Augustus by John Williams was my favorite book read of 2015. John Williams is a relatively obscure author who produced only five novels, most of which he penned while serving as a literary professor at the University of Denver. What he lacked in volume, he made up for in quality in this powerful novel alone, which was published in 1971.
Augustus imagines the rise, reign, and ultimately the death (both physically and politically) of the Emperor Augustus. The novel is purely historical fiction, with much of the writings in the epistolary format in the form of letters and journal entries between and by the main characters. While the pace of the events is consistently marked by actual events that are known to us by virtue of being handed down by Roman historians, the dialogue that tracks the meteoric rise of Augustus to the Roman throne shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar are masterfully created works of fiction and provides an imagined sense of the types of political rivalries, the machinations that occurred, the friendships betrayed, and lovers won and lost in such a world in which power becomes the sole pursuit of one’s life and the reason for one’s existence. The reader is treated to a panoply of famed historical figures throughout, including: Marcus Agrippa, the poet Ovid, the future Emperor Tiberius, King Herod, Cleopatra, Marcus Antonius (more commonly called Mark Antony), and many more.
Fascinatingly, it is not these well-known figures that deliver the best narratives, rather the book’s most poignant moments arise from the journal writings of the exiled Julia, Augustus’s beloved and highly intelligent but ultimately tragically flawed daughter. Julia is exiled to the island of Pandateria upon the order of her own father, who has his hand forced politically by an adultery law that he implemented in a vain attempt at changing the morality of Rome. Due to other political maneuvers by Julia’s husband, Tiberius, Augustus’s unfortunate alternative was to allow Julia to be subjected to a public trial of treason, so exile seemed to him to be the lesser of two evils. I won’t provide any more details than that so as not to spoil the enjoyment of anyone that picks up the book, but the despairing diary entries that Julia enters from her lonely island of exile provides a melancholic sense of a life wasted and perhaps a life that was born in the wrong time, as powerful and intelligent women could only advance themselves through hidden alliances and marriages to the men around them. Indeed, some of the most profound philosophical musings come from Julia’s diaries on this topic. Of her both stepmother and mother-in-law, Livia (the mother of Tiberius, a husband Julia detested), Julia observes, “Of all the women I have ever known, I have admired Livia the most. I was never fond of her, nor she of me; yet she behaved toward me always with honesty and civility; we got along well, despite the fact that my mere existence thwarted her ambitions, and despite the fact that she made no secret of her impersonal animosity towards me. Livia knew herself thoroughly, and had no illusions about her own nature; she was beautiful, and used her beauty without vanity; she was cold, and thus could feign warmth with utter success; she was ambitious, and employed her considerable intelligence exclusively to further her ambition’s end. Had she been a man, I do not doubt that she would have been more ruthless than my father, and would have been troubled by fewer compunctions. Within her nature she was an altogether an admirable woman.”
This challenge of craving power in subtle and hidden ways is something that Julia would turn to later, only remarking on her own inner pangs on the subject: “In this island prison, my life over, I wonder without caring at things I might not have wondered at, had that life not come to an end…It is odd to wait in a powerless world, where nothing matters. In the world from which I came, all was power; and everything mattered. One even loved for power; and the end of love became not its own joy, but the myriad joys of power…I have often wondered how I might have managed the power I had, had I not been a woman. It was the custom for even the most powerful of women, such as Livia, to efface themselves and to assume a docility that in many instances went against their natures.”
“Had she been a man, I do not doubt that she would have been more ruthless than my father, and would have been troubled by fewer compunctions. Within her nature she was an altogether an admirable woman.”
Aside from Julia’s powerful writings, the most compelling dialogue happens at the twilight of Augustus’s own life at the end of the book, when the reader finally gets to view Augustus’s life from the contemplative and often regretful musings of a dying emperor who seems to be asking the painful question through his letters to Nicolaus of Damascus of whether his life devoted to ambition and power was actually worth the high cost of losing most of his friends and loved ones in the end. Interestingly, much of what we learn from Augustus in the preceding pages is indirectly from the writings of others, or when he does speak, it is in the form of commands or is in the form of active plotting for gaining power or keeping it. The writings at the closing of the book are the reader’s first glimpse into the emperor’s soul. Williams sets up the contemplations beautifully, as Augustus writes out to Nicolaus what he wants inscribed as a historical self-serving paean to himself to be posted on tablets at the Senate Forum, but then Augustus turns to how much folly is in those inscriptions and how much reality they fail to capture; how much ugliness of power that he can’t possibly divulge. He writes these introspections to seemingly the one man he can trust with them. One of my favorite paragraphs will give the reader of this review a small taste of the ability of Williams to bring a character to life and to infuse philosophy into the narrative attributed to the imagined words of Augustus:
“Mankind in the aggregate I have found to be brutish, ignorant and unkind, whether those qualities were covered by the coarse tunic of the peasant of the white and purple toga of a senator. And yet in the weakest of men, in moments when they are alone and themselves, I have found veins of strength like gold in decaying rock; in the cruelest of men, flashes of tenderness and compassion; and in the vainest of men, moments of simplicity and grace.”
I have put my focus on the writings of Julia and Augustus, and in so doing perhaps I have neglected the significant components of the book that are devoted to Augustus’s ascent to power and his lifelong struggle to maintain that control. Indeed, this is perhaps part of the book that moves the quickest, as there are plenty of moving scenes and lines delivered within the subtext of dark plots, friends betrayed, friends that betray Augustus, political marriages devoid of true love, significant battles, and the paradoxical weaknesses and strengths of man on full display throughout. I encourage my friends to give the book a read in 2016.