AUGUSTUS by john williams

john williams (1922-1994) is my favorite american author.  in 1960 he published a western, butcher’s crossing, which predated cormac mccarthy’s blood meridian by 25 years and  is hands down better than anything mccarthy has ever written.   stoner, which i think may be THE great 20th century american novel, came out in 1965 (i wrote about it here –   and from 1967 to 1972 he wrote augustus.

augustus purports to be an historical novel — the story of the life of gaius octavius (later gaius julius caesar augustus), the first emperor of the roman empire.   it’s a fascinating account of politics and power and the conflicts between private and public life.   beyond that, augustus is a meditation on the meaning of life that includes some of the most beautiful passages about the power and purpose of art i have ever read.

before the story begins, williams tells us that:

It is recorded that a famous Latin historian declared he would have made Pompey win the battle of Pharsalia had the effective turn of a sentence required it.  Though I have not allowed myself such a liberty, some of the errors of fact in this book are deliberate.  I have changed the order of several events.  I have invented where the record is incomplete or uncertain; and I have given identities to a few characters whom history has failed to mention…

With a few exceptions, the documents that constitute this novel are of my own invention – I have paraphrased several sentences from the letters of Cicero, I have stolen brief passage from the acts of Augustus, and I have lifted a fragment from a lost book of Livy’s history preserved by Seneca the Elder.

But if there are truths in this work, they are the truths of fiction rather than of history…

the narrative takes the form of  letters written by and to a variety of characters, notes on senatorial proceedings, memoirs, bureaucratic memos and a journal written by augustus’ daughter Julia, after she was exiled from rome by her father.

william’s chronicle is fascinating and readable.   but well-drawn as it is, the narrative is only a vehicle to support the last chapter of the book — a letter written by augustus to an old friend, the poet nicolaus of damascus.   in it, the dying, seventy-six-year-old emperor of the known world considers his motivations and the consequences of his actions, and in doing, offers answers to the big questions of life.   a little sample:

The poet contemplates the chaos of experience, the confusion of accident, and the incomprehensible realms of possibility – which is to say the world in which we all so intimately live that few of us take the trouble to examine it.   The fruits of that contemplation are the discovery, or the invention, of some small principle of harmony and order that may be isolated from that disorder which obscures it, and the subjection of that discovery to those poetic laws which at last make it possible.   No general ever more carefully exercises his troops in their intricate formations than does the poet dispose his words to the rigorous necessity of meter; no consul more shrewdly aligns this faction against that in order to achieve his end than the poet who balances one line with another in order to display his truth; and no emperor ever so carefully organizes the disparate parts of the world that he rules so that they will constitute a whole than does the poet dispose the details of his poem so that another world, perhaps more real than the one that we so precariously inhabit, will spin in the universe of men’s minds.

It was my destiny to change the world, I said earlier.  Perhaps I should have said that the world was my poem, that I undertook the task of ordering its parts into a whole, subordinating this faction to that, and adorning it with those graces appropriate to its worth.   And yet if it is a poem that I have fashioned, it is one that will not for very long outlive its time.  When Vergil died, he earnestly beseeched me to destroy his great poem; it was not complete, he said, and imperfect.   Like a general who sees a legion destroyed and does not know that two others have triumphed, he thought himself a failure; and yet his poem upon the founding of Rome will no doubt outlast Rome itself, and certainly it will outlast the poor thing that I have put together.   I did not destroy the poem; I do not believe that Vergil thought I would.   Time will destroy Rome.

i can’t get over how much williams says in those two paragraphs…  and that’s just a taste.   augustus brilliantly pulls together historic events to illustrate profound understandings of human nature, the nature of power and government and the importance of art.    augustus is an extraordinary novel — not to be missed.