From The Literary Review:
It is hard to read this brilliant book and not agree with Edward Gibbon, its inspiration, who wrote: ‘The history of empires is the history of human misery.’ The reason, explains Piers Brendon, is that ‘the initial subjugation is invariably savage and the subsequent occupation is usually repressive. Imperial powers lack legitimacy and govern irresponsibly, relying on arms, diplomacy and propaganda’.
Brendon’s title is a deliberate echo of Gibbon’s masterpiece, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Not because he wishes to set himself up as a rival to Gibbon – no historian ‘in his senses’ would do that – but rather because the great man’s work ‘became the essential guide for Britons anxious to plot their own imperial trajectory’. They found the ‘key’ to understanding their own empire ‘in the ruins of Rome’. Brendon underlines this point throughout the text by quoting politicians, imperial administrators, soldiers and journalists making ‘striking analogies’ between the two empires. Hence The Times compares the shocking news of the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842 to the effect the Parthian victory at Carrhae had on the Romans ‘in the very acme of their power’. And even in 1958, ten years after Indian Independence, the Prime Minister Nehru was heard to ask Harold Macmillan, his British counterpart and fellow student of Gibbon: ‘I wonder if the Romans ever went back to Britain.’
Brendon’s last book, The Dark Valley, a superb overview of leading nations in the 1930s, was published seven years ago. He has used the interval to good effect because his latest is, quite simply, a masterpiece of historical narrative. No review can hope to do justice to the depth of Brendon’s research, the balance and originality of his conclusions, or the quality and humour of his prose. Our imperial story has been crying out for a top-flight historian who can write. Now it has one.