From about 90 BC until about 30 BC, the Roman Republic suffered from Civil Wars. They were complicated. In general they were between aristocrats, who controlled the Senate, and plebeians, who controlled other political offices, but in practice they were often between generals, caudillos, who maintained private armies only nominally allied with either class and they involved many shifting alliances and betrayals among leaders and clans. Octavius Caesar, the grandnephew and protégé of Julius Caesar, the most famous of these generals, ended these civil wars with his victory over Anthony and Cleopatra in 31 BC. He also ended the Republic and made Rome an Empire, which was free from major civil wars for about 200 years thereafter. Thus did he acquire the title Augustus. This is an epistilatory novel based on the life of Augustus and on his times.
Historiography was just getting started in the West, and, inspired by Greek historians, this period is one of the first in human history to be at least moderately documented. Several histories by eloquent and diligent historians survive, but they are far from perfect. Some of them wrote long after the event, some of the histories are partially lost, and of course the historians have their various biases. Augustus, the person, is notoriously hard to pin down. Shakespeare in his plays Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra, working from the Greek historian Plutarch, portrays him as merely coldl and power-hungry except for his affection for his sister. Other historians portray him as dutifully patriotic, the savior of his country, and the bringer of peace.
Like Napoleon, Augustus was noted for his stare. Several portrait sculptures survived from his lifetime, but it is hard to learn from them. Besides a tendency to show him as stereotypically heroic, Roman sculpture was embellished with colorful painting, gilding, silvering, and inlay that have worn away, so we are left with inscrutable stares. But are they those of Augustus?
This is the author's fourth and last novel. In his illuminating introduction Daniel Mendelsohn points out that the heroes of each the first three are of no political stature and reflect how the forces of life shape men of very modest accomplishment rather than the hero shaping his life. Two are set in the author's lifetime and one in the 19th-century American frontier. Each has autobiographical overtones. So it is surprising that for his fourth novel he turned to Roman history and a very powerful man.
Williams both exploits and struggles with the historical ambiguity of Augustus' character by choosing to write an epistolary novel. We hear about him from the point of view of several generals, several close friends including the poets Horace, Virgil, and Ovid, from both of his wives, from his most important mistress, from his beloved only child Julia, from spies working both for and against him, from several intellectual hangers on, not to mention from Julius Caesar, and Augustus himself. A wide and varied canvass. Williams does a fine job writing in these various voices. He carefully delineates their biases and somewhat less carefully their styles. Yet for me a sense of foreignness is lacking. I'm an amateur in Roman culture, but I feel that for all their historical standing, the Romans had a very different sense of self than we have, more based on the intersection of face and domination, to put it glibly. This foreignness does not fully emerge through Williams' letter writers. One thing that emerges from these letters is the importance of friendship to William's version of Augustus. In the beginning we see him as a student with a group of close friends. Gradually in the course of his life one of these friends betrays him and others die. It is as if in each betrayal or death he loses part of himself. Augustus' own letters appear only at the very beginning of his career and to the end.
An epistilatory novel demands flexible prose more than anything else, and Williams prose is consistently flexible and effective.
Surprisingly for the man who emerged triumphant from a risky struggle and ruled the Mediterranean world for most of his lifetime (He died in 14 AD.), as Mendelsohn points out, this novel is like Williams' other novels in showing how the struggle with life shapes the hero, rather than the other way around. Augustus in this novel did it not set out to become the ruler of Rome but to avenge the death of his beloved grand uncle Julius Caesar and to survive. But victories lead to obligations until he can only survive by defeating Anthony and Cleopatra.
The novel falls into two halves. The first, though it is far from a military history, portrays Augustus and his associates in the period of his rise to power. Marriages arranged for the purpose of family alliances are almost as important as battles, and Augustus' friend. and in effect prime minister, Maecenas, known to history as a patron of the arts, appears here mostly as a match maker. The second half portrays his intimate world and its public reflection during his life as emperor. It largely neglects Augustus' extension of the empire, vast public works, and establishment of a bureaucracy that served the empire well for hundreds of years. It does display his personally modest style of living.
Williams devotes much of the second part of the novel to Augustus' relations with his daughter and only child, Julia. Her letters take up more pages than any other correspondent. She comes off as something of a protofeminist, seeking self-realization within the constrained role of upper-class Roman women. In her letters Williams fails most, for me, to give a true feeling of Roman self-image. Augustus’ fondness for her is mentioned in the histories and dwelt on by Williams. But, for political reasons he married her off to three men, for two of whom she was dutifully indifferent, the third she hated, and to whom she bore in total seven children.
Around 18 BC Augustus promulgated a series of laws promoting what we might call family values, with only mixed success as is witnessed by Ovid's witty and explicit handbook, The Art of Love. In an atmosphere of erotic scandals and assassination conspiracies in 2 BC Augustus exiled Julia to a small barren island off the coast of southern Italy. Since then there has been endless speculation about his motives; her possible involvement with Ovid lends notoriety. Williams has a theory. He portrays it movingly, and it is as good as any other.
The final letter from Augustus, by this time in ill health and surveying the increasing emptiness of his life, is vivid and eloquent as is the last letter in retrospect from his physician. But something remains missing in the decades when we read only other people's thoughts. I came away feeling I had read a rich and moving novel, but not that I had seen into the fears or longings of Augustus.