Rome: A History in Seven Sackings by Matthew Kneale, Atlantic, 464pp, £20
Any writer undertaking a history of Rome must take a very deep breath: here is a historical canvas so broad that most would blanch at the prospect. The longevity of Roman civilisation means that any attempt at a comprehensive linear history would present the reader with an impossibly crowded narrative. Furthermore, ours is not an era when a six-volume epic like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is likely to find a ready audience.
So it is that many authors have found it more convenient to break the subject down into bite-sized chunks. Hence Kneale has chosen seven episodes from Rome’s history when the city fell to invaders.
He starts the ball rolling with the Gauls in the 4th century BC and works through the list until the Nazis slouch on to the scene. So the reader is taken on a 2,500-year journey with punctuation provided by these violent interludes.
But this approach has its problems. The book is studded with intriguing and thought-provoking facts. For instance, the claim that the Colosseum is the most concentrated killing ground in the world, where anything between a quarter and half a million people, many of them early Christians, died, has certainly changed my view of that magnificent ruin. But the book finally fails to satisfy.
The most rewarding histories are those where the writer brings clarity to some historical theme and the general reader can immerse themselves in an unfamiliar landscape to emerge, by the end, wiser and better informed. But Kneale’s book feels too much like an exercise in picking out the tastier bits from the smorgasbord of Roman history.
It lacks coherence and it left this reader longing for an authoritative, readable one-volume history of a city which is the crucible of our Western world.