Matthew Kneale has written several novels yet this terrific book about Rome, a city he clearly loves and knows well – having visited often and now living there – is only his second non-fiction book. Conscious of the difficulties of adequately covering the vast sweep of Roman history he has used an unusual approach in writing about Roman history via the major attacks on the city.
However, this is far more than a chronological listing of historical sackings as Kneale enlivens the stories of attacks and occupations with detailed research on the social, cultural, religious and archaeological history of Rome and its citizens; before, during and after these major disruptions.
His wonderful ability with words brings the city of whatever particular time to life, imagining what an ordinary Roman would be seeing, doing or worshipping at the period in question and this picture is enhanced by maps of the city, illustrations, and images of art works depicting the city or battle in question.
The history begins in July 387BC with the Battle of Allia against the Gauls (Celts) who controlled much of Europe. Their success may well have been due to their skill as swordsmiths and the use of war chariots. Livy, describing the battle more than three centuries later, writes the Roman soldiers were simply overwhelmed by the speed and manoeuvrability of the war chariots and shocked by the Gauls themselves. Their soldiers had long hair and beards, often fought naked and tended to charge straight at the enemy yelling blood curdling war cries.
Meticulous research leads the author to the conclusion that the Gauls effectively captured the entire city and the Romans paid an enormous ransom in gold to get them to leave. This defeat had a lasting impact as it drove the building of eleven kilometres of defensive city walls, some of which remain today. This is so in many places in Rome where the past rubs up against the present.
The last sacking Kneale writes about is by the Nazis in WWII. Italy was allied to Germany but when Rome was bombed by the Allies, Italy surrendered in September 1943. Because of the self-interest of the king and the government (as in leaving Rome), Italian troops had no clear directions on whether to keep fighting following the surrender and Rome fell to the Nazis on 10 September 1943.
This sacking was probably less destructive in terms of architecture than many earlier occupations but far more in terms of people. Roman Jews suffered as they were rounded up and shipped to concentration camps. Sadly, Pope Pius XII did nothing to assist them as he believed Bolshevism, which he mistakenly saw as largely Jewish controlled, was a far greater threat to the church than the Facsists. The Allies liberated Rome on 5 June 1944, the day before D Day.
Through these successive battles and occupations the author illuminates recurring themes including: the resilience of the people; the frequent failings of the church and the popes; and the desire to build/rebuild magnificent monuments both for and to the Roman people. We too can visit temples or cross bridges which were there in the time of Julius Caesar or see churches and art works made in the creative crucible of the Renaissance; explore temples visited by Roman emperors and step into churches that have hardly changed in a thousand years.
This is a fantastic book for anyone interested in Roman history.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 9
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: December 2017