Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (70 – 8 BC) was a confidant and political advisor to Octavian (who was to become the Emperor of Rome as Caesar Augustus) as well as an important patron for the new generation of 'Augustan' poets.
His name has become a byword for a wealthy patron of the arts. Maecenas is most famous for his support of young poets, hence his name has become eponymous for a "patron of arts". He supported Virgil who wrote the Georgics in his honour. It was Virgil, impressed with examples of Horace's poetry, who introduced Horace to Maecenas. Indeed Horace begins the first poem of his Odes (I.i) by addressing his new patron.
Maecenas, you, descended from many kings,
O you who are my stay and my delight,
There is the man whose glory it is to be
So famous even the gods have heard the story
(p. 3, Ferry trans.)
Horace was given full financial support, as well as an estate in the Sabine mountains, by Maecenas. Propertius and the minor poets Varius Rufus, Plotius Tucca, Valgius Rufus and Domitius Marsus also were his protégés. Maecenas character as a munificent patron of literature - which has made his name a household word - is gratefully acknowledged by the recipients of it and attested by the regrets of the men of letters of a later age, expressed by Martial and Juvenal. His patronage was exercised, not from vanity or a mere dilettante love of letters, but with a view to the higher interest of the state. He recognized in the genius of the poets of that time, not only the truest ornament of the court, but a power of reconciling men's minds to the new order of things, and of investing the actual state of affairs with an ideal glory and majesty. The change in seriousness of purpose between the Eclogues and the Georgics of Virgil was in a great measure the result of the direction given by the statesman to the poet's genius. A similar change between the earlier odes of Horace, in which he declares his epicurean indifference to affairs of state, and the great national odes of the third book is to be ascribed to the same guidance.
Maecenas endeavoured also to divert the less masculine genius of Propertius from harping continually on his love to themes of public interest. But if the motive of his patronage had been merely politic it never could have inspired the affection which it did in its recipients. The great charm of Maecenas in his relation to the men of genius who formed his circle was his simplicity, cordiality and sincerity. Although not particular in the choice of some of the associates of his pleasures, he admitted none but men of worth to his intimacy, and when once admitted they were treated like equals. Much of the wisdom of Maecenas probably lives in the Satires and Epistles of Horace. It has fallen to the lot of no other patron of literature to have his name associated with works of such lasting interest as these and the Georgics of Virgil.
The Odes of Horace trans. by David Ferry. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1997.