John Williams’ ‘Augustus’ – The Power of Letters

No, not that John Williams.

Having received John Williams’ Augustus in the mail some days ago, I made an effort to finish it before the new year; I didn’t want Shogun to be the last book I read in 2016.

Augustus is an excellent book, although some might object to calling it so. Rather than a novel, explicitly told from a perspective or combination of perspectives, Augustus chooses to tell the tale of Rome’s first emperor through documents, many of which are only tangentially related to him. The entire book is written as a collection of faux-primary sources, all of which have some relation to the rise of Augustus and his stabilisation of the Roman Empire.

This has several interesting effects:

  1. Everything discussed in all the letters and accounts is described and filtered through a layer of impersonal removal.
  2. Not everything is related to the overall plot. These conversations have their own contexts and Williams has written them realistically; as though they aren’t being written for him to re-contextualise thousands of years later in a short novel.
  3. Every character has a voice which is distinct; Julius Caesar and Augustus both notably share a poetic streak, although the former is more vulgar.
  4. The letters often allude to events of the plot rather than stating them explicitly, as the characters would already understand the context of their time and not require explanations. The reader is told about the outcomes of famous battles, for example, in an offhand way, even though those battles had been built up tremendously in previous documents.
  5. Characters are allowed to interpret the same events differently in a very obvious way to the reader. In the section where Horace (yes, that Horace) recites a verse for one of the nine Muses at a literary gathering, gaining the company’s friendship, one of the attendees attempts to belittle him but fails in the eyes of everyone else, coming off as what I described at the time as a ‘huge asshole.’ Later, the aforementioned anal cavity relates the tale to a friend in his own letter, describing himself as having taken down the presumptuous youth with ease. We know the truth from the fact that Horace remains an important character and the asshole involved fades into obscurity. In other words, the indirect format forces us to orient ourselves and the story’s situation in time and space constantly – meaning that to understand what’s going on, you also have an intimate understanding of where and when you are and who’s writing.

The letters include everything from secret correspondence between a household slave and a high-ranking government member to requests for additional supplies for Marc Antony’s army. There are too many famous figures and historians featured to count; from Virgil to Livy to Horace – and as expected, these figures exchange their letters frequently.

The letter use also makes it feel more like a historical document, although that’s more an aesthetic quality than anything else.

I stated before that the use of letters and documents created a layer of removal. This may seem pointless at first. But the layer of removal allows the reader to imagine a second story; the delivering of these countless documents. Imagine the strife of a postal service expected to maintain their quality of service during the years of war which preceded Augustan rule; imagine what’s not said in the letters about the writers’ individual desires. Maecenas writes mostly to Livy, yes, that Livy. Livy never writes back. We never read his side of things. But we can imagine him composing his great history, very slowly, going off everything he can find, comparing the evidence against itself to try and find the truth, and writing his monumental history of Rome, so much of which is now sadly lost.

Augustus writes only one document, a letter to a Syrian ambassador and friend, Nicolaus, which takes up its own section at the conclusion; before that, all the thousands of words of dialogue seem to circle around him as though he’s at the centre of a huge cyclone. I’m sure that was the intention. Many people send requests to Augustus, and we never read the letters of reply, but later in the story we read that the action they requested was done; it relegates the Emperor to the level of a natural force. Such was his role in history, anyway, if you believe in the power of the individual. Even Augustus, near the closing, writes about how it was mostly his fate to accomplish what he did; this chapter, an introspective quest where Augustus explains all he is and was, is the best in the book. Interspersed with quotes from his funerary inscription, the Res Gestae, and littered with references to his increasingly poor health, it is most definitely a sombre chapter, which considers the past and future of Rome and the Roman name.

Most of the book is not about Augustus. Augustus is a force, in the same way Napoleon is a force in War and Peace, which sometimes exerts its will upon the world and sometimes doesn’t. But Augustus the novel is more about the stories of his family and friends; Agrippa, Maecenas, his daughter Julia and her accidental involvement in a conspiracy to kill him, the poet Horace and his rise from army nobody to famous poet, Ovid and the circle of famous Roman poets, Antony and Cleopatra and Lepidus and basically anyone who was ever named in a primary source. The book is about Rome. It’s about Roman diplomacy with Herod. It’s about the quality of foreign olives. About the ostentatious nature of royal funerals. It’s about the connection between Augustus and his daughter Julia. It’s about the feasibility of invading so ridiculously far north that they reach what’s now Scotland. It’s about trying to survive proscriptions, wage wars, secure political marriages, secure a royal line (which Augustus of course fails to do, leaving the task of Empire-maintenance to Tiberius, who here is characterised a scumbag). It’s about the past and future of Rome. I’m aware that these sentences of pure description aren’t adequate. But the book covers such a wide range of Roman cultural topics that I wanted to express that diversity in some small way.

I’ve read people comment that Augustus is very similar in many ways to William’s other famous novel Stoner. Apart from both works focusing on a single man who is betrayed by a woman close to him and who focuses very hard on his work, I don’t see it; perhaps I should re-read Stoner having read Augustus. But even then, I doubt I would consider it the same; Stoner in-universe is an unremarkable man, while Augustus is a force of nature. Stoner is about the love of work, while Augustus is more about what Caesar calls the ‘Roman lie.’

“We have seen murder, theft, and pillage in the name of the Republic – and call it the necessary price we pay for freedom. 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 tranquility – and raises armies that will murder the colleague whose power threatens his self-interest. The Senate speaks of freedom – and thrusts upon me powers that I do not want but must accept and use if Rome is to endure. Is there no answer to the lie?”

Augustus, over the course of the book, effectively ends the lie by taking over everything. His personal life – his motivations and perspective – are a mystery until the very end. He knows that his destiny was never really his own, and his life was in the public service. Like Napoleon, he was a manipulable body. Not in the material sense, but in the textual sense; his slant and purpose are easy to change with words alone. What Augustus is and was can be recontextualised easily with words because he was so ridiculously important; this is why Williams decided to write Augustus as an epistolary novel. He demonstrates that what we’ve done to Augustus, in changing what the man was through language, was happening right from the start.

Williams was a fantastic author and incredibly underappreciated. Go read Stoner and Augustus. 

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