In Rome Matthew Kneale, a British novelist whose works reveal a deep understanding of the tangled human life of cities, has had the good idea of writing the biography of Rome not as a study in longevity but as a tale of disaster. Disaster after disaster, in fact, as the city faced invasions of Gauls and Goths, Byzantines and Normans, Catholic and Protestant armies in the wars of religion, Napoleon and the Nazis, and somehow survived each trauma ... The effect is rather like that of a biologist telling the story of life on earth in terms of mass extinctions. The sacks of Rome were nowhere near as traumatic. Before gunpowder it was not that easy for armies to do serious damage to cities built of stone and brick, but invaders could steal treasures, commit rape and murder, terrify residents and generally make them doubt the power of their gods or god ... Yet Rome has survived, a beautiful jumbled collection of ruins and stories. Marx wrote that 'the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.' Romans today seem to enjoy an altogether more tranquil relationship with their past, somehow making antiquities part of the furniture of a civilized life lived largely outdoors. At least by day, it is now difficult for the visitor to conjure up many ghosts. Mr. Kneale’s achievement is to remind us of the past upheavals that lie only a few inches beneath the cobbled streets of the eternal city.
'Both peace and war have played their part in making Rome the extraordinary place it is today,' writes Matthew Kneale. However, his stirring history of the Eternal City is heavy on the hostilities. Rome has been occupied, ravaged and reshaped by, among others, the Gauls, Goths, Normans and Nazis, plus some domestic 'sacking' by Mussolini’s mob ... Fractured stories come naturally to Kneale...here, he carefully pieces together an episodic portrait of a population as flexible in conflict as they are in business and matrimony.
Rome: A History in Seven Sackings, tells the story of the Eternal City through a series of chapters on its darkest hours, from despoiling at the hands of the Goths to the twists of its fate during the Nazi years. Kneale briefly sketches the glorious height of the city's power and wealth, when it had a million inhabitants, bustling squares, markets, law courts, and entertainment arenas, and then he proceeds to follow it through a long procession of conquests and pillages, reaching a weird low point fairly early in the story when Totila and his Ostrogoths conquer Rome in the 6th century – and command that all its citizens simply leave. 'For the first time in its existence,' writes Kneale, 'Rome, which a century and a half earlier had been the largest and greatest city on earth … was empty.'