August tale: the emperor's story sheds light on our lives and those of ancient others
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The thinker’s dictator: Emperor Augustus makes for thrilling fiction

With consummate skill and subtlety John Williams not only brings Ancient Rome and the founder of its empire alive, but also shows how this alien world can illuminate our lives today.

John Williams
Vintage Classics, 352pp, £9.99/New York Review Books Classics, 336pp, $15.95


In one of the fictional letters that make up much of John Williams’s novel Augustus, a friend of the emperor voices a striking contempt for moralists. Corresponding with the great historian Livy, Augustus’s friend writes: “The moralist is the most useless and contemptible of creatures. He is useless in that he would expend his energies upon making judgements rather than upon gaining knowledge, for the reason that judgement is easy and knowledge difficult. He is contemptible in that his judgements reflect a vision of himself that he would impose upon the world.”

In putting this condemnation into the mouth of one of Augustus’s companions, Williams was distancing himself from a common view of Rome’s first emperor. Born in 63BC, Augustus – who described himself as Princeps or “First Citizen”, rather than “emperor” – founded the Roman empire and ruled it from 27BC until he died, 2,000 years ago, on 19 August 14AD. Having been named as his adoptive son by Julius Caesar, who was murdered in 44BC, Augustus came to power through a succession of wars and ruthless stratagems.

By the time he was 25 Augustus had exacted revenge on Caesar’s assassins and become one of three military rulers, or triumvirs, who governed Rome and its dominions. Ten years later he had outmanoeuvred and defeated the other two members of the triumvirate. One of them, Mark Antony, had joined forces with Julius Caesar’s former lover Cleopatra in Egypt, where the two of them committed suicide after Augustus defeated Antony’s army. In his lively and illuminating introduction to the New York Review Books edition of the novel, Daniel Mendelsohn tells us that when Augustus gave the order to kill Cleopatra’s teenaged son, whom he regarded as a rival because the boy was believed to be Caesar’s son, Augustus murmured, “Too many Caesars is no good thing.”

This violent rise to power left him with a mixed reputation. The Roman historian Tacitus disparaged Augustus’s achievements as based on war and judicial murder; most modern historians see him as not much more than a highly successful warlord. This was the view of the New Zealand-born Oxford historian Ronald Syme, probably the most celebrated 20th-century scholar of ancient Rome, who in his landmark study The Roman Revolution described Augustus’s 44 years of power and the enormous benefits they brought to Rome as “the work of fraud and bloodshed”. Published in 1939, with war looming, his book portrayed Augustus as a proto-Mussolini. Adrian Goldsworthy, in his authoritative and always interesting new biography – Augustus: from Revolutionary to Emperor (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25) – does not go so far: Augustus, he argues, “killed a lot of people, but he inflicted on the world nothing like the misery of a Hitler or a Stalin”. Yet Goldsworthy concedes that “to be not as bad as Hitler is scarcely a ringing endorsement”.

Given such assessments, it may seem surprising that Williams chose to present a highly sympathetic view of Augustus, but he was an exceptionally original writer in a number of ways. He was the author of three novels (he disowned an early effort), each very different from the others and all of them extraordinary. A kind of anti-western, Butcher’s Crossing (1960) is the story of an idealistic young American who goes west to seek spiritual purification in the natural world, only to end up among hardbitten hunters who find nihilistic satisfaction in the mass slaughter of buffalos. The book for which Williams is now best known, Stoner, was first published in 1965 but gained the recognition it deserves only when it was rediscovered a couple of years ago and became a surprise international bestseller. An early-20th-century American professor – like the author, a boy from a poor farming family – might sound an unpromisingly dull subject for a novel. Yet Williams’s achievement is to capture a human life in what seems like its entirety and expose the depths that may be hidden in the most ordinary existence.

Williams’s Augustus has some things in common with the two earlier novels: an interest in the role of power in personal relationships, particularly among men, and in how human beings’ intimate personalities are formed by accidental experiences as much as by anything within the individual. Augustus pursues both of these themes, but does so in a world that modern readers can hardly help finding almost unimaginably remote. Other writers have re-created the ancient world – Robert Graves, Marguerite Yourcenar, Mary Renault and Gore Vidal, among others. With consummate skill and subtlety, Williams not only brings ancient Rome alive but also shows how this alien world can illuminate our lives today.

Augustus speaks for himself only in the short third and last section of the book. By then the reader has seen him from the standpoint of others, notably that of his daughter Julia, whom he loved and yet sent into exile. He was recognised in his own time as someone whose thoughts and motives were hard to read; it was not for nothing that his official seal was an image of a sphinx. If some perceived him as a cool, manipulative chameleon, others viewed him as impulsive and capricious, even a reckless gambler; it is true that he had a passion for dice and games of chance. Letting us enter into the mind of Augustus as it appears in his fictional letters, Williams enables us to see the emperor’s life as he wished others to see it – and thereby as he would have liked to see it himself. It is not incidental that the letters are those of an old man. In them, Augustus is trying to make sense of his achievements, and through them of human life itself. What emerges is a sense of the possibilities and limits of action that is instructively (and, for me, refreshingly) different from any that prevails today.

In a long letter to Nicolaus of Damascus, who went on to write a posthumous biography of the emperor, Augustus says: “As one grows old and as the world becomes less and less to him, one wonders increasingly about those forces that propel him in time. Certainly the gods are indifferent to the poor creature who struggles towards his fate . . . In my role as priest, I have examined the entrails and livers of a hundred beasts, and with the aid of the augurs have discovered or invented whatever portents seemed to me appropriate to my intention; and concluded that the gods, if they do exist, do not matter.” Here there is no idea of a redemptive power concealed in events, of the kind that Christianity would preach and that secular thinkers later borrowed when they imagined history to be a story of human advance. Augustus knew only of cycles in which civilisation rises and falls. But this did not lead him to despair. “Rome is not eternal; it does not matter. Rome will fall; it does not matter. The barbarian will conquer; it does not matter. There was a moment of Rome, and it will not wholly die.” For Augustus, resolute action does not require the hope that human society can be improved permanently. A semblance of civilised order is worth striving for, even though sooner or later it will be succeeded by chaos and barbarism.

He recognises that trying to change the world may well be humanly damaging to those who attempt the task: “if it is one’s destiny to change the world, it is his necessity first to change himself”. These inner changes are not necessarily benign, however. Augustus had to learn to mask or suppress his natural human impulses and sympathies, even to the point where he could banish Julia to an isolated island when her love affairs became politically dangerous. His daughter is one of the most fully realised characters in the book and also one of the most attractive. There can be no doubt that he was devoted to her, yet acting as emperor he had to bring himself to consign her to a half-life, cut off from the world.

The conflict between Augustus and Julia illustrates a collision between a Roman idea of duty and what Williams, in a rare interview, called “private want and need”. But the tension between commitment to an ideal vision and individual fulfilment is not just a Roman problem. Today we like to think embracing some grand project gives meaning and value to life. More realistically, Augustus knows that even when it has been achieved such an ideal can be extremely destructive in terms of personal happiness. But at no point does he waver in his commitment to Rome. He accepts that he has no choice but to act as he does. As his old tutor says when asked about him, “He will become what he will become, out of the force of his person and the accident of his fate.”

The stoical outlook that Augustus arti­culates in this fictional portrait was widespread in the ancient world for many centuries. It is also a view that gives the lie to any comparison of him with 20th-century dictators. The worst crimes of the past century were committed by tyrants whose visions of the future Augustus would have found incomprehensible or absurd. Whatever his debts to tsarist traditions of despotism, Stalin never renounced the belief that he was building a wholly new type of society. The goals of Hitler’s atrocities, including the mad project of breeding a super-race, were not only to do with his personal power. The crimes of these tyrants served visions of unbounded human possibilities that Augustus would have dismissed as thoroughly childish. That someone who founded one of the largest and longest-lasting empires in history should have such a modest view of human action may seem paradoxical. But this is so only if you project modern hopes – or illusions – back on to a world that knew nothing of them.

What makes Augustus different from 20th-century rulers and those that govern us today is his sceptical mistrust of human reason. In his stimulating introduction to the Vintage Classics edition of Augustus, John McGahern writes that the emperor “put as much faith in superstition as in his intelligence”. Like Williams’s fictional creation, the historical Augustus was a person of formidable intellect. For this very reason, he was able to see that reason can be a dangerously misleading guide when managing human affairs.

Looking into the primitive past, Williams’s Augustus writes: “We shake our heads in wonderment at that time so far removed (we say) from the enlightenment and humanity of the Roman spirit.” Augustus questions whether the rise of Rome is such a great advance. “We tell ourselves that we have become a civilised race, and with a pious horror we speak of those times when a god of the crops demanded the body of a human being for his obscure function.” But Rome had become a more demanding god than those of ancient times, he believed, and in some ways more cruel. There is a lesson here regarding the vast projects to which so many human beings have been sacrificed in modern times.

Happily Williams was not, in the end, a writer of ideas. His books are not edifying lectures dressed up as fiction. What he does is give access to the lives of others. This novel of an aged emperor will be intensely illuminating to anyone who is ready to put modern morality aside for a moment in order to acquire a little knowledge of himself or herself. Augustus and Julia inhabit a world that shared none of the grand hopes that nowadays are supposed to be definitively human. But the Roman emperor and his daughter were human all the same, facing conflicts between ambition and family, self-realisation and ideal commitment not greatly different from those with which many people struggle today. The genius of this astonishing American writer is that he shows how lives that seem utterly strange can be very like our own. 

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Penguin (£9.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era