I’m a bit of a classicist nerd so I was always going to be naturally predisposed to a novel like this one; but even still, Williams’ retelling is excellent treatment of the last days of the Roman republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire under emperor Caesar Augustus.
The novel is epistolary in form and charts Augustus’ lifespan, roughly from his late teens when he after the murder of Julius Caesar right up until his death. The narrative switches between diary entries immediately after the fact, public decrees from the senate and letters between friends both concurrent with the main narrative and those from a future vantage point reflecting on past events.
There’s a large cast of characters whose writings we’re privy too, from Mark Antony to Cicero and from Augustus’ daughter Julia to the famous poet Ovid, and it’s quite impressive that Williams manages to imbue each voice with its own individuality so that we’re never uncertain about whose words we are reading. The epistolary form works very well in this regard for this novel, as the story itself is one that has been told so many times, it’s refreshing to revisit in such original fashion.
Only in the final section of the novel do we hear from Augustus himself though, in his letter to his friend and the famous ancient historian Nicolaus of Damascus. It’s clear that Williams saves his most moving and poetic insights for the main man and some of the passages are especially poignant given that we’ve just witnessed them from first hand perspectives. Augustus’ thoughts read more like a treatise on the meaning of life than the conclusion to a novel, but they do a good job of that too. A very, very enjoyable book.
You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.