Williams wrote the serious, affecting academic novel Stoner before he wrote this (mostly) epistolary novel about Augustus Caesar. Despite Williams’ protestations that both novels are concerned with power, the poor academic Stoner had no power while the characters in this one have nothing but. Augustus himself does not speak until the short, final section. The rest of the novel is told in letters between his family, friends, and a few enemies (Cicero and Mark Antony).
Williams ignores the influence of Robert Graves’s salacious Claudius novels and most of the dicier gossip of the time. It is a very high-minded and “Greek” treatment of the Romans. Augustus’ wife Livia is not the murderous witch of the Graves books, merely tough-minded and manipulative, though Augustus sees right through her. In parts Williams goes out of his way to avoid the pettier emotions: Augustus sentences his daughter Julia to a brutal island exile in order to save her life, not to punish her for treason. Augustus is also not concerned with her promiscuity or with promiscuity in general; his draconian marriage laws are merely to promulgate virtue, not demand it. This Augustus is, if anything, closest to the spectral Augustus of The Death of Virgil, who is more a philosophical respondent to Virgil than an actual person. Williams’s Augustus even expresses regret for exiling Ovid.
So Augustus emerges as a preternaturally calm and clear-headed person, as close to the ideal of the enlightened monarch as one could hope. Before his ascent, in the first half of the book, he is a cold, masterful tactician. After becoming emperor, he is a stoic ruler resigned to the unhappiness and isolation that he has brought on himself and pessimistic that the tide of chaos can be fought off after his death. This dialogue with Julia, after he has chosen Tiberius reluctantly but mindfully as his underwhelming successor, is representative:
“Father,” I asked, “has it been worth it? Your authority, this Rome that you have saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”
My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. “I must believe that it has,” he said. “We both must believe that it has.”
Here, as elsewhere, he is more Marcus Aurelius than Augustus.
The things that get out of Augustus’s control do not do so because of human fallibility and weakness, at least not on Augustus’s part. In his final monologue, he expresses little but resignation for what he has accomplished, and he regrets the loss of friendship and ordinary life that his position has cost him. These are the strongest moments in the book, the contrast between the benevolent despot and the young genius among his talented friends and compatriots, the last time he knew actual friendship.
In contrast, the weak point is Julia. Williams seems to have made a conscious decision to give Julia a long and retrospective part in the book, writing her memoirs after Augustus’s death on a larger and less wretched island than the original site of her exile. She writes as a mature, disappointed woman who holds little anger, someone who has lost whatever power she once had. She is happy, but Williams does not succeed in defining her sufficiently to make her more than a foil for Augustus. Perhaps this is a result of the paradox he set himself: Julia and Augustus cannot engage in a real dialogue over the course of the book because they are inhabiting different worlds. Williams does better in having other characters describe their relationships with Augustus, because among all his generals and advisers there is mutual understanding among the intrigue and mistrust, and so they all feel imminently present and evoke how Augustus is always at a remove, even when speaking for himself.
What is its relation to Stoner, which portrays little but small spiritual triumph in an unromanticized academic life? The pains and losses in Augustus are so large as to overwhelm most of the “human” motivations that drive Stoner (as well as most novels). The book reads something like a thought experiment: if Augustus had been so reflective and benevolent, how could the events of his life be explained? What results is an old masters portrait of Augustus, larger than life and larger than human emotion, but still in touch with both.