The book that makes you want to visit Rome immediately

Talk of Romans summons images of Caesars, Kirk “Spartacus” Douglas and amputee statues, but as Matthew Kneale’s clever and jubilant history reminds us, Romans are the people of Rome. They were there, like their city, long before the over-reaching Julius, and will still be there long after our dreams of visiting are overtaken by senility and worse. So while this is ostensibly the tale of a place, smartly packaged into seven occasions on which foreign outsiders have burst unwelcome through its walls, it is also an account of the people who lived there, and the astonishing Romes they doubtless took for granted.

Consequently this is not a dry old inventory of columns, fountains and which aqueduct functioned when, but a pulsating torrent of people, from beggars to popes, residents to pilgrims, trasteverini to invaders.

Structured so that each of the seven sackings is divided into three parts: the causes and build up; life in the city on the eve of the invasion (and how it compared to the last time), and the sack itself; the book grippingly sweeps through history with the stealth of the plague and the plot twists of a soap opera.

Kneale also has a terrific eye for detail and a similarly strong ear for local nuance – he records for example how in recent years Romans responded to a threat from ISIS in Libya to descend on the city by tweeting them images of traffic jams and news of transport strikes.

The effect of all this plunder and restoration, construction and collapse, and the daily routines that take place among it all, is to make Rome seem like a character itself, mutating yet permanent, like an urban Dr Who. Not for nothing is it called eternal.

Roman revelations…

  • Apart from perhaps a cloak or a belt, the Gauls really liked to fight naked.
  • Rome has done well down the years as a centre of Christian pilgrimage, with popes tracing their authority back to the city’s first bishop, Saint Peter, yet there is no evidence Peter ever visited. “The claim on Saint Peter by Rome’s early Christians may have been a slight of hand,” says Kneale.
  • The Colosseum, so named because of a colossal statue that once stood beside it (its real name was the Flavian amphitheatre) is believed to be the world’s most concentrated killing ground, where as many as half a million people met their end.
  • Renaissance Romans not only drank water from the Tiber, “Rome’s main sewer, rubbish dump and morgue”, but claimed to enjoy its taste.
  • It was not inconceivable at one point that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V could have made Martin Luther pope, so there would have been no reformation.
  • Henry VIII’s request to pope Clement VII to annul his marriage to Anne Boleyn came at a particularly bad time for the pope – he was trapped and besieged in the Castel Sant Angelo by Spanish and German invaders who were laying waste to Rome and the document had to be smuggled in. Had Henry sent his form a year earlier there would have been no problem and the queen would have kept her head.
  • Rome’s population has see-sawed over the centuries, from a million and half under the Caesars to less than 20,000 after the Norman invasion (and 40 days of no one at all under the Ostrogoths). Not until the mid 20th century did it overtake classical numbers.
  • Popes, among history’s most energetic resistors of innovation, found their poster boy in Gregory XVI, who in the 1830s banned the telegraph, gas lighting and the railways.

Rome, A History in Seven Sackings, by Matthew Kneale. Atlantic Books £20