The field of historical fiction as of late has been blossoming. From HBO’s Rome to Starz’ Spartacus to Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, people are drawn to the drama and intrigue of Ancient Rome. Yet the main problem with historical fiction is that it colors the drama of the story with the mores and ethos of the modern world.
Some authors are much better at striking a balance between historical reality with a mode of story telling. Otherwise the modern reading public could just pick up a copy of Caesar’s Commentaries on the Civil War or Plutarch’s Lives. But with the shift of time and culture, things can be lost in translation: how can a modern American Urbanite possibly relate to a Roman Patrician? The latter sat at an important juncture of worldly power and influence, the former is lucky if he can beg to keep in one place.
“Augustus: A Novel” is the story of Rome’s first emperor as told through letters (a style known as ‘epistolary’) from Augustus’ young adulthood to his death. Under Augustus the Roman Imperium, the Pax Romana, was solidified into a real order. The novel shifts through several view points covering a period from 44 B.C. to 55 A.D. A critical juncture in the development of the modern West.
The characters are an intertwining of Roman Patricians, Poets, and Historians of Antiquity. In this way the author avoids the problems of other historical fiction pieces: projection of the modern character on ancient ones. How the epistolary style does this is it allows for the novel to do a subtle self analysis via the letters of Nicolaus of Damascus, Strabo of Amasia, Titus Livius (Livy), and Phillippus of Athens (to Lucius Annaeus Seneca.)
The spirit of the novel can be encapsulated in this passage from Book III which is a long letter by Caesar Augustus to his old friend. In it the old Emperor looks back on his amazing life and the things he has accomplished.
Now throughout this world the Roman order prevails. The German barbarian may wait in the North, the Parthian in the East, and others beyond frontiers that we have not yet conceived; and if Rome does not fall to them, it will at last fall to that barbarian from which none escape- Time. Yet now, for a few years, the Roman order prevails.
-Augustus from Book III of the novel
This book is a must read for the student of history and would make a good addition to any reading list.