“Romans, let these be your arts,” the hero Aeneas is sternly told in the underworld by the shade of his father, “to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer; to spare the meek, and to war down the proud.”
It was an anthem fit for the Pax Romana of the surging new Rome being built by Caesar Augustus, the theme of a national epic crafted out of pride and valor. But it had a blind spot as wide as the Tiber: It was made for victors, written to please the city's sole master. This was a fantasy even in Virgil's day – in Virgil's own memory, Rome had been ransacked three times. And many times in the future of the "Aeneid" the city would be the conquered rather than the conqueror; 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: A History in Seven Sackings, which tells the story of the Eternal City through a series of chapters on its darkest hours, from despoiling at the hands of the Goths to the twists of its fate during the Nazi years. Kneale briefly sketches the glorious height of the city's power and wealth, when it had a million inhabitants, bustling squares, markets, law courts, and entertainment arenas, and then he proceeds to follow it through a long procession of conquests and pillages, reaching a weird low point fairly early in the story when Totila and his Ostrogoths conquer Rome in the 6th century – and command that all its citizens simply leave. “For the first time in its existence,” writes Kneale, “Rome, which a century and a half earlier had been the largest and greatest city on earth … was empty.”
Such evocative visual moments occur regularly throughout the book, a testament to the fact that Kneale is also an award-winning novelist (author of "English Passengers," among other books). For instance, when he writes about the far-fallen Rome encountered by the invading troops of King Henry IV in 1081, he refers to the place as “a kind of "'Gulliver's Travels' town”: “Many Romans lived actually inside the ruins, which they called cryptae, making their homes in the broken remains of thousand-year-old apartment blocks, in long dry baths, and in the storerooms and corridors of abandoned theatres and stadiums. The Colosseum was now the city's largest housing complex.”
Kneale follows the story of the Eternal City through some of the worst periods in its history – “Rome in 1527 stank as it had not done since the glory days of Empire,” readers are told, “of rubbish, offal, and fish bones, of filthy water from tanneries and dyers, and of dung, both animal and human.” Some would-be conquerors encountered a city already in ruins, others broke in upon a working system of government, and others, in Kneale's account, seem almost bewildered by their role in occupying Rome. When French troops marched into the city in 1849 to put down Garibaldi's populist uprising (covered very readably in David Kertzer's "The Pope Who Would Be King"), for example, they quickly focused more on political than military measures. “Of the seven attacks described in this book,” Kneale writes, “without doubt this one was least like a sacking.”
Its rival in that regard would be the final sacking Kneale recounts, the invasion of Rome by the Nazis in the autumn of 1943. The lead-up to that occupation was tense and chaotic, as Kneale portrays vividly in his book's strongest chapter. By the morning of September 10th, the Germans were advancing on the center of Rome, facing haphazard and often chaotic resistance along the way: “Confusion reigned. Streets were deserted, doors and shutters were closed, and buses and trams stood abandoned in mid-journey.Civilians seized weapons, some of which they found in the streets left by deserting soldiers.” But once the Nazis were in place, the resulting ordeal for ordinary Romans was “fairly mild” compared to some of the wholesale horrors conveyed elsewhere in Kneale's book.
The Rome of 2018 is a thriving, bustling home to 3 million people (and an additional 4 million tourists every year), a beguiling place of color, contrast, and visible history around every corner; as awestruck visitors have pointed out for centuries, it's still easily possible for walkers obsessed with their cellphones to cross bridges that were crossed by Julius Caesar. That long, uneven, colorful history feels new when it's examined this way, through its defeats instead of its victories.