A Prologue, an Epilogue and three Books in between. That then is the format of John Williams’ epistolary novel on the rise, reign (and passing) of Augustus Caesar, who became the first emperor of the Roman Empire (27 BC-AD 14) after the assassination of the man who adopted him as his son, Julius Caesar.
Luckily I had some prior knowledge of the players (even some minor ones), thanks to the benefit of having watched HBO’s excellent series Rome. Williams’ book draws a labyrinthine picture of the intrigues, plots, cliques, coalitions and political gamesmanship of the times. Some things never change. Because the format, Williams is able to give us a quite intimate look at the history of that era, with the motivations layed out for the reader to see.
Because we need to get caught up on the history a little, Book I can be tedious in spots, but it’s all necessary. There were times when I couldn’t help but mentally compare (unfavorably) Williams novel with Marguerite Yourcenar’s brilliant Mémoires d’Hadrien. Without the detail of Book I, the depth found in Books II and III would be meaningless. So Book I finds us being introduced to Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony, Brutus, Cleopatra. And beyond. The usual cast of characters known from Shakespeare on down to us. The various letters between these historical figures jump from that present time frame to some years after. Back and forth. So the picture we get is both timely and reflective.
Finally, Book I finishes with a letter from Gaius Cilnius Maecenas to Titus Livius. Maecenas was a trusted political adviser to Caesar Augustus. The letter, written several years after the events which he summarizes, is to the Roman historian known as Livy. Citing his tiredness and his boredom “with remembering” Maecenas sums up the deaths of Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra (as well as the death of the purported son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and a son of Marcus Antonius) in perfunctory style. It’s a matter of fact ending to all the intrigues that led up to these deaths. Deaths that ushered in a time of relative calm in the history of the Roman Empire. Then the novel really gets cranked up.
Though there are still several players/voices through letters, the heart of Book II comes to us from the Journal of Julia, Augustus Caesar’s daughter, written from her exile on the isle of Pandeteria, dated A.D. 4. These selections are less formal and they contain some of the more sublime, lyrical, and in many ways more modern (in thought) passages in the novel. Julia had been educated far beyond the way most women of the time were educated. This was her glory – and her curse as well. It’s not an easy life to live, being ahead of your time. Here, Julia wistfully describes her days.
…I spend the morning hours reading one or another of those books from the library that I was allowed to bring with me here from Rome. The indulgence of my library was one of the few allowed me; yet of all that might have been, it is the one that has made this exile the most nearly endurable. For I have returned to that learning which I abandoned many years ago, and it is likely that I should not have done so had not I been condemned to this loneliness; I sometimes can almost believe that the world in seeking to punish me has done me a service it cannot imagine.
Julia’s voice soars over all the others. This wonderful passage deconstructs sexual politics in A.D. 4. There’s a later selection that would not have been out of place in something like Our Bodies, Ourselves:
I think now of the devious ways in which a woman must discover power, exert it, and enjoy it. Unlike a man, she cannot seize it by force of strength or mind or desire; nor can she glory in it with a man’s open pride, which is the reward and sustenance of power. She must contain within her such personages that will disguise her seizure and her glory. Thus I conceived within myself, and let forth upon the world, a series of personages that would deceive whoever might look too closely; the innocent girl…the virtuous wife…the imperious young matron…the idle scholar…”
Book III consists entirely of a remarkable letter from Augustus Caesar, written over several days in AD 14, as he drifts leisurely down to Capri, shortly before his natural death. It’s remarkable for its insight into his own soul and motivations. This section is worthy of comparison to Yourcenar’s Hadrian.
Octavius Caesar (now in his 70’s) begins the preparation for his death and looks back over his life. He remarks that most everything written about him are lies (though not “untruths”), including some of his own writings.
For it seems to me now that when I read those books and wrote my words, I read and wrote of a man who bore my name but a man whom I hardly know. Strain as I might, I can hardly see him now, and when I glimpse him, he recedes as in a mist, eluding my most searching gaze. I wonder, if he saw me, would he recognize what he has become? Would he recognize the caricature that all men become of themselves? I do not believe that he would.
In the same letter, he writes about how he’s in the process of writing down his legacy on six bronze tablets. He must distill his life down to the limitations and confines of his own design for his mausoleum.
It seems to me wholly appropriate that I should have been forced to write of myself under these conditions, arbitrary as the might be; for just as my words must be accommodated to such a public necessity so has my life been. And just as the acts of my life have done, so these words must conceal at least as much truth as they display; the truth will lie somewhere beneath these graven words, in the dense stone which they will encircle. And this too is appropriate, for much of my life has been lived in such secrecy. It has never been politic for me to let another know my heart.
Here, Octavius muses on the Circus Maximus that is man:
I have never had that sentimental and rhetorical love for the common people that was in my youth (and is even now) so fashionable. Mankind in the aggregate I have found to be brutish, ignorant, and unkind, whether those qualities were covered by the coarse tunic of the peasant or the white and purple toga of a senator. And yet in the weakest of men in moments when they are alone and themselves, I have found veins of strength like gold in decaying rock; in the cruelest of men, flashes of tenderness and compassion; and in the vainest of men moments of simplicity and grace.
Octavius boldly writes that he set out to change the world. But not out of any “idealism and self righteousness”, nor out of any lust for power, nor out of a desire for great wealth. No, it was the call of Destiny, which he chose not to ignore. Carpe diem. But in order to fulfill that Destiny, a man must first change himself in preparation for the bending to Destiny’s necessities.
One does not deceive oneself about the consequences of one’s acts; one deceives oneself about the ease with which one can live with those consequences.
As a description of the life cycle of man, it doesn’t get much better than this:
The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey through strange seas and unknown islands, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality. The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy; for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature to which he gives the name of gods, and has learned that he is mortal. But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy. For his triumphs and his failures merge, and one is no more the occasion for pride or shame than the other; and he is neither the hero who proves himself against those forces, not the protagonist who is destroyed by them. Like any poor, pitiable shell of an actor, he comes to see that he has played so many parts that there no longer is himself.
With John Barth’s Chimera, the winner of the 1973 National Book Award for fiction. Coincidentally, the winner for translation the same year went to Allen Mandelbaum for a new translation of The Aeneid of Virgil. The Roman Empire (and the Greeks) continue to be a great source for literary inspiration and materials.