Self and the City

Ferdinand Addis, Rome: Eternal City

Head of Zeus, 648pp, £30.00, ISBN 9781781853054

reviewed by Nicolas Liney

By all accounts, the city of Rome should have passed into the footnotes of history long ago, a sad victim of multiple sackings, internecine division, depopulation and egregious neglect. Case in point: in the early fifth century, a roaming military force of Visigoths crept uncomfortably far into Italy, bypassing the new capital Ravenna, and encircling Rome. Negotiations faltered, and in 410 CE the city was systematically, scrupulously levelled. The sacking was, by the standards of its age, restrained, but it reduced Rome to a shadow, and shook the world profoundly. Trembling in Africa, Jerome cried that ‘the whole universe had perished in one city’.

That should have been the end of that. But as Jerome mawkishly pointed out, already by the fourth century Rome existed more in mind than matter, a cerebral emblem of imperium sine fine and world domination even as its monuments crumbled and decayed. The city subsisted as a sepulchre of its former glory, consciously riding on the coattails of its imperial past: after Rome was captured again in 546 CE, Justinian’s dashing general Belisarius begged the Goths in a plaintive missive not to destroy Rome, but to leave it standing as a ‘memorial to the virtue of former generations’.

Despite this drive towards nostalgia – in fact, because of it – Rome survived, through a remarkable display of selection and synthesis, constantly reinventing, redefining and realigning its purchase on that grand appellation, urbs aeterna – the eternal city. Ferdinand Addis’ Rome: Eternal City is as much ‘the history of an imagined city’ as of bricks and mortar. Schlepping around a depressingly ramshackle Rome in the 14th century, with goats living on the Capitoline, Petrarch could still exclaim breathlessly that ‘Rome was greater, and greater are its ruins, than I imagined’. For Shelley, pilfering a line from Childe Harolde, Rome offered ‘mines of inexhaustible contemplation’, as waves of tourists bounded around with their ciceroni, high on antiquarianism.

Rome, triumphant in its decay, has stood as something of a glorious embarrassment to any grand narrative of progress and development. Ever since Gibbon sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol in the autumn of 1764, the city has been irrevocably wed to the sobering notion of ‘decline and fall’, the great case-study of failed imperialism and religious bureaucracy to which the Enlightenment, lubricated by commerce and capitalism, could provide a corrective. After Lyotard, any recourse to metanarrative has been seen more as an awkward gaffe than serious observation, and it’s now fashionable to refer to Rome as a palimpsest, a text written, erased and rewritten by a stream of emperors, popes, and revolutionaries, the remnants of the city’s past poking obtrusively through any attempt to construct new meaning. For Addis, the city is an indelible canvas of imperial, papal and Italian pigments, ‘a baffling cacophony of rival messages’ jostling for supremacy, confounding any straightforward reading.

Along with this, we might also observe a growing tendency to treat the history of a city as life-writing, with Colin Jones’ Paris: Biography of a City, Peter Ackroyd’s London: the biography and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography insinuating the outlines of an emergent sub-genre. Under this new rubric, the city is treated as a personality, its psyche mapped out by the deeds and misdeeds of its populace, with all its internal contradictions and conflicts on display (Freud famously used Rome’s Gordian mess of monuments as an analogue for the subconscious) – or as Ferdinand Addis puts it, ‘humans trying, and often failing, to live in history’. As much as his account comprises of statecraft, papal machination and aristocratic intrigue, it is built around the emotions, passions and minds of groups and personalities who aligned themselves fervently with Rome, often blurring the lines between self and city. If Italy was, as Metternich odiously declared, nothing but ‘a geographical expression’, for Mazzini, Rome was ‘the mother-like idea of my mental conception, and the religion of my soul’. Civis Romanus sum was a powerful passport in the ancient world; imperial Romanitas, and its Risorgimento reiteration as Romanità, was what Billy Joel might call a New York state of mind.

Addis prepares a kaleidoscopic menu of 22 historical highlights that are, in one way or another, instrumental to the city’s story. These accounts are deftly organised, hinged on piquant affairs that set the scene for a consideration of the broader, more familiar elements: Plautus’ comedy, The little Carthaginian, introduces the Carthaginian wars with Hannibal; in the 11th century, the infamous Cadaver Synod, whereupon Pope Stephen VI dug up his predecessor only to condemn him of perjury, and the rise of the obscure, but fabulously debauched house of Theophylact, are given more airtime than Charlemagne; and the pilgrim routes and papal building projects of the middle ages are refracted through the abstruse travel diary of Nikulas of Munkathvera, an Icelandic monk.

Religion, and specifically Christianity, is inextricable from Rome’s history. Constantine tethered the cross to the state after 312 AD, and, apart from the small papal sojourn to Avignon, Rome has been centre of Catholicism seat of the Holy See. But dogma, worship and liturgy meant different things to different people in different times, and Addis gives as much attention to the masses as to the (al)mighty. The complexity of religious faith and its effects is evident not just in diverging architectural stylistics and the theological disputes of Rome’s popes and cardinals, but, more quietly, in the private rituals, congregations and thousands of little shrines and one-room churches that perforated Rome’s topography over the centuries. Addis astutely points out that ‘the more exalted the dreams of popes and cardinals became, the less worthy these messy proletarian churches seemed of a place in St. Peter’s city’. But they were more of a reality for most than the capacious basilicas and belfries that cleaved the horizon.

The great strength of Rome: Eternal City is its careful, quiet attention to Rome’s malleable and variegated essence, and to the fact that it persistently resists definition, despite the efforts of so many to co-opt and homogenise it. For Addis, the irony is that ‘though many, over the years, have claimed to find the true essence and meaning of the city, each reader of the city distorts that meaning around themselves’. This, in turn, has inevitably resulted in a series of historical recurrences, extruding through impossibly inflated egos. Cola di Rienzo, a demagogue and friend of Petrarch, styled himself as a new Julius Caesar and tried to resurrect the old Roman Republic. Gabriele D’Annunzio later styled him as the proto-fascist par excellence. Cola was skewered by a mob in 1353, trying to flee Rome, just like Mussolini, Il Duce, almost 700 years later. It might be cliché to say that history repeats itself, but it is more often than not rather accurate, and always pleasingly entertaining.