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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Manchester will keep being Manchester – anything else would let the victims down

The city will survive even this bitter attack on the young and their freedom to have fun.

It was probably the first time many people had ever heard of Ariana Grande. That in itself is horribly significant, this perverted generational dimension to the plan. Manchester throbs and pounds to the sound of music every night. Most evenings of the week, I have a choice of gigs or concerts I can go to in the city. Some nights I make several in succession – “double dropping”, as we say in a term borrowed from drum’n’bass and drug culture. You probably wouldn’t find me at an Ariana Grande concert; her brand of slick teen, YouTube-friendly R’n’B is not really my thing, nor is it meant to be. But it is very much the thing of a very great many 14-year-old girls.

Targeting that Manchester show, picking the MEN Arena that night, choosing that as the place where you would detonate a nail-filled explosive in a crowded, teeming foyer as the suicide bomber did, seems to be an attack not just on Manchester, not just on pop culture, not just on youth even, but – unbelievable as this would seem – a specific, bitter, nihilistic attack on children, girls, young women and their freedom to have fun in the way they want.

There are some who say that modern Manchester began with a bomb blast. In 1996, in one of their final, almost desultory and wilful acts of valedictory violence, the IRA set off an explosion in the city centre, down on Corporation Street by the weary and unlovely Arndale Centre, that squat retail edifice of 1970s brutalism. There, on Saturday 15 June 1996, the IRA triggered a truck bomb that was the largest explosive device detonated in Britain since the Second World War. No one was killed but more than 200 people were injured. The structural damage was enormous. Many buildings, shabby and smart alike, were damaged beyond repair and had to be demolished. The city was a building site for years.

Most of the work was done in time for the new millennium, though, at a cost of an estimated £1.2bn. Out of the rubble (literally) the modern Manchester of sleek trams, hipster bars, street food and chic hotels emerged. Until then, for all its vigour and self-belief, Manchester still looked like a postwar city of faded grandeur and former magnificence; rough around the edges, its heart still pockmarked with strewn bricks and boarded entries, its fringes often empty and desolate. The city felt like the music of Joy Division, the Smiths and Happy Mondays sounded: rain-lashed, bleak, sardonic, hedonistic but in a bug-eyed, low-rent, faintly menacing way. The jokes and myths were of rain and drugs and guns. Now they are of beard barbers and vintage bicycles, of Chorlton luvvies, the Northern Quarter, MediaCity and millionaire footballers.

To the people of Manchester and beyond, there is no credible comparison between the events of 21 years ago and this week. Five days after the 1996 blast, the IRA issued a statement in which it claimed responsibility, but regretted any injury to “civilians”. Wreaking injury and death on the innocent is precisely what atrocities such as the MEN Arena attack are about. Indeed, it is all they are about when viewed through anything other than the warped, distorting lens of fanaticism and barbarism. Whatever your feelings about Irish republicanism, and however feebly the right-wing press tries to kindle that old demonology to discredit Jeremy Corbyn, Manchester, like all north-western cities in England, has huge Irish and Catholic populations. These families and pubs and streets may not have sympathised with the IRA but their aims and their struggle would have been a familiar thread of family life and local culture. Those aims did not seem unreasonable to many: a united homeland, free of an occupying military colonial presence.

By contrast, it is hard for anyone sane to comprehend what Isis or its deranged “lone wolf” sympathisers can possibly want, beyond their own martyrdom and an end to what we think of as civilisation. It is a new dark age.

“I have no words,” Ariana Grande posted after the attack. Others in fact had quite a few words, to which I am, of course, now adding. At times like this we reach first for cliché, but irritation at social media feeds soon softened when one realised that people mostly meant well and, God knows, meaning well was something to cherish and value in the aftermath of such violence.

A few people invoked the Manchester of laddish rock culture, of Oasis, Factory Records and being “mad for it”. They talked of the fact that Manchester “rocked hard”; and, well-intentioned as this was, it somewhat misunderstands what had happened. The bomb was, as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on “boyfs” and “bezzies” and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.

We held our breath when we heard the president of the United States had shared his thoughts on the tragedy. His comment on the bombers (“I won’t call them monsters, because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name. I will call them . . . losers, because that’s what they are – they’re losers”) was as crassly expressed as usual and drew the usual sniggering. But, in its casual bullishness, Trump’s was a strangely Mancunian response. This is not a city that shrinks and frets and wrings its hands. This is city that is used to winning and will happily call its rivals “losers”. As my friend John Niven tweeted with characteristic gusto: “To the sordid animals making nail bombs: in 1940 the Luftwaffe dropped 443 tons of high explosive on Manchester in 48 hrs. You’ll lose too.”

In the endless, repetitive rolling news after the bombing, I heard another well-intentioned voice, this time a media-friendly psychologist, saying tremulously that “Manchester will never be the same again”. Well, to use the local argot: sorry, chuck, but that’s bobbins. Manchester will mourn and weep but it will come through and get on and it will continue to be Manchester, to the delight of its citizens and the amused exasperation of nearly every other British city.

To not be the same, to change, would be to let the victims down. It may be a little harder to get into gigs for a while; the evenings may be a little more awkward and inconvenient, as air travel has become – but that is a small cost compared to what those kids and their families paid. As a great man once said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” It will be the price of victory.

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

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