Simon & Schuster, £20, 438pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us, By Ferdinand Mount

Ferdinand Mount advances a preposterous thesis, wearing the poker face a schoolboy hopes will convince his teacher of an implausible whopper. "So much about the society that is now emerging," he writes, "bears an astonishing resemblance to the most prominent features of what we call the classical world – its institutions, its priorities, its recreations, its physics, its sexual morality, its food, its politics, even its religion."

No, it doesn't. We may concede some approximate similarities, especially when remembering that the Greeks and Romans are our cultural ancestors. It is plausible, as Mount asserts in Full Circle, that the decline of Christianity in this country and perhaps across Europe, has allowed us to resume a guilt-free enjoyment of sex and other pleasures of the flesh. However, as if determined to undermine his basic proposition, he suggests in his opening chapter on bathing that the Turkish bath marks a return to Roman public baths. The trouble is that it was a 19th- and early-to-mid 20th-century phenomenon and today seems on the edge of extinction; at the last count only 16 Turkish baths are still in business in the United Kingdom.

Another chapter is illustrated with a photograph of Jeremy Paxman shown, oxymoronically, alongside an image of Socrates. It equates the terms "dialogue" (as in Plato's Symposium) and "interview" (as in Newsnight) in a vain attempt to show that today's journalistic nosiness matches the ancient Greeks' philosophical curiosity. Elsewhere, the cult of celebrity is presented as a parallel to the classical pursuit of glory. The late Jade Goody is prayed in aid. In fact, a noble Greek or Roman would simply not see the point of fame without achievement. Fiercely competitive, he wished to be known for his great deeds.

Mount must be poking his tongue into his cheek when he compares the ecstatic religions of the Roman empire with "our modern pop cults", noting that the Beatles, like the worshippers of Mithras, first celebrated rites in an underground cavern.

These limping comparisons set on one side, this is an eminently readable entertainment. Full Circle's over-arching theme is, in effect, a chest of drawers in which Mount happens to keep a full ensemble of intellectual garments, elegant, interesting and funny. The reader is strongly advised to ignore the container and concentrate on the products of a well-stocked mind stored inside.

For there are some real treats. First is a brilliantly argued critique of contemporary visual art, especially the conceptual kind. The author marvels at its popularity, for once a gallery-goer has cottoned on to the concept, there is nothing more to do but move quickly to the next exhibit. In his view, Damien Hirst exemplifies the artist as showman rather than as craftsman. "'The Golden Calf', like much of Hirst's work, really does give us a buzz. We have never seen anything like it. The trouble is that a buzz is all it gives us." At its best, much new art points us back to the world and our experience, not its creator's. By contrast, Rembrandt and Piero della Francesca draw the viewer ever deeper into their paintings and "feed the soul".

Mount is well-travelled and reports on visits to a number of places germane to his theme. His account of the Turkish baths in Harrogate and its denizens is a comic delight. "Under pointed arches picked out in orange, jade and magenta," he observes, "strut mighty Northern paunches with their hairy scrota swinging beneath as proud as sporrans." He evokes the sinister Nazi Thingplätze, concrete amphitheatres designed for propaganda displays, now rotting away in the depths of Germany's dank, dark, "sacred" forests. Seen through his eyes, the unearthed townscape of Ostia Antica has never seemed more lovely, with umbrella pines and cypresses standing among tawny ruins.

The author is like nobody so much as a salon hostess who can't stop introducing her guests to an interminable parade of "lions". Controversialists of the moment and ephemeral personalities crowd these pages and consequently this book, for all its charm, is likely to date quickly. So go out and buy it at once, while it is still fresh and beach-ready.

Anthony Everitt's life of Hadrian is published by Random House USA

Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower