between the only two persons who might take their part against the rich and aristocratic.
Thus it happened that Agrippa, who better than any of us knew the soldiers’ life and language and habits of thought, went among those minor officers and centurions and common soldiers whom we knew to be veterans of the campaigns and friends to Caesar, and supplicated them to use their offices and common loyalty to quiet the dispute that had grown needlessly between Marcus Antonius and Octavius (whom he called Caesar to them). Assured of Octavius’s love and convinced that Antonius could not look upon their efforts as rebellion or disloyalty, they acted.
They were persuaded (there were several hundred of them, I believe) to march first to Octavius’s house on the hill. It was important that they go there first, you will understand. Octavius pretended surprise, listened to their pleas for friendship with Antonius, and made a brief speech to them in which he forgave Antonius the insults and agreed to repair the breach that had grown between them. You may be certain that we made sure Antonius was informed of this deputation; if they had marched upon his house without warning, he might easily have mistaken their intention and thought they were led against him in retaliation for his threats upon Octavius’s life.
But he knew of their coming; and I have often tried to imagine his anger as he awaited them alone in that huge mansion where Pompeius once lived and that Antonius had appropriated after Caesar’s murder. For Antonius knew that they had no choice but to wait, and he might have had an intimation then of the course his life was to run.
At Agrippa’s prompting, the veterans insisted that Octavius come with them—which he did, though he would not walk in a position of honor, but was escorted at the rear of the line of march. I must say that Antonius behaved reasnably well when we marched into his courtyard. One of the veterans hailed him, he came out and saluted them, and listened to the speech that had already been given to Octavius—though he was a little curt and sullen when he agreed to the conciliation. Then Octavius was brought forward; he greeted Antonius, the salutation was returned, and the veterans cheered. We did not linger; but I was standing very near the two of them when they came together, and I shall always believe that there was a small, grudging, but appreciative smile on Antonius’s face when they clasped hands.
That, then, was the first small power we had. And it was that upon which we built.
I tire, my dear Livy. I shall write again soon, when my health permits it. For there is more that may be said.
Postscript: I trust that you will be discreet in the use of what I tell you.