Customer Reviews: Augustus: A Novel
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on January 28, 2007
John Edward Williams won the 1973 National Book Award for 'Augustus' and deservedly so. This amazing piece of literature masquerading as historical fiction (and I like historical fiction) draws the reader into the world of Gaius Octavius, later to be Augustus, first emperor of Rome.

Williams tells his tale by the unusual technique of presenting letters, journal entries, and memoirs. By this method he allows the reader to gradually enter, indeed become immersed in, the world of Augustus, his family, friends, enemies, and most important, his Rome. 'Augustus' traces his rise from the vulnerable adopted son of Julius Caesar through a steady accretion of power as he becomes first a triumvir (with Mark Antony and the nonentity Lepidus), and then settles in as emperor of the world.

The historical record for Augustus's life has gaps that challenge an author and Williams grasps the challenge deftly, just as Augustus grasped power. We see Augustus as an aloof, cold and calculating politician whose assiduous pursuit and cautious exercise of power allows him to hold that power for over four decades, but always using that power for Rome, always for Rome, his Rome.

Yet many people suffer from their close contact with this man - his equally calculating wife Livia, for one, his dear friends Maecenas and Salvidienus, to name two more, but none more so than his daughter Julia. The last third or so of the book focuses on the break between Augustus and Julia. Williams presents an interesting and shocking explanation for Julia's exile - at least an explanation that Augustus believes or claims to.

The penultimate chapter draws Augustus's life to a close with a lengthy letter to Nicolaus of Damascus in which a dying Augustus bemoans his fate and the weight of authority he has had to bear - it is really most unattractive for one of the most powerful men in history to indulge in such self-centered despair, but it also rings true because Augustus spent his life denying himself so many pleasures in order to hold on to power for the good of Rome, as he convinced himself. In the end, Augustus saw himself as the embodiment of Rome - anything that threatened his power, threatened Rome. This is so well done that one finds oneself becoming angry with Augustus, who is after all just a character in this brilliant work of historical fiction.

'Augustus' is not an easy read. Prior knowledge of the historical era certainly aids the enjoyment and comprehension of the book. Ultimately, however, this remarkable work of historical fiction and literature deserves the highest recommendation.
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on May 27, 2005
For me, the greatest interest in this novel was the explanation of how Augustus came to power at such an early age. Like most educated people, I , too have read histories that cover this period in detail. And yet, descriptions of events that historians gloss over with one sentence statements are not really enlightening. Here's an example of such a description from a typical history book: "Augustus, using the power of his uncle's name and money, soon became a force to be reckoned with in Rome." Well, excuse me, but there is a lot left out of a statement like that. And history books are full of such examples. Precisely HOW could an eighteen year old kid persuade enough people to have confidence in him so that he could effectively challenge a military veteran and street fighter like Mark Antony? This is where John Williams shines. He gets into the interstices of history and demonstrates the human element at work in ways that can be understood. Step by step, we follow a callow youth as he becomes the most powerful man in the world.

The plot does tend toward some confusion as a result of the device of using correspondence to carry the story. This means that digressions in the plot must take place in order to make the letters, diaries, etc. seem realistic. However, once you're accustomed to this device, the story manages to maintain its own velocity...PROVIDED that you are interested enough and knowledgable enough about Octavian to want to know the kind of details that emerge. If you are like me, you are absolutely dying to know.
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VINE VOICEon May 3, 2005
This complements the better known "I, Claudius." Comparing the two has me wondering what's actually known about that era, and I will probably read more about it as a result.

Williams, for example, portrays Augustus' third wife Livia as maneuvering coldly and relentlessly, but within the bounds of propriety, to position her son Tiberius as Augustus' successor.

Graves, meanwhile, shows Livia in a darker light, responsible for numerous deaths in so doing while somehow maintaining her image of virtue. And he makes her the central character.

Williams does a better job than Graves at capturing Rome as Augustus found it - rotting and a republic in name only, controlled by a few families - and the Rome that Augustus fashioned, economically healthy, at peace, with the most powerful families held at bay, an orderly government that citizens of all classes could depend upon, and led by an emperor who himself led a plain life as a moral example. I didn't realize so many of the key names of Latin literature - Livy, Horace, Vergil - lived at that time and were intimates of Augustus.

"I, Claudius", seen through the eyes of Livia's grandson, perhaps does better at portraying the shocking and lurid decadence marking the beginning of the empire's decline. But "Augustus", starting earlier with Julius Caesar's assassination and Octavian's rise to power, does better with the broad sweep of Augustus' life and detailing this peak period of the Roman Empire, before the real decline began. It's more upbeat. Williams does a nice job using Julia to capture the tragic contradictions at the heart of the period.

The format, with the story being told through letters of various characters to each other, can be a bit disjointed. I think this is a product, however, of Williams' determination to cover all key events in Augustus' reign. It can be a bit tedious as many detailed non-fiction histories are, but Williams generally keeps the story moving. He has an interesting life and times to work with.
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VINE VOICEon July 16, 2007
I first heard about this extraordinary novel of ancient Rome during one of the regular Wednesday afternoon "Dirda On Books" discussions conducted on the Washington Post website. I began reading the book on a long air flight to Finland and became entirely engrossed. It is easy to understand why the book won the National Book Award in 1973--it is superbly written. The novel follows Octavius Caesar from early adulthood through his battles to become Emperor Augustus, and into old age. The author does not utilize a straight narrative but instead tells the story through the use of documents such as letters, diary entries, and Senate proceedings. All of this material flows very smoothly as the story unfolds. I found it particularly interesting to compare and contrast the author's portrait of Augustus with that developed on the recent HBO "Rome" series which covers much of the same ground. As the helpful introduction by John McGahern explains, the author was not a classicist and undertook substantial reseach in order to make the novel as historically accurate (with a few exceptions) as possible. While not quite as exquisite as Yourcenar's "Memoirs of Hadrian" (also reviewed on Amazon), this fine novel comes very close to it in quality. For anyone interested in Roman history or just an outstanding read, this is a book well worth considering.
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on May 28, 2006
I'm just going to tell you to do yourselves a favour and check this book out. Allan Masse, bow your head to the lesser known an appreciated John Williams. "Augustus: A Novel" is written in a very original way, using drafted letters, diaries, memoirs and even poems to tell the story making it a very easy read. You feel that you get to know each of the historical characters and they are written in a believable and stunningly truthful way, it is practically un-faulted. Its only fault is the title, which would have been better, titled as "Augustus and Julia."


Because the book is told in three parts, and each part has a theme. Where part one is about Octavius and his rise to become Augustus, part two and three revolves around mainly him and his daughter Julia, and it is Julia who dominates the eyes and excitement of the reader making her out to be the more interesting and certainly the more likeable of the two. Nonetheless, the father-daughter relationship between the two is quite touching and you can tell honestly that Julia means the world to her father. Other characters there to excite and delight you are Livia, Maecenas, Agrippa and various other people like Tiberius and Julia's partner-in-crime and ambitious lover Jullus Antonius who also draws your attention as the only living son of Mark Antony, falling in love with Caesar's daughter, Julia, in a non-typical Romeo and Juliet way.

Without a doubt, the best Augustus fiction I've read. If you want a good Roman book to read then I advise you to get this out of the library and give it a go.
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VINE VOICEon May 2, 2006
Augustus, by John Williams, is an overlooked gem! This National Book Award winner describes the life of the Caesar Augustus, probably the most influential of the Roman emperors. He is famously reported to have remarked, `I found Rome in brick and left it in marble.' His reign was a time of peace and prosperity compared to the ruinous civil wars that preceded it. Unfortunately, there are few good yet accessible popularized accounts of his life. The lives of other Roman emperors have been defined for us by outstanding books. For Marcus Aurelius we have his own famous Meditations, for Hadrian there is Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, for Claudius there is Robert Graves' celebrated I, Claudius, Tiberius is rehabilitated in the somewhat imitative Tiberius: The Memoirs of the Emperor by Allan Massie. Accounts of Julius Caesar are plentiful, my favorite being found in the last books of Colleen McCullough's excellent Masters of Rome series. Yet for Augustus, we are left with the idiosyncratic characterization in Robert Graves' I, Claudius. For reasons about which I cannot even begin to speculate, Robert Graves painted Augustus as a remote grandfatherly figure while his dominating wife Livia was the villain of the piece.

Although John Williams was clearly familiar with the earlier works, balance is restored in his Augustus. The picture here is more in keeping with the man's known historical achievements. The novel is in epistolary form, i.e. a series of letters by the protagonists. This is a hard style to carry of. Bram Stoker did it in Dracula. John Williams does a great job. Once you get used to the rhythms of the text, you will find yourself immersed in the lives of the characters seen from their own perspective. The reader will encounter famous men such as Agrippa (he whose name can still be seen on the Pantheon in Rome), the wayward daughter Julia, and the poets Virgil, Horace and Ovid, to name but a few. They all come alive as living, breathing people. I regret that this book is not more widely known. This should be the book that defines Augustus in the mind of the modern reader.
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VINE VOICEon March 1, 2006
With a creative style, John Edward Williams presents the life of Augustus Caesar, Julius's nephew then adopted son, who ruled and remade Rome. Rather than using a more conventional literary style, Williams unravels the novel as a series of letters, journal entries, and documents from the diverse characters that surrounded and often vexed his subject. Cleverly, Williams leaves Augustus silent in this exchange of letters until the novel's end, so that the reader can see him from varying perspectives, through the eyes of friends and enemies alike.

Critics have compared Williams' novel to Graves' excellent I, Claudius from the first, and though many prefer one or the other, they are both so different as to be almost from different worlds. While both deal with Rome in the rise of the Caesars, Graves offers at once a more limited perspective, as it comes from the single narrator Claudius who remains in Rome, but also broader as Claudius lives through the reign of four different rulers. Graves' style allows for greater intimacy with the characters because he writes from the honest place of one character's internal musings. Williams offers a more global view from many different perspectives, but only hinting at the character's depth. This style, far from inferior, is merely different and makes for an extremely interesting reading experience. It is true, the reader must work a bit harder, tracking characters can at time prove a challenge and you must remember who is writing and to whom. Yet, that in some ways adds to the fun. Indeed, one of its great strengths is that we learn many views on Rome's decline and Augustus' success.

Only a scant few decades ago this work won the national book award and now is hardly read. However, with its interesting structure and clever prose, readers will certainly enjoy this recently reissued edition by Vintage.
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on March 28, 2014
The Augustus of History was a politician in every sense of the word. But this book is weighted more toward a literary Augustus. Interesting! The Roman Patrician and Equites classes in Augustus' era did have the opportunity to become well-versed in Greek literature, philosophy and rhetorics in addition to Latin. Hence it is not unlikely that Augustus could have developed literary inclinations. As it is a novel, the author is at liberty to shape what little facts there are to suit his purpose. Of course, in the end, I'm unsure as to whether the Augustus of this book is a close approximation to reality or not. Even so, this work is well-nuanced and is a pleasure to read as long as one is not expecting deep excursions into the political domain.
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on March 12, 2016
Octavius was chosen by Julius Cesar to be his heir and successor. He was a teenage when Julius Cesar was murdered on the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 BC. He became Augustus, emperor or Rome, a deity, and the founder of two hundred years of Pax Romana, temporarily ending the internal warfare for power that had troubled Rome.

Augustus by John Williams shared the National Book Award with John Barth's Chimera. I read Barth's book at Adrian College but had never heard of Williams until I bought a sale ebook of Stoner, a book that still ranks as one of my favorites read in recent years. My son gifted me William's last novel Augustus.

The story is told through letters between those close to Augustus, his enemies, and his family. In the beginning we hear others write about Octavius; in the last part we hear Augustus speak for himself.

The power of the novel is not in plot but in the subtle revelation of the cost of power. The boy Octavius is journeying with his boyhood friends when he hears of the death of Julius Caesar. His life is no longer his own. He knew his destiny was to change the world. Rome was deep in conflict for power. He raised an army and ended the 'tyranny of faction' at age nineteen. What he accomplished in his seventy-six years amounts to a miracle: he created an empire at a the cost of friendship, family, and friends.

Augustus sends his beloved daughter and only child Julia into exile to save her life when her friends and lovers are implicated in a plot on his life. The most powerful man in the world died ailing and existentially alone, knowing that his stepson Tiberius was poised to take over. He ponders on how man does not choose his fate but is propelled by necessity.

When we read of Julia's life and how she was a sacrifice to Roman peace, and of her discovery of love with the man who used her and led to her exile, it is heart breaking. Even more powerful are the thoughts of an aged Augustus considering his life, any man's life and the lessons learned.

Even after forty years of Pax Romana, Augustus sees the seeds of Rome's fall. Prosperity and security has not dulled the people's appetite for warfare, played out in the gladiator rings of blood and death. Augustus knows that power is ephemeral, and so is peace and plenty.

"Rome is not eternal...Rome will fall...the barbarian will conquer....There was a moment of Rome, and it will not wholly die." from Augustus.

Read an interview about the book at LA Review of Books: "Williams is like a medium who calls forth the voices of the dead, ever-poised on the thin edge of triumph or humiliation, for whom it is eternally now." "The book is a miracle: it shouldn't work, no way it should work---an epistolary novel about Rome's first emperor, told in the ancient yet natural and varied voices of all the key players?--and yet it succeeds beyond all measure."
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on December 14, 2015
Augustus by John Williams was my favorite book read of 2015. John Williams is a relatively obscure author who produced only five novels, most of which he penned while serving as a literary professor at the University of Denver. What he lacked in volume, he made up for in quality in this powerful novel alone, which was published in 1971.

Augustus imagines the rise, reign, and ultimately the death (both physically and politically) of the Emperor Augustus. The novel is purely historical fiction, with much of the writings in the epistolary format in the form of letters and journal entries between and by the main characters. While the pace of the events is consistently marked by actual events that are known to us by virtue of being handed down by Roman historians, the dialogue that tracks the meteoric rise of Augustus to the Roman throne shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar are masterfully created works of fiction and provides an imagined sense of the types of political rivalries, the machinations that occurred, the friendships betrayed, and lovers won and lost in such a world in which power becomes the sole pursuit of one's life and the reason for one's existence. The reader is treated to a panoply of famed historical figures throughout, including: Marcus Agrippa, the poet Ovid, the future Emperor Tiberius, King Herod, Cleopatra, Marcus Antonius (more commonly called Mark Antony), and many more.

Fascinatingly, it is not these well-known figures that deliver the best narratives, rather the book's most poignant moments arise from the journal writings of the exiled Julia, Augustus's beloved and highly intelligent but ultimately tragically flawed daughter. Julia is exiled to the island of Pandateria upon the order of her own father, who has his hand forced politically by an adultery law that he implemented in a vain attempt at changing the morality of Rome. Due to other political maneuvers by Julia's husband, Tiberius, Augustus's unfortunate alternative was to allow Julia to be subjected to a public trial of treason, so exile seemed to him to be the lesser of two evils. I won't provide any more details than that so as not to spoil the enjoyment of anyone that picks up the book, but the despairing diary entries that Julia enters from her lonely island of exile provides a melancholic sense of a life wasted and perhaps a life that was born in the wrong time, as powerful and intelligent women could only advance themselves through hidden alliances and marriages to the men around them. Indeed, some of the most profound philosophical musings come from Julia's diaries on this topic. Of her both stepmother and mother-in-law, Livia (the mother of Tiberius, a husband Julia detested), Julia observes, "Of all the women I have ever known, I have admired Livia the most. I was never fond of her, nor she of me; yet she behaved toward me always with honesty and civility; we got along well, despite the fact that my mere existence thwarted her ambitions, and despite the fact that she made no secret of her impersonal animosity towards me. Livia knew herself thoroughly, and had no illusions about her own nature; she was beautiful, and used her beauty without vanity; she was cold, and thus could feign warmth with utter success; she was ambitious, and employed her considerable intelligence exclusively to further her ambition's end. Had she been a man, I do not doubt that she would have been more ruthless than my father, and would have been troubled by fewer compunctions. Within her nature she was an altogether an admirable woman."

This challenge of craving power in subtle and hidden ways is something that Julia would turn to later, only remarking on her own inner pangs on the subject: "In this island prison, my life over, I wonder without caring at things I might not have wondered at, had that life not come to an end...It is odd to wait in a powerless world, where nothing matters. In the world from which I came, all was power; and everything mattered. One even loved for power; and the end of love became not its own joy, but the myriad joys of power...I have often wondered how I might have managed the power I had, had I not been a woman. It was the custom for even the most powerful of women, such as Livia, to efface themselves and to assume a docility that in many instances went against their natures."

Aside from Julia's powerful writings, the most compelling dialogue happens at the twilight of Augustus's own life at the end of the book, when the reader finally gets to view Augustus's life from the contemplative and often regretful musings of a dying emperor who seems to be asking the painful question through his letters to Nicolaus of Damascus of whether his life devoted to ambition and power was actually worth the high cost of losing most of his friends and loved ones in the end. Interestingly, much of what we learn from Augustus in the preceding pages is indirectly from the writings of others, or when he does speak, it is in the form of commands or is in the form of active plotting for gaining power or keeping it. The writings at the closing of the book are the reader's first glimpse into the emperor's soul. Williams sets up the contemplations beautifully, as Augustus writes out to Nicolaus what he wants inscribed as a historical self-serving paean to himself to be posted on tablets at the Senate Forum, but then Augustus turns to how much folly is in those inscriptions and how much reality they fail to capture; how much ugliness of power that he can't possibly divulge. He writes these introspections to seemingly the one man he can trust with them. One of my favorite paragraphs will give the reader of this review a small taste of the ability of Williams to bring a character to life and to infuse philosophy into the narrative attributed to the imagined words of Augustus:

"Mankind in the aggregate I have found to be brutish, ignorant and unkind, whether those qualities were covered by the coarse tunic of the peasant of the white and purple toga of a senator. And yet in the weakest of men, in moments when they are alone and themselves, I have found veins of strength like gold in decaying rock; in the cruelest of men, flashes of tenderness and compassion; and in the vainest of men, moments of simplicity and grace.”

I have put my focus on the writings of Julia and Augustus, and in so doing perhaps I have neglected the significant components of the book that are devoted to Augustus's ascent to power and his lifelong struggle to maintain that control. Indeed, this is perhaps part of the book that moves the quickest, as there are plenty of moving scenes and lines delivered within the subtext of dark plots, friends betrayed, friends that betray Augustus, political marriages devoid of true love, significant battles, and the paradoxical weaknesses and strengths of man on full display throughout.
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