Book cover
John Williams
Print then Audio

Augustus is a perfectly written, surprisingly moving epistolary novel about the life of Caesar Augustus. Williams pulls off a magic trick here, telling an engrossing and compelling story of the first Emperor of Rome through personal drama. The world-altering historical events are a backdrop here. This is a book about the man and, to a lesser extent, his daughter.

The phrase “It does not matter” is a recurring motif. It reduces the events of the story to footnotes, and in the process the characters are elevated.

The despair that I have voiced seems to me now unworthy of what I have done. Rome is not eternal; it does not matter. Rome will fall; it does not matter. The barbarian will conquer; it does not matter. There was a moment of Rome.

Williams is a masterful writer. Each character writes with a distinctive voice, and you find youself feeling who is writing through voice alone. And the writing style is impeccable. I’m not versed enough it the world of Roman classics to identify this myself, but my daughter (who is) tells me Williams is using patterns here closely connected to Latin rhetorical style of the time.

Augustus has a core theme of inevitability: the inevitability of the Roman Empire itself, and its inevitable fall. And also of impermanence and perhaps even futility. These are surprising themes for a book about the rise of the empire.

Do they know that before us lies a road at the end of which is either death or greatness? The two words go around in my head, around and around, until it seems they are the same.

I love this book enough to immediately listen to the audiobook. And I’m sure I’ll read it again.