Tag Archives: First Emperor

Bringing Augustus To Life: A John Williams Quote

5 May

Just  before the current lock-down started in the United Kingdom I had the deep pleasure to read the novel Stoner, by the American academic and novelist John Williams.  It left a strong desire to explore his work further and I was excited to learn that each of his four published novels are unalike in form and style, focusing on completely different periods and utilising a variety of perspectives.  As time turned, and it became apparent that we would have to lock ourselves away from the social world, I sought continuing joy through the written word.

I quickly came across the next book by Williams that caught my attention – a self-titled work of fiction focused on the life of Augustus (64 BC – AD 14), otherwise known as Gaius Octavius.  He was the adopted heir of Julius Caesar who went on to become the first Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, ruling from 27 BC to AD 14 following the vanquishing of Caesar’s assassins and victory in the subsequent civil war.  Following Augustus’s numerous victories in battle and the consolidation of his political power, he helped to implement changes that oversaw Rome transition from a Republic to its first phase as a burgeoning imperial empire, thus helping to usher in a relatively prosperous and peaceful 200-year period known as the Pax Romana.  Augustus was arguably one of Rome’s most remarkable and adept political leaders.

The remarkable bronze Meroë Head of Augustus with striking glass pupils and calcite irises. Found in 1910 at the ancient Nubian site of Meroë, Sudan, the Greek-style statue is thought to date from 29 BC. Image credit: Wikipedia.

In Williams’s epistolary novel we are first introduced to Gaius Octavius through his friends and from there we follow his life, with nuanced views and fictional scenes giving emotional heft to the historical fact.

I’ll end it there with the novel description as I really just wanted to draw attention to the quote below from Williams himself, taken appropriately enough from a letter to a friend detailing his struggle of how to represent the novel’s historical figures and fictional viewpoints in a accurate manner, as it pays to bear in mind that the novel is as much about the people surrounding Augustus as it is about himself:

Those people were very real and contemporaneous to me. I wanted a kind of immediacy in it,  but I couldn’t figure a way how to do it. I also knew that all educated Romans were great letter-writers. Cicero would write eight, ten, twelve letters a day. And the Roman postal service was probably as good as our postal service is today. . . I wanted the characters to present themselves. I didn’t want to try to explain them. I didn’t want to have a twentieth-century vision of the Roman times. So the epistolary form lets the people speak for themselves… The provincial notion of how much more advanced we are – that’s nonsense.

– Quoted from Williams (2003: x).

There is a great point made repeatedly throughout the novel that history, both what we as individuals chose it to record and what it actually records through the medium of time, can only ever be what survives.  In ‘Augustus’ we are instead presented with fictitious multi-faceted views of historical figures and it is to the credit of William’s imagination and literary skill that they seem so alive and vital in this supremely accomplished novel.

Bibliography

Williams, J. 2003. Augustus: A Novel. Vintage: London.

Williams, J. 2012. Stoner: A Novel. Vintage: London