The Peace of Despotism

John Williams warns readers of Augustus in his introduction that “if there are truths in this work, they are the truths of fiction rather than of history.” He will be “grateful to those readers who will take it as it is intended—a work of the imagination.”

But how do “the truths of fiction” differ from those of history? Aristotle famously considered poetry to be more philosophical than history because it reveals “the sort of thing that a certain type of man will do or say either probably or necessarily,” rather than simply recording what particular individuals once said or did.

If Aristotle was right, then one might expect an historical novel like Augustus to provide more permanently valuable political insights than a history of the same events such as Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution. Syme’s history of the transformation of the old Republic into the Augustan principate certainly provides an account of what specific individuals did once say and do, but it also attempts to provide the kind of insight Aristotle believed could be found in literature rather than history.

Syme’s book implies, without explicitly declaring, that patterns of action found in ancient Rome have their parallels in the 20th century. He was writing in 1939, declaring in his introduction that his perspective was one “that has now become unconventional”—namely, history “from the Republican and Antonian side.” He took this side not from any particular admiration for Mark Antony or dislike of Octavian, who ruled as Augustus—but because the “Roman revolution” carried out by the latter seemed to him similar in important respects to the Fascist and Nazi revolutions of the 20th century. Syme’s unadorned, acerbic style expressed a refusal to admire a grab for power merely because it was successful. Syme sums up the long reign of the first emperor, Octavian/Augustus, with disillusioned succinctness: “Naked power prevailed.” Octavian’s victory brought peace, but it was only “the peace of despotism.”

John Williams’ novel does not attempt to disprove that the Augustan peace was “the peace of despotism.” A reader of Augustus is, however, left with a very different impression of Augustus and the Principate than that conveyed by Ronald Syme’s history. If Syme avowedly writes “from the Republican and Antonian side,” Williams loads the dice in favor of both the young Octavian and the mature Augustus. The proscriptions carried out by the first triumvirate of Antonius (Mark Antony), Octavian, and Lepidus would seem to constitute a mark against all three triumvirs, but Williams suggests first that they were necessary, secondly that Octavian, unlike Antonius, acted with reluctance, and thirdly that it was Antonius, not Octavian, who was responsible for most of the bloodshed.

The discussion between Octavius and Antonius, as reported to us by Octavius’ advisor Maecenas, reveals the difference between the two even as they agree:

Octavius . . . said to Antonius: “So it will be a proscription, as it was with Sulla.” Antonius shrugged. “Call it what you want to. But it’s necessary. You know it’s necessary.” “I know it,” Octavius said slowly. “But I do not like it.”

Antonius’ certainty that the proscription is “necessary” is supported by Maecenas’ observation many years later to the historian Livy that Octavian and all the opponents of the assassination of Julius Caesar would themselves have been killed if Brutus, Cicero, and the rest had had their way: “For it was clear that the Senate was now embarked upon the inevitable, though delayed, consequence of the assassination: the Caesareans had to be exterminated.”

As Williams tells the story, Octavian’s humanity repeatedly reveals itself even as the proscriptions proceed. Magnanimously, Octavian attempts to save Cicero, his political enemy, from proscription, but Antonius insists that “Cicero is not negotiable.” Octavian, in contrast, refuses to allow his old friend Salvidienus Rufus to be proscribed, even though Salvidienus had betrayed him in favor of Antonius. Antonius is more than willing to have Salvidienus killed, but Octavian throws Antonius’s word back at him: “The matter is not negotiable.” Octavian even tries to save Cicero’s life, sending him an anonymous message warning him that he is “in moral and immediate danger.”

According to the novel, Octavius himself did not proscribe anybody, averring that “I am young. I have not yet lived so long as to acquire that many enemies.” When the proscriptions are carried out, “The bloodiest of the work seems to be in the hands of Antonius’s soldiers,” says an apparently objective observer, Strabo of Amasia.

During his rule as Augustus, Octavian attempted (we learn) to end the games “in which one or another of the contestants was intended to lose his life” but ultimately had to allow gladiatorial combats and similar spectacles to continue despite his own distaste in order to insure the peace and order his rule had brought to Rome: “I was forced to give up my substitution and once again be guided by the desires of my countrymen, so that I might control them.”

He plans a lavish funeral for himself, not to satisfy his own desire for display but, again, to please the masses. He writes in his diary that “such excesses invariably please the people, and thus are necessary. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I shall not have to be witness to this last display.” Although he is worshipped as a god, he takes no pleasure in such adulation. Augustus tells his diary that “of all the roles that I have had to play in my lifetime, this one of being a mortal god has been the most uncomfortable.”

Indeed, his awareness of his own failings has been of the key reasons for his success. He writes in his diary:

I am a man, and as foolish and weak as most men; if I have had an advantage over my fellows, it is that I have known this of myself, and have therefore known their weaknesses, and never presumed to find much more strength and wisdom in myself than I found in another. It was one of the sources of my power, that knowledge.

Williams’ Augustus does not seek power for its own sake and does not particularly enjoy his great wealth. He sacrifices his own desires and chances for happiness for the sake of Rome. When by chance Augustus meets the old servant woman who used to care for him when he was a child, he tells her “you are more fortunate than I, my sister.” Hirtia, the old woman, has no doubt that Augustus has sacrificed his own personal desires so that others could live happy, fulfilled lives. She tells him “You have not found happiness . . . though you have given it.” Augustus can only agree—“It is the way my life has been” he says, and presumably the reader is supposed to nod in agreement.

Hirtia’s opinions may be discounted as those of an uneducated but loyal servant who is proud that the boy she once cared for has become the master of the world, but her sentiment is echoed by the learned and sophisticated poet Horace, who tells Augustus that he, Horace, knows

better than most, how much of your own happiness you have exchanged for the survival of our country; and I know the contempt you have had for that power which has been thrust upon you—only one with contempt for power could have used it so well.

A skeptical reader might discount Horace’s judgment as the words of a poet flattering the powerful to assure that he will be free to write poetry in comfort. But the Augustus we see here does not dispense favors to, or collect flattery from, such men. He confides to his diary that “I could trust the poets because I was unable to give them what they wanted.” Poets, the reader is encouraged to believe, are unlike other men, because they do not care about wealth, power, or any of the other things that the ruler of the world might be able to give them.

The notion that “poets” do not share the same human nature as other people seems implausible, but it is a given in the world of the novel. Augustus muses that he has “admired the poets because they seemed to [him] the freest and therefore the most affectionate of men.”

Horace assures the poet Tibullus that Augustus truly cares about literature for its own sake: “hard as it may be for you to believe, when he reads a poem he admires good writing more than praise.” Augustus, it seems, feels a special kinship for poets because he is a kind of poet himself. Creating the Principate out of the old Republic seems to Augustus comparable to the creation of a poem: “I have seen in the tasks that they [the poets] set for themselves a certain similarity to the task that long ago I set for myself.”

Augustus feels that perhaps the best way of judging his rule would be to evaluate it as one would literature: “The world was my poem . . . I undertook the task of ordering its parts into a whole, subordinating this faction to that, and adorning it with those graces appropriate to its worth.” Yet Williams’s Augustus is wise enough and humble enough to recognize that his friend Vergil’s “poem upon the founding of Rome will no doubt outlast Rome itself, and certainly it will outlast the poor thing that I have put together.”

Daniel Mendelsohn’s introduction to the New York Review of Books Classics edition of Augustus praises the novel for its vision of Augustus as a “deeper kind of hero” comparable to the protagonists of Williams’ earlier works, Stoner (1965) and Butcher’s Crossing (1960). No doubt the novel deserves such praise. A work whose main character is a political figure as consequential as Augustus demands, however, to be judged not only for what it can reveal about the life of an individual but also for what it can suggest about the recurring issues of political life. Here Augustus falls short.

Its implicit political message, to the extent it has one, seems to be that the rule of a wise man like Augustus is humanity’s best hope for achieving peace and order. Only a single master is capable of organizing the contradictory and changing desires of many individuals and groups “into a whole, subordinating this faction to that, and adorning it with those graces appropriate to its worth.” Yes, the novel concedes, this whole will before long fall apart, yet in the world of Augustus there is no other way to achieve even this brief triumph.

One disagrees with Aristotle at one’s peril, but it may be that there are times when a work of history may be more philosophical than even a fine novel—may tell us more about what “a certain type of man will do or say either probably or necessarily.” Syme’s Roman Revolution may be dated by its concern about contemporaneous political upheavals and, perhaps in some details, by new research. But its skepticism about revolutionaries seeking power ostensibly on behalf of great ideals remains salutary.