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 (his informative source notes cover 18 pages). 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 ... He quotes an American nun describing the arrival of a jeep with four American soldiers in it: 'The thing looked so solitary, yet so significant in the cool stillness of the dawn. I had it all to myself for a few seconds.' This kind of sensitivity to language is unusual in a book intended for a popular audience. Whether they are drawn from legendary ancient historians or unsung modern eyewitnesses, moments like this one are what put Kneale one step ahead of most other Roman chroniclers.
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.