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John Williams: Augustus

John Williams wrote four novels but they are all four so different that it has been said that they could have been written by four different writers. Williams himself said that there was more similarity between his most famous novel, Stoner, and this one that might appear on first sight, as both are concerned with issues of governance. While that might be true, I am not sure that you can really compare the governance of a US twentieth century college and the governance of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the first millennium A.D.

The Augustus of this novel is Caesar Augustus, whom we know as Octavian (from Shakespeare) and who, in this book, is called Gaius Octavius or just Octavius, his Roman name before he became Caesar Augustus. As the title shows, this is his story. Williams uses an interesting technique. The story is told in series of letters, memoirs, notes, etc. written by the key participants, including some we are very familiar with – Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Cicero and Livy – and others we are less familiar with, unless we have studied Roman history. Some of the documents are contemporary, while others are written well after the events they are describing.

We follow Octavius’ story from the time when we was a callow youth to the height of his success as ruler of the Roman Empire and then to his death. Apart from what we might have learned from Shakespeare and perhaps a bit in school, I suspect most of us know relatively little about Octavius. He was the nephew of Julius Caesar and, indeed, the first letter we read is from Caesar to him. Julius Caesar did have a son of his own – Caesarion, son of Cleopatra, who lived with his mother, and who Octavius will later have executed – but he adopts Octavius as his son (Octavius’ father is long since dead) and while most people will continue to refer to Julius Caesar as Octavius’ uncle, Octavius himself refers to him as his father. In the early part of the book, most people consider him a callow youth and he is very much underestimated by virtually everyone, particularly his enemies. One man, who will become a close companion to him, says, on first meeting him, that he has a voice too gentle to utter the ruthless words that a leader of men must utter. I thought that he might become a scholar of leisure, or a man of letters; I did not think that he had the energy to become even a senator. Only those who get really close to him appreciate his qualities: his lack of fear, his political manoeuvring and his military skills.

We follow him as he grows up. The key event in his early life, of course, is the assassination of Julius Caesar. This leads not only to enmity with Brutus, Cassius and the other conspirators but also with Mark Anthony. His relationship with Mark Anthony is key. At times, they are (reluctant) allies, at times enemies and at times neither one nor the other. The changing alliances are also important in this book and Octavius seems to play it very well, even making alliances with the assassins of Julius Caesar. Of course, we know from Shakespeare, that Octavius and Mark Anthony will have a showdown, a showdown that Octavius will convincingly win, resulting in the deaths by suicide of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra and by execution of Caesarion, Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar.

While we follow the life of Octavius, we also follow Roman history. In many respects, it is not too different from life in the 21st century, with political machinations galore, wars against unruly tribes and changing fortunes. Cicero, whom Mark Anthony will have assassinated, is just one of many hypocrites that Williams attacks. Cicero deplores the depraved Roman morality that worships wealth—and, himself a millionaire many times over, travels with a hundred slaves from one of his villas to another. A consul speaks of peace and tranquillity—and raises armies that will murder the colleague whose power threatens his self-interest. Cicero has earlier said of Octavius The boy is nothing, and we need have no fear and, later, We shall do the boy honour, we shall do him praise, and we shall do him in.

Williams certainly admires the Romans and Octavius in particular but also seems to respect the Greek way. I begin to understand this Roman disdain for philosophy. Their world is an immediate one—of cause and consequence, of rumour and fact, of advantage and deprivation. Even I, who have devoted my life to the pursuit of knowledge and truth, can have some sympathy for the state of the world which has occasioned this disdain. They look at learning as if it were a means to an end; at truth as if it were only a thing to be used. Even their gods serve the state, rather than the other way around is a comment made by a Greek.

Williams also comments on Octavius’ private life. He marries four times, generally for political reasons. His third wife he divorces the day she gives birth to his only child, a daughter, Julia, whom he initially adores and who proves to be very intelligent. She will go on to have three husbands and many lovers and will fall out with her father because of love affairs. Later in life, he will bump into the daughter of his old nanny, with whom he grew up and, when she tells him that she has three sons, he will say that he would rather have had three sons than rule the Roman Empire.

Much of the second part of the novel is more concerned with shifting alliances, and, in particular, the role of Julia. Her marriages are determined by her father and it is only the second one – to Marcus Agrippa, her father’s close friend and about the same age as him – in which she is vaguely happy. Her third marriage is to Tiberius and the pair hate each other with a passion. However, by this time Octavius is running out of successors and he feels that he has no choice. He adopts Tiberius as his son and, of course, Tiberius does succeed him, leading to a chain of heirs which will bring down the line. Julia famously has numerous lovers and, when there is a conspiracy against Octavius and it turns out that Julia has had an affair with all of the conspirators, Octavius, to spare her a worse fate, sends her into exile.

Williams is clearly fascinated with Octavius and his fascination transmits well to us, as he tells us a very interesting story about politics, military might and hypocrisy, which, as mentioned, does not seem to have changed too much in the present day. It was my destiny to change the world, Octavius says, but he also says I have come to believe that in the life of every man, late or soon, there is a moment when he knows beyond whatever else he might understand, and whether he can articulate the knowledge or not, the terrifying fact that he is alone, and separate, and that he can be no other than the poor thing that is himself and this sums up his dilemma and the dilemma of many who followed him.

Publishing history

First published 1972 by Viking Press