History makes a great story when it’s told well. And who can resist a good story? I certainly can’t. Having been a history major in undergrad, I may be particularly susceptible. So when I came across Matthew Kneale’s new book, “Rome: A History In Seven Sackings” in the leisure reading collection at Pattee Library, I had to check it out.
There are many histories of long-lived cities. Paris, London, Jerusalem and Rome have all had more than a few treatments. But every so often a writer looks at a history like this in a different way, and that makes it all the more interesting. Kneale’s choice of looking at Rome through seven different times it was conquered over the millennia is a particularly intriguing choice. Beginning with an early, brief occupation in 387 B.C. and continuing up to the Second World War, it is an engrossing tale. Organizing the history of Rome around these seven “sackings” offers fascinating snapshots of the city at specific moments in time. Together, they weave a story of a place that waxes and wanes. It is sometimes strong and ascendant, sometimes weak and in decline, but always Rome survives, refusing to vanish entirely no matter what gets thrown at it. As this history unfolds, a great cast of historical figures crosses the page, each of whom shaped the city by their actions. From the barbarian king Alaric and Byzantine Emperor Justinian, to the unlucky Medici Pope Clement VII and ill-fated fascist dictator Mussolini, the sheer variety is astonishing.
Readers who might cringe at the thought of a work that sounds very much like a military history should not be deterred. While there is inevitable discussion of strategy, it is enough to inform but not overwhelm. The focus here is more cultural and social, looking at changing norms, religion, politics, art and architecture. What results is a readable, engaging history that manages to be light but not breezy. Those who’ve enjoyed the writings of David McCullough and Erik Larson will find Kneale’s work to be just the book for them.
This way of looking at Rome is also a mechanism to show how the city has changed remarkably over the centuries. Maps and population estimates chart these transitions, as Rome grew from a small town into the largest city of its Empire. After a sharp decline into the Middle Ages, the city grew again into the place we know today, with the work of popes, nationalists and fascists each playing a role. Information about daily life prefaces the story of each occupation, greatly enhancing the work. Great figures may stride across the pages, but at heart Rome was a city full of ordinary, mostly forgotten people. Their lives, and their stories, shaped by titanic forces well outside their control, count for something too.
Reviewer Brady Clemens is the district consultant librarian at Schlow Centre Region Library.