John Williams’ Augustus

Fittingly, I finish my reading of the novels of John Williams with his last published novel, written some 22 years before his death. Augustus was the sole of his four published works to receive real acclaim, winning the 1973 National Book Award, but even then he was made to share the honour with John Barth – the first time that prize had been shared. Even a writer as overlooked as John Williams could not plausibly be denied esteem for the achievement of Augustus, an ambitious historical novel of immense scope that nonetheless manages to present even the minor figures of ancient Rome in telescopic detail. Consider, for a moment, the Williams canon prior to Augustus: Nothing But the Night, a portrait of a college dropout unable to overcome a troubled relationship with his father; Butcher’s Crossing, a genre-defying Western about a young man from Boston seeking his fortunes on the American frontier; and Stoner, a novel about a farm boy turned academic whose quiet heroism in the face of a life of dashed expectations wins our sympathy. What, we may wonder, does Augustus, Imperator Caesar divi filius, first of the Roman emperors, have in common with these minor protagonists? It is part of Williams’ project in Augustus to answer this question, and he does so by humanizing one of history’s most mythic figures, a legend even in his own lifetime.

Williams chooses the epistolary form for his novel, as if to triangulate for us the character of Augustus by the varying opinions of his enemies and friends. Our opening letter comes from Julius Caesar, whose murder will end the Roman Republic and launch a desperate power struggle between would-be successors, writing to Atia, the mother of Gaius Octavius, the future Augustus, commanding her in terms as gentle as he can muster to relinquish her motherly hold on her son, that he might “become in fact the man that he is in law.” Caesar has chosen the young Octavius as his successor, and when he has finished speaking as a man, he takes up the imperial tone of his station:

You will observe, my dear Atia, that at the beginning of this letter your uncle made it appear that you have had a choice about the future of your son. Now Caesar must make it clear that you do not. I shall return to Rome within the month; and, as you may have heard rumored, I shall return as dictator for life, by a decree of the Senate that has not yet been made. I have, therefore, the power to appoint a commander of cavalry, who will be second in power only to me. This I have done; and as you may have surmised, it is your son whom I have appointed.

From the opening pages, Williams has introduced us to two of his major themes: power, of course, but also duty, and the tensions that sometimes arise between the two forces. Caesar recognizes himself to be two people: a private citizen of Rome, an uncle to a beloved woman, and a public figure, soon to be an absolute ruler, who speaks even to his kin in the third-person (“Caesar must make it clear…”).

The young Gaius Octavius, destined to avenge the murder of Caesar and assume control of a new Rome, will constantly feel himself tormented by this same tension, and again and again Williams will show him sacrificing private pleasure for public duty, the good of Rome over the good of himself and even his family. A lesser writer than Williams would have centred his plot around the revenge Augustus exacts, culminating in his triumphant naval victory over Mark Anthony at Actium, but Williams confines this entire sequence to a few mere pages. Williams is less interested in how power is won than how it is wielded, and the price paid by those who would employ their power in the service of a higher fidelity. Consider the testimony of Quintus Horatius Flaccus, better known to posterity as the poet Horace, who befriends Augustus. Horace becomes a perfect outlet for Williams’ wit and wisdom; at one point Williams has the famous poet summarize the tragic position of Augustus thus:

Please know that I understand the difficulty of your task in running this extraordinary nation that I love and hate, and this more extraordinary Empire at which I am horrified and filled with pride. I know, better than most, how much of your own happiness you have exchanged for the survival of our country; and I know the contempt you have had for that power which has been thrust upon you – only one with contempt for power could have used it so well.

It is a just description, reinforced to the reader by the testimonies of the friends and family of Augustus, and finally by the Emperor himself, who is not given his own epistle until the novel’s conclusion, but whose sparse summary of his situation we have long before been prepared to accept: “I have never wished to conquer the world, and I have been more nearly ruled than ruler.”

Every character in Augustus, however minor their role, feels lively and important, even the pompous and the power-hungry, but only a handful win our sympathy or admiration. Horace, though he appears in only a small number of letters and remembrances, manages to upstage even Augustus, and we sense how much delight Williams took in bringing this major poet to life and making him a mouthpiece for important meditations about the role of art in shaping both man and society. Julia, daughter of Augustus, gets an extended series of diary entries, and her inclusion was a stroke of genius on Williams’ part, offering us not only a woman’s perspective on a decidedly male history, but another glimpse at the sacrifices necessitated by duty. As daughter of the Emperor, she is one of the most powerful women in Rome, and yet she is not free to choose her husbands, and the tension between her desire for a private life and her father’s (and Rome’s) demands upon her forms one of the novel’s most successful and emotional threads. We capture a glimpse of her character through Horace’s description of a meeting with her:

She was kind enough to indicate that she had read some of my poems. Knowing her father’s reputation for rectitude […], I tried to make a sort of rueful apology for the “naughtiness” of my verse. But she smiled at me in that devastating way she has, and said: “My dear Ovid, if you try to convince me that though your verse is naughty, your life is chaste, I shall not speak to you again.” And I said, “My dear lady, if that is the condition, I shall attempt to convince you otherwise.”

No other character trades jibes with Horace on an equal footing, and I note now, in retrospect, that a sense of humour is rare among the characters of Augustus, and an unfailing sign of where the author’s sympathies lie.

What, then, is the vital connection between the major Williams novels, so unalike in time and setting? It consists in this: that the central character is confronted with an implacable and hostile world, and rather than break under the strain of the confrontation, he wrestles victory from certain defeat through strength of character. “It was more nearly an instinct than knowledge,” Williams has Augustus write, “that made me understand that if it is one’s destiny to change the world, it is his necessity first to change himself.” And if none of the other Williams characters can be said to have a destiny, and certainly not a world-historical one, they nonetheless muster the quiet heroism needed to adapt themselves to the demands of circumstance. It is Williams’ great gift as a novelist that he can render that struggle, in a New England academic or a Roman emperor, heroic and worthy of our attention.