Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Pax Romana and Ephemeral Power: Augustus by John Williams

Octavius was chosen by Julius Cesar to be his heir and successor. He was a teenage when Julius Cesar was murdered on the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 BC. He became Augustus, emperor or Rome, a deity, and the founder of two hundred years of Pax Romana, temporarily ending the internal warfare for power that had troubled Rome.

Augustus by John Williams shared the National Book Award with John Barth's Chimera. I read Barth's book at Adrian College but had never heard of Williams until I bought a sale ebook of Stoner, a book that still ranks as one of my favorites read in recent years. My son gifted me William's last novel Augustus.

The story is told through letters between those close to Augustus, his enemies, and his family. In the beginning we hear others write about Octavius; in the last part we hear Augustus speak for himself.

The power of the novel is not in plot but in the subtle revelation of the cost of power. The boy Octavius is journeying with his boyhood friends when he hears of the death of Julius Caesar. His life is no longer his own. He knew his destiny was to change the world. Rome was deep in conflict for power. He raised an army and ended the 'tyranny of faction' at age nineteen. What he accomplished in his seventy-six years amounts to a miracle: he created an empire at a the cost of friendship, family, and friends.

Augustus sends his beloved daughter and only child Julia into exile to save her life when her friends and lovers are implicated in a plot on his life. The most powerful man in the world died ailing and existentially alone, knowing that his stepson Tiberius was poised to take over. He ponders on how man does not choose his fate but is propelled by necessity.

When we read of Julia's life and how she was a sacrifice to Roman peace, and of her discovery of love with the man who used her and led to her exile, it is heart breaking. Even more powerful are the thoughts of an aged Augustus considering his life, any man's life and the lessons learned.

Even after forty years of Pax Romana, Augustus sees the seeds of Rome's fall. Prosperity and security has not dulled the people's appetite for warfare, played out in the gladiator rings of blood and death. Augustus knows that power is ephemeral, and so is peace and plenty.

"Rome is not eternal...Rome will fall...the barbarian will conquer....There was a moment of Rome, and it will not wholly die." from Augustus.

Read an interview about the book at LA Review of Books:  https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/john-williamss-novel-augustus-conversation. "Williams is like a medium who calls forth the voices of the dead, ever-poised on the thin edge of triumph or humiliation, for whom it is eternally now." "The book is a miracle: it shouldn't work, no way it should work---an epistolary novel about Rome's first emperor, told in the ancient yet natural and varied voices of all the key players?--and yet it succeeds beyond all measure."