Text #9751"Gaius Asinius Pollio", in .
Gaius Asinius Pollio (sometimes wrongly called Pollius or Philo; 75 BC – AD 4) was a Roman soldier, politician, orator, poet, playwright, literary critic and historian, whose lost contemporary history provided much of the material for the historians Appian and Plutarch. Pollio was most famously a patron of Virgil and a friend of Horace and had poems dedicated to him by both men.
Asinius Pollio was born in Teate Marrucinorum, the modern current Chieti in Abruzzi, central Italy. According to an inscription, his father was called Gnaeus Asinius Pollio. He had a brother called Asinius Marrucinus, known for his tasteless practical jokes, whose name suggests a family origin among the Marrucini. He may therefore have been the grandson of Herius Asinius, a plebeian, General of the Marrucini who fought on the Italian side in the Social War.
Pollio moved in the literary circle of Catullus, and entered public life in 56 by supporting the policy of Lentulus Spinther. In 54 BC he unsuccessfully impeached Gaius Cato, a distant relative of the more famous Cato the younger. Gaius Porcius Cato had acted as the tool of the triumvirs Pompey, Crassus and Caesar in his tribunate in 56 BC,.
Despite his initial support of Lentulus Spinther, in the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Pollio sided with Caesar. He was present while Caesar deliberated whether to cross the Rubicon and start the war. After Pompey and the Senate had fled to Greece, Caesar sent Pollio to Sicily to relieve Cato of his command. He and Gaius Scribonius Curio were sent to Africa to fight the province’s governor, the Pompeian Publius Attius Varus. Curio defeated Varus at Utica, despite the Africans having poisoned the water supply. Curio marched to face Pompey’s ally King Juba of Numidia, but was defeated and killed, along with all his men, on the Bagradas River. Pollio managed to retreat to Utica with a small force. He was present as Caesar’s legate at the Battle of Pharsalus (48 BC), and recorded Pompeian casualties at 6,000.
In 47 BC he was probably tribune, and resisted the efforts of another tribune, Publius Cornelius Dolabella, to cancel all debts. It was rumoured at the same time that Dolabella had cuckolded him. The following year he returned to Africa, this time with Caesar himself, in pursuit of Cato and Scipio.
When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, Pollio was leading his forces in Hispania against Sextus Pompeius, distinguishing himself early on. He had accepted the commission reluctantly because of a personal enmity with another of Caesar’s allies. Marcus Aemilius Lepidus was appointed the new governor of the province, but Pollio, while remaining loyal to Caesar’s supporters, held out against him, announcing at Corduba that he would not hand over his province to anyone who did not have a commission from the Senate. A few months later his quaestor, Lucius Cornelius Balbus, absconded from Gades with the money intended to pay the soldiers, and fled to Mauretania. Pollio was then so severely defeated by Pompeius that he had to escape the battlefield in disguise.
Pollio vacillated between Mark Antony and Octavian as civil war between them brewed, but ultimately threw in his lot with Antony. Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian soon joined forces in the Second Triumvirate. In their series of bloody proscriptions, Pollio’s father-in-law, Lucius Quintius, was one of the first to be marked for murder. He fled by sea, but committed suicide by throwing himself overboard. In the division of the provinces, Gaul fell to Antony, who entrusted Pollio with the administration of Gallia Transpadana (the part of Cisalpine Gaul between the Po and the Alps). In superintending the distribution of the Mantuan territory amongst the veterans, he used his influence to save from confiscation the property of the poet Virgil.
In 40 BC he helped to arrange the peace of Brundisium by which Octavian and Antony were for a time reconciled. In the same year Pollio entered upon his consulship, which had been promised him in 43 BC by the Second Triumvirate. Virgil addressed the famous fourth eclogue to him, though there is uncertainty regarding whether Virgil composed the poem in anticipation of Pollio’s consulship or celebrating his part in the Treaty of Brundisium. Virgil, like other Romans, hoped that peace was at hand and looked forward to a Golden Age under Pollio’s consulship. However, Pollio did not complete his consular year. He and his co-consul were removed from office by Antony and Octavian in the final months of the year.
The following year Pollio conducted a successful campaign against the Parthini, an Illyrian people who adhered to Marcus Junius Brutus, and celebrated a triumph on 25 October. Virgil’s eighth eclogue was addressed to Pollio while he was engaged in this campaign.
In 31 BC Octavian asked him to take part in the Battle of Actium against Antony, but Pollio, remembering kindnesses Antony had shown him, remained neutral.
From the spoils of the war he constructed the first public library at Rome, in the Atrium Libertatis, also erected by him, which he adorned with statues of the most celebrated heroes. The library had Greek and Latin wings, and reportedly its establishment posthumously fulfilled one of Caesar’s ambitions.
There was a magnificent art collection attached to this library. Pollio loved Hellenistic art at its most imaginative, even including the rather extravagant group known as the Farnese Bull, etc. Like the library, the art gallery was open to the public.
After his military and political successes, he appears to have retired into private life as a patron of literary figures and a writer. He was known as a severe literary critic, fond of an archaic style and purity.
In retirement, Pollio organized literary readings where he encouraged authors to read their own work, and he was the first Roman author to recite his own works. One of the most dramatic such readings brought the poet Virgil to the attention of the imperial family, when Virgil read from his work-in-progress the Aeneid, and flattered the imperial family by his portrayal of Aeneas, whom the Julii Caesares believed to be their direct patrilineal ancestor. As a result, Virgil was praised by Augustus himself.
Pollio may have died in his villa at Tusculum. He was apparently a staunch republican, and thus held himself somewhat aloof from Augustus.
Married to Quinctia, daughter of Lucius Quinctius, who was executed in 43 BC, Pollio is also notable as the father of Gaius Asinius Gallus Saloninus, the second husband of Vipsania Agrippina, daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’s partner, second-in-command and second son-in-law. The son Gallus and Vipsania had several sons together, of whom two were full consuls and a third was consul suffect.
Pollio’s contemporary history, though itself lost, provided much of the material for the historians Appian and Plutarch. As such, he significantly influenced posterity’s perception of his time - a key moment in Roman history. According to the poet Horace (Odes 2.1.1-4), he dated the start of the Civil Wars to the consulship of Quintus Metellus Celer in 60 BC.
Louis H. Feldman, “Asinius Pollio and Herod’s Sons”, The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1985), pp. 240–243. Article reading online requires subscription to JSTOR.
Miland Brown, Loot, Plunder, and a New Public Library.
G. S. Bobinski, (1994). Library Philanthropy. In W.A Wiegand and D.G. Davis (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Library History. New York: Garland Publishing.
Jerome (Chronicon 2020) says he died in AD 4 in the seventieth year of his life, which would place the year of his birth at 65 BC.
Virgil, Eclogues 4, 8; Horace, Carmina 2.1
William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, 1870, Vol. 3 pp. 437-439
Catullus, Carmina 12
Livy, Periochae 73.9
Plutarch, Caesar 32
Appian, Civil Wars 2.40
Plutarch, Antony 9
Velleius Paterculus, Roman History 2.73
Cicero, Letters to Friends 10.31
Cicero, Letters to Friends 10.32
Cassius Dio, Roman History 45.10
Cicero, Letters to Friends 10.32, 10.33
Pliny, Natural History 35.10
Paul Zanker, “The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus”