John Williams witholds the inner voice of the eponymous Augustus, born Gaius Octavius, until the very last. The first Roman Emperor remains among the most enigmatic figures in history, and Williams, too, keeps him at a hand’s length, his motives obscure even as the author’s other characters scrutinize Octavian’s every move.
And what characters they are! Nearly all of them based on real historical figures, rendered to life with daunting skill. But a few of these figures are Octavian’s three closest friends: Marcus Agrippa, Salvidenus Rufus, and the patron of the arts (and, judging by the emperor’s words, a bad poet in his own right), Maecenas.
But I am getting ahead of myself. This essay is the first of two planned out, aimed to celebrate a monumental work of historic and literary fiction, a work both intelligent and empathic, concerned with “the ambivalence between the public necessity and the private want or need” that Williams himself identifies as the conflict at the heart of the novel. This first essay examines Book 1 of Augustus, which follows Octavius Caesar’s ascension to power, his navigating the treacherous waters of a chaotic Rome in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination. His begins as a pursuit of justiceagainst his uncle’s assassins — or is it vengeance, or even a mere casus belli for the ambition of a young man?
Despite this, it’s not long before Octavian is forced to save one of his uncle’s assassins, Decimus, also one of Julius’ proteges. Here, then, is the first glimpse at the central conflict of Augustus. When Decimus, saved by the intervention of Octavius sends word to him in the hopes of conversation, Octavius Caesar’s response is telling:
I did not come to save Decimus; therefore, I will not accept his gratitude. I came to save the state; and I will accept its thanks. Nor will I speak to the murderer of my father, nor look upon his face. He may go in safety by the authority of the Senate, not by my own.Augustus, Vintage edition, 60.
You see, then, how public necessity forces the young Caesar places public need before want; though whether it’s due to respect for the state, or to increase his own political capital during a time when doing so is of utmost necessity, is anybody’s guess.
The first part of the novel concludes after Octavian’s victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium. Success drips blood, failure gushes it. This is not something Octavius Caesar is unconscious of: “We knew that we had won the world; but there were no songs of victory that night, nor joy among any of us.” (140) So writes Marcus Agrippa in Williams’ fictionalized Memoirs of the very same, upon his recollection of that final contest between Octavius and Mark Anthony. The battle seals the latter’s face; Anthony kills himself not long after.
The paragraph quoted above is telling for the price of Augustus’s ascension. There is no end to the spilling of Roman blood in what was, in essence, the last chapter in a lengthy Roman civil war that saw its beginnings before even Julius Caesar’s star had risen. Many of the actors early on in Book 1 are driven by the notion of restoring the Republic to its former glory; Williams captures the political entanglements and atmosphere of the Eternal City through the letters of Cicero.
NYRB’s Editor at Large, Daniel Mendelsohn, describes Williams’ voice as “capturing both the wit and preening of Cicero”. Here, then, is one example of that wit, this time from a fictional letter penned by Maecenas:
We had heard the witticism that Cicero made: “We shall do the boy honor, we shall do him praise, and we shall do him in.” But I think that even Octavius did not expect the Senate and Cicero to offer so blatant and contemptuous a dismissal. Poor Cicero . . . . Despite the trouble he cause us and the harm that he indended, we were always rather fond of him.61
This early actor in the political landscape of Book 1 does not last long, however, for a simple reason:
…the ideals which supported the old Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; the the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the chall to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder.62-63
Indeed, these early actors fall away from prominence as the novel moves inexorably onward. Even though many of the Republican faction survive to play a role in Book 2, the factional conflicts are overshadowed between Octavian and Mark Anthony’s own conflict. One of them is beloved by the people, the other has the loyalty of many of Julius’ own legions; both driven by the will to power.
Each of them, however, is possessed by very different qualities. Anthony is a soldier; a man whose own fortunes are built in the shadow of Julius Caesar. Followin Caesar’s detah, he viewed himself as the rightful heir of the power wielded by his former leader; but Anthony lacks the qualities of an administrator, as history teaches us when he took the position of Administrator of Italy in 47 B.C.; some of Anthony’s blunders are referenced by Williams on p. 51: “[Antonius] had defied the constitution once by entering the city with his armed forces…”
Further, Anthony is hardly a master tactician. Upon allying himself with Cleopatra and campaigning for her, he makes a fool of himself. Proof is to be found in the fictionalized report of Epimachos, High Priest of Heliopolist to Cleopatra: “[Antonius] fights more bravely than prudence should allow, and endures privations and hardships which would destroy the most seasoned common soldier. But he is no general, and the campaign has been a disaster.” (123)
Octavian, meanwhile, is that exceedingly rare mixture of scholar and skilled politician. Look towards the comparison between him and Cicero: “[Cicero] acted out of enthusiasm, vanity, and conviction. We had learned early that we could not afford those luxuries; we moved, when we had to move, out of calculation, policy and necessity. [My italics]” (62) These are good qualities in a statesman.
Octavian has the wherewithal to surround himself with capable men; though one of his friends, Salvidenus Rufus, betrays him in a moment of doubt, he leans both on Maecenas and on Agrippa; one a talented political operator, the other — a strategos of great skill. Anthony, by contrast, allows himself to be manipulated by Cleopatra, a pawn to aid the Egyptian ruler’s ambition of a Greko-Egyptian line to overshadow Rome itself. A pawn that loses even the loyalty of many of the soldiers in his sworn Roman legions, forced now to stand against fellow Romans for the defense of barbarians (as the Romans viewed the Egyptians and their kingdom).
One man proved victorious, the other was vanquished. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, August 19, marks the 2006th anniversary since Augustus’s death. Join me next month, on the anniversary of Octavian’s birth on September 22, for the second part of my analysis of John Williams’ Augustus: “In Times of Peace”.