Rome: A History in Seven Sackings by Matthew Kneale review – stirring portrait of a city at war

The historian and novelist’s episodic account of a resilient, flexible population brings Rome’s fractious past to life

“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: his novel English Passengers, winner of the Whitbread book of the year in 2000, juggled 20 narrators. Here, he carefully pieces together an episodic portrait of a population as flexible in conflict as they are in business and matrimony. The past is lingering in the piazzas and forums: medieval towers house gift shops; football fans march past a towering marble obelisk still dedicated to Il Duce. As an American nun observed while trapped in the city during the second world war, Romans can adapt to events with “Olympian serenity”.

Rome: A History in Seven Sackings by Matthew Kneale is published by Atlantic (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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