Sunday, March 19, 2017
Augustus by John Williams
Augustus Caesar is one of those figures, like Alexander or Genghis Khan or Napoleon, whose life seems to defy the idea of interiority. How can one really know someone whose effect on the world was so outsized? Even Julius Caesar, the man who brought the Roman world under his heel, is humanized by the tragedy of his death, and the simple betrayal of his beloved Brutus. Augustus, on the other hand, lived to be an old man, and put in the long, hard political work of solidifying the Roman state that Julius never had a chance to. He created a lasting peace and an empire that lasted a thousand years; what could be said about him as a human being?
John Williams' Augustus has an interesting strategy for dealing with this problem. His fictional life of Augustus is written as an epistolary novel, so that it seems that everyone in Rome is talking to or about Augustus--but, until the last fifty pages or so of the novel, Augustus himself is silent.
The first section of the novel deals with the aftermath of Julius' death and the long civil war that ended with the young Octavian's defeat of Mark Antony and the assumption of the title Augustus Caesar. Antony, as most depictions do, borrows from Shakespeare's image of a vain, proud, and bungling fool who can't even get his own suicide right, yet who somehow retains a measure of shrewdness with dealing with the Roman people. Octavian is young, and frequently dismissed, but his calm intelligence is more than a match for Antony.
The second section deals with Augustus' years in power, and focus on his conflict with his beloved daughter Julia, who was caught up in a plot against her father's life with her lovers and banished under the very anti-fornication laws that Augustus himself had passed decades earlier. This section is interspersed with Julia's diary entries from her exile on the tiny island of Pandetaria, where she lived out teh rest of her life, never speaking to her father again. Julia's letters show a sad and quiet resignation for her fate; others write exultantly in their political triumph.
But the last section, a long letter written by Augustus as he knows he is dying, is what makes Augustus a terrific book. Is the real Augustus ruthless, shrewd, loving, foolish, lucky, adulterous, loyal? As an old man (like his adoptive father never got to be) Augustus has come to understand that all these things are true, and that at the end of his life the certitude of his ego has begun to fall away. Williams paints a picture of a man who has given his life, his identity, even his daughter to the service of Rome even as he understands that his achievements will only be temporary. He wonders if these sacrifices were worth it, and then zen-like waves the question away with the gesture of his hand--worth it or not, they were. The elegiac quality of this final section--interspersed with the dry, guarded words of Augustus' actual Res Gestae, his own account of his achievements--pushes the novel beyond the self-prepossessing political intrigue of a book like I, Claudius.
All the famous characters of the early Empire are here: Julius, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Maecenas, Agrippa, Cleopatra, Antony, Lepidus, Tiberius. But it's the voice of Augustus himself, kept hidden until the very end, that makes Augustus feel as if it has some real insight into the past, and into the riddle of the human self.