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The Price of Power

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An American academic in charge of creative writing at the University of Denver writes three novels in twelve years. They are unconnected apart from a shared fastidious composition. The first (1960) is set in Kansas in the 1870's and concerns a young man looking for adventure in the wilderness of the West. The second (1965) traces the unexceptional life of an assistant professor at a Midwestern university in the first half of the last century. Little more than a ripple of appreciation is raised. In contrast, the third novel (1972) – an account of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus – shares the US National Book Award for Fiction. Yet it is a brief efflorescence. Soon the book is interred with its predecessors in that well-stocked necropolis of forgotten literary talent. The author dies twenty-two years later, in 1994, a further novel unfinished at the time of his death.

The three books were Butcher’s Crossing, Stoner and Augustus, their author the peppery, chain-smoking John Williams – and there it might have ended. But in the early 2000s resurrection stirred. Through a grapevine of still appreciative readers and booksellers, interest reawakened in Stoner with its meticulous dissection of love, conflict and loss. The book was reissued and, after a hesitant start, sales took off. In 2013, the forty-one-year-old novel was voted Best Book of the Year by Waterstones.

It was only after reading Stoner that I looked at the brief list of Williams’s previous works (they include a fourth novel – his first, written in 1948 – which he later disowned). The title Augustus immediately attracted me. Direct me to novels about the classical world and I am as a white bull with gilded horns to the slaughter. It has been so ever since I read an easily digestible version of the Odyssey as a child. Could this match Marguerite Yourcenar’s Hadrian (SF no. 2), Robert Graves’s Claudius, Mary Ren

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An American academic in charge of creative writing at the University of Denver writes three novels in twelve years. They are unconnected apart from a shared fastidious composition. The first (1960) is set in Kansas in the 1870's and concerns a young man looking for adventure in the wilderness of the West. The second (1965) traces the unexceptional life of an assistant professor at a Midwestern university in the first half of the last century. Little more than a ripple of appreciation is raised. In contrast, the third novel (1972) – an account of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus – shares the US National Book Award for Fiction. Yet it is a brief efflorescence. Soon the book is interred with its predecessors in that well-stocked necropolis of forgotten literary talent. The author dies twenty-two years later, in 1994, a further novel unfinished at the time of his death.

The three books were Butcher’s Crossing, Stoner and Augustus, their author the peppery, chain-smoking John Williams – and there it might have ended. But in the early 2000s resurrection stirred. Through a grapevine of still appreciative readers and booksellers, interest reawakened in Stoner with its meticulous dissection of love, conflict and loss. The book was reissued and, after a hesitant start, sales took off. In 2013, the forty-one-year-old novel was voted Best Book of the Year by Waterstones. It was only after reading Stoner that I looked at the brief list of Williams’s previous works (they include a fourth novel – his first, written in 1948 – which he later disowned). The title Augustus immediately attracted me. Direct me to novels about the classical world and I am as a white bull with gilded horns to the slaughter. It has been so ever since I read an easily digestible version of the Odyssey as a child. Could this match Marguerite Yourcenar’s Hadrian (SF no. 2), Robert Graves’s Claudius, Mary Renault’s Alexander and Theseus, and Henry Treece’s Oedipus, Jason and Electra? Yes. The outline of Augustus’s life is well known although contemporary sources are exiguous. Born Gaius Octavius in 63 BC into a wealthy equestrian family, he was the maternal great-nephew of Caesar and at the age of 17 was adopted by the dictator and made his heir. Thereafter, he was known as Octavian. After Caesar was murdered in 44 BC, the young man moved with fellow triumvirs Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus to crush his adoptive father’s assassins. In the continuing fallout from the collapse of the Republic, the triumvirate fell apart, with Octavian emerging master in 31 BC after defeating Antony at the naval battle of Actium. The civil war over, he set about cementing his power and settling Rome’s empire through conquest and diplomacy. In doing so, Octavian laid down the ideological and institutional framework which would sustain that empire for the next 400 years. He died aged 76 in AD 14 having been granted the honorific title of Augustus (‘one to be revered’) and worshipped in his lifetime as a living god, an elevation by the credulous that he considered absurd. Throughout, this wily manipulator insisted he was but a servant of the people, uninterested in retaining power should they wish otherwise. This disingenuous fiction fooled no one. Tacitus says in his Annals: ‘He seduced the army with bonuses and the citizenry with corn – and everyone with the sweetness of peace. Then he took to himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates and the laws. There was no opposition . . .’ Gibbon more bluntly described Augustus’s rule as an ‘absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth’. So how does an author who so precisely unpicked the narrow life of a professor at a twentieth-century university handle the dramatic canvas presented by Rome’s greatest emperor 2,000 years earlier? Above all, Williams’s primary intention was authenticity. Anxious to avoid the clichés attached to the Roman empire – murderous toga-plotting, dodgy sex, heroic gladiators and swivel-eyed barbarians erupting from dank Teutonic forests – he said:
I didn’t think I could handle it in a straight narrative style without making it sound like a Cecil B. DeMille movie or a historical romance. I wanted the characters to present themselves. These people were very real and contemporaneous to me. I didn’t want to try to explain them.
To achieve this subjective realism, the book takes the epistolary form of a series of letters, memoirs, documents and dispatches written by friends, family and enemies over the course of Octavian’s struggle for supremacy. As the awkward teenager matures into avenger, then lawmaker and finally ‘father’ of his people, these observers mark his passage with praise, fear, criticism and admiration. This illustration of the truth that an individual’s actions can be perceived differently by different people is complemented by Williams’s portrayal of Octavian as protean. He instinctively senses it is his destiny to change the world. For this to be achieved, he must change himself – to ‘find or invent within himself some hard and secret part that is indifferent to himself, to others and even to the world he is destined to remake’. As death nears, the old emperor admits that ‘like any poor, pitiable shell of an actor’ he has played so many parts there no longer is ‘himself’. Augustus comprises three books. Book I traces Octavian’s rise to power from the moment that he learns at 19 of Caesar’s murder. His youthful friend, the louche Maecenas, recalls him then stricken by grief, ‘a pleasant stripling, no more, with a face too delicate to receive the blows of fate, with a manner too diffident to achieve purpose’. But another early supporter, Agrippa, senses the underlying steel. Octavian relies on Agrippa’s military expertise at the crucial battles of Mutina, Philippi (at which some historians have suspected him of cowardice), Naulochus and Actium. Unlike gossipy Maecenas, Agrippa recalls those turbulent days in straightforward, almost clipped, language, reflecting his character as a no-nonsense soldier not given to flights of literary fancy. Cicero, pious citadel of Republican virtue, is contemptuous of the young upstart. He tells his correspondent Marcius Philippus after the Ides assassination: ‘He is a boy and a rather foolish boy at that; he has no idea of politics nor is he likely to have . . . thus he does not, I believe, constitute a danger for us.’ Foolish Cicero. He will be murdered in the triumvirate’s Proscriptions. Antony, too, is patronizing. That boozy old dog of war writes to Octavian as seasoned hand to impetuous tyro. Leave it to me, son. Then the tone changes to exasperation, even panic, as he realizes he is being outmanoeuvred by that ‘bloody hypocrite’. Foolish Antony. He will commit suicide after Actium. These recollections and memoirs are interspersed with evocative descriptions of Rome and Alexandria, military commands, reports of senatorial proceedings, petitions and memoranda plus further correspondence from, among others, Livy, Horace, the historian Nicolaus of Damascus and the geographer Strabo of Amasia. In the process, Octavian’s character is not so much unpeeled as layered with successive skins of ambiguity. Book II moves largely from public to private life which, through necessity, Octavian has sacrificed to his perception of the general good. It includes the memoirs of the emperor’s sexually charged daughter Julia, whom he unwillingly exiles for breaking his own law on adultery and thereby threatening the moral legitimacy of the ruling family. John McGahern tells us in an introduction that it was Williams’s fascination with this story, first heard from the writer Morton Hunt, that led him to write the novel. At the time of writing Julia is 43, condemned to the barren isle of Pandateria with only her crabby mother and a servant for company. But in her youthful pomp she was, through marriage to Agrippa and the adoption of her sons by Octavian, second only to the emperor’s wife Livia. Although she has power, she cannot seize it like a man by force of strength. So, like her father, she conceives identities to disguise her desire for glory and works them to her advantage: innocent daughter, virtuous wife, imperious matron. Forced after Agrippa’s death to marry Tiberius, Livia’s unappealing son by her first marriage and the next emperor, she abandons caution and adopts her final role of adulterous libertine. Foolish Julia. Her last lover is linked to a plot against Octavian. She must go. Yet her father’s love for her is undimmed. To close, in Book III we hear the voice of the dying Augustus as he sails to Capri, teeth gone, hands trembling with palsy and drooping flesh blotched with age. We have witnessed through others his rise to power, his harshness and leniency, bravery and caution, his constant dissimulation. Now Augustus explains the paradox of that power – that his greatest strength is the recognition of his own weakness. Knowledge of it enables him successfully to exploit the weakness of others. Looking back on his life with unsparing honesty, the princeps discloses that when Caesar was killed, far from being consumed by grief – as Maecenas believed – he ‘felt nothing’. Then he was secretly overcome by elation. ‘It was destiny that seized me that afternoon nearly sixty years ago, and I chose not to avoid its embrace.’ The terrible cost of that destiny, however, is abandonment of human relationships for, he says, it was never politic to let another know his heart. That denial of what is cherished includes losing the affection of his proud and arrogant wife who supported him to the end. Their love, eroded by Livia’s ambition for her son, was short-lived. Yet Augustus appreciates her understanding of power and the sacrifices that have to be made for the sake of order. It has been plausibly suggested that Livia killed her ailing husband with poisoned figs. If so, he would have approved, for she would have done so to ensure the smooth dynastic succession of her son. As the shades fall, the old man acknowledges his legacy, but he knows it is transitory. Rome will fall, the barbarian will conquer. None of it matters. ‘The winds and rains of time will at last crumble the most solid stone, and there is no wall that can be built to protect the human heart from its own weakness.’ It is said that among his last words were ‘Have I played my part in the farce of life well enough?’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 58 © Patrick Welland 2018


About the contributor

Patrick Welland is a freelance writer. The closest he has come to the imperial purple is in some of his more excitable prose from his days as a Fleet Street sub-editor.

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