Rome: A His­tory in Seven Sack­ings by Matthew Kneale

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Paperbacks - Dr Han­nah Corn­well is lec­turer in an­cient his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Birm­ing­ham

At­lantic, 464 pages, £10.99

Rome has a long and com­plex his­tory, ex­tend­ing over at least 28 cen­turies. The feat of com­press­ing it into less than 500 pages is re­mark­able, and one that Matthew Kneale ap­proaches with a keen un­der­stand­ing of a Ro­man sense of the past. This is not the story of one Rome, but of many: the choice of “seven sack­ings” has res­o­nance for a city of (al­legedly) seven hills and seven le­gendary kings. Yet this be­lies the mul­ti­plic­ity of his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives: there are more than seven hills and, as Kneale him­self ac­knowl­edges, more than seven sack­ings. In his de­lib­er­ately se­lec­tive ver­sion, Kneale is able to high­light Rome’s con­tin­u­ous rein­ven­tion of its own his­tory, right down to Mus­solini’s choosy preser­va­tion of the city’s past.

Kneale is a sto­ry­teller who evoca­tively reimag­ines the sce­nario lead­ing up to each sack, be­fore tak­ing us on a tour of each new ver­sion of Rome, in­tro­duc­ing us to life on the streets as the city grows from a small set­tle­ment on the Tiber to the seat of an em­pire, de­clines to a parochial back­wa­ter, then rises again to be­come the re­li­gious cen­tre of Re­nais­sance Europe be­fore wit­ness­ing the col­lapse of pa­pal dom­i­nance and the as­cent of fas­cism.

The au­thor does not shy away from the darker side of Rome’s strug­gles, in a city home to peo­ples of dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties, re­li­gions and po­lit­i­cal out­looks. This is a his­tory writ­ten by some­one who un­der­stands and ad­mires Rome, but also ac­knowl­edges its flaws and idio­syn­cra­sies.

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