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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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution