There’s an old saying, ‘One life isn’t enough for Rome.’ Matthew Kneale first visited the city when he was eight, nearly half a century ago. He has now lived there, lucky man, for fifteen years, in which time the desire to write its history has, one assumes, grown on him. But how to set about it? Rome’s history is overwhelming. In ancient times Romans dated their history ab urbe condita, 753 years before the Christian era. There was the Republic, the Empire and then the papacy, with 266 popes up to and including the present one – and that number doesn’t include all the antipopes. The city has grown and contracted and grown and contracted and grown again; selection is necessary. Kneale has found an elegant and effective path through the labyrinth: a ‘History in Seven Sackings’, ranging from 387 BC to 1944. It charts seven occasions when the city was attacked, occupied and terrorised by foreigners: Gauls, Goths, more Goths, Normans, Spaniards and Germans, French, and Germans again – seven sackings to match Rome’s seven hills.
‘Sack’ isn’t actually always the right word, as Kneale admits, but that doesn’t matter. Although he can do the bloodcurdling stuff of rapine, murder and slaughter very well, he is at least as interested in describing what the city was like