“This magnificent love letter to Rome” (Stephen Greenblatt) tells the story of the Eternal City through pivotal moments that defined its history—from the early Roman Republic through the Renaissance and the Reformation to the German occupation in World War Two—“an erudite history that reads like a page-turner” (Maria Semple).
Rome, the Eternal City. It is a hugely popular tourist destination with a rich history, famed for such sites as the Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, St. Peter’s, and the Vatican. In no other city is history as present as it is in Rome. Today visitors can stand on bridges that Julius Caesar and Cicero crossed; walk around temples in the footsteps of emperors; visit churches from the earliest days of Christianity.
This is all the more remarkable considering what the city has endured over the centuries. It has been ravaged by fires, floods, earthquakes, and—most of all—by roving armies. These have invaded repeatedly, from ancient times to as recently as 1943. Many times Romans have shrugged off catastrophe and remade their city anew.
“Matthew Kneale [is] one step ahead of most other Roman chroniclers” (The New York Times Book Review). He paints portraits of the city before seven pivotal assaults, describing what it looked like, felt like, smelled like and how Romans, both rich and poor, lived their everyday lives. He shows how the attacks transformed Rome—sometimes for the better. With drama and humor he brings to life the city of Augustus, of Michelangelo and Bernini, of Garibaldi and Mussolini, and of popes both saintly and very worldly. Rome is “exciting…gripping…a slow roller-coaster ride through the fortunes of a place deeply entangled in its past” (The Wall Street Journal).
Rome INTRODUCTION THERE IS NO city like Rome. No other great metropolis has preserved its past so well. In Rome you can cross bridges that were crossed by Cicero and Julius Caesar, you can stand in a temple nineteen centuries old or walk into a church where a hundred popes have celebrated mass. As well as the city’s famous sights – the fountains, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, St Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel – you can also see Mussolini’s Fascist propaganda, much of it still intact. The Romans have even kept the city’s Gestapo headquarters from the Nazi occupation. That so much has survived is all the more remarkable considering what Rome has endured over the centuries: dozens of catastrophic floods, fires, earthquakes, plagues and, most of all, attacks by enemy armies.
When I first came to Rome at the age of eight I had never seen a city that had so much of its past on show. My fascination grew and as I became older I returned many times. For the last fifteen years I have lived in Rome, studying it and getting to know every stone of the city. I realized I wanted to write about Rome’s past and show how it has become the city it is today: to tell the city’s whole story from three thousand years ago to present times.
There was a problem. Rome’s past is a vast subject. The city has changed so greatly that there have been many Romes, each of which would be largely unrecognizable to Romans of other times. Books that try to recount the city’s entire history tend to suffer from being too long, and yet also too hurried, as they struggle to race through events. Much of my writing has been fiction, and novels, among many other things, require a strong, clear structure. I began wondering what structure could be used to frame Rome’s history while avoiding an endless stream of and thens. An idea came to me: focusing on a handful of moments throughout the city’s existence – moments that changed the city and set it on a new direction. Sackings were the obvious choice. As Romans ruefully observe, Rome has had no shortage of them.
Seven seemed a good number. Seven hills, seven sackings. I found the ones that were most important to Rome’s history, and which also fell at moments when the city had a character wholly distinct from other eras. I began to envisage how each chapter could be told, like a story. First, we would see the enemy advancing on the city and we would learn who they were and what had brought them. Next, we would pause and look at what the city had been like before the crisis had begun, when it still enjoyed a sense of normality. We would be presented with a kind of vast postcard from Rome describing what it looked like, felt like and smelt like; what Romans – rich and poor – owned; what united and divided them; what their homes were like; what they ate; what they believed; how clean they were; how cosmopolitan; how they amused themselves; what they thought about sex; how their men and women treated one another; and how long they could expect to live. Along the way we would see how Rome had changed since the last postcard and so – like joining the dots in a puzzle – we would glimpse the city’s whole history. Finally, we would return to the drama of the sacking, discovering how the enemy broke into the city, what they did there and how Rome was changed by what took place.
I have been researching this book for fifteen years. It has been a pleasure to write as it has allowed me better to understand a city which, for all its flaws, I greatly love, and which I find no less fascinating now than I did when I first came here as a child. In these strange days when our world can seem fragile I have also found something rather reassuring in Rome’s past. Romans repeatedly shrugged off catastrophes and made their city anew, adding a new generation of great monuments. Both peace and war have played their part in making Rome the extraordinary place it is today.
Matthew Kneale was born in London in 1960, the son and grandson of writers. He studied modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford. He has written five novels, including English Passengers, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and two nonfiction books. For the last fifteen years he has lived in Rome with his wife and two children. Visit him at MatthewKneale.net.
"This magnificent love letter to Rome comes in the form of a vivid chronicle of the great city’s repeated catastrophes and recoveries. Sharp-eyed, richly informed, tirelessly curious, and often wryly amusing, Kneale is the perfect Virgil to accompany any pilgrim who wishes to trace the vast spiral that leads from the ancient past to the bittersweet present."
– Stephen Greenblatt Author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
“Evokes [Rome] with casual brilliance. . . . The most exciting passages relate the sacks themselves, from motley barbarian armies appearing below the walls (several times in fact) to the horror of Allied bombing raids. . . . There are many other gripping vignettes. . . . this is not a tale of decline and fall so much as a slow roller-coaster ride through the fortunes of a place deeply entangled in its past.”
– Greg Woolf, The Wall Street Journal
“The brilliance of [Kneale’s] own raid on Rome lies in the principle of selectivity he has brought to it—what is done to Rome matters as much as what Rome does to the world—and the depth of his research. . . . Kneale [is] one step ahead of most other Roman chroniclers.”
– Aaron Retica, The New York Times Book Review
"Rome: A History in Seven Sackings is that rarest of treats: an erudite history that reads like a page-turner. With a novelist’s eye for the revealing detail, and the genial grace of your favorite tour guide, Matthew Kneale plunges us into the fascinating palimpsest they call the Eternal City. Magnificently entertaining all around!"
– Maria Semple, author of Today Will Be Different and Where’d You Go, Bernadette
“Anyone who’s visiting Rome and wants an idea of the ghosts and stories lurking among the ruins could choose no better read.”
– Louis Cheslaw, Condé Nast Traveler
"What’s not to love about a historical book that reads like a novel? Long-time resident (and novelist) Matthew Kneale tells the story of Rome through the lens of seven key battles. . . . You’ll come away with a new understanding of one of the world’s most well-preserved cities, its famed ruins, and the tenacity and pride of its people."
– AFAR Magazine
"Like most very old and very storied cities, Rome has as many scars as trophies.This hard reality is the guiding genius of Matthew Kneale's absorbing new book. . . . [Rome's] long, uneven, colorful history feels new when it's examined this way, through its defeats instead of its victories."
– Steve Donoghue, Christian Science Monitor
“With an eye for detail and an ear for language, Kneale guides a journey through seven bloody events spanning more than two millennia in the history of the place he knows well, the world’s most fascinating city, Rome. It’s an unforgettable trip.”
– Barry Strauss, Cornell University, author of The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination