John Williams—no, the other one—was a little-known instructor of creative writing at the University of Denver who published only a pawful of books in his life. When he died in 1994 he was barely a footnote in the annals of American letters, but thanks to New York Review Books, the publishing industry’s Criterion Collection, Williams’ stature has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade. His three major novels, all reissued by NYRB, have garnered him a posthumous reputation as a storyteller of uncanny insight, a writer of stoical craftsmanship, underneath which simmers a rare literary potency. Butcher’s Crossing is a Western that draws a knife across Ralph Waldo Emerson’s throat and leaves the American frontier and the national psyche doused by a pitch-black arterial spray. Stoner is a campus novel that by some mysterious alchemical sleight-of-hand manages to be both transcendentally idealistic and heartbreakingly realistic. Then there’s Williams’ final novel, Augustus, an historical fiction that is more believable than most histories, a tale of absolute power and its ultimate impotency. And it’s in Augustus that John Williams evinces the full power of fiction.
If you know me at all, you know how nerdily I obsess over Roman history, so you may suspect that my opinion of this book will be biased in its favor. But actually my standards for historical fiction are probably too high because I’m a history buff. I despise it when fiction ignores or rewrites history to accommodate a plot that could be just as easily applied to a contemporary or imaginary setting. As many people wiser than I have said, fiction is a lie told to reveal a greater truth. Why not take the historical truth and meld it to lies of characterization, to supposed motivations that the historical record never touches upon? Why write historical fiction if not to cast a little light onto history’s shadows? If not to outline those slender threads that will always tether the way-back-when to the here-and-now? That’s exactly what Williams does in Augustus, putting the distant and elusive under a lens that makes it immediate and knowable.
Given his subject, it’s only fitting that Augustus is John Williams’ most ambitious work. Augustus is a remote and larger-than-life figure, and the motivations of Rome’s first emperor have long puzzled historians. It’s hard to fathom how the definitive enlightened despot could so completely embody those words that to a contemporary mind reside squarely in mutual exclusivity. He’s a lot like Charles Foster Kane, an inscrutable character of intimidating stature and authority, simultaneously driven by an unquenchable thirst for power and a high-minded opposition to injustice, and as Orson Welles revealed his mercurial protagonist through the perspectives of others, so does Williams reveal his. The multiple points of view, with their unique personalities and prejudices, underline the oft-contradictory facets of a great and terrible man whose gravity holds those voices in his orbit.
Williams employs an epistolary framework to erect his panoramic and microcosmic view of Rome’s first emperor, and it enriches the reading experience in multiple ways. Firstly, it enhances the verisimilitude of the entire work. Some of our best primary sources on Roman history are the extant letters of those who lived it: Cicero, Pliny the Younger, and such. The epistolary structure creates the illusion that we’re reading a genuine first-hand account of Augustus’ life. The approach also enables a breezy economy of storytelling. Strabo of Amasia’s letter fears how Brutus will react to Augustus’ proscriptions, then Brutus’ letter to Augustus is the reaction, then Agrippa’s account of Philippi closes the matter and sets up the inevitable breakdown between Augustus and Antony. But each letter is flavored with a unique energy. Each individual is animated with the pure music of the written word. Agrippa’s starched military man, Maecenus’ cynical dandy, Salvidienus’ betrayed idealist, Piso’s sinister toady, Flaccus’ pretentious gossip. The entire novel is a sumptuous potpourri of character study.
Unlike Charles Foster Kane, Augustus is granted his own voice. After 260 pages of impressions from others who, no matter how close they are to him, can never truly know the most powerful man in the world, the Revered One speaks to us directly. Through a letter to his old friend, the only friend still alive, Nicolaus of Damascus, we meet a man who has only days left to live. He is dying of a life of regret. What begins as a simple thank-you note for some dates quickly becomes an epigraph in Augustus’ own hand. He confides the story of an idealistic youth who was handed the keys to the kingdom, who recognized the weight of the burden, and committed himself to the inexorable sacrifices he would have to make.
“When I was young, I would have said that loneliness and secrecy were forced upon me. I would have been in error… I chose to enclose myself in the half-formed dream of a destiny no one could share, and thus abandoned the possibility of that kind of human friendship which is so ordinary that it is never spoken of, and thus is seldom cherished.”
Now, in his twilight, with the wisdom that comes too late to us, he could not have foreseen the emotional toll taken by his loneliness and secrecy. With no companionship but from the ghosts of loved ones he had carved into pawns, he knows that the order he imposed upon a chaotic world has become his Frankenstein’s monster, and the monster has enslaved its creator. The most powerful man in the world is powerless against his responsibility.
Williams gives believable and fully fleshed voice to unknowable authority, but even more memorably he gives voice to the ultimate victim of that authority. Augustus imposed an involuntary responsibility on his daughter, Julia. She was married off repeatedly to the men who would succeed Augustus and ensure the survival of his orderly vision for Rome. When she rebelled against the princeps’ strict morality laws by cuckolding Tiberius and bedding half the men in Rome, he banished her and never set eyes on her again. Like her father, the historical Julia has become trapped in a popular image, one of wanton harlotry and irresponsibility.
But through a novelist’s prose Julia becomes a full human being and the book’s most vivid and sympathetic character. Her story is entirely about her quest for agency, for the desire to lead her own life, to find value in herself, for herself, beyond her father’s political machinations.
“It was after the death of that good man, Marcus Agrippa, that Julia, daughter of Octavius Caesar, the August, discovered the power that had been hidden within her, and discovered the pleasure that she could take. And the pleasure she could take became her power, and it seemed to her that it was a power beyond that of her name and of her father. She became herself.”
The relationship between father and daughter is not the calculated arrangement undone by rebellion as history has cast it. It is a tragic love story between two people who want to make each other happy but can only sacrifice so much for one another.
In John Williams’ novel, Julia, alone among Roman women, gets to speak for and define herself. Augustus, a man who literally changed the course of human history, is free of his responsibility and can speak his mind. Augustus is not only a powerful story about power. It is a testament to the power of fiction. Fiction can correct the corrupted perspective of history, giving voice to the previously voiceless, revealing the humanity that impels history’s monsters, the heart and soul that is the foundation of the ignominy. And we are all stronger for it.