Rome: A History in Seven Sackings

Rome: A History in Seven Sackings

by Matthew Kneale

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"Kneale's account is a masterpiece of pacing and suspense. Characters from the city's history spring to life in his hands." —The Sunday Times (London)

Novelist and historian Matthew Kneale, a longtime resident of Rome, tells the story of the Eternal City—from the early Roman Republic through the Renaissance and the Reformation to Mussolini and the German occupation in World War Two—through pivotal moments that defined its history.

Rome, the Eternal City. It is a hugely popular tourist destination with a rich history, famed for such sites as the Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, St. Peter’s, and the Vatican. In no other city is history as present as it is in Rome. Today visitors can stand on bridges that Julius Caesar and Cicero crossed; walk around temples in the footsteps of emperors; visit churches from the earliest days of Christianity.

This is all the more remarkable considering what the city has endured over the centuries. It has been ravaged by fires, floods, earthquakes, and—most of all—by roving armies. These have invaded repeatedly, from ancient times to as recently as 1943. Many times Romans have shrugged off catastrophe and remade their city anew.

Matthew Kneale uses seven of these crisis moments to create a powerful and captivating account of Rome’s extraordinary history. He paints portraits of the city before each assault, describing what it looked like, felt like, smelled like and how Romans, both rich and poor, lived their everyday lives. He shows how the attacks transformed Rome—sometimes for the better. With drama and humor he brings to life the city of Augustus, of Michelangelo and Bernini, of Garibaldi and Mussolini, and of popes both saintly and very worldly. He shows how Rome became the chaotic and wondrous place it is today. Rome: A History in Seven Sackings offers a unique look at a truly remarkable city.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

How do you tell the story of the Eternal City in a single book? Novelist and historian Kneale (English Passengers; When We Were Romans) attempts an episodic approach, centered on seven major instances of Rome's invasion by outside forces. Each sacking is given a single chapter, beginning with the Gallic invasions of the 380s BCE and ending with the Nazi occupation and Allied liberation of the city during World War II. Chapters open with the circumstances of the invasion, detours for an overview of Rome's condition and social character at that particular time, and conclude by relating the details of the plundering and its aftermath. The move from chapter to chapter usually necessitates a chronological leap of several hundred years, but in spite of the gaps, Kneale's choice of focal points provides a stirring view of the general history of Rome and its endurance and adaptability. VERDICT A solid history of Rome that isn't the typical straightforward narrative. Readers will find much to appreciate in Kneale's love for the city's past.—Kathleen McCallister, Tulane Univ., New Orleans

The New York Times Book Review - Aaron Retica

Rome is almost certainly the most written-about city in human history, and [Kneale] is working with 2,500 years of action. The brilliance of his own raid on Rome lies in the principle of selectivity he has brought to it—what is done to Rome matters as much as what Rome does to the world—and the depth of his research…He is giving us a tour, but he is also making a case about the interpenetration of the cultures that mixed as the sackings unfolded…There is a lot of church history, as there must be, which he handles quite well, and a fair number of plagues, floods and earthquakes to go with the violence and plunder of the sackings themselves. Reading Kneale's book, you are sometimes left to wonder how anything in Rome has been left standing at all…[His] sensitivity to language is unusual in a book intended for a popular audience…[and] put[s] Kneale one step ahead of most other Roman chroniclers.

Publishers Weekly

Kneale (Passengers) stumbles in his attempt to plumb the mystique of the Eternal City in this panoramic and deeply researched account of Roman history, told through the city’s seven sackings at the hands of Gauls, Goths, Nazis, and other barbarian hordes. Early in the process of writing, Kneale reveals, he envisioned each chapter as “a kind of vast postcard from Rome describing what it looked like, felt like, and smelt like” at a given moment in time. Unfortunately, this authorial intent has not translated well: rather than an evocative travelogue or history, the book is more a series of disconnected episodes of political intrigue and bloodshed. Kneale’s love for the city in all its incarnations, past and present, is clear, but his habit of beginning each chapter with a present-day anecdote about a deserted castle or sleepy Calabrian town that is then revealed as the site of a major historical event quickly becomes repetitive. Later material on the rise of Italian nationalism in the mid-19th century and the occupation of Rome by the Nazis is persuasively presented, with a sense of narrative urgency that earlier sections lack. Yet the crucial element missing throughout is a sense of the sheer presence of the city, whether as an imperial capital, ransacked ruin, or sacred site. Despite Kneale’s best efforts, Rome still holds its secrets close. Agent: George Lucas, InkWell Management. (May)

Condé Nast Traveler - Louis Cheslaw

Anyone who’s visiting Rome and wants an idea of the ghosts and stories lurking among the ruins could choose no better read.

The Sunday Times (London) - Peter Thonemann

"Kneale's account is a masterpiece of pacing and suspense. Characters from the city's history spring to life in his hands."

Barry Strauss

With an eye for detail and an ear for language, Kneale guides a journey through seven bloody events spanning more than two millennia in the history of the place he knows well, the world’s most fascinating city, Rome. It’s an unforgettable trip.

JPMorgan Summer Reading List

"Matthew Kneale shapes the span of Roman history into one compelling narrative, focusing on seven historical moments that defined the metropolis that stands today. Whether you're unfamiliar with one of the world's greatest cities or want to see it in an entirely new light, you'll want to take this journey with Kneale as your intrepid guide."

Maria Semple

"Rome: A History in Seven Sackings is that rarest of treats: an erudite history that reads like a page-turner. With a novelist’s eye for the revealing detail, and the genial grace of your favorite tour guide, Matthew Kneale plunges us into the fascinating palimpsest they call the Eternal City. Magnificently entertaining all around!"

Christian Science Monitor - Steve Donoghue

"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's] long, uneven, colorful history feels new when it's examined this way, through its defeats instead of its victories."

Stephen Greenblatt Author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

"This magnificent love letter to Rome comes in the form of a vivid chronicle of the great city’s repeated catastrophes and recoveries. Sharp-eyed, richly informed, tirelessly curious, and often wryly amusing, Kneale is the perfect Virgil to accompany any pilgrim who wishes to trace the vast spiral that leads from the ancient past to the bittersweet present."

AFAR Magazine

"What’s not to love about a historical book that reads like a novel? Long-time resident (and novelist) Matthew Kneale tells the story of Rome through the lens of seven key battles. . . . You’ll come away with a new understanding of one of the world’s most well-preserved cities, its famed ruins, and the tenacity and pride of its people."

The Wall Street Journal - Greg Woolf

Evokes [Rome] with casual brilliance. . . . The most exciting passages relate the sacks themselves, from motley barbarian armies appearing below the walls (several times in fact) to the horror of Allied bombing raids. . . . There are many other gripping vignettes. . . . this is not a tale of decline and fall so much as a slow roller-coaster ride through the fortunes of a place deeply entangled in its past.

Booklist (starred review)

"A richly textured chronicle, teasing meaning out of intense turbulence."


"A richly textured chronicle, teasing meaning out of intense turbulence."


"A richly textured chronicle, teasing meaning out of intense turbulence."

Stephen Greenblatt Author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

"This magnificent love letter to Rome comes in the form of a vivid chronicle of the great city’s repeated catastrophes and recoveries. Sharp-eyed, richly informed, tirelessly curious, and often wryly amusing, Kneale is the perfect Virgil to accompany any pilgrim who wishes to trace the vast spiral that leads from the ancient past to the bittersweet present."

Kirkus Reviews

A sprawling city with an ancient history, Rome defies a neat narrative of its past.Novelist and historian Kneale (An Atheist's History of Belief: Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention, 2014, etc.) takes a fresh historical approach by focusing on groups of invaders that indelibly shaped the contemporary city. "Treasures," he writes, "have been preserved from the era of each sacking": the Gauls in 387 B.C.E., Visigoths and Ostrogoths from the 230s to the 500s C.E., Normans in the early 1000s, Spanish and Lutherans in the 1500s, French in the mid-19th century, and Nazis in the 20th century. Kneale offers gritty accounts of waves of violent incursions and vivid portraits of daily life—including health, food, housing, laws, sexual attitudes, and religious practices—during each period. In the second century, for example, with a population of more than 1 million, Rome was decidedly unhealthy. Measles, mumps, tuberculosis, smallpox, and malaria were widespread, and the life span for all but the wealthy was around 25. Medieval Rome was little better: In 1527, Rome stank "of rubbish, offal and fish bones, of filthy water from tanneries and dyers, and of dung, both animal and human." In 1525, an outbreak of plague ravaged the city. Within a few years, disease, war, and famine reduced the population by nearly a third. During the Renaissance, the French Pox—syphilis—spread across Italy, sending sufferers to quacks, apothecaries, and doctors who "still viewed bad health as stemming from an imbalance of the four humours." Food changed dramatically over the centuries: Kneale notes that at the time of the Goths, "classic Roman dishes would be more Thai than Mediterranean," flavored by fermented fish sauce. In the 11th century, Romans ate mostly roasts or stews, but in Renaissance Rome, those who could afford it enjoyed a variety of meats, vegetables, and fruits, including items still associated with Italian cuisine, such as buffalo mozzarella and artichokes. Few, though, had access to clean water: Only one aqueduct functioned, and the Tiber was severely polluted.A lively perspective on Rome's rich history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501191107
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 05/15/2018
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 432
File size: 36 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Read an Excerpt

THERE IS NO city like Rome. No other great metropolis has preserved its past so well. In Rome you can cross bridges that were crossed by Cicero and Julius Caesar, you can stand in a temple nineteen centuries old or walk into a church where a hundred popes have celebrated mass. As well as the city’s famous sights – the fountains, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, St Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel – you can also see Mussolini’s Fascist propaganda, much of it still intact. The Romans have even kept the city’s Gestapo headquarters from the Nazi occupation. That so much has survived is all the more remarkable considering what Rome has endured over the centuries: dozens of catastrophic floods, fires, earthquakes, plagues and, most of all, attacks by enemy armies.

When I first came to Rome at the age of eight I had never seen a city that had so much of its past on show. My fascination grew and as I became older I returned many times. For the last fifteen years I have lived in Rome, studying it and getting to know every stone of the city. I realized I wanted to write about Rome’s past and show how it has become the city it is today: to tell the city’s whole story from three thousand years ago to present times.

There was a problem. Rome’s past is a vast subject. The city has changed so greatly that there have been many Romes, each of which would be largely unrecognizable to Romans of other times. Books that try to recount the city’s entire history tend to suffer from being too long, and yet also too hurried, as they struggle to race through events. Much of my writing has been fiction, and novels, among many other things, require a strong, clear structure. I began wondering what structure could be used to frame Rome’s history while avoiding an endless stream of and thens. An idea came to me: focusing on a handful of moments throughout the city’s existence – moments that changed the city and set it on a new direction. Sackings were the obvious choice. As Romans ruefully observe, Rome has had no shortage of them.

Seven seemed a good number. Seven hills, seven sackings. I found the ones that were most important to Rome’s history, and which also fell at moments when the city had a character wholly distinct from other eras. I began to envisage how each chapter could be told, like a story. First, we would see the enemy advancing on the city and we would learn who they were and what had brought them. Next, we would pause and look at what the city had been like before the crisis had begun, when it still enjoyed a sense of normality. We would be presented with a kind of vast postcard from Rome describing what it looked like, felt like and smelt like; what Romans – rich and poor – owned; what united and divided them; what their homes were like; what they ate; what they believed; how clean they were; how cosmopolitan; how they amused themselves; what they thought about sex; how their men and women treated one another; and how long they could expect to live. Along the way we would see how Rome had changed since the last postcard and so – like joining the dots in a puzzle – we would glimpse the city’s whole history. Finally, we would return to the drama of the sacking, discovering how the enemy broke into the city, what they did there and how Rome was changed by what took place.

I have been researching this book for fifteen years. It has been a pleasure to write as it has allowed me better to understand a city which, for all its flaws, I greatly love, and which I find no less fascinating now than I did when I first came here as a child. In these strange days when our world can seem fragile I have also found something rather reassuring in Rome’s past. Romans repeatedly shrugged off catastrophes and made their city anew, adding a new generation of great monuments. Both peace and war have played their part in making Rome the extraordinary place it is today.

Rome, 2017

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