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Amber Paulen

Augustus by John Williams

John Williams


John Williams has been experiencing something of a minor revival lately, or at least his novel Stoner has. Whenever I hear about that book I want to read it and I assume one day I will. Though it was Williams’ Augustus that came to me sooner, being on the Ancient Rome binge that I am. Though my favorite life-of-the-Emperors book remains Memoirs of Hadrian, Augustus comes in very, very near second.

Augustus is written mostly from the perspective of others, through their memoirs, journals and letters; it paints a picture of the man who became the leader of the known world as one whose ambition became his destiny. The portrait is idealized perfectly, as one can expect when describing a man who was considered to be a god in his lifetime: Augustus’ shockingly clear blue eyes, his devotion to the poetic arts, how he pieced together the Empire after years of civil wars and confusion: The August Peace.

From the memoirs of Marcus Agrippa:

I write these memories […] so that posterity may record the time when Octavius discovered Rome bleeding in the jaws of faction, when Octavius Caesar slew the factious beast and removed the almost lifeless body, and when Augustus healed the wounds of Rome and made it whole again.

The fragmentary structure of the novel is organized into three books. The first book concerns how Octavius gained the name Caesar and then Augustus. It begins in Apollonia where Octavius heard of his uncle Julius Caesar’s assassination and ends with the Battle of Actium. These were exciting years, full of war and broken promises. The triumvir was formed; the triumvir was corrupt: Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra were defeated in Actium and then committed suicide.

Book two takes place during the peaceful years, during a million Senatorial proceedings and law reforms. But Williams spares us all of this and focuses the center of his book on the poets who populated his dining halls: Virgil, Horace, Maecenas; countered by the journals of Augustus’ daughter Julia. At the age of thirty (I think?) Julia was exiled by her father to the island of Pandateria (read: Ischia) for breaking an arcane marriage law against adultery. Augustus’ reasons were complicated, having proof of treason, exile would “save” her life.

When a younger Julia heard of the death of Cleopatra at her father’s ceremonial parade, she thought: it occurred to me for the first time that even a woman might be caught up in the world of events, and be destroyed by that world. That is Julia’s story. She was required to marry three men she didn’t love before the age of twenty-five. Rebellion set in late, her desire and power unleashed (she was the Emperor’s daughter) she took many men to bed. Her power was not her own or not enough.

In book three we finally hear Augustus himself, at the brink of death and life, in a long letter to a friend. It is a thoughtful and often beautiful eulogy as he wonders if he managed to do anything good at all and what of the good he did do, will stay?

There was a moment of Rome, and it will not wholly die; the barbarian will become the Rome he conquers; the language will smooth his rough tongue; the vision of what he destroys will flow in his blood. And in time that is ceaseless as this salt sea upon which I am so frailly suspended, the cost is nothing, is less than nothing.

One last word: I found myself in awe of the fragmentary structure of Augustus. John Williams expertly weaves together the many disparate pieces so that one doesn’t realize that they are written from different personalities, for it is immediately understood. (Though I do recommend keeping track of dates and writers.) I was also in awe at how one fragment led to another, how Williams took hold of a small topic in the previous fragment then expanded it in the following, one leading forever into another. Really, one must be an excellent writer to even consider attempting such a style.

And two last quotes, from Augustus himself:

The poet contemplates the chaos of experience, the confusion of accident, and the incomprehensible realms of possibility—which is to say the world in which we all so intimately live that few of us take the trouble to examine it. The fruits of that contemplation are the discovery, or the invention, of some small principle of harmony and order that may be isolated form that disorder which obscures it, and the subjection of that discovery to those poetic laws which at last make it possible.

It was my destiny to change the world, I said earlier. Perhaps I should have said that the world was my poem, that I undertook the task of ordering its parts into a whole, subordinating this faction to that, and adorning it with the graces appropriate to its worth. And yet if it is a poem I have fashioned, it is one that will not for very long outlive its time.


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