Review: Augustus

Augustus by John Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is beautiful.

I’m a Classics nerd and junkie — I love anything and everything to do with the times of Hellenic, Hellenistic, and Roman culture. It’s a lifelong love and obsession, fostered at a very young age by my maternal grandfather, a now-retired professor of the Classics.

And here I’m given Augustus, an epistolary novel told almost-exclusively from the letters and viewpoints of everyone but Octavius (later Augustus). We see him through his friends, his enemies, his family, and only in the last bit of the book, as he closes out his life, do we hear about Octavius in his own words. Fictional words, of course; it is the poetry of Williams’ writing, not anything from Augustus himself.

Here’s what’s the most interesting, to me, about this book: I’m on the fence about how I feel about the first Roman emperor. On one hand, yes, he did some amazing things in securing Roman dominance and its already-established borders — he launched few new military campaigns, instead focusing on what Rome already had and making sure that it was truly secure. I think this is a great idea, given Rome had been engulfed in civil warfare for the past century. But on the other hand, Augustus was a bit of a tyrant; I bristle at his “marriage laws” and the idea that the State would be so involved in the private lives of its citizens. It was a political move (I hope), stopping the use of sex as a way to gain power, but at the end of the day that’s really not the State’s business. But I digress…

So I went in with a lot of mixed feelings about Augustus: he was good and bad, had flaws, made some interesting decisions, and did, it should be noted, suffer a good deal of personal tragedy. This book is, without question, overwhelmingly positive towards Augustus. Every potentially negative decision is given positive reasoning behind it, anything tyrannical checked by being shown as somehow “absolutely necessary” for the stability of Rome or, like with the banishing of his daughter, to save someone’s life. This is, of course, fiction, and Williams is absolutely allowed his bias. I didn’t want Augustus to be some kind of mustache-twirling villain, but having him be 100% positive is a little jarring and, admittedly, irritating.

And yet, at the end of it all, I did not care. Williams’ writing is so beautiful that it’s practically poetry. He writes each person’s voice so well — from Julia to Tiberius to Antony to Cicero to countless others — and when he finally reaches Augustus himself…you know you’ve reached a kind of coup de grâce of his writing. It’s so beautiful, that I found my irritation with the sea of positivity melting away; I was hanging on every word from Augustus. I was caught into his cult of personality, even if it was, in this case, a fictional one.

This book is a triumph. It’s beautifully written, and plays with history in a way that is respectful of what we “know” happened while also injecting subtle fictions that weave interchangeably with the facts. It is the portrait of the first Roman emperor through the eyes of all but him, but when he takes the stage, it could be a one-man monologue onstage and hold its audience captive. It really gripped me, at least.

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