John Williams was a professor of English literature whose previous novels dealt, In muted emotions, with the lives of very humble men. So it is with a little surprise that one picks up this book, his most critically successful novella, about the life of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, born Gaius Octavius Thurinus. Augustus (Ocatavian), a real historical figure, adopted by Julius Caesar as a young boy, who used the latter’s assassination as a galvanizing force to raise an army of his own and start his own ascension in roman politics. First setting out to avenge his uncle, clashing with Brutus and Cassius. And later setting out to become the Imperator (but never Rex) of the roman body politic by defeating Marcus Antony. Master of the world at 30 after beating Antony at Actium he ruled until he was 75, laying down the foundations of the Roman Empire that would last centuries.
The book is an epistolary novel, telling in the first part Octavian’s rise to power mainly through his friends Marcus Agrippa, the military mastermind behind Augustus’s battlefield victories and Maecenas, a dandy with a sharp wit and an even sharper mind. We also hear from such notable historical figures such as Cicero, Cleopatra, Nicolaus of Damascus and Marc Antony himself, to name but a few. One gets the distinct feeling that Williams enjoyed putting words into the mouths of historical personas of such renown. His prose here is top notch. The second part of the book tells of the Augustus’s long reign and the political maneuverings required to control such an empire, and as result the emperor’s continuing personal sorrow, culminating in scandal, a scandal which leads to the exile of his only and much loved daughter Julia. Augustus was a reserved man, his sexual taciturn became Roman law, law that would eventually ensnare the free spirit of his daughter who due to a political alliance was married off to Tiberius (Augustus’s eventual successor), a man she despised.
And that is one of the main themes of the book, the surrender of the personal to the public, the requirement to give up more and more parts of one’s self until it is not clear what is left, (Augustus remarks wryly that he doesn’t recognize himself in the words of his own biography). Those who acquiesce often remain in power but happiness to them is a distant memory, and those who fail at this, who give in to passion, well, they end up exiled, or worse. Which is better? The book doesn’t give an answer, but in one of the final parts we hear from the emperor himself, for the first time in the book, in a letter he writes at the end of his life to his friend Nicolaus, his biographer. This great man who was a mystery to even his closest friends, a mystery he himself cultivated for political reasons, looks at himself and his works without artifice. He created an empire to protect his people, but they have become decadent and weak, peace and prosperity having lead them to be indolent and lax, and in the north the barbarian still waits. His successor Tiberius is a cold and heartless man whom he loathes, he refuses to let him attend to him on his deathbed, the men he wanted to follow him in leadership, Marcus Agrippa and later Caesar’s own son both died, the latter by Augustus’s own decree. His friends long dead, his old enemies, in the fullness of time remembered almost fondly, long dead. His daughter exiled, her happiness destroyed. This great man in the end is stripped of all pretense, all illusion and is forced to look upon himself nakedly and try to understand his life, who he was and come to peace with it, in that he was no different than the rest of us.
I love history and Roman history is a personal favorite of mine, when power lied naked on the senate floor, when praetorians marched and world trembled before them. These people existed, they were real, their actions were real and they swept across history like a storm, pulling other men in their wake, the consequences of their actions shaped the world we live in to this day. How can anyone do justice to such tales? The only way possible, tell the stories of the people, not the battles, make us care about these names on a personal level, make an emperor’s story the tale of a doomed relationship between a father and his beloved daughter. It is a remarkable triumph on Williams part that he makes an emperor’s life story relatable to middle class readers centuries later.