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3 august 2018

Matthew Kneale's Rome is as sprawling and ambitious as the city it covers. If it's not completely successful, it's still the kind of book I love, about the most interesting city I know, and it made me more intrigued with Rome than I already was, no mean feat.

Kneale, as his subtitle indicates, gives a comprehensive history of the Eternal City "in seven sackings": by the Gauls, the Goths (twice), the Normans, the Spanish, the French, and the Nazis. For all its history of abjection, Rome hasn't really been overrun all that often. We're talking 24 centuries here.

Rome's career won-lost record would have to be positive, you'd think. The city is protected by the river Tiber, by its famous seven hills, and by a concentric set of walls. The Aurelian Walls, about 1,750 years old, for the most part still extant, and decidedly imposing to this day, have kept out many a barbarian. Kneale's brief narratives of the sackings mostly center on how besiegers were going to breach the walls. The walls didn't exist when the Gauls came through (not even the much earlier Servian Walls); the Nazis had airplanes and tanks; but everyone in between had to resort to treachery or well-timed commando actions to get into Rome proper. The few times they did became storied down the centuries, and Kneale contributes to that tradition of storytelling.

It's quite a ride. There's Manlius and his geese, though there probably wasn't a Manlius and there may have been no geese. There's Alaric at the gates; there's Benvenuto Cellini demonstrating his shooting skills to Pope Clement VII. There's Garibaldi assembling the scruffiest of revolutionary armies to defend the infant 1840s republic, and then retreating to the hills when temporarily discomfited. There's Roma Città Aperta, Roberto Rossellini's film of the 1944 occupation – actually Kneale does not mention Rossellini at all, but images from that film kept playing in my mind as Kneale told the story of the city under Nazi rule.

Even as he tells some thrilling stories of pillage and resistance, Kneale is alert to contemporary historiography. For some time now, more responsible works of history, both popular and academic, have been very critical of how we know what we have received about the past. Especially for a popular book from a bestselling novelist, Rome is exemplary in its critique of sources. We not only see Rome growing and developing (and sometimes shrinking), but we see our access to information getting closer to (and occasionally farther from) contemporary eyewitnesses, and being filtered through more or less interested narrators.

In each section, Kneale covers not only military operations, but the social history of Rome, its global context, important personalities, and notably, the architecture and logistics of the city. Sometimes there's too much to follow. The fifth sacking, the Renaissance story of Charles V, Cellini, Clement VII, and the Lutherans, gets hard to follow. (In particular, I'm not even now sure how the Lutherans are involved, except that some of Charles' German mercenaries seem to have had Lutheran sympathies, and to have inflicted them on the Papacy accordingly.)

Rome is a gorgeous book with few errors, and any Roman fanatic will need it for their collection.

Kneale, Matthew. Rome: A history in seven sackings. 2017. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. DG 209 .K57