An Evil Eye, by Jason Goodwin

 An Evil Eye is the fourth book in Jason Goodwin’s series about Yashim, an official in the Ottoman Court of the 19th Century with a particular penchant for investigation. A eunuch, butchered as a teenager by the enemies of his father, his status means he is privileged access to the harem as well as the city and so is frequently entrusted with some of the Court’s more sensitive enquiries.

In this book a body is found in the water tank of an Orthodox monastery outside of Istanbul bringing with it the suspicion that perfidious Christians have murdered a Muslim. Yashim is sent to investigate and hopefully stave off an ugly incident. Of course the body is merely the tip of a much more dangerous and labyrinthine plot that threatens the entire stability of the Ottoman State.

Jason Goodwin is an historian. He has written an earlier history of the Ottoman Empire, and so knows his stuff. This is one of the greatest pleasures of his books – he transports the reader to bustle of 19th Century Istanbul and Yashim is an elegant and erudite guide through its diversity. Yashim is not only a man of action but also a polyglot and cook – I was inspired, with modest success, to attempt three of his culinary efforts over the course of reading this book.

 In his investigations Yashim is assisted by his close friend Palewski, the Polish Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Of course at the time in which the book is set Poland doesn’t exist, subsumed by the empires of the “Great Powers”. But the Ottoman Empire insists on maintaining the embassy of its old enemy. At the very least it annoys the Russians. Palewski also has one of the best lines I’ve come across in while: “If you go on saying and believing the same things for long enough, the world will eventually come around.” That should be a motto for anyone who has ever strived for a more humane world.

I must confess that for the fourth time reading one of Yashim’s adventures I am still not very clear on what happened. I think this, to an extent, is a result of quite complex plots with a myriad of characters and various strands running from the harems to the Court, to the international embassies and their spies and diplomats, to the back streets and waterfronts of Istanbul. Perhaps I should simply be paying closer attention to the final pages of the book.

In spite of these reservations I will be picking up the next instalment of the adventures of Yashim and Palewski. They are tales of escapism like few others.

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Caius Octavius, son of Caius, was born on 23 Sept 63 BCE to a decent but hardly spectacular family of the Roman aristocracy. When he died as Augustus in 14 CE he was the most powerful man in the world, the first Roman Emperor, hailed as “Father of his Country”.

Part of the reason for this spectacular career arose from his relationship with his maternal uncle, one Julius Caesar who, at the time of Octavius birth, had just been elected Rome’s most senior priest, Pontifex Maximus. Julius Caesar adopted Octavius shortly before his own assassination. But in the chaotic aftermath of the Ides of March, this bequest could easily have proven lethal rather than beneficial. Nevertheless, while still not yet 20, Octavius not only decided to embrace Caesar’s legacy, but to take up where his uncle/adoptive father had left off and become the most powerful man in Rome.

Goldsworthy notes a number of difficulties with Augustus, principally how to make sense of the way that the vicious warlord of his youth seemed to give way to the sober statesman of later years; how the organiser of the death squads for the proscriptions (“These many, then, shall die; their names are prick’d”) became, after Actium and the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, a patron of the arts and restorer of Rome.

Goldsworthy contrasts the magnanimity of Julius Caesar during the Civil Wars with the ruthlessness of Octavius. But of course, while Julius Caesar drew the line at using indiscriminate violence against Roman citizens, he had used ruthless terrorism during the Gallic Wars and this had contributed to the conquest and pacification of Gaul. In his own resort to terrorism perhaps Octavius was thinking about this as well as Sulla’s bloody coup in Rome, during which Julius Caesar himself almost lost his life. Octavius certainly had no intention of following Julius Caesar’s precedent of being murdered by the very enemies that he pardoned.

Goldsworthy tries to resolve the apparent contradictions in the career of Augustus within the structure of a narrative biography. But while the overall book is both elegant and erudite, Augustus still seems somewhat unknowable. This is perhaps intrinsic to Augustus. On the surface he tried to live his life simply as “Princeps”, first among equals with his fellow senators. But this was mere façade. The truth was almost absolute power and this colours all of Augustus’ utterances. Was Virgil flattered by the joking letters that Augustus sent him enquiringly about his work? Or was he frightened and uneasy by the interest shown him by someone who had in the past shed the blood of so many citizens, and still held the power to do so with impunity?

The Head of Augustus, excavated in Sudan, on display in British Museum

The official depictions of Augustus, on coins and in statuary, such as the one on the cover of this book (above), tend to show Augustus as regal and youthful, every inch the ideal of Roman fatherhood and generalship. But there is another image of Augustus, excavated from Sudan where it had been taken after its capture in Egypt by Ethiopian troops. To my mind it is the image of an altogether more haunted figure.

Goldsworthy notes that if there is one theme in the life of Augustus it is that he got better as he got older. While still able to summon moments of murder and ruthlessness right through his life, perhaps some of his later moderation grew from his own horror at what he had once been.