The American writer John Williams (1922-1994) left three finely
written novels; their subjects differ considerably. Butcher’s
(1960) is about the slaughtering of the buffalo in the USA, Stoner (1965), about a farm boy who became a professor at the university and
his last novel Augustus (1972) is about the Roman Emperor Augustus and
won in 1973 the National Book Award.
The great Augustus only had one
daughter: Julia. He manipulated her marriages to gain political stability or to
reinforce the position of somebody he wanted as heir to the throne. As a two
year old girl Julia became engaged to Augustus’adversary Marcus Antonius. He
however fell madly in love with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and a few years
later had an illustrious death. Eventually Julia was married to her cousin
Claudius Marcella. When Augustus wanted to fortify the position of his best
friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa as heir of the Roman throne, she was then
married to this much older Roman general. There was no love involved.
For centuries the Romans dominated
Lesvos and its surroundings. One of the few remnants of this time is the
aqueduct, whose greatest remaining part can be admired in Moria. In John
Williams’story, Julia followed Agrippa on one of his journeys across the Orient.
In those times it was not ‘done’ for a general to take his wife on his tour of
duty, but Julia wanted badly to see more of the exotic regions of the extended
Roman Empire. As the wife of the Second Citizen of Rome and as the daughter of
the emperor Julia was welcomed on some Greek islands as a goddess and the
biggest reception she got was on Lesvos, where she was named after Aphrodite.
This made such a big impression, that later on, when her husband had to go and
defend the frontiers of the Roman Empire, she chose to wait for him on Lesvos.
According to Williams’story, she got involved in the rituals of a secret cult for women,
adoring a highly secret and almighty god. Part of the ritual was a retreat for
three days in a shabby hut with a young man.
I was wondering which secret god
that could be. I have never read about a secret Greek god. The family of the
Gods of the Olympus is already large enough.
In the book The Cults of Lesvosby Emily Ledyards Shields, the 12 main gods of
Lesvos are named, and some smaller ones but no secret ones. It appears that
Apollo was the most worshipped god and Artemis the most important goddess.
Artemis is now known as the goddess of the hunt, but on Lesvos she used to be
the goddess of the thermal baths. There used to be an important Artemis temple
in Thermi. Hera also belonged to the 12 most important gods of Lesvos. For a
time she was especially beloved for beauty contests. However not much remains
of a temple nor writings about a cult for Aphrodite are found, although she was
the protector of the neighbouring town of Troy. There are a few scientists who
think that in Mesa there once was a temple for Aphrodite and another one close
to Mytilini. Sappho wrote different poems for this Goddess of love and even
named her daughter after her, just as Augustus’daughter was honoured with her name.
I guess that Julia, after so many
arranged and loveless marriages, finally decided to have a go. Maybe she
entered a cult in honour of Aphrodite or maybe even Dionysus, who was worshipped
amongst others in Mythimna (Molyvos) with a festival partly for women only,
which also had some erotic elements. Whatever she did, it was so wild that it
was reported to her father who ordered her back to Rome.
Parts of the book Augustus are fiction, which is also its
charm. This way it became a portrait of a normal man with his dilemmas, his
sadness and his health problems. Thanks to the fictional correspondences
between important Roman people around Augustus, along with parts of diaries
(some of them from Julia), Williams created an inspiring image of the time
around the man who was worshipped as a god, yet had to ban his beloved daughter
because of her lewd behaviour. The case was that Julia, once back in Rome,
never forgot Lesvos and continued with an unhinged life, even though she
married again after the death of Agrippa, this time to her stepbrother
Tiberius. I wonder why Wiliams imagined Julia in Lesvos participating in
primitive rituals, far away from the intrigues and bacchanalia in Rome? Did he
think that the Greek islands then were not yet civilized?
It is indeed true that even in Roman
times heroes or mighty people such as the emperor Augustus were worshipped as
real gods and were honoured with festivals. But Lesvos, or Mytilene as it was
called in ancient times, was in those times both cultured and wealthy, an
island where orators, philosophers and scientists were often best friends with
politicians, like Theophanes of Mytilene, who traveled for years with the Roman
leader Pompeius the Great. This friendship saved Mytilene from severe
punishment, after a war in which the Lesvian city chose to fight against the
Romans. During the times of Augustus, Lesbonax, a beloved writer who wrote
political discourses and historical documents about the war between Athens and
Sparta, lived in Mytilene. His son Potamo was best friends with emperor
Tiberius (Julia’s last husband) and was a respected visitor of Rome.
In his book Rom und Mytilini, Conrad Cichorius writes about the
relations Lesvos had with the Roman empire and about which Romans lived on the
island. The book also contains lots and lots of names of archaeologists and
important Romans, which I do not know so well, so I became a bit dizzy reading
all of it. This is a book for scientists. But just a casual reading gives a
great revelation into how scientists reconstruct ancient history and with a
little effort you even can imagine how life was during the Roman Empire on
Lesvos. Not bad at all, because plenty of people chose the island as a place to
study or to sit out their exile. And if we believe John Williams, also a place
to go crazy.