Rome: A History in Seven Sackings by Matthew Kneale
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.