All the Roads That Lead to Rome A glum examination of the history of what was once the world’s most powerful city.

The Eternal City: A History of Rome

By Ferdinand Addis (2018, Pegasus Books) xi+632 pages with index, bibliography, occasional footnotes, photos, and maps.

How to describe the 2800-year history of the city of Rome in one book? Addis’s answer is to concentrate on anecdotes and personalities. Each of his twenty-two chapters begins by placing the reader in a specific moment: for example, the assembly at which Tiberius Gracchus was killed (133 BCE), Petrarch’s discovery of Pomponius Mela’s description of the world (the 1330s), or the Nazi confiscation of the library of Rome’s synagogue (1943). The anecdote leads to biography: the reformers Tiberius Gracchus and his brother Gaius, both murdered by their change-resisting opponents; Petrarch and Cola di Rienzo, with their unfulfilled dreams of a new Roman Republic; Mussolini and his Jewish mistress and mentor, Margherita Sarfatti. The biography leads in turn to key movements in the history of the city: the civil unrest that preceded the fall of the Roman Republic in the first century BCE, the failed attempt to recreate that republic in the late middle ages, the rise of fascism that led ultimately to the deportation and murder of many of Rome’s Jews.

Addis generally uses this method effectively, sometimes ingeniously, and the approach has many advantages. With its emphasis on the personal and the sensational, Addis’s history is never dry. It offers many passages of exciting prose, and vivid portrayals of numerous personalities, including the famous (Nero, Michelangelo, Garibaldi) and the not so famous (the gladiators Verus and Priscus; Marozia, whose behind-the scenes machinations gave her control over Rome for a brief period in the tenth century; the twelfth-century Icelandic monk and pilgrim Nikulás of Munkathverá). At its best, Addis’s book offers fascinating connections between the anecdotes and biography at its core and broader social and political phenomena: the rise of the Borgias and the spread of syphilis (of which the notorious Cesare Borgia was a victim), the baroque art of Bernini and the Counter-Reformation.

Addis offers a dark view of Rome’s history, in which historical change comes about not through high-minded actions or progress, but rather through brutality, ruthlessness, and accident. This is a healthful antidote to the triumphalist histories, acclaiming the expansion of the Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity, Italian nationalism, or Western civilization, of which the city of Rome has sometimes been the center. Addis suggests in his conclusion that in place of such celebratory narratives, his book is about “humans trying, and often failing, to live in history. And although it is a book full of failure and death, it is not, I hope, too pessimistic. The whole beauty of humanity, after all, lies in the attempt.” (589)

Addis suggests in his conclusion that in place of such celebratory narratives, his book is about “humans trying, and often failing, to live in history. And although it is a book full of failure and death, it is not, I hope, too pessimistic. The whole beauty of humanity, after all, lies in the attempt.”

Yet Addis’s book is in fact profoundly pessimistic. The concentration on the scandalous and the lurid, climaxing in a detailed account of the horrific sack of Rome in 1527, grows wearying, and more positive developments—the long period of peace in the Roman Empire of the second century CE, the creation of a unified Italy in the nineteenth century, the considerable economic advances in Italy after World War II—tend to get lost, or to be seen only from the most jaundiced angles. Addis’s perspective on the history of Rome is thus very much a product of our times, when the buoyant hopes that the end of the Cold War would lead to peace and prosperity have been so painfully shattered, and when liberal democracy seems threatened from within and without.

The best examples of success in the “attempt to live in history,” Addis seems to suggest, are the great works of art that have repeatedly come from—and continue to adorn—the city of Rome. Thus we find chapters centered around a play of Plautus, the poems of Ovid, the Sistine Chapel and other works of Michelangelo, the Roman sculptures of Bernini, the Romantic poets, and the Roman films of Fellini. In each of these chapters Addis indicates that Rome (the world) was (is) a horrible place, but artists have managed to create beauty in spite of this. The Fellini chapter is indicative of Addis’s approach. While acknowledging the economic miracle of the 1950s, Addis sees Italy after the war primarily in terms of Cold War politics and failures such as Rome’s uncontrolled housing boom, which meant that some 400,000 Romans lived in buildings that did not officially exist that were ugly, unsafe, unsanitary. Just as in the days of ancient Rome, so in the modern city the poor were always in danger of being crushed by a collapsing apartment block. (576)

The one bright light in all this, Addis implies, are the films of Fellini, who managed to portray hope and cheerfulness in the midst of a corrupt and dismal Rome that was essentially the same as that of the Caesars, the medieval and renaissance popes, or Mussolini.

In fact, Addis appears to see himself as a kind of Fellini, offering rays of light in the darkness that is history. But Addis seldom succeeds in bringing to the fore the kind of brightness Fellini finds. Thus, while we read about anti-Carthaginian sentiment in Plautus’ play The Little Carthaginian (late third or early second century BCE), Addis fails to note the astonishing fact that, within just a few years of the time when Hannibal came close to destroying Rome, Plautus presented a play with a remarkably sympathetic set of Carthaginian characters. The works of Ovid get overshadowed by the poet’s tragic exile, those of the Romantic poets by their romantic deaths, those of Michelangelo and Bernini by their struggles.

Addis appears to see himself as a kind of Fellini, offering rays of light in the darkness that is history. But Addis seldom succeeds in bringing to the fore the kind of brightness Fellini finds.

Addis’s chapter on Fellini and Rome of the 1950s is his last. We learn of contemporary Rome only as a tourist destination. Much has happened in Rome since the 1950s that would confirm Addis’s generally gloomy view of the city’s history: the terror of the Red Brigades, ever-increasing traffic troubles, the overwhelming burden of mass tourism, the resurgence of the far-right. Yet other developments might challenge that view: Vatican II; some remarkable sprucing up of museums, archaeological sites, and other areas; new political possibilities after the binary antagonisms of the Cold War. It would be interesting to see how Addis would present this more recent history.

Addis notes the cliché that Rome is like a palimpsest, in which an earlier text on a manuscript is erased and another written over it. But noting that texts on palimpsests are never completely erased, Addis suggests that in Rome all attempts to remove the past are unsuccessful (“no monument, however grandiose, is ever powerful enough to erase the traces of what has gone before”). (588) He associates the inevitable continuities from the past with the failure to produce real change (“attempts to shape Rome’s history have ended in failure, delusion, humiliation”). (589) Yet for all the dreary repetitions of violence, corruption, and ineptitude that mark the history of Rome—and any history—today’s Rome is far from that of Tiberius Gracchus, Augustus, Petrarch, or Mussolini. While acknowledging Addis’s salutary skepticism regarding naïve assumptions of progress, I would nevertheless like some more thought given to just what has changed—for better or for worse—in this “eternal city.”

One of the continuities Addis emphasizes is the city’s symbolic meaning, of which Addis claims, there is too much: “it demands of each of us that we read and write it at the same time, that we create from its chaos our own meanings.” (588) Again, Addis’s resistance to oversimplified narratives is salutary; but in insisting upon chaos he misses important continuing themes. The reader seeking those would do better to turn to another “Eternal City” book, Peter Bondanella’s The Eternal City: Roman Images in the Modern World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987). As Bondanella observes, behind the chaos seen by Addis is a consistent pattern of ancient Rome as a model republic for some, the quintessential empire for others.

Addis’s resistance to oversimplified narratives is salutary; but in insisting upon chaos he misses important continuing themes.

Also contributing to, and no doubt in part inspired by, Addis’s pessimism is his response to his sources. Addis has definitely done his homework, mastering both an impressive array of primary sources from all relevant periods and a wide range of secondary scholarship. He offers occasional reminders of how inadequate our sources can be. He notes, for example, that historians trying to chronicle the papacy in the tenth century “could see Rome only as reflected through the warped and blackened glass of non-Roman church chroniclers.” (261) Such reminders are too rare, however, and Addis fails to acknowledge that in fact most of our sources for Rome before the modern period, and many thereafter, are woefully ill-informed and tendentious. Addis’s dilemma is certainly understandable. As he states in his preface, his is “not an academic book, nor is it concerned with history as a quasi-scientific discipline” (vii). Rigorous source criticism, or even the insertion of “allegedly” at every location where it is appropriate, would have made the book unreadable. Yet even in a popular book one would hope for more careful distinction between what we feel confident we know, what might be the case, and what is almost certainly fantasy. In accounts such as the myth of Romulus and Remus, the alleged founders of Rome, and the bizarre behavior of the second-century-CE emperor Heliogabalus, these three degrees of reliability are too often blended together and presented as “fact.”

The Eternal City, then, is well worth reading, with several caveats. Readers will need a high tolerance for “blood and guts” and for the anecdotal over the causal and the thematic; they will need to remember that much of what Addis writes is the product of biased and ignorant sources; and they will want to use Addis’s pessimism as a starting point, not the final goal, in pondering the significance of Rome’s history. Keeping those caveats in mind, they will gain from The Eternal City both pleasurable hours of reading and an excellent introduction to the history of one of the world’s most captivating cities.

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