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29 August 2014updated 03 Sep 2014 9:18am

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.

By John Gray

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.”

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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)

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