The empire strikes back

The Dream of Rome

Boris Johnson <em>HarperCollins, 210pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 0007224419

How on earth does Boris Johnson manage it? Like George Bernard Shaw, he seems capable of excelling in half a dozen fields simultaneously. Lloyd Evans and I made a joke about this in Who's the Daddy?, our play about the various scandals that beset the Spectator in 2004, when Boris was still editor. In Act One, Scene IV, Boris explains why it is that he's so anxious not to lose his parliamentary salary. "I'll have to scrape by on . . . let's see, my radio documentaries, my Telegraph column, motoring thing at GQ, after-dinner speaking fees, the books, Have I Got News For You and turning on the Christmas lights at the Burlington Arcade."

As if that weren't enough, Boris has now added another string to his bow: historian. Not just any old historian, either, but one with a two-part series on BBC2 and a tie-in book. I was an exact contemporary of Boris's at Oxford, and he's not merely the most successful member of my generation - he's at least six times more successful than his nearest rival.

Like the man himself, this book is try- ing to do many things at the same time. At its most straightforward, The Dream of Rome is a potted history of the Roman empire, with particular emphasis on the reign of Augustus. ("If you wanted to create a First XI of history's world-class statesmen, you'd pick Augustus as your midfield playmaker," Boris declares, in a typically exuberant mixed metaphor.) More ambitiously, it's an attempt to show just how all-powerful the myth of that empire has become - how a succession of historical figures, from Charlemagne to Hitler, has been in thrall to the idea of Rome. Finally, it's a meditation on the differences between the European Union - the latest attempt to recreate the Roman empire - and the real McCoy. Why did Augustus succeed where Jacques Delors has failed?

Let's start with the last of these. As a primer for incoming European commissioners, The Dream of Rome probably won't replace the Schuman Declaration. The former Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph is not particularly optimistic about the prospects of greater European integration. The point of comparing the EU with its classical predecessor is not to provide good little Europeans with useful tips on how to realise their dream, but to demonstrate just how bloodless and uninspiring that dream is. The EU lacks a single political leader, particularly one with the stature of Augustus; it lacks an army to subdue the barbarian hordes; above all, it lacks a compelling mythos - a set of ideas, a culture, a way of life - that is capable of uniting a disparate collection of people.

What hope does the EU have, Boris would like to know, when its currency is so poorly designed? In one of the best passages in the book, he compares the beautiful coins of the Roman empire, all bearing the noble visage of Augustus, with the desultory banknotes of the eurozone:

The European leaders could not agree on a single person to put on their money - of course not - so they have ended up with a depressing series of schematic architectural drawings of bridges and ditches and culverts and whatnot.

If the dream of European political union is destined to fail, however, we are doomed to pursue it nevertheless. The most interesting part of the book is chapter two, entitled "The Distant Roman Mirror", in which Boris puts forward the hypothesis that Rome exists as an irresistible archetype in the European collective unconscious. "It tolls to us across the ages, like the church bell of a sea-drowned village," he writes. "It is like a memory of childhood bliss that the elderly continent has struggled ever after to recapture." According to Boris, we are unable to resist Rome's "lunar pull", and he gives numerous examples - some of them very funny - of the ways in which Europeans and their cousins across the Atlantic have tried to recreate the splendour of the ancient world. Reading this chapter is a little like watching The Life of Brian, only instead of discovering echoes of contemporary folly in the Eternal City - the Judaean People's Front, for instance - Boris uncovers traces of Rome in countless aspects of the modern world.

One of the reasons Boris is so captivated by this notion, I imagine, is because the Roman empire formed such an integral part of his childhood. He began studying Latin at prep school, went on to immerse himself in the classics at Eton and ended up taking a degree in Greats at Oxford. In the "Acknowledgements", he claims that the inspiration for this book came in 2003 when he heard the then education secretary, Charles Clarke, declare that he would "not be much occupied" if the study of classics, which he described as "ornamental", were to die out. To Boris, this was a blood libel - his beloved subject was being attacked - and The Dream of Rome is the case for the defence. His aim isn't simply to demonstrate that the classics are very far from "ornamental", but to create interest in the subject among "non-Latinists", as he refers to them. "If this book encourages a single person to want to study this stuff, then my mission will have been accomplished," he writes.

It is in this respect that The Dream of Rome is most successful. Having never studied classics, I can't tell whether Boris's hypothesis about the all-pervasiveness of the idea of Rome is original or not - and there's nothing particularly new about his Euroscepticism. But as an introduction to the history of the Roman empire, this book is hugely stimulating. I read it in two sittings, completely gripped by the tale of Augustus and how he managed to rule over an empire of 80 million people with just 150 officials. Rather infuriatingly, it seems that in addition to all his other talents, Boris is a natural schoolteacher. If Ruth Kelly has an ounce of sense, she will make this book compulsory reading for every 16-year-old in the country.

Toby Young's The Sound of No Hands Clapping will be published by Abacus this summer