John Williams: Augustus

“Father, 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?”

To have made palpable not only history, but the scope of human nature and the heart’s confidentialities; to have justly raised some of history’s forgotten women from the footnotes of the annals; to have retrieved a legendary man from his pedestal so he could tread in our minds as a mere mortal; to have given pensive credence to a line from that famous Quartet by Durrell in that the real ruins of Europe are its great men; there is but one word for the man, this book, the writing — august.

I have not read a more majestic novel!

As much as I want to reiterate the praises heaped upon this work and repeat the passages that moved me, I wish to put emphasis on what makes it meaningful to me as a woman — the noteworthy backstory, underscored by John McGahern in this edition, about the catalyst that gave us this book. In a conversation with writer Morton Hunt, John Williams learned the story of Augustus’ daughter Julia, whom the emperor deeply loved, but whom he sent into exile because she had broken the laws on adultery that he himself had enacted. The fascination with the fact that the only child of the first emperor of the Roman Empire had been overlooked in the histories led Williams to an immersion into the Roman world, which resulted in this work in which Julia is the heart.

It is this heart that grants us a compassionate portrait of Augustus. With this work published in 1971, and with that subtle power distinctly his, John Williams penned a revolutionary and enlightening approach on how to treat history’s women alongside the men — not to raise them unreasonably into women who played bigger roles in history than they actually did, but to remind us that they existed, they lived, and that they mattered.


Greeting this month with Memoirs of Hadrian and ending it with Augustus feels like a paradox at a time in my country when “history” is crafted to suit narratives and facts are doubted because they are purportedly written by the victors.

Friends, Romans, countrymen… in this, our history differs, because we have history written not by the victors but by the victims, and by those who became victims by speaking the truth. If we have the courage to question our history, we need also the courage to question our motives, and most of all, ask ourselves what kind of people our convictions empower.


“…nor did I determine to change the world so that my wealth and power might be enhanced… it was more instinct than knowledge, however, that made me understand that if it is one’s destiny to change the world, it is his necessity first to change himself.”

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