A prosopographical survey of a specific individual in Roman literature can help one develop a profile of both that person’s career and personality. This type of character portrayal can be beneficial in not only enriching our understanding of certain persons mentioned in literature, but also in gaining insight into the times in which these individuals lived.
The fall of the Roman Republic was a time that shaped the lives of many people, even those not directly involved in politics. Cicero’s position during the civil war was firmly on the side of the Republic, but what of those men not so openly concerned with the politics of the day? One such person was Gaius Matius, an Epicurean and a man who seems to have been slowly drawn into the politics of the Principate following the death of Julius Caesar. This paper aims at developing a prosopographical profile of Gaius Matius through his association with Cicero, Caesar, Octavian and others as well as by examining his accomplishments outside the realm of politics. In the course of this survey, several authors will help illuminate Matius’ personality and life including Cicero, Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius, Columella and Apicius.
The earliest Ciceronian reference to Matius is in a letter to Trebatius, a young lawyer whom Cicero had both sent to Gaul and recommended to Caesar early in 54 BC. Upon receiving the news that Trebatius had developed a friendship with Gaius Matius, Cicero was delighted and exhorted the younger man to secure the sincerest regard of that “most charming and learned man” (Ad Familiares VII.15). Evidently, Matius was a useful connection to Julius Caesar as far as Cicero was concerned. However, as time goes on, one can see in his letters that Cicero’s respect for Matius came both from his apolitical nature as well as his connection to Caesar.
In March of 49, Cicero wrote to Atticus about a recent visit from Matius in which he was described as one who was far from approving of the civil war (IX.11.2.3-4) and apparently quite leery of the group of men Atticus had termed “The Underworld” (IX.11.2.4). The idea that Matius did not support the civil war or the men involved appears also to imply that his association with Caesar was based more on affection than politics. Thus, Matius was a man whom Cicero could trust and respect because he was not supporting Caesar’s political actions.
However, with Caesar’s death, Cicero and Matius found themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum. In a letter to Atticus from 44 BC, Cicero was distressed about Octavian’s preparations for Caesar’s funeral and Matius’ involvement (XV.2.3.2-3). Moreover, equally suspect as participation in the funeral games is Tacitus’ mention of Matius in association with Vedius Pollio (Annals XII.LX.19-21), a man of less than admirable character. One can only speculate as to why Matius would have associated with a man like Vedius and assisted Octavian if not for politics, thus these relationships warrant further investigation.
Finally, it can be illuminating to look beyond one’s friends and associates and into their deeds to determine a person’s legacy. Pliny the Elder claimed that the Romans had inherited clipped arbors (XII.13.6.5-6) and a type of produce from Gaius Matius, the friend of Augustus (XV.49.5). As to what kind of produce Matius may have invented, our survey will lead us from Apicius to Columella and finally Suetonius for an answer. Could this “Friend of Augustus” also be the friend of Julius Caesar of Cicero’s letters? How political was Matius? These are the types of questions that a prosopography can help answer. As Pliny the Elder said, nothing is so trivial as to be incapable of making someone famous (Natural History XV.49.3-5).