A history of Rome in seven sackings

by Nicholas Reid / 14 March, 2018
A drawing of the sacking of Rome by Spanish forces in 1527. Photo/Getty Images

A drawing of the sacking of Rome by Spanish forces in 1527. Photo/Getty Images

It’s racy and readable, but a story of Rome defined by its invasions is skewed as history. 

In 350 large pages of text with illustrations, Matthew Kneale, English Italophile and long-time resident of Rome, tries to tell roughly 2500 years of Roman history just as his title says – as “a history in seven sackings”.

Barbarian Gauls occupy and sack Rome in 387BC when it’s still a small mountain town. Nearly 800 years later, Alaric’s Visigoths sack the imperial city in 410AD and effectively end the western part of the Roman Empire. Genseric’s Ostrogoths smash the city in 546. The Normans, in 1084, don’t really sack Rome – they just burn down some buildings as a diversion while they rescue a besieged Pope.

King Alaric’s forces’ attack on Rome in 410. Photo/Getty

In Kneale’s estimation, the most brutal sacking was in 1527, when Spanish and Imperial forces took the city and killed much of its populace. Ferocity was fuelled because many of the emperor’s German troops were first-generation Protestants, convinced they were attacking the Anti-Christ. Then there was the extinction of Mazzini’s and Garibaldi’s Roman Republic in 1849 by the French General Oudinot, sent by Napoleon III to restore the Pope to power. And finally the horror of nearly nine months of Nazi occupation in 1944.

As Kneale admits, three of these grisly events were not really sackings. They were occupations of the city by foreign forces – relatively benign in the case of the Normans and Oudinot’s French, but brutal under the Nazis. It is understandable that the book ends with Kneale praising the courage and endurance of Rome’s resisters and rescuers in 1944, who had clearly rejected fascism and who saved most of the city’s Jewish population from destruction.

A book like this can’t help having much interesting information and many juicy anecdotes. Ancient legends are punctured. Quacking geese did not save the Capitol from barbarian Gauls. It seems the early Romans simply paid the Gauls to go away. Roman Christians and Roman pagans produced different narratives of the sacking of 410, each trying to make its respective religion look good. Kneale licks his lips a lot over libidinous Renaissance popes and he has a rather limited vocabulary of abuse. Three times he refers to a puritanical heretic-hunting pope as “Senator-McCarthy-like”, which may baffle younger readers.

His chapter on the 19th century is largely a British tourist’s-eye-view of Rome. On the other hand, there’s much interesting sociological detail. It’s fascinating to learn that Rome’s population shrank for centuries after its imperial heyday. Rome took nearly 1800 years to again have as large a population as it had had under the Caesars.

Seven years ago, Simon Sebag Montefiore produced a similar disaster-focused populist history of another city, his Jerusalem: The Biography. Kneale’s tome has the same strengths and weaknesses as Montefiore’s. It’s racy and readable, but very skewed as history. By concentrating on selected disasters, it underplays the city’s much longer outbreaks of peace and constructive civilisation. A fun read nevertheless.

ROME: A HISTORY IN SEVEN SACKINGS, by Matthew Kneale (Atlantic Books/Allen & Unwin, $45)

This article was first published in the March 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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