The first verse of the first ode in the first book of odes by Horatius is

Maecenas atavis edite regibus
You Maecenas, who descend from great-great-great-grandfathers that were kings

Who are these atavi (literally great-great-great-grandfathers) Horatius mentions? Does it mean some specific people or ancestry in general?

Maecenas, Horatius' patron, came from a wealthy equestrian family, but describing such background as kings (reges) sounds tasteless to me — but I may be missing a connotation of the word rex. I was unable to track his ancestry to great-great-great-grandparents, and I'm not sure Horatius could either. Especially since the expression is in plural (atavis regibus rather than atavo rege), I believe it refers to several ancestors in several generations. But it is still possible that Horatius has some specific ancestors in mind instead of his family in general.

Do we know (or have good guesses) what Horatius meant by atavi reges?

This question was partially inspired by this earlier question about generations of grandparents.


1 Answer 1


They are Etruscans. Atavi here does not mean any specific ancestor (i.e. pater abavi), but in general "ancestors." Horace makes the connection explicit later (Odes 3.29.1):

Tyrrhena regum progenies

Tyrrhenian progeny of kings

Note: Tyrrhenus, from Tyrrheni, and is the Greek designation for the Etruscans; also, that the adjective goes with progenies is an example of transferred epithet.

Propertius, whose patron, along with Horace's, was Maecenas, includes the claim as well (3.9.1):

Maecenas, eques Etrusco de saguine regum

Maecenas, eques from the Etruscan blood of kings

Transferred epithet again!

Even the Vergilian Elegy for Maecenas 1.13 has it:

regis eras Etrusce, genus

Maecenas' connection to the Etruscans lasted well beyond the Augustan Age, for Macrobius too, in his "letter to Maecenas", writes:

vale, mi ebenum Medulliae, ebur ex Etruria, lasar Arretinum...

Farewell, my ebony tree of Medullia, you ivory from Etruria, lasar of Arretium...

In fact Maecenas claimed ancestry from the Cilnii, a noble Etruscan clan from Arretium, itself a prominent Etruscan city (Tac. Ann 6.11; Livy 10.3).

The regibus comes into play not only to highlight his nobility, but also as an allusion to the early kings of Rome. Tarquinius Priscus and Superbus were both Etruscan kings, and since Superbus was the last of the Roman kings, there was a deeply-felt sense in Roman society of the royalty of the Etruscans.

Later, this is connected to the early history of Rome. J. F. Hall writes in his Etruscan History (Bloomington, 1996):

The role of Maecenas as right-hand man to Augustus was connected, not coincidentally, to his Etruscan heritage, for he was numbered among the group of Octavian's earliest supporters which shared ties through Etruscan ancestry.

For more on that last point, see Gurval's Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of Civil War (Ann Arbor, 1998).

  • Many thanks! I was under the impression that Tarquinius Superbus was not the most beloved of all Roman kings, but views of Etruscan kingship and royalty may have changed by the time of Augustus. Nevertheless, your answer makes perfect sense.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 14:35
  • 1
    Superbus was still not loved (properly hated), but the association is unavoidable. That's not to say that Horace is negative here, just that it would have reminded Romans of their own ancestry. However, during this time claims to divine and kingly parentage became important as the Republic dissolved and great men vied for power; cf. Caesar and Augustus' claim to Iulus and Venus or M. Antonius' claim to Heracles.
    – cmw
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 14:40
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    Extremely interesting! I believe Tarquinius (like Tanaquil) is a very Etruscan name, isn't it? @JoonasIlmavirta Think of it as the way Americans feel towards the English monarchy: with lingering resentment but great fascination. And then double the time since they were last under its rule. Who doesn't want to be of royal blood?
    – Cerberus
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 3:46
  • @Cerberus You are correct! It's a Romanized Etruscan name.
    – cmw
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 3:46
  • @cmw: Right, and how about Greek Turrhenos?: somehow a substratish smell seems to hang about it. sniffs
    – Cerberus
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 3:50

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