At the beginning of April, an old friend (who wrote some excellent reviews on this site in the past) told me that I needed to read John Williams’ 1972 novel Augustus. I loved Williams’ Stoner, which I read (and reviewed) a decade ago, when its cult status seemed to explode thanks to a new edition from NYRB. After Stoner, I tried a few times to read Williams’ western, Butcher’s Crossing, but never got too deep into it. I handled copies of Augustus a few times at bookstores, but the subject didn’t appeal to me. But my friend recommended it, and he’s never steered me wrong, so I picked up a copy of Augustus and cracked it open.
I picked up a copy of Augustus and cracked it open and didn’t put it down that much, unless I had to, until I’d finished it. The novel tells a life story of Gaius Octavius Thurinus, grand nephew Julius Caesar, who suceeds and avenges his assassinated great uncle (and adoptive father) to become the first Emperor of Rome. I was surprised at how much Roman history I remembered—some of it through two Shakespeare plays, some of it through an old HBO show, but most of it from, like, school. And this is one of the most fascinating elements of Augustus—Williams takes an old story and revivifies it.
Essentially an epistolary novel, Augustus features a rotating cast of voices. Prominent among these voices are Augustus’ — or really, Octavian’s — core group of friends, Maecenas, Agrippa, and Virgil. We also hear from notables including Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Horace, and Ovid, as well as many other voices, both invented and historical. There’s something addictive about Williams’ lucid prose, which imbues each character’s voice with its own distinctive style without falling into rhetorical gimmickry.
The early parts of the novel focus on young Octavian’s rise—the assassination of Julius Caesar, the warring Triumvirate, the political intrigue which overlaps with familial duty. We see Octavian/Augustus from multiple perspectives, but Williams’ withholds his hero’s voice until late in the novel. It’s Augustus’ daughter Julia who emerges, slowly, as the novel’s most sympathetic (and ultimately tragic) hero. Her sections of the book are particularly poignant, and recall from Stoner the doomed relationship between William Stoner and his daughter Grace.
Augustus is sad and wise but never dour. Williams harnesses the intellect and soul of his characters, who are simultaneously mortal and timeless. So many passages seem to describe life in the present-day United States (as well as other Western democracies). Consider the lines Williams attributes to Augustus’ intellectual adviser Maecenas, writing late in his life to the historian Livy:
What you seem so unwilling to accept, even now, is this: that the ideals which supported the old Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; that the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the call to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even of those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder. We had learned that we had to do what we did, and we would not be deterred by the forms that deceived the world.
The complacency, the greed, the cynical failure to not just live up to its expressed ideals, but to take for suckers those who would still believe in those ideals—there’s something heartbreaking about the way Augustus anticipates contemporary democracy in peril to spectacle, hypocrisy, and avarice.
The titular character takes over in the brilliant last act of Augustus. Our Emperor is an old man, melancholy, reflective, but ultimately hopeful that he’s left the empire in good hands (he hasn’t). His final letter echoes Maecenas’ concerns about the corruption of Roman ideals:
. . . I knew that my destiny was simply this: to change the world. Julius Caesar had come to power in a world that was corrupt beyond your understanding. No more than six families ruled the world; towns, regions, and provinces under Roman authority were the currencies of bribery and reward; in the name of the Republic and in the guise of tradition, murder and civil war and merciless repression were the means toward the accepted ends of power, wealth, and glory. Any man who had sufficient money could raise an army, and thus augment that wealth, thereby gaining more power, and hence glory. So Roman killed Roman, and authority became simply the force of arms and riches. And in this strife and faction the ordinary citizen writhed as helplessly as the hare in the trap of the hunter.
And yet Williams’ Augustus is a realist, but one who tempers his perceptions of reality in a compassionate idealism:
Do not mistake me. I have never had that sentimental and rhetorical love for the common people that was in my youth (and is even now) so fashionable. Mankind in the aggregate I have found to be brutish, ignorant, and unkind, whether those qualities were covered by the coarse tunic of the peasant or the white and purple toga of a senator. And yet in the weakest of men, in moments when they are alone and themselves, I have found veins of strength like gold in decaying rock; in the cruelest of men flashes of tenderness and compassion; and in the vainest of men moments of simplicity and grace.
I haven’t done enough to convey how wonderful Augustus is. Very highly recommended.