The city of Rome has been inviting epic histories considerably longer than it has actually warranted them, and the historians involved have a whole gamut of approaches. Ennius wrote the story in execrable verse; Livy worked most of his life on a stirring prose portrait of "the life and beliefs of the state, the men and manners through which wars were won and culture widened;" Flavio Biondo combined larger theoretical questions with painstaking analysis of original sources. Edward Gibbon combined a wariness of Christianity with the most gorgeous prose of his era. Earlier this year, novelist Matthew Kneale’s fascinating book "A History of Rome in Seven Sackings" took a chronicle-through-catastrophe approach to telling the story of the city.
In these and innumerable other instances, the writer must face a bitter choice. Here is a plot of ground on a navigable river, marshy lowland overhung by ridges and steep hills, and from this plot, which Italian politician Giuseppe Mazzini called "the temple of Humanity," have reverberated almost 30 centuries of human history. No book, not even something as sprawling as Livy’s or Gibbon’s, can hope to tell that story seriatim, so what’s necessary is an approach, a theme, a conception.
In The Eternal City: A History of Rome, his astonishingly ambitious debut work of nonfiction, Ferdinand Addis tells his readers about the shocking wreckage of Rome encountered by the great poet Petrarch when he visited in the early 14th century. “But even in its dilapidated condition the city still made a mighty impact,” he writes. “Wherever he went, Petrarch populated the ruined streets with antique ghosts plucked out of Livy: unchaste Vestals, Lucretia falling on her dagger; Curtius, throwing himself down the abyss in the Roman Forum."
In captivating and very strange ways, this is also true of "The Eternal City." Under its stately presentation (in a hardcover edition from Pegasus Books) and past its smoothly engrossing prose, this is an intensely odd book. In many ways, it reads more like a slightly modernized and extended version of Livy than an actual work of what we would consider modern, serious history. There’s a list of ancient Roman writers and a bibliography of modern histories, but there isn’t really even an attempt to link those works to any of the actual claims in the book. Instead, Addis populates the ruined streets with antique ghosts plucked out of Livy.
He begins with Romulus and Remus, proceeds through the villainous Tarquins, tells of the rise of the Republic, and lavishes the usual amount of attention on Julius Caesar, for instance retailing uncritically this bit of obvious propaganda about the Battle of Munda in 45 BC: "Caesar came within an inch of defeat," Addis writes. "For a moment, he stood alone, catching enemy javelins on his shield, while his men wavered behind him." He spares a single sentence for Hadrian, "famous for his fashionable beard, his wall across northern Britain and his doomed love of the Bithynian youth Antinous, the beautiful boy whose marble features decorate so many of Rome’s museums today." With no factual basis at all, he tells us about the emperor Elagabalus: “His eyes are dark with kohl. His pale throat is laden with necklaces and baubles. His head is crowned with a tiara, gleaming with jewels. His pose is delicate - priestly.” About Nero at the time of the great fire of Rome, we’re told he was “still young, more or less - running a little to fat, despite a regime of regular enemas and emetics, but energetic.” It’s all very enjoyably cinematic, provided you remember that movies deal in make-believe.
"The Eternal City" proceeds in leaps and pauses all the way through the best stories of Rome’s history, taking readers through the Inquisition, the Reformation, the Risorgimento, the reign of Mussolini, and the "La Dolce Vita" era of Fellini. One chapter is anchored in the life of Ovid; another hinges on Petarch; the one on Mussolini, in a bizarre and intriguing choice, is told mostly from the perspective of one of the dictator’s mistresses - sometimes with no doubt unintentionally comic effect: "Many years later, in bitter exile, Margherita Sarfatti remembered the exhilaration of those first days after the march on Rome, the moonlit nights she and Mussolini spent together," Addis writes. "He would serenade her on the violin as she gazed into the velvet blue of the Roman sky, musing on how far they had come, and the glories that still lay ahead."
Addis says his book is an attempt “to give Rome meaning,” and he very wisely notes that this is always the aim of the city’s historians, however self-centered it inevitably turns out to be. "For centuries," he writes, "people have thrilled themselves with the discovery that, by a miracle, all Rome’s countless aspects converge on their own position." This is at once insightful and an obvious dodge, and readers of "The Eternal City" will be left wondering if it can possibly justify this more-than-600-page mélange of folklore, fiction, and fact. If it’s any consolation, Livy’s readers must have wondered the same thing.