Apparently it was the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ death a couple of weeks ago. So clearly I picked the right time to be reading John Williams’ Augustus, which I finished at the start of the month. I don’t read a lot of historical novels about the Roman Republic. I know that it’s both inevitable and necessary for historical fiction to tweak things for the sake of the story, and generally I’m pretty fine with it - except when it comes to historical fiction about the period I’ve studied to a quite ridiculous depth. So I prefer not to annoy myself - unless I feel like my life will be improved by spending 48 hours railing against the awfulness of Robert Harris’ depiction of the late Republic (I’ve been known to… yes, I have issues).
With this particular novel it’s the fact that it was written in 1973, before historical scholarship fully took apart the idea that the terms factio and partes indicated defined parties along the lines of contemporary political parties that sets my teeth on edge, because Maecenas keeps refering to ‘our pary’ and the ‘party of the Republic’, which, eeeeek… But anyway… it serves the story that Williams is telling, which is about the way Octavian replaced the failing Republic with a ‘new’ system - which of course is how we tend to see the move from Republic to Empire. One day I want to read a novel that deals in how important it is that Octavian sought to make it look like he didn’t build a new system but presented a story of a restored Republic (given which, it’s significant that Williams overlooks the formal, legal, establishment of the triumvirate of Octavian, Antony and Lepidus which was explicitly to restore the res publica).
Historical-nerdery interlude over: by and large, it’s not actually a problem - and it certainly doesn’t affect the quality of the novel, which I enjoyed a huge amount. Admittedly, I’m probably predisposed towards any book that opens up with this kind of description of:
That Marcus Antonius who dreams that he will succeed me and who manoeuvres among my enemies as slyly as an elephant might lumber through the Temple of the Vestal Virgins…
People being snarky about Mark Antony is my favourite.
It’s also generally fair to Cicero, who may be my very favourite person in history, but who definitely had his flaws, and if this novel feels at times like it goes too hard on them and on him, well, given the voices that Williams is writing about him with, that's a reasonable perspective. Yet, at the same time, he gives Cicero his moment, by way of Livy’s account of his death:
“He at last became weary of flight and of life, and returned to his villa on the high ground, which was little more than a mile from the sea. ”Let me die,“ he said, ”in my own country, which I have often saved.“ It is known that his slaves were ready to fight for him with bravery and loyalty: but he ordered them to set down the litter, and to suffer quietly the hard necessity of fate. As he leaned from the litter and kept his neck still for the purpose, his head was struck off. But that did not satisfy the brutality of the soldiers: they cut off his hands, too, reviling them for having written against Antonius. So the head was brought to Antonius and by his order set between the two hands on the rostrum where he had been heard as consul and as consular, where in that very year his eloquent invectives against Antonius had commanded unprecedented admiration. Men were scarecely able to raise their tearful eyes and look upon the mangled remains of their countrymen.”
Perhaps most interesting to me is the reflection Augustus makes at the end of the novel, about the voice of the poet:
The poet contemplates the chaos of experience, the confusion of accident, and the incomprehensible realms of possibility - which is to say the world in which we all intimately live that few of us that the trouble to examine it.
It twangs interestingly with something Williams has Maecenas write to Livy:
“I detect the odor of a moralist. And it seems to me that the moralist is the most useless and contemptible of creatures.”
Maecenas is being disengenous here: all historians, in working out the story that they’re telling, the analysis they’re providing, impose a moral - Maecenas just doesn’t like Livy’s moral, because Livy loves the Republic. He’s totally fine with Virgil’s historical-poetic moralising, because it makes the sense of the chaos of the experience of Rome in recent years without seeming to if you’re not looking for it. Historians are more of a threat…
There’s lots of poets in Augustus - but not a lot of actual poetry. Augustus’ reflection kind of explains why he has always enjoyed their company - they are safe company, and in a novel that’s punctuated by news of the occasional conspiracy and plot (without ever actually going into depth on them), that matters. They, with Maecanas and Agrippa, are the people around who Augustus can still be Octavian, to some degree.
As the author, Williams is also contemplating the chaos of history: and especially in the first section of the novel he’s writing about one of the best documented periods of ancient history. He picks his way through it nicely but in writing this novel through letters, memoirs, and accounts from all perspectives, he loses a little bit of the chaos - especially since he frames it from the beginning as a story centred around Augustus, with people writing and reflecting back. There is no real sense that Octavian might lose.
He’s contemplating something else - bringing a different moral out through the story, especially in Augustus’ last reflections. And it is what Octavian sacrifices to become Augustus that he is concerned with - and whether or not he’s worth it. Augustus is fatalistic about the path of his life that he doesn’t question that last; it just is and was meant to be; but Williams appears to be asking his readers whether it is worth it for Rome (by flashing us forward to the young Caligula at the end of the novel, he makes us doubt that), and for Augustus.