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Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us. By Ferdinand Mount. Simon & Schuster; 438 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.co.uk

FERDINAND MOUNT has enjoyed an unusually varied career—columnist, novelist and literary editor, head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit in Downing Street, and author of a delightful memoir entitled “Cold Cream” that was an unexpected bestseller last year. His new book, “Full Circle”, is an altogether more serious and demanding work, but it is imbued with the same wit as its predecessor and is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Mr Mount argues that there is an “astonishing resemblance” between life in ancient Greece and Rome and the manner in which we live now. It is as though the intervening 1,500 years had never been. “We have been on a round trip…and we are back at the jetty we embarked from.” Now, as then, there is an obsession with the body. The baths and gyms of the classical world employed more people than any other institution except the army. We are hugely concerned with cleanliness and fitness. Many have personal trainers or pay inordinate sums to go to “Shangri-spa”. In our attitudes to sex and food we are much closer to the Romans than to those who lived in the Dark Ages or the Victorian era—or even the 1950s.

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There has been a similar reversion in our mental attitudes. In the section on the mind Mr Mount draws some amusing, and generally convincing, comparisons. Anaximander, a pre-Socratic philosopher, was the first Darwinian. Lucretius is the Richard Dawkins of 55BC. Mithras and Mick Jagger are the god and demigod on the brink of satisfaction. Long before Jade Goody was famous for being famous the Romans were obsessed with celebrity, with the “Triumph” rather than “Big Brother” and Socratic dialogue in place of Jeremy Paxman's “Newsnight”.

The return to the ways of ancient Rome “has closely paralleled the decline of Christianity”. The “art of religion” has been replaced by “the religion of art” and with that has come degeneracy. The fact that it has happened for a second time “suggests that we might be programmed that way”. Mr Mount mourns the fact that we live in a post-Christian society, and he excoriates the “anti-God-botherers” such as Mr Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, though he reveres Charles Darwin as the inventor of the age we live in. Richard Jefferies, a Victorian naturalist, and a German philosopher, Hans Vaihinger, are other heroes who provide grounds for optimism that a return to a concern for Mother Earth and adoption of an “as if” (the Christian religion were true) philosophy can enable us to rediscover Cicero's vision of immortality, “Scipio's Dream”.

Half a millennium separates the democracy of Athens, under the incorruptible Pericles, from the tyranny in Rome of the emperors Caligula and Nero; they were very different epochs and places. It is unsurprising therefore that Mr Mount has been able to select parallels between aspects of our society and some of those of the classical world, while ignoring others such as slavery (immigrant workers?) and gladiators (World Cup footballers?) that do not fit as well. However, his central premise is an arresting and disturbing one. What if our civilisation is followed by a second dark age? Will it last for 1,500 years or for ever?

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition

A statue of the Greek writer Thucydides sits outside the Austrian capital in Vienna. More than 2,000 years ago, he noted the friction that led to war between an established power, Sparta, and a rising power, Athens. A new book by Harvard professor Graham Allison makes a comparison with the relationship between the U.S. and China. vladacanon/Getty Images/iStockphoto hide caption

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vladacanon/Getty Images/iStockphoto

A statue of the Greek writer Thucydides sits outside the Austrian capital in Vienna. More than 2,000 years ago, he noted the friction that led to war between an established power, Sparta, and a rising power, Athens. A new book by Harvard professor Graham Allison makes a comparison with the relationship between the U.S. and China.

vladacanon/Getty Images/iStockphoto

To consider the dangers in America's future, let's go back more than 2,000 years to ancient Greece. Sparta was the established power, but Athens was rising fast. Sparta wanted to preserve its status, while Athens felt it should be dominant.

The result was a disastrous conflict that ravaged both sides in the Peloponnesian War. The fifth century B.C. writer Thucydides, a resident of Athens, summed it up this way: "It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made the war inevitable."

Political scientist Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says this insight remains as relevant as ever. It's only the players that change. Today China is rising, while the U.S. is the reigning superpower.

Allison puts it like this: "When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, stuff happens. Bad stuff. So alarm bells should sound — extreme danger ahead."

Allison calls this the "Thucydides trap." He made a splash with this idea a couple of years ago and has a book coming out this month called Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

Harvard professor Graham Allison, speaking at the Kennedy School of Government last month, is the author of Destined For War, which explores the possibility of military conflict between the U.S. and China. Stephan Savoia/AP hide caption

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Stephan Savoia/AP

Harvard professor Graham Allison, speaking at the Kennedy School of Government last month, is the author of Destined For War, which explores the possibility of military conflict between the U.S. and China.

Stephan Savoia/AP

At a recent event in Washington, he stressed that war between the two powers isn't inevitable. For starters, no prominent figures in either country sees it as a viable option to solve any of their disputes.

But history is littered with examples of countries stumbling into unwanted wars that quickly spiral out of control, Allison notes.

Consider World War I, where a seemingly local event — the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian prince in the Balkans — sparked a conflagration that cost millions of lives and pitted a rising Germany against the leading power of the day, Great Britain.

"Under this structural stress, incidents or events, that might otherwise be inconsequential, or manageable, turn out to be capable of triggering a cascade of consequences, at the end of which, Europe is totally at war," Allison said.

He has studied 16 cases of rising powers challenging ruling powers over the past five centuries. In 12 of those, the result was war. In the other four, major conflict was avoided — but only with concessions by both sides.

Today he has his eye on North Korea and its nuclear program, calling it "the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion."

More than 50 years ago, Allison authored a seminal analysis of the decision-making during that 1962 crisis, in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union almost went to war — possibly nuclear — when the Soviets placed missiles in Cuba.

North Korea is now working on a missile that could reach the U.S., a goal it could achieve at some point in Trump's term. The president says he won't allow it and has warned of possible military action.

But a U.S. strike would rattle China, which has long propped up North Korea. Allison says the collapse of the North Korean regime could create a mad dash between the U.S. and Chinese militaries to secure that country's nuclear arsenal.

"I think that's one scenario for getting Americans and Chinese fighting each other," he said at a recent event in Washington.

President Trump and his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, walk together at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., on April 7. Alex Brandon/AP hide caption

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Alex Brandon/AP

President Trump and his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, walk together at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., on April 7.

Alex Brandon/AP

Now, before we go further, we need to issue a disclaimer on grand strategic theories: They're not always right. Not by a long shot.

For example, the world's major powers haven't fought a head-on battle since World War II. So is this trend likely to hold — or is the world overdue for a war between the leading states?

China's President Xi Jinping, speaking in Seattle in 2015, said:

"There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves."

Journalist and author John Pomfret has followed China's rise since he first went there as a student in 1980. His recent book, The Beautiful Country And The Middle Kingdom, documents more than two centuries of the U.S.-China relationship.

He believes trade and other ties are a counterweight that's likely to keep the U.S.-China competition from turning into a military conflict.

"That integration, and it's not just economic, it's also cultural, educational as well, I think that mitigates, significantly, against this idea that, 'Oh, conflict between these two great powers is inevitable,'" Pomfret said.

Still, Thucydides has shown remarkable staying power as a military analyst.

Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, cited the ancient Greek historian in a talk last November in Washington.

"In the 1990s, it became conventional wisdom that future war was going to be great. It was going to be fast, cheap, efficient," McMaster said. "It didn't acknowledge war's enduring political nature — the fact that people fight for the same reasons Thucydides identified 2,500 years ago: fear, honor and interest."

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

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