More Roman Than Roman: John Williams’s “Augustus”

During a recent illness, I sweated, ached, and slept,  but managed to stay up a few hours a day to read genre books.  Of course some  will argue that John Williams’s National Book Award-winning Augustus  is not a genre book but a literary masterpiece. 

Yet it is still a genre book:  a historical novel. 

Best-known for Stoner, a kind of tepid imitation of the lesser work of Willa Cather,  Williams is more ambitious in Augustus, which won the National Book Award in 1973. (He shared the award with John Barth for Chimera.) Centered on the life of Octavian, the first Roman emperor, who was later known as Augustus, this intelligent novel unfolds in the form of pitch-perfect letters, documents, memoirs, journals, and even a stilted “lost poem” by Ovid (Williams is not much of a poet).  In a non-chronological narrative,  Williams charts the growing power of Octavian/Augustus, beginning with his wish to avenge the assassination of his uncle Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., followed by  the formation of the Second Triumvirate, a trio of powerful men consisting of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus.   Inevitably, the triumvirate split up,  and Octavian defeated Antony (and Cleopatra) at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.  And then Octavian returned triumphant to Rome, where he became emperor/dictator, took the title Augustus, and called himself Princeps (First Citizen, which less threatening than emperor). 

Occasionally the style is stilted, but much is brilliantly readable.   And Williams’ imitation of Roman letters is right-on: it captures the formality, underscored by the peculiar tone of Latin in translation.  (In Latin such letters are more fluid.) . Occasionally the letters are laced with gossip.   

James Purefoy as Antony in “Rome”

I have to admit, I’ve always been fond of Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius),  because he was so sensual and madly in love with Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra is my favorite Shakespeare play.   But perhaps I also have mixed Antony up with James Purefoy, who played Antony in the entertaining TV series, Rome.  (I loved that show.)

In the following letter, Antony describes Augustus as the pain in the ass he probably was. 

That whey-faced little bastard, Octavius, came around to see me yesterday morning. He has been in Rome for the past week or so, acting like a bereaved widow, calling himself Caesar, all manner of nonsense.

The letters of Maecenas, one of the earliest supporters of Augustus and the patron of the poets Horace and Virgil, are a mix of formality and liveliness.  In Williams’ novel, Maecenas is portrayed as a gay man, though I cannot verify if that is true or not.  Here is a typical opening of a  letter from Maecenas to Livy  the historian  

You must forgive me, my dear Livy, for having so long delayed my reply. The usual complaints: retirement seems not to have improved the state of my health at all. The doctors shake their heads wisely, mutter mysteriously, and collect their fees. Nothing seems to help—not the vile medicines I am fed, nor even the abstinence from those pleasures which (as you know) I once enjoyed. 

Williams also includes portions of a fascinating (fictieious) journal by Augustus’s daughter Julia, who was exiled for adultery.

At times Williams seems more Roman than Roman. Although he has studied the letters of Cicero, Pliny, and Seneca carefully, he needs to break away from his imitations.  If  were less consistently intent on pastiche, this might have been a better book.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed Augusutus, the great Roman historical novell is  Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, the story of a later emperor.  You can’t go wrong with either of these.

8 thoughts on “More Roman Than Roman: John Williams’s “Augustus”

  1. I loved Stoner (though understand what you mean about an “imitation” of Cather, whom I’ve also loved reading!) and am always intending to read Augustus. What you say about the language and literary devices now has me especially curious!

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    1. The critici Elaine Showalter is perhaps the only person besidess me who wasn’t wowed by Stoner. Augustus really is a birlliant novel. And his sheer knowledge of Latin style is awesome.

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  2. Graves had the amazing character of Livia to work with too. Does she appear in the Williams novel? I remember the BBC production of I, Claudius/Claudius the God with great fondness. So many wonderful performers acting their heads off in front of spare scenery. Who needed CG crowds and lush palaces when you had Derek Jacobi and Sian Phillips and Patrick Stewart (with hair!) I also loved Rome, especially the first series.

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    1. I love “I, Claudius.” And, yes, Williams does a great job with Augustus’s family, though he concentrates more on Julia than Livia.. Perhaps he knew he shouldn’t try to do Graves.

      I had no idea Patrick Stewart was in I, Claudius! Yes, there were great actors in that. Loved the BBC productions!

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  3. Ellen says, “Thank you for alerting me to this. There was an essay in the NYRB recently about Williams, but, like most nowadays, it concentrated on Stoner which, literally for years, has been on the top of one of my several TBR piles.”

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    1. Odd that Stoner gets so much attention, but Augustus is more complex unless one has a cursory knowledge of Roman history. Perhaps everybody used to study Roman history? I can’t say, but it did win the National Book Award in 1973. Williams DOES identify the historical characters by their rank at the top of each letter, memoir, etc., but I can’t think of any other reason Augustus is neglected!

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  4. The way the book is written – “letters, documents, memoirs, journals” – sounds very like the techique of Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March.

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