Literary Hub

Trump in a Toga? On the Lessons (or Lack Therof) in Historical Fiction

Picture it: a popular demagogue seizes power from the democratically elected government of a vast and prosperous, but also dysfunctional and corrupt republic. Realizing they have been reduced to a rubber stamp, the senators of this nation conspire to assassinate the would-be tyrant. The tyrant dies, but democracy is not saved: in the ensuing power struggle, a 19-year-old boy manages to outmaneuver powerful rivals to claim the title of Emperor. He instigates an era of enlightened dictatorship, and, decades later, when he finally succumbs to old age, the power that he has painstakingly consolidated and used to the best of his wisdom falls into the hands of a series of buffoonish despots. A once wise and mighty republic is transformed into a domineering empire.

What I have just sketched out for you is how Rome saw its democratic government overthrown by Julius Caesar and claimed by Emperor Augustus. This story of a democracy turning to empire is what American author John Williams chose to tell in his 1972 novel Augustus, and it is one that feels more and more relevant given today’s politics.

Williams may be familiar to you: he has reached posthumous celebrity for his novel Stoner, which has sold in the hundreds of thousands and become a worldwide phenomenon. By comparison, Augustus is little known, although it is a great work, possibly better than Stoner. The co-recipient of the 1973 National Book Award (Williams shared it with John Barth’s Chimera), it is a strange work that grafts the historical record to the author’s fecund imagination, telling the life of Emperor Augustus through the machinations of those around him. Williams narrates it wholly in documents—letters, journals, decrees, and the like—and his technical mastery in recreating the diction and rhetoric of the era is only matched by his exquisite insight into the minds of half-a-dozen major characters.

Augustus is one of the most compelling novels I have ever read on the exercise of power: its effective use, its moral and personal limitations, and its need to balance commands with persuasion, even for the most powerful dictator. Augustus reveals the personalities behind the use of enormous, naked power, showing the exceptional challenges to wielding that power effectively, and the grave danger of it falling into incapable hands. If you discern any similarities between these historical events and our own times, then I would have you pair Augustus with All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winning, classic fictionalization of the would-be American demagogue Huey Long. They are two of the best historical novels you can read on the functioning of power politics in a time of weakening democracy.

Before going any further, I’d like to stop and ask a question that cuts to the quick of that recommendation: what does the art of fiction bring to historical events? After all, we already have more than enough histories of Augustus, including those from the classic authors Tacitus and Plutarch, whose lives very nearly overlapped with the Emperor’s. What gain is there in departing from the facts and inserting the novelist’s mind into the historical record? Why do talented novelists enter the genre of historical fiction, and why are these books lionized with our highest literary awards? Or, to put it a different way, what, if any, place is there for fiction in history?

Williams himself offers some insight into these questions. The dissolution of the Roman Republic and the reign of Augustus have some clear overtones to the years in which he wrote Augustus: in the 1960s and early 70s, the American Presidency had used internal turmoil and foreign conflicts to seize unprecedented and (many argued) dangerous powers, leading to the popularization of the term “Imperial Presidency”; this culminated in a demagogic Richard Nixon suffering a tragedy worthy of the Romans in the Oval Office, his final abuses of power ensuring his downfall and Congress’s reclamation of powers. While those comparisons are quite valid, they were a source of angst for Williams: for all the lessons that Rome might impart regarding our own would-be Caesars, he did not want his book to be a commentary on politics of the day. As Daniel Mendelsohn points out in his introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Augustus, Williams wrote that he wanted no part of “Henry Kissinger in a toga.”

If Williams is clear about what he intended to avoid, he also gives us some clues about what he intended to do. In a curious, exceedingly brief note that heads the novel, he writes that he has freely altered and embellished the historical record when he deemed fit, and he invented whole-cloth virtually all of the documents in the book. “If there are truths in this work,” he writes, “they are the truths of fiction rather than of history.” Which isn’t to say that these truths aren’t grown from the seed of historical fact. Although Augustus is a work of the imagination whose principal concern is to invent its characters as vividly as possible, it nonetheless takes its shape from things that really occurred, and its story is of interest to us primarily because it deals with the life of an Emperor of enormous historical importance.

Williams indicates that historical fact presided over this project. In a 1981 interview in Ploughshares with novelist Dan Wakefield (certainly one of the very first critics to recognize this author’s genius), Williams says it was the painful relationship between Augustus and his exiled daughter Julia that moved him to write the story. He explained that he never imagined he would write about the Emperor, but this historic drama pulled him in, and so he came to know more and more about the life of this man named Augustus. He also learned much about Julia, a remarkable figure who has been portrayed by many great novelists: a powerful woman of enormous beauty, wit, and energy, she nevertheless lived in a martial, male-dominated world, and so she found herself married off to a succession of brutish men to serve the political ends of her father Augustus. Ultimately, trapped in one of these loveless unions, she resorted to adultery; although this was common among aristocratic Roman men, Julie was punished with an extraordinarily harsh exile on a tiny island. The guilt of this choice, Williams implies, was one that dyed Augustus’s reign.

In recreating this relationship—writing dozens of pages of Julie’s journal in exile—Williams gives voice to a marginalized figure who is largely silenced in the historical record. Certainly taking us into the mind of an individual who participated in the formation of our world, but whom history has chosen not to remember, is one of the most imperative tasks of historical fiction. I think of Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (one of my favorite historical novels ever), which re-creates the voice Mary, mother of Jesus; though she was the woman at the center of Christianity, her integral place was nevertheless not enough to grant her participation in the authorship of (or much of a role in) that religion’s most sacred text. Tóibín’s version of her voice is eerie and existential, and it has helped me to better understand the foundation of Christianity, and religion in general. By that same token, Williams’s re-creation of the relationship between Augustus and his daughter grants me great insight into the moral and interpersonal forces that cause the mighty to reckon with their choices.

Another thing we see in Augustus is a novelist orchestrating the facts of history in a way no historian ever would, pointing us to conclusions that history is blind to. Williams shrewdly hides Augustus’s voice for much of the book, instead revealing his doings through the reports of a variety of historical actors—some are major, like Mark Antony, a lover of Cleopatra who vied with Augustus for the Emperor’s position and nearly won; and some are minor, like Marcus Agrippa, a confidant to the Emperor. Williams withholds Augustus’s own voice until the last 40 pages of the novel, when we see him as an old man reflecting back upon the deeds that have defined his life. The effect is excellent: after seeing Augustus’s doings described by his peers throughout his reign, we at last see the Emperor, now so greatly distanced from those deeds by age. What a strange window onto power this is, to see the ruler of the largest empire of the known world reckoning with his memories, engaging in Proustian reflections. “One does not deceive oneself about the consequences of one’s acts,” he writes, “one deceives oneself about the ease with which one can live with those consequences.”

It is to the artist to find the meaning in the deeds about which history can only give us the details. As Williams delved into an archetypical story that had captured his imagination, his duty as a novelist was to make its characters individually compelling while arranging their voices to reveal profound truths about the problems of human governance. I find it remarkable that we can look back 2,000 years and see the same values and fears animating human politics, the same ambitions and failures, the same personalities, so much so that we can enjoy a novel about it. Williams himself admits such continuities when he compares Augustus to his immensely popular Stoner: “I was dealing with governance in both instances, and individual responsibilities, and enmities and friendship . . . . Except in scale, the machinations for power are about the same in a university as in the Roman Empire.”

The very human qualities that make Augustus compelling—the ambitions, the failures, the dilemmas, the reckonings with memory—point to deep continuities between our own political questions and those riddled by ancient humans living in vastly different circumstances. It is to the novelist to find these continuities in order to draw back mystery imposed by time and power. In this way we may become intimate with enduring questions, the cycles of our societies, the problems that come to us again and again in different forms. Very human quagmires that, though we may ameliorate them with better or worse systems and better or worse cultures, we can never completely escape.

“[The moralist] is useless,” writes Augustus’s fellow warrior, and a patron of the arts, Gaius Maecenas. “He would expend his energies upon making judgments rather than upon gaining knowledge, for the reason that judgment is easy and knowledge is difficult.” I like to think of literature as a form that reckons with the difficulty of knowledge. In our era of instant takes and endless castigation swimming down our social media feeds, we all know how quick any of us are to judge. This is not to condemn—we all must respond as best we can to the politics of the day. It is rather to ask that we recognize these quick judgments for what they are—a coping strategy in lieu of true wisdom—and to hope that they will, with time, ferment into something more closely resembling knowledge. This is one of the major tasks of both the historical novelist and the historian (whose work can indeed be literature); they have the opportunity to approach our deeds from a distance and derive from them wisdom that can apply well beyond any one historical situation. Such is the case with Williams’s Augustus, a book that I have always continued to learn from, and one that the tides of history have now thrust to the forefront of my mind.


Works of Historical Fiction That Offer History What Only Fiction Can

Augustus by John Williams
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
Antigonick by Anne Carson
The Coast of Utopia by Tom Stoppard
In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) by Sarah Ruhl
Romola by George Eliot


Originally published in Literary Hub.

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