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Fiction

October 18, 1987|Fred S. Holley

LET THE EMPEROR SPEAK by Allan Massie (Doubleday: $17.95; 339 pp.). A novel in the first person about the first Roman emperors leaves the writer open to accusations of a host of out-of-time linguistic peculiarities. It grates a bit to have Mark Antony ask Augustus, "How's the treasury, kid?" And it rubs one strangely to have Augustus, age 19 in the year 44 BC, quote a 19th-Century translation of Omar Khayyam, who died in the 12th!

But the novel is impressive. Augustus presents us with "nights when I felt that the gods had abandoned me and when I walked in empty, windswept passages." We are shown not only Antony and Augustus himself, but also such historical and literary figures as Maecenas, Agrippa, Virgil and Cicero.

Augustus comes alive for us amid plots and counterplots, connivings and counter-connivings, but the reader is led to believe, with the young protagonist, that "before I have finished, Caesar will be more than a name" and, with the older man, that he has been able "to restore peace and order to a land that has known neither for almost a hundred years."

Here is history seen through the prism of the novelist's version of one man's life. Augustus tells us: "Fortune and misfortune rattle against each other throughout my life," and then he says sadly, in old age, "My cat died yesterday."

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