Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Rome The Biography of a City by Christopher Hibbert

This book attempts to cover 3000 years of history in 400 pages, so you can't blame this writer for suffering a sort-of history-whiplash.   Hundreds of years are compressed into a single page, over and over again.  Tidbits and trivia are sprinkled throughout to try to keep the reader's interest, and to differentiate the book from a Wikipedia entry on The History of Rome, Italy.  I'm not sure the trivia actually works.

The author works hard to focus his story on the city of Rome, but that is difficult since the city was once the capital of an empire, and is now the capital of a country, and it is the capital of a religious faith.  Take any name, date or event mentioned in this compressed history book, and you will find dozens of books in print about it.  The history of Rome and her citizens and invaders is so rich that this books sometimes feels more like an Index than a book.

The book boasts a detailed Notes and Index section.  In fact, the Notes section feels like a book in its own right.  Perhaps the book that the author should have written?  I don't know, but in the Preface the author states that the book is intended for those who may tour Rome.  The book hopes to offer some historical background to what visitors to modern Rome may see.  The Notes section points out just what bits and pieces are still to be seen, and includes some teasing information about them.

Sadly, modern Rome is like ancient and medieval Rome after they have been put through a blender and mashed with a potato masher and then buried in your back garden.  There is not much left where it originally stood, or in its original condition.  Tourists to Rome have to deal with traffic, pollution, filth and graffiti, lines and crowding, to see collections and buildings that are like jigsaw-puzzles made up of bits and pieces, or missing bits and pieces.

I cringed right at the beginning of this book when I read the author thank his wife solely for her Index-making skills.  Ouch.  Cold.  The male-of-a-certain age feeling remained throughout the reading of the book, especially when mentions of women resorting to prostitution in order to survive were treated as moments of amusement or curiosity. 

Wouldn't the readers find it so amusing to hear Samuel Johnson's Boswell's precise words about how he abused Roman women resulting in his infamous venereal disease?  No, this reader did not find it amusing, as I suspect no female readers found it amusing, and perhaps many men did not find it very nice either.  The diary quotes were not uninteresting per se, but they seemed too many and too much of another era to be entertaining.  Actually, some things about that other era provoked my envy:  Rome was open, inexpensive and often free for well-educated tourists.

The author has a fluid prose style and a command of his subject matter, although he his fond of historical gossip and probable invented innuendo.  He also has an academic's studied disdain for religion, which will annoy if not offend those of faith.  That was an odd thing to indulge when writing a book that would surely interest religious pilgrims to the home of Catholicism and the Christian faiths, and to the sites of so many religious martyrs, including two apostles of Jesus.  

The author keeps the 3000 years moving along at a quick pace.  We retrace Rome's long history of bloodshed and sadism, ruinous ambition, rampant misogyny, aristocratic destructive narcissism, invasion by thugs, looting by everyone and anyone.  It does become tiresome after a while.

The overall feeling from reading the book, for me, was this is too much history in too short a book.  3000 years in 400 pages; do the math and that is an average of 7.5 years per page.  That would be the history of Fascist Italy on one page.  You see what I mean?  Actually, the author allows a chapter to cover Royals and Fascists, but that means some pages cover hundreds of years of history.  All of post WWII Rome is summed up in the Epilogue.

The book chapters briefly cover:
  • Romulus and Kings
  • Roman Republic and Empire
  • Christians
  • Anarchy and the Fall of Rome
  • Papal Rome, Charlemagne, Aristocrats
  • Renaissance Excess
  • Sack and Recovery
  • Baroque and 1700s
  • Napoleon
  • Unification
  • Royals and Fascists
  • Today

From the book's description:
This beautifully written, informative study is a portrait, a history and a superb guide book, capturing fully the seductive beauty and the many layered past of the Eternal City.  It covers 3,000 years of history from the city's quasi-mythical origins, through the Etruscan kings, the opulent glory of classical Rome, the decadence and decay of the Middle Ages and the beauty and corruption of the Renaissance, to its time at the heart of Mussolini's fascist Italy.  Exploring the city's streets and buildings, peopled with popes, gladiators, emperors, noblemen and peasants, this volume details the turbulent and dramatic history of Rome in all its depravity and grandeur.

Here is a direct link to the book at Amazon.com:

The author has several books in print about Italy.  Here are links his other books at Amazon.com:

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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