Posts Tagged ‘John Williams’

Williams: Augustus

May 15, 2020

Augustus
John Williams
(NYRB Classics, 2014) [1971]
336 p.

I’ve whiled away the past year of my Roman reading project in the company of poets of the Augustan age: Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Tibullus, and Propertius. In this poetry the figure of Augustus is frequently present, but usually on the periphery. We hear him praised, and certain of his acts and policies impinge upon the poetry in various ways, but we do not get a strong sense of the man himself. But we do know that his reputation, in the eyes of the Roman historians, is primarily a good one: he brought stability to Rome, and moderation, even though he altered its Republican government for keeps. If he did not burn as brightly as Julius Caesar, he burned more steadily, and certainly he compared favourably with the string of cruel and even lunatic emperors who followed in his immediate wake. But he was the emperor, and so even to those who admired him he was a somewhat distant figure, not susceptible of nuanced appraisal.

In this novel John Williams takes Augustus as his subject, and attempts to imagine the man as a man, using the resources of the modern novel to humanize a figurehead. His main interests are in the man’s character and his relationships with family and close friends.

The novel is epistolary, consisting of a collection of letters exchanged between his family members, friends, and courtiers. The letters move back and forth in time, and do not always pertain directly to Augustus, but he is there in the background, and gradually, here and there, as in a pointillistic painting, a picture of his life emerges.

Many of the characters writing these letters are well-known historical figures: Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Horace, Ovid, his daughter Julia, his friend and advisor Maecenas. Others, like a tutor hired in his household, are either imagined or known only glancingly in the history books. Williams uses the epistolary structure of the novel well to give us a variety of perspectives on Augustus, and also to highlight tensions between the characters (as when he alternates letters from Cleopatra to Marc Antony with her letters to her government ministers, the former full of flattery and misdirection and the latter of hard-headed realism on the same topics).

He is also able to bring to life some of the quieter moments that we know happened, but which are normally passed over in historical accounts. What was it like, for instance, when young Octavius received news that his adoptive uncle, Julius Caesar, had been killed? Williams paints the scene for us through the eyes of a friend. What was it like for Augustus to sit with Marc Antony and Lepidus while negotiating which notable Romans would be executed? Williams brings us into the room. What would it have been like to attend one of the literary evenings at which Augustus hosted poetry readings by Virgil and Horace? Williams brings one to life.

We also learn about Octavius’ childhood, and for me the most touching letter in the book was one in which his childhood playmate and nurse, a slightly older girl, recounts how she encountered him again, by chance, in the streets of Rome when they were both elderly. It’s like that scene in the life of Joseph when he is reunited with his brothers — when people who grew up together but whose lives took very different paths meet again under drastically changed conditions, and all that accumulation of experience drops away, revealing the tenacity of the intimate human bond — and just as affecting.

The effect of the collection of letters is prismatic: the life of Augustus comes to the reader refracted through the eyes of many others. But in the last fifty pages of the book this changes: Williams gives us a long letter from Augustus himself, a reflective letter written in old age, in which he reviews and ponders the events of his life. Episodes that we saw before through the eyes of another we see again through his eyes, alongside ruminations on the advantages and disadvantages of power and influence. It is a fine way to sum up and round out the book.

This novel won the National Book Award in the year of its publication. It is well-written, thoughtfully constructed, and presents well-known historical events in an interesting way. The writing is not dazzling, but it is sound and sturdy. Augustus is not a great book, but it is a good one.