Augustus, John Williams

The Dutch cover
For many in Rome the Republic was the ideal state, and they wanted to prevent anybody becoming king again. When Julius Caesar was appointed dictator for life, some people thought the next step for him would be to become king, so they killed him in 44 BC to prevent this.

With Julius Caesar dead, there was chaos in Rome and nobody knew what would happen. The murderers thought they had saved the Roman Republic, Marc Anthony wanted to punish the murderers and then there was the unknown factor of Octavian.

He was a young man, nephew of Caesar and nobody knew much about him. And nobody thought he mattered.

But this pale and sickly young man without experience managed to see through every conspiracy, get the right allies at the right and was not afraid to make difficult decisions. And he won. After a long period of civil war and many deaths, he finally held all the power in 27 BC. He did not call himself emperor, but rather first citizen and he would rule over Rome for over forty years. 

Augustus is John Williams third book and he won many prizes with it.

The book begins with the murder of Julius Caesar when Octavian has to claim his inheritance. He has a few good friends, like Agrippa, but at the same time he cannot trust anyone anymore and has to be vigilant at all times.

This becomes clear in the second part when Augustus has been the ruler for some time and he needs to secure an heir. His daughter Julia is a pawn in the marriage game, and finally Augustus has to banish her to a small island because she became a pawn in another game against Augustus.

In the last part of the book Augustus looks back on his life and asks himself if it has been worth it.

The book is set up in letters and I loved how this made you feel like the real Romans were talking. People who know Octavian at the beginning may have a different opinion on him after forty years ruling because they now know what the outcome is of some events, but also because their relationship with Octavian has changed.

I also liked it very much how each person sounds differently. Marc Anthony was a loudmouth and you can read this in his letters, while Cicero tries to cover all angels and Agrippa cannot see any wrong in anything Octavian does.

Augustus himself does not speak until the third part of the book, but still you get a good idea of this very interesting and unusual man.

I have read how many people needed some time to get ‘into the novel’. I did not have this problem, but I do have a very good idea of Roman history and this may have helped me in this respect. But if you do struggle a bit with the first part, it is a book that rewards perseverance and I am sure you will end up loving it!

Stoner is still my favorite John Williams novel, but for me Augustus is not far behind.

Published in 1972