A review of Rome: A History in Seven Sackings by Matthew Kneale

Reviewed by Carl Delprat

Rome: A History in Seven Sackings
by Matthew Kneale
Atlantic (distributed by Allen & Unwin)
ISBN: 9781786492333, December 2017, 384 pp, AUD $39.99

As soon as I finished Rome: A History In Seven Sackings by Matthew Kneale, I placed it in a prominent position in my personal library right beside London the Biography by Peter Ackroyd.  I’m someone who loves to read entertaining history, and Matthew Kneale’s book was one of the very best. This is the type of book that satisfies the cravings for informative literature. It’s written with a humorous flair and insightful research and is powerfully encompassing. Kneale has not only regularly visited these sites; he has also lived for long periods within the walls of this eternal city.

This chronological novel, complete with informative maps and random illustrations, depicts Rome as a living organism waxing and waning its way throughout the centuries. Meanwhile, surrounding forces sometimes succeed in breaking into this active entity and inflict all kinds of woes upon its inhabitants. Out of the seven mentioned sackings the worst was in 1527, following a siege by German and Spanish forces that turned into a total and unexpected bloodbath of epic proportions, and this time Rome was left without any doorways. (These were taken and used for firewood.)

No doubt you have heard the sayings: When in Rome do as the Romans do and also that other old chestnut: All roads lead to Rome? After rubbing shoulders with many a louse-infested Gaul and then placing bets on this afternoons chariot races I’d say I now know this city well enough to decide which century I can imagine myself to be standing in. Kneale’s two-millennium travel guide has enlightened my understanding on everything Roman, and this experience will remain within my mind indefinitely. This excellent book delivers a century-by-century account of Rome’s inhabitants, their commercial and cultural challenges along with endless religious disruptions and several sieges commencing with the Battle of Allia by the Gauls (Celts).

The parallels with today’s fading empires are profound. Once-prosperous cities like Detroit, with it’s now collapsed manufacturing base, along with the USA’s ever-growing rust-belt, are comparable analogies to Rome’s historical ebb and flow. Globally new emerging domains are flexing their muscles, people are drawn to idolising religious segregations, the masses are controlled by financial slavery, all pervading secret police along with dubious commercial alliances watch us today through the internet. it’s as if Roman history is repeating itself right before our eyes.

Hardly a turned page ever goes by without some interesting morsel appearing to raise another eyebrow or smile. For instance, the Colosseum was built on two different kinds of sediment and slowly collapsed under its own weight. The upper level could become shaky when the sunshades were extended and eventually some of this structure was incorporated into the construction of Saint Peters.

What an endless transformation Rome has experienced. Firstly as seven tribes that united to become a kingdom, then a republic that turned into to an imperialistic system, and finally a tourist mecca for a collection of dubious religious artefacts. Great works are installed then later discarded; beautiful marble sculptures get burnt to produce lime mortar, holy relics that drew pilgrims are stripped of their gilding and then thrown into the streets. The city’s doors are stripped for firewood, traitors open gates, shonky popes get murdered and so it goes. What a gripping depiction of humanities’ excesses. You just couldn’t make stuff like this up.

In 846 some Arabs seized the treasure from Rome’s eminent Basilicas and even took the bronze doors. Following the success of the crusades, Rome lost the pilgrim business to Jerusalem and was so relieved in 1187 when the city eventually fell to Saladin and Islam. Rome was the mecca for such a collection of excitingly visible religious relics… The Arc of the Covenant, milk from the Virgin’s breast, Jesus’s blood and foreskin, remnants of the loaves and fishes, and the most popular and gruesome of all, the heads of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. There was also a very popular cloth image of Jesus named the Veronica that was claimed to have been painted by Saint Luke with the assistance of holy angels, it was also reported to cause instant blindness to anyone who gazed upon it.

As for now, Rome is a great mixture of all its past glories and sagas fused with the 21st Century of today. The Fascist embellishments are retained as evidence of another epic and I’m certain this city will keep reinventing itself for further millenniums to come. Do yourself a favour and experience Matthew Kneale’s excellent account of Rome: A History In Seven Sacking

About the reviewer: Carl Delprat is a prolific storyteller. His home is the Australian coastal city of Newcastle, New South Wales. Find his books at: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/CarlDelprat