Augustus by John Williams. New York: New York Review Books, 2014. 305 pages.

A good historical novelist must balance fidelity and freedom, fidelity to our best understanding of the historical record and freedom to speculate on the subjective experience of people long gone. This reissue of Augustus by John Williams (1922-94), a title that won the National Book Award in 1972, demonstrates what the genre can do in capable hands. History-writing and fiction-writing are both modes of storytelling, dependent on the skill of the teller. A meticulous historian’s ability to shape a narrative can bring research alive. Two superb recent examples come to mind: Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2012), following the Renaissance rediscovery of Lucretius, and A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2014), by Ben Macintyre, who retells the familiar story as a two-man tragicomedy. The novelist Robert Harris, who has a background in political journalism, brings remarkable acumen to his Cicero trilogy—Imperium (2006), Lustrum (United States Title Conspirata, 2009) and Dictator (planned publishing date, Fall 2015). 

Williams, who taught English and creative writing at the University of Denver for decades, wrote only one historical novel. His other three works of fiction, all highly regarded, examined contemporary life. While Williams was not a specialist in the genre, he brought formal intelligence to the task, selecting the epistolary novel as a template. He assembles a mosaic of letters, fragments of memoirs, eyewitness accounts and public pronouncements, tracing the career of the first emperor from just before the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 bc), who adopted the young Octavian in his will, to his own death, as Augustus—“the one who is to be venerated”—in 14 ad.  In his introductory note, the author makes it clear that, while he uses quotes and paraphrases from ancient sources, “the documents that constitute this novel are my own invention….if they are truths in this work, they are the truths of fiction rather than history.” 

The epistolary genre works very effectively for several reasons. It allows for a diverse range of voices, from Julius Caesar and Mark Antony to the poet Horace, to family and friends. We do not hear from Augustus himself until the brief Book III. As Daniel Mendelsohn remarks in his excellent introduction to this edition, it is a “shrewd choice…to withhold the emperor’s voice until the end.” The epistolary form reveals a great deal about the characters, who become lively individuals rather than historically important but elusive figures. It also builds up a composite, often contradictory portrait of an enigmatic principal subject. Paradoxically, the emperor who ruled over much of the known world, who transformed Rome from a city of brick to a city of marble and presided over the pax Romana remains a mystery. How did the boy Octavian become Augustus? As Williams circles his subject, I was reminded of another epistolary novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), a collection of diary entries, ships’ logs, letters and newspaper clippings that present multiple perspectives on a hard-to-define phenomenon. 

Augustus is not just a historical novel; it is a novel about how history is written. Book I begins with testimony from two of Octavian’s closest friends, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Gaius Cilnius Maecenas. Both texts date from 13 bc and represent recollections, fragments from Agrippa’s (fictional) memoirs and a letter from Maecenas to the historian Livy, responding to requests for a first-hand account of the emperor’s youth. Stylistically, the entries are very different. Agrippa—tribune of Rome, Augustus’ most trusted general, second husband to his daughter, Julia, and builder of aqueducts—writes formally, with well-earned pride, but somewhat stiffly, as if he expected his words to be chiseled in stone. Maecenas—a wealthy aesthete—chatters on, in a mix of anecdote and insight that makes it clear why he was a valued friend. Maecenas makes a good case for the literary way, as a necessary complement to the way of the historian: 

I do not have the freedom of the historian, my friend; you may recount the movements of men and armies, trace the intricate course of state intrigues,   balance victories and defeat, relate births and deaths—and yet still be free, in the wise simplicity of your task, from the awful weight of a kind of knowledge that I cannot name but that I more and more nearly apprehend as the years draw on….you must remember that despite my services to the state, I am a poet, and incapable of approaching anything very directly. 

William is equally indirect, moving back and forth in time, juxtaposing memories of past events, when the speaker knows the outcome, with immediate accounts, journal entries, letters and dispatches from 44 bc. 

In the chaos following Julius Caesar’s death, Octavian tangles with a number of powerful men, including the orator Cicero—very much embroiled in political gamesmanship and less sympathetic than he is in Harris’s books—and Mark Antony, blustery, foul-mouthed and undoubtedly charismatic, who underestimates “that whey-faced little bastard, Octavius, “ a mistake that will prove fatal. Williams’s dramatis personae overlaps, to some degree, with that of I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935), by Robert Graves, who brought his mythopoeic vision to the historical novel. Graves focuses on the dynamics of the Julius-Claudian dynasty; his Augustus rules the world but loses control of his family, a theme Williams explores in book II of Augustus. 

Williams wrote his novel before the BBC television series I, Claudius (1976), written by Jack Pulman, staged on gawky studio sets but with a superb cast, appeared and became a pop culture phenomenon. Brian Blessed as Augustus, John Hurt as Caligula and Siân Philipps as Livia left indelible marks on public perceptions. Film (or television) and fictional writing can both effectively bring the past to life, but they are very different. The novelist’s Livia or Augustus is more open to interpretation, more ambiguous.  

Graves makes Livia, imagined as a kind of magnificent conniver with imperial ambitions, a centerpiece of his novels. She is less central to William’s narrative of family turmoil in the imperial household. Perhaps the finest aspect of Williams’s novel is his focus on Julia, Augustus’ beloved daughter and only child. Raised in luxury and well-educated, held in genuine affection by the most powerful man in the world, she nonetheless illustrates the plight of a woman in the empire. Intelligent and accomplished as she was, she ended her life in exile, banished by her father for her politically fraught affairs. The book’s strongest passages come from Julia’s journal, ostensibly written on the stony little island of Pandateria in 4 ad. She writes of her three marriages, all instances of strategic maneuvers, none based on love: to Marcellus, the son of her aunt Octavia, to Marcus Agrippa (she was the Mother of his five children), and to Livia’s son Tiberius, “the only one of my husbands I ever hated.” Julia is obviously a good judge of character. When Augustus announces the name of her third husband, she is bitterly honest: “So I am once again to be the brood sow for the pleasure of Rome.” Julia considers the devious ways in which a woman must discover power, exert it, and enjoy it “….I conceived within myself, and let forth upon the world a series of personages…the innocent girl…the virtuous wife…the idle scholar, who dreamed of a virtue beyond Roman duty, and fondly pretended that philosophy might be true; the woman who, late in life, discovered pleasure….” 

<i>Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace)<i/>Julia’s eloquence changes how we think about the historical figures we thought we knew. That is one of the novelist’s gifts. The cover for this edition shows a detail from the Ara Pacis in Rome, with Augustus as pontifex maximus in a frieze depicting priests, magistrates and the imperial family. The monumental altarpiece was consecrated in 13 bc to celebrate the peace and prosperity of the Roman Empire. It is a splendid work of art, balancing the gravitas of the occasion with some healthy Roman realism, in the distinctive portraits of the individuals in the procession and in the natural carvings—acanthus leaves and grape tendrils, flowers, snails and butterflies—that suggest the return of the Golden Age, as described by Augustus’ poet Virgil in his Fourth Eclogue. Glaring white now, it would have originally been brightly colored. As Orietta Rossini writes in her guidebook Ara Pacis (Milan: Elect, 2008), it is a reconstruction, the various pieces having been carted off over the centuries. For archaeologist and art historian, historian and novelist, putting the pieces of antiquity together requires vision. Williams’s Augustus is a work of vision. 

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