Power Ballad

“How may I tell you of him?” Maecenas asks the historian Livy. They’re speaking about Maecenas’s friend Gaius Octavius (63 BC– AD 14), hailed as “Augustus” in John Williams’s novel of the same name, and that’s the question Augustus brilliantly ponders: how to tell about the man who could autocratically rule Rome’s rapacious and expanding empire for more than forty years while bringing it unprecedented peace and prosperity, superintending its construction in marble, and siphoning off its bloodlust with games. Who was this Octavius the August, the man called, without irony, the father of his country?

Reissued as a New York Review Books Classic with a superb introduction by Daniel Mendelsohn, Augustus, originally published in 1972, may surprise readers of Williams’s fine novel Stoner (1965), which was also reprinted by NYRB not long ago. The latter book is the quiet and straightforward tale of William Stoner, an academic whose life is in shambles: During most of his career, he’s been barred from teaching upper-level courses; his marriage collapses; he loses touch with his daughter and his lover. Forced into retirement, he dies.

Still, Stoner’s frustrations possess a certain cachet: Failure brings with it its own brand of success, at least for those who think success overrated and failure a badge of integrity. The successful, as we know, are seldom happy: Think Citizen Kane. Perhaps that’s why the reprinted Stoner became a widely acclaimed international best seller during very rocky economic times.

Unlike Stoner, Octavius is a historical figure of huge consequence, not a milquetoast farm boy turned unobtrusive college teacher saddled with a sexless wife (one of the unfortunately flat portraits in Williams’s otherwise beautifully written book). By the age of twenty-two, Octavius had avenged the murder of his adoptive father and great-uncle Julius Caesar and crushed the combined forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Renamed Augustus by the Roman Senate at the age of thirty-five, he managed to befriend such writers as Horace, Virgil, and the philosopher Nicolaus of Damascus while wielding his power without hesitation: He exiled his only daughter to Pandateria, a desolate island of volcanic ash just outside the Bay of Naples, and the poet Ovid to a wintry outpost on the Black Sea. He was no sweetheart.

An epistolary novel, Augustus is also ambitious structurally. (When first published, Augustus won the 1973 National Book Award, though it split the prize with John Barth’s Chimera.) In most of the book, the friends, enemies, and family of Octavius speak through an invented array of luminous memoirs, letters, and journals (as well as a couple of poems) that, taken together, chronologically narrate the emperor’s career from the point of view of those who know him, hate him, love him, and woefully misjudge him. Cicero thought him a fool.

The novel opens just before the assassination of Julius Caesar, as three young men, including Maecenas and Marcus Agrippa, accompany a seemingly laconic Octavius to Apollonia on the Adriatic coast of Macedonia to study Homer and discourse in Greek on all important things. “But the days of youth go, and part of us goes with them, not to return,” Agrippa notes with a trace of sorrow. Caesar’s death then catapults Octavius into a series of political intrigues, which he handles with confidence and a hardening will. Mark Antony calls him “a cold-blooded fish.” After his victory over Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, Octavius consents to Antony’s decree calling for the murder of all alleged conspirators as well as the assassination of Cicero, whom Octavius rather liked. No matter. The world is a brutal place, the sea bright with men’s blood. Octavius and Antony soon turn against each other, and though Octavius is victorious at Actium, Agrippa remembers that “we knew that we had won the world; but there were no songs of victory that night, nor joy among any of us. Late into the night the only sound that could be heard was the lap and hiss of water against the burning hulls and the low moans of the wounded.” Maecenas recollects that Octavius then ordered the seventeen-year-old son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra to be put to death and that a son of Mark Antony, also seventeen, be likewise murdered. “I am bored with remembering,” a pained Maecenas tells Livy. Thus ends the first part of the novel.

Emperor Augustus.
Emperor Augustus.

Just in the nick of time. For just when testosterone-filled tales of conspiracy and battle threaten to exhaust the reader, the novel shifts to the perspective of Octavius’s intelligent daughter, Julia, who describes her solitary life in Pandateria, where she walks on a thin strip of black sand. Largely composed of her journal, this part of the novel is more explicitly a meditation on power and the relative powerlessness of women, who, like Octavius’s wife Livia, assume a self-effacing docility to conceal their ambitions. “Unlike a man,” says Julia, a woman “cannot seize [power] by force of strength or mind or desire; nor can she glory in it with a man’s open pride.” Instead, she conceives a series of personae to deceive “whoever might look too closely.”

The one deceived is Julia herself. Her duty is to Rome, Octavius reminds her when he wants her to wed the dour Tiberius (he had already married her off to his friend Agrippa, recently deceased). Though she begrudgingly consents to the union, she takes on a succession of lovers, including Mark Antony’s son Iullus Antonius, who has evidently joined a conspiracy to assassinate Tiberius, get rid of Octavius, and take control of the empire. Acting to preserve order in Rome (Rome is Octavius’s other, more beloved daughter), Octavius prefers to banish Julia rather than have her killed. He denounces her as having violated one of his stringent laws prohibiting adultery.

And then there is love. Despite his centrality, Octavius does not take over the narrative until Book Three, in a long letter to Nicolaus of Damascus (he does not know that Nicolaus has already died) that he composes at sea while heading to Capri. Musing on his long career in a kind of lyrical coda to the novel, the dying Octavius decides that the most lasting and satisfying form of love is “the scholar for his text, the philosopher for his idea, the poet for his word.” But he also wonders if a poet’s love of the word isn’t really at bottom a love of power, “the power that the poet has over the living mind and heart of his listener. And if the minds and hearts and spirits of those who come under the spell of that appointed power are lifted, that is an accident which is not essential to the love, or even its purpose.”

Poetry, or the love of literature, is a motif in all of Williams’s work. As Stoner fans will recall, Stoner finds his true vocation when he encounters Shakespeare’s sonnet “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.” (In the slightly bloated novel Butcher’s Crossing, which preceded the elegant Stoner, a Yankee besotted with Ralph Waldo Emerson seeks a transcendental experience in nature and finds instead a heap of slaughtered buffalo.) A published poet, Williams taught literature and writing at the University of Denver for thirty years, and in Augustus he eloquently mulls over the peculiar combination of poetry, politics, and power that beguiles Octavius, who reflects that the poet’s goal is similar to “the task that long ago I set for myself,” that of re-creating the world. As Octavius notes, “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 so intimately live that few of us take the trouble to examine it.” The world was thus his poem, Octavius declares. “I undertook the task of ordering its parts into a whole,” he says, “subordinating this faction to that, and adorning it with those graces appropriate to its worth.” He would no more destroy his creation than Virgil’s Aeneid, about the making of Rome, although on his deathbed Virgil had bade him do so. Time, Octavius fatalistically decides, will destroy everything anyway.

Having discovered the poetic process that both justified his actions and directed them, Octavius is thus able to exonerate and condemn himself. Mostly he exonerates. “If he is to obey his destiny,” Octavius says of himself, “he must find or invent within himself some hard and secret part that is indifferent to himself, to others, and even to the world.” Having followed his destiny, having re-created Rome, he is content. Besides, he rationalizes, even Ovid is not alone in his exiled solitude on the island of Tomis; the poet has his words. As for the depredations of time, “there was a moment of Rome,” Octavius concludes, “and it will not wholly die; the barbarian will become the Rome he conquers; the language will smooth his rough tongue; the vision of what he destroys will flow in his blood. And in time that is ceaseless as this salt sea upon which I am so frailly suspended, the cost is nothing, is less than nothing.”

Such men perhaps deceive themselves. But with his fluent ventriloquism endowing a range of characters with their own uncertainties and duplicities, Williams as novelist reckons the intricate cost of necessary illusions and asks the reader to consider whether the cost is worth it after all. Yet, as Maecenas counsels Livy, we should not judge too quickly. That is the job of the moralist, not the writer, not even the reader: “The moralist is the most useless and contemptible of creatures,” Maecenas reminds us. “He would expend his energies upon making judgments rather than upon gaining knowledge, for the reason that judgment is easy and knowledge is difficult.”

“I implore you,” he concludes, “do not become a moralist; you will destroy your art and your mind.”

Brenda Wineapple’s most recent book is Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848–1877, which was just released in paperback by Harper Perennial.