Rome: A History in Seven Sackings
Matthew Kneale
Atlantic Books
417pp, 39 colour and 21 black & white illustrations, 7 maps
Hardback, £20

The history of Rome is a lengthy affair and not without incident – so tackling it can be a challenge for author and reader alike. Long-time Roman resident Matthew Kneale has adopted an imaginative approach to the subject in his new book by focusing on seven invasions of the city, from its sacking by the Goths in 387 BC through to the Nazi occupation of 1943–44. This strategy enables Kneale to present the history of the city in a variety of epochs and at the terrible and dramatic moments in its long life. As an award-winning novelist, he brings all his narrative power to the task and succeeds in providing a pacy, enthralling work that carries the reader along on a tide of local and European history and captivating anecdotes.

For each episode, Kneale presents the political environment that provided the backdrop and cause of the city's woes. A colourful cast of popes, politicians and greedy emperors populate the pages, and the account of their vaulting ambitions and frequent treachery is often astounding. He handles all this with aplomb but in each episode he also chronicles the appearance and social life of Rome at the time. Here, the city comes to life – a vivid, pulsating mix of its elite and its vagrants, its cardinals, prostitutes and pilgrims, all crowding in upon one another and enduring the fate thrust upon them. The tales of the invasions themselves – some more terrible than others – which he then relates are at times numbing.

In the worst of them we see babies being thrown from windows and priests being butchered on church altars. Little wonder that Michelangelo, who long made Rome his home and who escaped the awful sacking of 1597, presented us with such an arresting spectre of human suffering in his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, painted after his return.

But there is also much gallantry to be admired, too, from Garibaldi marching through the streets at the head of his defending army, to the tales of the many local people who hid Roman Jews from the Nazis when they arrived in 1943.

Each chapter has its own flavour: Rome was a very distinct city each time it is examined, from the primitive town of 387 BC to Mussolini's grandly refashioned city, much of which survives today. While there is a considerable amount history in the interim periods that we do not encounter, what we are given is more than thrilling.

The endurance of the Romans is to be admired. It is truly their spirit of survival that seems eternal. Encapsulating it nicely is their response to the latest threat – that of ISIS who, in 2015, darkly announced its intention to invade the city. 'Let us know when you'll get here and how many you'll be so we can put the pasta on,' the Romans replied.
Diana Bentley

 

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