Book Review: Augustus by John Williams

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, Atia. 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 deep friendships 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 they feel, 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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