The First Emperor, by Anthony Everitt

Hail, Caesar Augustus, leader of the Roman Empire and first master of spin

He may have been Rome's first emperor, but Augustus lacked a vivid character. In this he was unlike his great-uncle Julius Caesar, or, for that matter, Qin Shihuangdi, first Emperor of China, whose name also meant "august", and whose historic epithet Anthony Everitt seems to invoke. If we admire Augustus, it is because the history books tell us to - no great surprise, since he groomed his image throughout his career.

In the field that mattered most to his compatriots - soldiering - he did not excel. His signal victories, over Sextus Pompeius and Brutus, were constructed by his loyal henchman Agrippa; the latter was a brilliant strategist, but in one respect Augustus far outshone him: he understood the value of spin.

Everitt tells us at the beginning of his informative biography that if anyone qualifies as "the founding father of Western civilisation", it is Augustus. Fortunately, this somewhat silly statement is not followed through. Had Augustus never happened, Rome would doubtless have continued to expand through the Mediterranean world. What Augustus did achieve, after a period of civil wars, was a restoration job: not of the so-called Republic (in reality, an oligarchy), but of the autocracy briefly achieved by Julius.

Born Gaius Octavius in 63BC, Augustus was a strikingly pretty and clever provincial lad. He was noticed by Caesar, and this set him on the path to glory. In his will, Julius adopted him, and left him the lion's share of his colossal wealth. It was not just Caesar's money that helped Octavius on his way, but his patronage, his clientela. Augustus was a formidable padrone. Everitt does not specifically draw an analogy with the Mafia, but he leads us there. Augustus knew just when to reward, and when to exact cruel revenge.

After finally defeating Mark Antony at Actium, Augustus ruled the Roman world for the next 40-odd years. Everitt tells his story well by telling it carefully, with due regard for sources and resisting the unlicensed speculation that has characterised screen representations from I, Claudius onwards. The same caution, however, inhibits a sense of perspective. Had Everitt looked ahead, he would have seen how quickly Rome unravelled post-Augustus. It was the Flavian emperors, from Trajan to Marcus Aurelius, who did more for a still embryonic Europe, never mind the West.

Justin Wintle's biography of Aung San Suu Kyi appears this year