by John Williams

Reviewed by David Maclaine

John Williams' Augustus (not to be confused with the much duller novel of the same name by Alan Massie), is a skillfully constructed work of fiction, told in the form of letters and memoir fragments, about the enigmatic first Roman emperor. Even those who've read Colleen McCullough's bold treatment of the emperor's youth and Robert Graves' account of his final years should be interested in a book that successfully pulls together the life of a man who was as hard to pin down as the various names he was known by. By showing episodes in his life from an assortment of vantage points, John Williams creates a mosaic offering as integrated a picture as we're likely to get of the youth called Octavius who became the next Caesar and ended as Augustus.

Williams offers nothing so explicit as McCullough's forthright theories on how Octavius secured his place as Caesar's heir - no raised shoes to heighten his resemblance to his beloved great-uncle, no daring theft of the gold meant for the Parthian campaign. He does show the steely will and stern foresight of the teenager who heard the news of Caesar's assassination while sitting with his young friends outside an army camp across the sea from Italy and immediately understand what could and must be done to fulfill his destiny. Augustus shows the high cost of those choices, most poignantly late in the story when we see the heartbreak of his decision to send his daughter into exile, as well as his brief reunion as an aged emperor with his childhood nurse, when he finds reason to envy the quiet life of an ordinary woman, able, as he was not, to watch her sons grow up. If his brilliant, fascinating uncle who destroyed the Roman Republic will always earn more attention, the whole story of the man who ended the civil wars, brought peace to Rome and built an empire that lasted centuries is still well worth knowing. (1972, 305 pages)

More about Augustus at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

Augustus appears on the list of The 50 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Roman History

Other novels about Augustus:

The October Horse by Colleen McCullough (2002), about Julius Caesar's conquest of Egypt and Octavian's transformation into a leader who would become Augustus Caesar. See review or more info at Powell's Books

I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934), about Claudius during the reigns of Augustus through Caligula until he became Emperor of Rome in 41 A.D. More info

Three's Company by Alfred Duggan (1958), about the triumvirate, consisting of Mark Antony, Lepidus and Octavius (later called Augustus), which ruled Rome after the death of Julius Caesar. See review or more info at

Nonfiction about Augustus Caesar:

Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (121 A.D.). More info

Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor by Anthony Everitt (2006). More info

Augustus: Introduction to the Life of an Emperor by Karl Galinsky (2012). More info


Augustus at the BBC History website

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