Irony gives an edge to the `lost autobiography' of Caesar Augustus

Let the Emperor Speak: a novel of Caesar Augustus, by Allan Massie. New York: Doubleday. 339 pp. $18.95. Irony, writes the soldier-emperor Caesar Augustus, is the soldiers' ``natural mode of expression.'' It is the soldier's irony, not the romantic moralist's, that gives a steel edge to ``Let the Emperor Speak.'' While Caesar Augustus understood ``the frivolity of serious moments,'' he took his destiny seriously. So does Allan Massie. It could have been a mere jeu d'esprit, or even just a good historical novel, but this ``translation of the lost Autobiography of Emperor Augustus'' turns the sophisticated adult reader into a child again.

Augustus was, after all, the restorer of the Republic and the founder of the Empire. His ``confessions'' touch on the responsibilities of destiny (he was a frail teen-ager when he became a general in the field), the romance of administration (the necessary emphasis of his regime after the chaos of more than a hundred years of civil war), the risky pleasures of tactics, the solemnity of far-reaching strategy.

Augustus married three times - twice expediently, once (the third time) for love. This book is a ``sustained commentary'' on marriage. ``Nothing is harder to understand than the condition of marriage,'' he concluded. ``Politics, that deep mystery, is child's play in comparison.''

But the book is mostly politics. Populated by vivid characters, the fine battle scenes and explanations of policy are punctuated by visits from Virgil, whose vision of Rome informed the emperor's. Quoting Virgil's rapt explanation of ``Spirit and Mind,'' Augustus says, ``It was at that moment that I saw what I must do for Rome.''

As he watched his beloved daughter Julia slip into the abyss of depravity, he wrote: ``I don't give a radish for the spirit of the age, which is a meaningless phrase. Nor do I see how any paternal government can avoid trying to correct social vices. Yet, when I speak of these matters in the Senate, the younger members titter.''

Through its soldierly irony, this book invites us to enter a conspiracy with Caesar. Full of surprising parallels, it reminds one what can, but not necessarily what should, be done in the name of destiny, and of the ineluctable permeation of the private and public life.

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