THERE IS NO city like Rome. No other great metropolis has preserved its past so well. In Rome you can cross bridges that were crossed by Cicero and Julius Caesar, you can stand in a temple nineteen centuries old or walk into a church where a hundred popes have celebrated mass. As well as the city’s famous sights – the fountains, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, St Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel – you can also see Mussolini’s Fascist propaganda, much of it still intact. The Romans have even kept the city’s Gestapo headquarters from the Nazi occupation. That so much has survived is all the more remarkable considering what Rome has endured over the centuries: dozens of catastrophic floods, fires, earthquakes, plagues and, most of all, attacks by enemy armies.
When I first came to Rome at the age of eight I had never seen a city that had so much of its past on show. My fascination grew and as I became older I returned many times. For the last fifteen years I have lived in Rome, studying it and getting to know every stone of the city. I realized I wanted to write about Rome’s past and show how it has become the city it is today: to tell the city’s whole story from three thousand years ago to present times.
There was a problem. Rome’s past is a vast subject. The city has changed so greatly that there have been many Romes, each of which would be largely unrecognizable to Romans of other times. Books that try to recount the city’s entire history tend to suffer from being too long, and yet also too hurried, as they struggle to race through events. Much of my writing has been fiction, and novels, among many other things, require a strong, clear structure. I began wondering what structure could be used to frame Rome’s history while avoiding an endless stream of and thens. An idea came to me: focusing on a handful of moments throughout the city’s existence – moments that changed the city and set it on a new direction. Sackings were the obvious choice. As Romans ruefully observe, Rome has had no shortage of them.
Seven seemed a good number. Seven hills, seven sackings. I found the ones that were most important to Rome’s history, and which also fell at moments when the city had a character wholly distinct from other eras. I began to envisage how each chapter could be told, like a story. First, we would see the enemy advancing on the city and we would learn who they were and what had brought them. Next, we would pause and look at what the city had been like before the crisis had begun, when it still enjoyed a sense of normality. We would be presented with a kind of vast postcard from Rome describing what it looked like, felt like and smelt like; what Romans – rich and poor – owned; what united and divided them; what their homes were like; what they ate; what they believed; how clean they were; how cosmopolitan; how they amused themselves; what they thought about sex; how their men and women treated one another; and how long they could expect to live. Along the way we would see how Rome had changed since the last postcard and so – like joining the dots in a puzzle – we would glimpse the city’s whole history. Finally, we would return to the drama of the sacking, discovering how the enemy broke into the city, what they did there and how Rome was changed by what took place.
I have been researching this book for fifteen years. It has been a pleasure to write as it has allowed me better to understand a city which, for all its flaws, I greatly love, and which I find no less fascinating
now than I did when I first came here as a child. In these strange days when our world can seem fragile I have also found something rather reassuring in Rome’s past. Romans repeatedly shrugged off catastrophes and made their city anew, adding a new generation of great monuments. Both peace and war have played their part in making Rome the extraordinary place it is today.