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Showing 1-10 of 169 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 202 reviews
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 April 11, 2015
Williams's "Stoner" was in my view a tour de force. "Augustus" plodded rather wearily through his sixty-odd year adventure. The epistolary mechanism has some drawbacks: true, it allows input from more than one point of view, but at the same time it means nothing has immediate force. Everything is told in retrospect, sometimes so long after the event that it scarcely seems to have relevance. In fact, a lack of relevance is the most striking thing about this book: it is not very clear to this reader what the author hoped to achieve by it. We do learn something of Roman history, should we lack that knowledge; something of Roman life and the rotting fabric of Roman society in the transition from Republic to Empire. But, as Augustus is portrayed as feeling about his own life, we reach the end wondering whether there was any point to the journey at all. Reinforcing our disappointment is the disastrous mechanism of Augustus's letter to Nicolaus. How likely is it that the Emperor would unburden himself like this? And, since we have known Augustus only at second hand from fragmentary observations of outsiders, why should we care?
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on October 10, 2014
John Williams’ Augustus is an epistolary novel-that is, a work composed of letters and memoires. Some of the letters are taken from actual correspondence by historical figures of the time, such as Cicero and Maecenas, and others are complete inventions of the author, speculating on what the character would have written if given the chance.
Caesar Augustus was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus in the year 63 B.C. His father was a prosperous plebeian of no noble lineage but his mother was the niece of Julius Caesar. Caesar, having no legitimate heirs took a liking to his young great nephew and made him his heir.
In his youth Octavius served with his great uncle in Spain, and according to this book, Caesar insisted that he travel to Apollonia to complete his education. On that venture he made formed a deep friendship with three other youths, Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, and Salvidianus Rufus. It was in Apollonia that he heard the news of his great uncle Julius Caesar’s assassination. He and his three companions immediately set off back to Rome so that Octavius may claim his inheritance. Young Octavius faces obstacles that would have daunted anyone else. His mother and step-father urge him to renounce the inheritance for his own safety. Rome, at that time is a nest of vipers. There are the assassins, still roaming free, and there was Marc Anthony, clearly the most powerful person on the scene. There were republicans like Cicero whose intention was to use Octavius against Anthony and then do him in.
Augustus is a masterpiece, completely absorbing from beginning to end. The letters and memoirs complement each other and knit together as a coherent picture. One gets a real sense of the character of the man and his times. It is many blind men describing what part of the elephant theyfeel, but in the end we can picture the elephant.
Augustus Caesar is both a grand and a tragic figure. He was, arguably one of the most adept politicians of all time, the iron fist in the velvet glove, ruling Rome for over forty years, converting the city from brick to marble. Yet there never ceased to be intrigues and sabotage against his rule, and one of the people caught up in these intrigues was Augustus’s daughter Julia. Beautiful and brilliant, she is corrupted by the great wealth and power she has received, and at the same time she is used by both her father and her stepmother-forced to marry her stepmother Livia’s son Tiberius whom she hates, and whose hate is returned in equal measure. Julia responds with adultery and plotting and ends up exiled to a tiny Mediterranean island. Livia’s ambitions for her eldest son Tiberius blind her to all other considerations and bring untold grief to the family of Augustus both before and after his death. In the end, Augustus questions whether his efforts have been worth it.
I strongly recommend this novel to anyone who has an interest in the inception of the Roman Empire.
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on October 31, 2016
While not the best historical fiction I have ever read (as a fanatic), this goes into the bucket with the miserably small number of worthy HF books out there. The style is purely letters between notable politicians, poets and family members of Augustus. Months later, I feel like I actually was hearing the thoughts of these characters, which is high praise in my opinion.

(For those who have read John Williams' "Stoner", don't worry, there are few depressed, dysfunctional human cadavers wandering aimlessly through life without joy :) A very different style!)
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on December 2, 2015
Augustus is a masterfully written novel which uses the epistolary form to present a complex view of Octavius and his world. That world, seen from multiple perspectives and ranging in time from the death of Julius Caesar to the last years of Augustus as Emperor, shows us a man whose effects are felt everywhere yet who remains something of a mystery to the reader until the last section of the novel. Several of the characters will be familiar to readers who have read about ancient Rome, but a return to the history books is not needed to enjoy the military, political, and social insights offered here. Best of all is the elegance of the language, which brings that world vividly to life.
I was doubly surprised because I had not cared for a novel by this author that I had read earlier.
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on March 16, 2017
This novel written in epistolary format provides a continuation and development of John Williams ideas about how circumstances, decisions, and relational interactions influence the path of development of a man. It completes the themes developed in his first two novels, "Butchers Crossing" and "Stoner." While all three books are ostensibly historical fiction the more important aspects are the concepts around the development of a man's character from plans initiated to outcomes dependent on decisions made and external societal influences and forces.
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on June 1, 2015
When my 50 yr. old son highly recommended "Augustus" I had my reservations. I had enjoyed some books on the Roman Empire and my son is an avid reader--as I am--it's a family "gene"--so I read about the book and ordered it. Time and money well spent! The writing style was just right for this ancient history. The characters were in the moment --not a moldy old history book. I was right there with Agustus Caesar all the way and loved the book.
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on June 3, 2016
Extremely well written in an unorthodox way. Once you get used to reading the various letters to and from more or less well-know persons, it is quite fun. Do not get turned off just because you do not know all the characters in the letters and diaries. If you remember that Augustus is the person you are getting to know in this way. Perhaps I could have done without the last long letter written by Augustus. It seems superfluous and somewhat out of character from what the author has wanted us to perceive about the actual historical figure. I would certainly recommend this book to everybody interested in Roman history.
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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 November 29, 2015
John Williams simply deserves to be better known. His Stoner and Butcher's Crossing were great reads. Augustus is written in the form of letters and memoirs from different people contemporary with Augustus. I normally hate books written in this manner, so I was going to give this a pass, but Williams has somehow handled it so that each writer's contribution holds your interest - a bit of gossip, an historical insight, some psychological speculation on a famous person. It all adds up to another reason to place Williams among the American writers that ought to be a familiar name. Thank you NYRB for making him easily available.
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