From Borgias to La Dolce Vita, the ancient capital’s long and complex history is chronicled with relish and awe
Edward Gibbon was famously inspired to embark on his history of the Roman empire when “musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter”. But no ruins were visible in 1764: instead, the Capitol was capped by a tidy piazza designed by Michelangelo. Nor had the friars’ church ever been a Temple of Jupiter. As Ferdinand Addis concludes in his own panoramic history, we all see the Rome we want to see.
How to condense 3,000 years of the city’s history into 648 pages? Addis is not lacking in chutzpah. He first arrived in Rome as a teenager in “too-big jeans” and remembers picnicking in traffic fumes by the Baths of Caracalla. He presents himself as just another tourist and his project as a labour of love and curiosity rather than scholarly expertise, let alone original research. But this is an energetic attempt to bring Rome’s history alive through grand narrative; the florid flights and snappy paragraphs are underpinned by serious reading. In his final pages, he muses on just how many cities it contains: “A city of God? A city of sin? A city of power? A city of decay?” As a medieval ditty put it: “Rome contains everyone and everyone’s business.”