I received this book as a Christmas present, but it sat on my shelf for a few months before I plucked up the courage to read it. I was almost afraid of what I would find. Given my deep interest in, and veneration of, classical civilisation, I didn’t want to hear about the destruction of the eternal city by some greasy Gauls, lousy Ostrogoths, or pillaging Spaniards. I preferred to ignore this sad decline and wanted to revel in Rome’s classical grandeur. I winced at the thought of ancient marble masterpieces being smashed and incinerated to make lime mortar, or the blood-hallowed stones of the colosseum, the most concentrated killing ground in history, being pillaged for St Peters. Give me conquering Caesar in his triumphal procession!
But this, I admit, is a rather silly, narrow-minded view of a city that has a much richer, and longer, history. Rome is a city that has been birthed again and again; its countless metamorphoses took it from backwater Latin town to epicentre of the word’s greatest empire, then to the seat of its greatest religion, and finally to modern capital of a unified Italy. It was disaster just as much as triumph that has shaped Rome’s cultural fabric. Fortunately, much of Rome’s history lingers on in its surviving buildings – churches, temples, forums, piazzas, and palaces. These relics offer a snapshot of each of Rome’s successive ages. A jumble of history built atop history. Kneale, a resident for over 15 years, uses his intimate knowledge of Roman geography to great advantage. Through his detailed description of events, and augmented by excellent maps at the beginning of each chapter, history becomes geographically navigable in the mind.
There is something captivating about Rome. The mind reels at a “dizzying sense of time past and greatness lost”. By looking at seven major invasions between 387 BC and 1944 AD (Gauls, Goths, More Goths, Normans, Spanish and Lutherans, French, Nazis), Kneale is able to unpick Rome’s winding ways and separate the historical strata, layer by layer. Rome is a great survivor; like some hardy bacterial colony, it has endured massive population collapse, from a bustling classical metropolis of over a million inhabitants, to a town of just a few ten thousands under Pope Gregory VII, where the ancient forum was known as the ‘Campo Vaccino’ or cow-field. Each sacking served as a major turning point in the life of the city, and Kneale offers fascinating insights into Rome’s various incarnations. He travels previous Roman generations forward to each subsequent period and dissects what they would find reassuringly familiar, or disconcertingly different. This helps to give a vivid sense of Rome as an expanding, contracting, evolving, surviving, organism.
The book’s structure is formulaic but effective; each of the seven chapters is a tripartite chronicle of a particular invasion. The narrative begins with premonitions of doom, as the invading army is described and the historical backdrop fleshed out. Next, life inside the city walls is examined; some inhabitants are proudly defiant, others festering in fear, while some are plotting betrayal (all sieges but one succeeded only with the complicity of insiders). The chapter ends with a fall as the sack itself is played out – citizens murdered, damage wrought.
This formula works better for more recent events. Kneale gives a lively account of Garibaldi’s impassioned resistance against the French (he only retreated to the hills once his sword became so buckled from use it could no longer fit in the scabbard, declaring: “wherever we go, there will be Rome”). Most compelling is the section on the rise of fascism. Needlessly embroiled in war, abandoned by craven, self-serving leaders, and occupied by an erstwhile ally, many people led a silent, heroic resistance .
Centuries of cynicism and distrust of authority had borne fruit … They thwarted them with their humanity by refusing to be carried along by an ideology of fear and hatred … it was the Romans’ finest hour.’
The latter part of the book’s success may simply be due to the greater number of first-hand accounts that have survived. Earlier first hand accounts, however, though fewer in number, can be just as colourful, such as the one provided by the breathtaking self-agrandizer Benvenuto Cellini, who aided in Rome’s defence against the armies of Charles V’s in 1527 during Rome’s most destructive sack. From the battlements he claims to have personally shot both the Duke of Bourbon and the Prince of Orange, in addition to single-handedly saving the Castel Sant’Angelo. Not all, Cellini boasts, “If I told all the great things I did in that cruel inferno, I would astonish the world.”
Kneale is best when portraying the everyday life of Romans through the centuries, from their attitudes towards health: “Though Rome now had several hospitals these were on the prayer side of the spectrum”, to culinary predilections: ancient Roman dishes, which were flavoured by a kind of fermented fish sauce, “would be more Thai than Mediterranean” to modern tastes. Kneale effectively captures both the squalor and splendour of Rome, which, though it has had its fair share of detractors (declaimed by John Ruskin in his day as a “nasty, rubbishy, dirty hole”), loses none of its charm to Kneale. His affection for the enduring spirit of Rome’s inhabitants and their proud resilience in the face disaster shines throughout the book.
Featured Image: The Course of Empire – Destruction by Thomas Cole