For anyone with an interest in geopolitics and the vagaries of world power and who wants to understand what is happening in the world a little better, this book makes for compulsive and informative reading. Whilst the decline of the Roman Empire has been analysed ad nauseum (Gibbon’s classic receives its due here) and comparing America to the Roman template has also occupied many minds, this book still manages to make a refreshing addition to the body of work.

The author puts his life long fascination with all things Roman to good use and his school boy Latin also comes in handy. What makes this such a great read, however, is the author’s endless supply of life-giving anecdotes combined with descriptive historical facts, his insights into current events in the US, and his wonderful comic timing. The ability to be seriously informative and objective about his material but still open to a random snide remark (commenting on Quintus Aurelius Symmachus Murphy notes that he had ‘an elevated, even oxygen starved, sense of his own status’ and of the Huns that they ‘suffered from a very hostile form of attention deficit disorder’) makes this book seem deceptively light and fun to read.

The author applies Roman insight to current issues, for example, noting that security isn’t just a matter of raw military power but also derives from a society’s overall health, which is quite thought-provoking in the context of our post September 11 world and the subsequent US deployment of military might. Murphy is also not above drawing up some possible future scenarios for America’s ongoing relationships with other major powers based on Roman examples. He also strongly argues that it is in America’s power to effect a different path than that taken by Rome resulting from their shared problems of corruption and arrogant ignorance of the rest of the world.

Reading from an Australian perspective too, given that our relationship with the States is sometimes comparable to one of Rome’s minion states, puts a different light on comments such a ‘Tacitus said of the seductive amenities brought to Britain by Rome, “The simple natives gave the name of ‘culture’ to this factor of their slavery.”’

This won’t be one of those books you start with good self-educating intentions and then put aside after two chapters to glance at with guilt every time you pass it on the side table.