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Augustus by John Williams

Let us now praise famous men

On July 4th last year, the powerful media mogul Mark Zuckerberg released a video of himself waterskiing and holding an American flag. John Denver’s Country Roads plays over the top. A strong virile image of manly patriotism, strangely unsuited to a man who normally presents himself as a ‘geek’ and not the ruthless businessman he actually is. 

It is the perfect image to start with when reflecting on the long and happy reign of Augustus. Like Zuck, Augustus created a glossy image of himself. For Augustus, he was physically forever youthful, forever strong. He brought peace and stability to the lands benovently overseen or allied to the Roman Imperium. His reputation survives intact from the numerous artworks and literary works describing the new Golden Age. 

To understand the reign of Augustus today, I think it’s useful to compare the two men. Not least because Mark Zuckerberg has publicly announced his admiration of Augustus.Zuckerberg has always reminded me of Roddy McDowall’s Augustus in the 1963 Cleopatra: a cold blooded creep, whose only motive is his own power.

It is a little banal to argue that each age recreates the Augustus suitable to the times, but there is a certain truth in this. 

Many writers and artists have attempted to pin down this elusive man throughout the years. The American author John Williams’ own attempt deserves greater attention. It certainly gathered it in its time, winning a National Book Award, but it is fair to say it has dropped off the radar. 

Williams wrote four novels, each with different themes but a similar style of gentle melancholy. His third novel Stoner from 1965, was republished by NYRB Press in 2005 leading to a great critical acclaim. It tells the story of a ‘henpecked’ academic. Written with a lucid prose style that leads to a tragic crescendo, it suited the early noughties. I remember enjoying it but not being blown away. I wanted to shake the protagonist. He lacked initiative.

Augustus was the final novel he completed. Published in 1972, it is similar to Stoner, focusing on a young man as he grows into adulthood. Only this time the young man is Augustus, the most powerful man who ever lived.

Williams uses a mosaic of different sources to create a fragmented and imperfect image of the Emperor. We have (fictional) letters, reports and memoirs. This creates something akin to the experience of writing ancient history and creates an agency in the reader who must sort out what texts to trust and which to discredit. Who wrote them, when, what for? 

The authors of these works are the famous figures of Augustan Rome: the poets Horace and Ovid, his friends Maecenas and Agrippa, his wife Livia and daughter Julia. There are very few characters not attested in the history books. Each fragment is written in a subtly different style, although voice is perhaps not one of William’s strengths. The texts also subtly reference classical texts such as the singing crew of an Egyptian grain ship mentioned in Suetonius’ account of Nero. 

Most telling is the scene where Augustus is recognised as the heir to Caesar on the mountains of Macedonia, a reference to the biblical transfiguration of Christ in Galilee

The best bits are when Williams allows his imagination to run wild. Julia’s account of the ceremony of the Great Mother is fascinating. Indeed, Julia is the most memorable figure in the book. Even Ovid agrees, writing that “all / know they must worship her”.

The novel lacks the bite of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. The characters in that book are so clearly demarcated, so memorable: the poisonous Livia, the moping Tiberius, the grasping Agrippa. The motives of characters in Williams’ book are a little harder to pin down. Are all the protestations of friendship so genuine? Are the accounts of events so true? This makes for a deeper book, but ultimately it is not as fun!

Williams’ use of fragments creates an elusive image of the Emperor and his times without having to write too many distracting subplots. Yet for much of the book there is a gap at the heart of the book. Who is this man who affects all the character’s lives and gives his name to the book? It creates a slightly unbalanced book. 

We are eluded by Augustus’ own voice until the final section. When we get it, it is not the voice of a world-conquer as we might expect. It is enthused with a gentle melancholia. This resembles Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, a fictional retelling of Hadrian written in a poetic style. Hadrian meditates on his life and the pleasures and losses he has experienced. The wars and bloodshed of the days are almost off stage.

Even the emperor’s political achievements are balanced against more philosophical concerns:

Now throughout this world the Roman order prevails. The German barbarian may wait in the North, the Parthian in the East, and other beyond frontiers that we have not yet conceived; and if Rome does not fall to them, it will at last fall to the barbarian from which none escape- Time. Yet now, for a few years, the Roman order prevails.

John Williams, Augustus, 299

We see this most clearly in the portrayal of one key scene from Augustus’ life According to Suetonius, Augustus was greatly upset by a major defeat in Germany, the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest:

In fact, they say that he was so greatly affected that for several months in succession he cut neither his beard nor his hair, and sometimes he would dash his head against a door, crying: “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!” And he observed the day of the disaster each year as one of sorrow and mourning.

Suetonius Augustus 23, 2

Although Suetonius’ style of biography is not narrative, details like this feel novelistic. This passage gives the lie to Augustus as a restorer of peace and the pre-existing Roman constitution and reveals a more ambitious man than he was normally portrayed. 

In Williams’ novel, Augustus is a little more philosophical about this event:

The barbarian waits. Five years ago, on that part of the German frontier that is marked by the Upper Rhine, a disaster befell Roman from which she has not yet recovered; it is perhaps a portent of her fate.

John Williams, Augustus, 288

At the heart of the novel then is a man who has assumed absolute power for himself, with an acute sense of man’s innate powerlessness.

Yet he still desires power.

Augustus reflects back to this youth when he was told of the murder of his uncle Julius Caesar: “I was suddenly elated …I knew that my destiny was simply this: to change the world’. To do this required a ruthlessness to friends, family and allies. This extends to his uncle’s own son by Cleopatra, whom he murdered. Maecenus writes to the historian Livy:

No he was not put to death because of his name, but because of his ambition, which was inarguable. I spoke to [Augustus] about his youth, and [he] reminded me that he himself had been seventeen once, and ambitious.

John Williams, Augustus, 134

Ambition, a convenient excuse for political murder.

A historical novel conjures up worlds, makes them more vivid and, I think, in the hands of a capable writer provides an insight akin to historiographical interpretation. Williams avoids any decisive conclusions, focusing instead on the inherent contradictions between different people’s accounts of past events. We are left instead of a definitive character, a sense of strangeness and anomie.

This was a different world and our routes there are fragmentary and difficult.