Augustus by John Williams (1974) Vintage (2004) NYRB Classics (2014) 336 pp
After finding that John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing “deserves to be sitting on the shelf with the great books of American literature, even those that speak with the authority of the American conscience,” I couldn’t wait to read more of his work. Sadly, his output is sparse, but it is so varied and alive that it is more substantial than the output of many more prolific authors. Butcher’s Crossing takes place on a buffalo hunt in the American west of the late-nineteenth century; Stoner (which I just can’t bear to read yet) takes place in an American university in the mid-twentieth century. For Augustus, Williams takes us back to year 0, at the very beginning of the Roman empire — though I think he’s still writing, somewhat, about America.
The Augustus of the title is the original Caesar Augustus, the Revered One, the first emperor of Rome, née Octavius. Though I’m a big fan of classical history, I have to say that when I step away from whatever I’m studying much of it becomes a blur. I get the Roman emperors mixed up sometimes, and can never quite remember what is fact and what is fiction about them. When we recite their names, one after the other, so much of went on is completely lost, or is summarized in a few words. Not all historical novels work (and they are often the very reason I don’t know what is fact and what is fiction); but some of them do a wonderful job creating a texture for a time period, something to give a bit of contour and context to those summaries of dry facts we often encounter in school. And though they by necessity invent, the best seem to produce what Williams calls the “truths of fiction,” giving us great insight into these historical individuals as well as into their time that remains clear long after we’ve put the book down.
Last year I read and really enjoyed Annabel Lyon’s Giller-prize finalist The Golden Mean, a fictional account of the early years of Alexander the Great, written in the first-person voice of none other than Aristotle. I loved the texture Lyon accomplished when she wrote about the time and the place, but something else was missing, something in the characters themselves didn’t ring quite true — or, rather, something in the characters themselves was missing. In some regards, the characters still retained the single dimension we often find in historical summaries despite the first-person narrator. I did not find that to be the case at all with John Williams’ Augustus. This is a mighty work of art, fully fleshed.
In creating this master-work of historical fiction — this master-work of fiction — this master-piece of writing — Williams has chosen to present Augustus in a series of letters and journals from several of the main characters of the time: Julius Caesar, Marcus Agrippa, Maecenas, Cicero, Brutus, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Strabo, Nicolaus of Damascus, Horace, Ovid, Vergil, Augustus’s daughter Julia, whom he loved and had exiled. The list goes on, but it never feels like an attempt to bring the whole historical population into a book; though incredibly ambitious, it never feels overly ambitious. Each character lends his or herself to the narrative purpose of bringing to life Augustus Caesar, who came to power in a Rome “where no man knows his enemy or his friend, where license is more admired than virtue, and where principle has become servant to self.”
When the book begins, Augustus is hardly Augustus. He is Octavius, and not even Octavius Caesar yet. At age seventeen or eighteen, he has accompanied his uncle Julius Caesar on one of Caesar’s campaigns, but by all accounts the young Octavius was fairly weak and sickly and not that commanding of a presence. Caesar has no issue, and after this time with his nephew he has for no ascertainable reason chosen Octavius as his adopted son and his chosen heir. In the opening words of the book, Julius Caesar commands his niece Atia, the mother of Octavius:
Send the boy to Apollonia.
I begin abruptly, my dear niece, so that you will at once be disarmed, and so that whatever resistance you might raise will be too quick and flimsy for the force of my persuasion.
This is a good time to note that not only is Williams attempting to bring to life historical characters through their writing, but that these characters happen to be some of the greatest rhetoricians of all time. Consequently, within the letters there is a complicated authorial awareness to the rhetorical arts — but, and this is such a feat (a feat extremely rare in today’s showy literary culture), we never see Williams himself in the authorship of these letters: we feel the mind of the characters themselves behind the letters we read. Caesar, in his brief time on the page, is demanding, somewhat arrogant, and very intimidating. We know he is going to his death soon, but he is full of vitality. Here’s how he begins to wrap up his letter to Attia:
You will observe, my dear Atia, that at the beginning of this letter your uncle made it appear that you had a choice about the future of your son. Now Caesar makes it clear that you do not.
Behind their words, we read the characters’ ambitions and can discern the shape of their character. And as their audience changes, we see their rhetoric change. We get a new perspective on their ethos, and sometimes, when the audience is made of an intimate friend or even, in the case of journals or even notes for journals, themselves, we capture their fears and doubts. Here, for example, we have Julius Caesar writing to his chosen heir, the young Octavius:
How long have we been living the Roman lie? Ever since I can remember, certainly; perhaps for many years before. And from what source does that lie suck its energy, so that it grows stronger than the truth? We have seen murder, theft, and pillage in the name of the Republic — and call it the necessary price we pay for freedom. Cicero deplores the depraved Roman morality that worships wealth — and, himself a millionaire many times over, travels with a hundred slaves from one of his villas to another. A consul speaks of peace and tranquility — and raises armies that will murder the colleague whose power threatens his self-interest. The Senate speaks of freedom — and thrusts upon me powers that I do not want but must accept and use if Rome is to endure. Is there no end to the lie?
It is in this back and forth from public to private back to public character that this wonderful mode of writing succeeds in revealing and, thus, bringing to life these characters.
The characters are also brought to life as we see them struggle to remember what they write about. Williams structures this book in three parts, and within each part we have some characters writing contemporaneously to the events they are describing while others are writing thirty or forty years afterwards, when even to them the events seem like a dream from another life. There’s a realistic dreaminess, for example, when an elder Maecenas begins a letter to the biographer Livy with the news of the death of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a co-leader for a time with Augustus (who was still not yet Augustus) and Mark Antony but who, like Mark Antony, sought to push the young Augustus out.
He was our enemy — yet after so long, the death of an old enemy is curiously like the death of an old friend.
Most of the characters are deeply conflicted about the events they describe. It was a strange time, one with motives so conflicted and so complex they inspired a few plays from Shakespeare. I would say that Williams is a worthy successor to Shakespeare in casting these historical souls in tangible flesh: complexities are made understandable; within the seemingly simple is revealed the complex; and there is a longing that is so human it makes the reader ache for these long-dead.
It is only in the rather brief last part that we get to read the words of Augustus Caesar himself, and in these pages, though most of the action has long past as the now seventy-seven year-old leader is drifting on a boat awaiting his death, Williams gives some of his most sensitive prose.
For sometimes in my sleep there parade before me the tens of thousands of bodies that will not walk again upon the earth, men no less innocent than those ancient victims whose deaths propitiated an earlier god; and it seems to me then, in the obscurity or clarity of the dream, that I am that priest who has emerged from the dark past of our race to speak the rite that causes the knife to fall. We tell ourselves that we have become a civilized race, and with a pious horror we speak of those times when a god of the crops demanded the body of a human being for his obscure function. But is not the god that so many Romans have served, in our memory and even in our time, as dark and fearsome as that ancient one? Even if to destroy him, I have been been his priest; and even if to weaken his power, I have done his bidding. Yet I have not destroyed him, or weakened his power. He sleeps restlessly in the hearts of men, waiting to rouse himself or to be aroused. Between the brutality that would sacrifice a single innocent life to a fear without a name, and the enlightenment that would sacrifice thousands of lives to a few that we have named, I have found little to choose.
It is no spoiler, and it certainly showcases Williams’ sense of history and irony, to end this review with the final paragraph of the novel. In a letter written nearly twenty years after Augustus’s death, the physician who travelled with him on his final journey expresses his admiration of the first emperor and his hopes for the new Emperor. This letter is to the ill-fated Seneca:
Yet the Empire of Rome that he created has endured the harshness of a Tiberius, the monstrous cruelty of a Caligula, and the ineptness of a Claudius. And now our new Emperor is one whom you tutored as a boy, and to whom you remain close in his new authority; let us be thankful for the fact that he will rule in the light of your wisdom and virtue, and let us pray to the gods that, under Nero, Rome will at last fulfill the dream of Octavius Caesar.