Augustus is the third novel by John Williams (1992 to 1994, USA) I have recently read. I first read his set in American academia novel Stoner and then Butcher's Crossing, a stunning and horrowing work set in the American west in the 1870s. Obviously I greatly admire his books. I have no favorites among his novels but Stoner is, I think the most read so I guess you might start there. Williams wrote another novel based loosely on his World War II experiences but he later repudiated it so probably I won't read it.
Augustus is a very interesting work centering on the life and reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus who ruled the empire from 27BC to 14AD. The work is narrated through a series of letters, journal entries, historical works, and official texts, all created by Williams but based on long research. Augustus lived a very long time, up to seventy seven, in a job not known for security. Much of the deeper meaning of the novel is about living a long life, about out living the friends of your youth, about pondering or trying to impose a meaning on your experiences as you reach the end of days, about how history is wriiten.
There are lots of voices in this work, from Egyptian priests to Augustus's daughter Julia, whom he exhiled to a small island for violating his dictates on sexual morality., We see the same events from different perspectives. We see the incredible cruelty of the times combined with exquiste cultivation. Virgil and Ovid play minor roles and Cicero a larger part. Cleopatra crosses our path in a very interesting segment. We learn a lot about imperial family life. Of course everywhere slaves make the empire run. In one very moving segment we see the reaction of a now very old woman who once nursed Augustus on seeing him as Emperor. Each letter and journal from a different writer is well individuated. Some writers recur, others only have one brief moment upon the stage. The closing forty pages or so is devoted to a long letter of Augustus to his only still living friend in which Augustus reflects on his life. Herod appeard as do other lesser known figures from history. We go to Roman games, Augustus did not really care for them but put them on to keep the masses happy. We learn a good bit about the extreme importance of the army. I think some of the most interesting letters were from minor lost to history figures who appear but once. We see how marriage among the nobility was very political. We see some writers are deeply sincere, others the most venal of obsequious suck ups.
In several of the letters from Roman nobility written in advanced years, they said all they wanted now was the time to read great literature and philosophy. The wealthiest men in the Roman Empire after long years in power yearned for the time to live the reading life. Being able to live out any fantasy they saw reading as the greatest thing they wanted from life. One of the wonderful things about the very rich Augustus is that you can see what you want in it and I am open to the idea that this is what I was meant to see.
A good picture of life in the times emerges. I have been fascinated with this era in Roman history ever since loving and still missing the TV series Rome.
It really is a great pleasure to read a book this marvelous.
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