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A CONVERSATION WITH MATTHEW KNEALE



Q: You have written primarily works of fiction, and were the winner of the Whitbread prize and shortlisted for the Booker Prize for your novel English Passengers. What made you want to make the switch and dive into nonfiction, specifically a book about Rome’s history?
A: History has always been my passion, ever since I was a small child. I studied it at university and to this day I mostly read history books. Two of my novels, including English Passengers, were historical. Another passion of mine has been Rome, a city that has captivated me since I first saw it aged 8. For that past 16 years I’ve lived in Rome and read everything I could find about the city. I began to dream of writing about the city’s past, not just one era, but that would give a sense of all of its immense history. Yet I saw it would be a mistake to try and narrate everything as there was far too much. I would end up with an immense book filled of and thens and even then it would be hurried and too short. One day, taking a walk through the city, I had the idea of telling Rome’s history through a handful of key moments. Sackings seemed the obvious choice as they transformed Rome and they were dramatic. Before long I could see the book. I would use the storytelling techniques that I used as a fiction writer. Each chapter would begin with an enemy army advancing on the city, explaining who they were and why they had come. The narrative would then pause and describe what life was like in the city before the attack, recounting everything from Romans’ food and beliefs, their and homes and their health, to what the city looked like and smelt like. Only then, when we knew the city, would I tell how the enemy broke into Rome – or were let in, as often happened – what they did there and how Rome was changed by their actions.

Q: Rome remains one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Why do you think that is?
A: Rome has the pope. It has an extraordinary past of which far more can still be seen than in any other great city. Visitors can walk across bridges that were crossed by Cicero, Pompey and Julius Caesar. They can visit churches that have hardly changed since Christianity was a young religion. They can see layers of the past piled on top of one another: a piazza grown out of an ancient stadium; a high medieval church built on a Dark Age church that in turn is built on rooms of an ancient Roman town house and a temple to the pagan god Mithras. Throw in great art, stunning baroque fountains, a wonderful climate and fantastic food and it is no surprise people are drawn to Rome.

Q: You write, “Imperial Roman and modern Italian cuisine have little in common” (p.56). How has Italian cuisine evolved over the course of Roman history?
A: Two thousand years ago, Romans ate dishes that would we would think more Thai or Vietnamese than Italian. Popular ingredients included a Thai style fermented fish sauce (originally from Carthage) and also coriander and lots of black pepper. Grand banquets included food that might prove difficult for modern diners: flamingo, ostrich, dolphin, and sows’ wombs and teats. With the fall of the Roman Empire, cooking became simpler and then began to change as outsiders – mostly invaders – brought new ingredients. Either barbarian Lombards or the Byzantine Greeks brought buffaloes to Italy, giving Romans buffalo mozzarella. Arab conquerors of Sicily brought eggplants, spinach, pomegranates, almonds, lemons, sugar cane and saffron. By the Middle Ages, and perhaps earlier, Romans were eating some form of pasta, and a vegetable sauce called pulmentarium, which is thought to be an ancestor of pasta sauces and pizza toppings. By the Renaissance Romans were enjoying pastas we know and love, from macaroni to pappardelle to ravioli and tortellini. Rome’s Jewish population was very influential on Roman cuisine, giving the city lamb and artichoke dishes, among others. Conservative Romans were slow to accept ingredients from the New World – tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and chili peppers – but in time they did and by the mid-nineteenth century, Romans’ favorite foods were much the same as they are today. The long journey from fish sauce to pasta alla carbonara or amatriciana was complete.

Q: War, violence, and destruction defines so much of Rome’s history. How has so much of Rome’s iconic architecture remained intact over the years?
A: An astonishing amount has survived. For all that it has suffered over the centuries at the hands of invaders, and from egotistical rulers wanting to stamp their mark on the city, Rome has been very lucky. Wonders have survived attacks by would-be emperors, Goths, Holy Roman Emperors, popes and antipopes, Normans, Spanish and Lutherans. They escaped destruction by French guns in 1849 and by Allied bombers in the Second World War. On the Capitoline Hill, in today’s Musei Capitolini, one can still see the foundations of Rome’s great temple to Jupiter Capitolinus, built more than 2,500 years ago, when it was the largest temple in the Western Mediterranean. One can walk over the Bridge of Cestius by the Tiber Island that was built in Cicero’s time, in the dying days of the Roman Republic. Numerous remnants have survived from Imperial Rome, from its fora, its great baths – of Caracalla, of Diocletian and Trajan – and the Imperial Palace on the Palatine, to Augustus’ tomb and his exquisite Temple to Peace. And of course there is the greatest pagan Roman temple of them all: the Pantheon, which is relatively unchanged from when it was built almost nineteen centuries ago. Most of the city’s ancient walls have survived, along with the gates where invaders broke in, or were let in by treacherous defenders. Churches from all eras remain, right back to the time when Christianity had just become the religion of the empire. Look carefully and one can find dozens of medieval fortress towers, some concealed in the fabric of later apartment buildings. One can visit the Castel Sant’Angelo, the fortress built from Emperor Hadrian’s tomb that became the city’s greatest strongpoint, where many a pope fled from invaders. Countless jewels of Renaissance Rome and Baroque Rome have survived, from the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica to palaces, piazzas and fountains. Alongside these are buildings from Rome’s period of rapid expansion, under a new United Italy, and then Fascism. Rome is a city of layers like no other.

Q: What is the most surprising thing that you have learned over the course of your research?
A: I was surprised to learn that one of Rome’s most beautiful medieval churches was built out of spite. The church of San Clemente was closely linked with Pope Clement III, who, after his death, was denounced as antipope by his rival and successor, Pope Paschal II. Paschal had Clement’s bones flung into the Tiber and then entombed his church in earth. Above it he built a new San Clemente. To this day it is one of the city’s most likeable churches. This seems a very Roman story. From the worst of motives – vengeance and spite – something enduringly beautiful was created. 

Q: The Gothic Wars, which occurred in the 500s when the Ostrogoths invaded Rome, brought about the end of the Senate, “an assembly that had once ruled the Mediterranean world, and had existed since the time of Rome’s kings, 1,200 years ago” and that as a result, “Rome found itself Christendom’s number one pilgrimage destination.”(p.111). Could you elaborate on this and explain how this came to be? 

A: The Gothic Wars were a low point for Rome. The city suffered two sieges, each lasting a year, it changed hands several times, suffered grave destruction and for a brief period was wholly abandoned. During this same era, the institutions and traditions of classical Rome, from consuls to chariot races, slowly vanished away. The Senate, whose real power had faded centuries earlier, was the last to go. A new Rome emerged. Popes took the title of Pontifex Maximus (chief priest) that had been used by Western Roman Emperors. The city’s highest clergy wore silk slippers, which had been a privilege of Rome’s senators. Then, just when the city needed some good fortune, it came from an unexpected quarter. Around 636 AD Muslim armies conquered Jerusalem. Christianity’s chief pilgrimage destination was off limits. With her greatest rival out of the way, Rome filled the gap, and the city’s pilgrimage industry began to thrive as never before. 


Q: What was the impact on the introduction of Christianity to Rome?

A: In some ways Christianity changed Rome less than one might think. Pagan Emperors had used Rome to display their power, building vast palaces, baths and forums. The first Christian emperors built vast churches outside the city above the tombs of Christian martyrs: Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Lawrence. The centre of the city gradually became filled with churches large and small. Pagan processions were replaced by Christian processions that followed the same routes on the same day of the year. The Protestant Reformation, though a disaster for the papacy, brought good times to Rome as popes remade the city as a showcase of Catholicism. But perhaps the greatest change brought by Christianity was to Rome’s location. Pagan Rome had been centered around the Seven Hills east of the Tiber, gradually extending down to the river. Christian Rome moved slowly but steadily westwards, till the Seven Hills were abandoned, reverting to farmland. The Forum became known as ‘Campo Vaccino’ or the cow field, and the Capitoline Hill was ‘Monte Caprino’, or Goat Hill. This happened in part because most of the city’s aqueducts no longer worked, causing Romans to move close to the Tiber for their water supply. But the city also moved because of Christianity. It was pulled westwards by the tomb of Saint Peter. The area around it became the most dynamic part of the city, a centre of pilgrimage and of government, as popes built and enlarged the Vatican Palace till it was the largest in Europe. Saint Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt as Europe’s the greatest church. And yet there is now considerable doubt as to whether Saint Peter was actually buried here, or whether he came to Rome at all. 


Q: Roman Jews were a major part of city life from the beginning, but the way they were treated and perceived was constantly in flux, and as you mention, “life for Rome’s Jews could be precarious at certain seasons” (p.170).  Could you discuss how their position in the community evolved over the course of its history? 
A: Roman Jews consider themselves the oldest continuous Jewish community in the world and with good reason. They have had a presence in the city for 2,200 years. Over the centuries, like Jewish communities across Europe, they have enjoyed both good times and very bad times. As early as the 1st century AD, after the Jewish war of 66-70 AD, they suffered persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities. Things grew more difficult when Roman emperors adopted Christianity and early popes incited mobs to burn synagogues. Over the next thousand years, the lives of Jewish Romans were always precarious, and Easter, when religious plays were put on in the Colosseum was an especially dangerous season. Yet at some periods, they were protected and treated well by the popes. In the Middle Ages, Rome was Europe’s greatest center of Jewish learning. During the Renaissance, when Spain expelled Jews from its territories, which included Southern Italy, Rome became a haven for Jewish refugees. When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, he scoured the city for Jewish models to depict as Old Testament figures. Tougher times for Jewish Romans lay just ahead.

In the 1550s, stung by the rise of Protestantism, Pope Paul IV – a Senator McCarthy-like figure – became determined to convert Rome’s Jews to Catholicism with a campaign aimed at making their lives as miserable as possible. Jewish Romans were confined to a crowded Ghetto, which they could not leave at night, they were forced to attend weekly Christian sermons designed to show them the errors of their religion, and they were barred from all but the poorest professions. Pope Paul’s efforts ultimately failed. In three centuries of such persecution, few Jewish Romans converted and their community endured, tougher and more united than ever. Isolated, it developed its own dialect and its own cuisine, both of which had a profound influence on Christian Romans. Yet Jewish Rome was left diminished. Having been Europe’s greatest center of Jewish learning the Jewish community became one of Europe’s poorest and most illiterate. In 1870, when Rome became part of a unified Italy, the walls of the Ghetto were finally torn down and Jewish Romans delighted in their new freedom, becoming patriotic supporters of their country. Only a few decades later they suffered their worst trial of all. In the late 1930s Mussolini’s Racial Laws brought back many of the worst restrictions of the Ghetto era. During the Second World War, when Nazi forces occupied Rome for eight months, Jews were hunted down and some 1,800 were deported to death camps, only a handful to return. Yet this was a time when Jewish and Christian Romans came together as never before. Despite German death threats to any who harbored Jews, Churchmen and lay Christian Romans rich and poor hid them in churches, monasteries and their homes. More than 10,000 Roman Jews survived.

Q: You mention that in nineteenth-century Rome, “Writers were especially drawn to Rome” like Dickens, Byron, Ruskin and Lear, Irving, Cooper, Emerson, Gaskell, Keats, and Hawthorne (p.236). What do you think the draw was?
A: Writers were drawn by Rome’s great past, its monuments and its art. They were fascinated by Rome’s decline since its Imperial days – by the nineteenth century, Rome was a sleepy, provincial city – which many saw as a warning of how their own countries’ greatness might prove temporary. They were curious to visit a quaint, eccentric theocracy governed by popes. They were drawn by the city’s fine winter climate and sought cures from sickness. And they came because it was so popular with other writers. Any writer who was anyone was drawn to meeting the challenge of describing the city in prose. 

Q: Taking Rome as an example, why do you think structures of power rise and fall in the way that they do?
A: That’s a tough question and I doubt it can be fully answered even by looking at Rome’s long history. One thing that I would say is that it helps to have some good stories. Stories can keep a population motivated and loyal to its leaders. It doesn’t much matter if they’re true, as patriotism or religious fervor will soon grind down sceptics. Classical Romans were inspired by Livy’s tales of indomitably disciplined, fearless and self-sacrificing early Romans fighting back Gaulish invaders. Despite being largely, if not wholly fictitious these continued to capture Roman imaginations for many centuries, and even long after Rome had repeatedly fallen to invaders. 


Q: In the book you write, “Almost every inch of Fascist Rome has survived. The Romans have even preserved mementos of the Nazi occupation. Look up at the walls of apartment blocks on Via Rasella and you will see small holes left by the shrapnel from the Gappisti bomb and by bullets fired up by the German soldiers. The city’s Gestapo headquarters on Via Tasso – where members of Rome’s resistance, Allied prisoners of war and some Jewish Romans were subjected to terrible tortures – has been preserved as a museum.” (p.378) Why do you think Italy has chosen to preserve the legacy of fascism in Rome, as opposed to say Germany, who has chosen to remove all Nazi insignia?
A: It’s important to distinguish here between Fascism and Nazism. Mementos of the Nazi occupation, such as the SS headquarters on Via Tasso, have been deliberately preserved in remembrance of the horrors of that time, and in remembrance of those who died struggling for the liberation of their city. Survivals from the Mussolini era are an altogether trickier matter. Mussolini’s regime, though it was often cruel, inefficient and corrupt, has got off lightly thanks to comparisons with the far greater horrors of Nazism. Many Italians do not feel the pain and shame felt by Germans towards that time. Some Italians – worryingly – are even a little nostalgic. Yet there are also practical reasons why Fascist Rome has not been erased. Mussolini ruled Italy for two decades, during which numerous districts of Rome were built or remade. Look closely and you will find countless Fascist apartment blocks, ministry buildings, Fascist eagles and slogans, and Fascist dates (from the Fascist Year One, the March on Rome in 1922). Though most tourists do not realize it, the Rome they see is, to a large extent, Mussolini’s Rome. To fully erase his legacy one would have to remake half the city. Romans are a frugal, practical people. They don’t like to waste serviceable buildings. Personally I have no time for Mussolini’s regime, which in most respects was disastrous for Italy and yet I don’t feel his monuments should be destroyed. Some have a kind of bleak elegance, while they form yet another layer of Rome’s architecture, which has been created by emperors, popes and kings, some of whom were no less brutal than Mussolini. Yet I feel there’s a case for showing a little disdain for some of the more outrageous Fascist survivals, such as a vast obelisk by Rome’s Olympic Stadium, which is still inscribed, in huge letters, with ‘Mussolini Dux’. It doesn’t need to be pulled down or have the lettering erased. It could just be decorated with some disrespectful street art.

Q: The health of our cities is a major preoccupation in the United States, as we have seen the steady decline of once prosperous cities like Detroit and Cleveland. What lessons can Rome’s history offer us? 

A: The lessons Rome can offer are not unexpected. To thrive cities need money, planning and intelligent regulations. Classical Rome had ludicrous regulations on street size – streets were required to be narrow – and as a result residential areas were warrens of narrow lanes, fire was a constant danger and the city suffered numerous conflagrations. Yet in other respects Classical Rome functioned remarkably well. Its rulers built no fewer than eleven aqueducts, enough to keep its huge population – estimated at around 1.5 million – constantly supplied with fresh water. An efficient system of drains took away its waste. A dozen huge bath complexes and many hundred of small ones kept Romans clean. Fleets of ships sailing from every corner of the Mediterranean kept them fed. Vast theatres, stadiums and amphitheatres, including the Circus Maximus chariot circuit and Colosseum, provided them with entertainment, however unsavory it may be to our eyes. Gardens and close to a dozen fora gave them open areas to take a walk, meet one another, go to court and shop. After the city was devastated by repeated sackings these pleasures were lost. Baths were abandoned and only one or two aqueducts still functioned. The city reached a low point, rather surprisingly, during the Renaissance, an era we associate with progress and clear thinking. By then Rome was larger than it had been for a thousand years yet most of its residents still lived in a chaos of medieval non-planning. Houses encroached on winding alleys. Drains no longer worked and of the city’s original eleven aqueducts only one still functioned while that produced only a dribble. Romans drank water from the Tiber, which was also functioned as the city’s main drain and morgue – astonishingly many of them claimed to like its taste. Improvement came to the city thanks largely to religious failure. After the papacy suffered the disaster of the Protestant Reformation, during which it lost a large portion of its European believers, popes remade Rome as a showcase of Catholicism. Money poured in from Catholic states, notably Spain and its wealth of silver and gold from the Americas. Rome’s drains and aqueducts were repaired, fountains created, streets were widened and cleaned up, new palaces and churches were built. The city became more pleasant to live in than it had been at any time in its long past. The Rome that we think of today was largely created at this time. 

Q: Between 2014-2017, over 500,000 refugees flooded Italian ports, many of whom are asylum seekers. This has caused many local residents to be angry and has led to the rise of right-leaning political parties in Italy. In light of the fact that, as you discuss in your book, refugees have come to Rome to escape violence throughout the course of its history and found it a welcome sanctuary, what are your thoughts on this, and the general state of Rome today?

A: There’s no question that many Romans are unhappy at the numbers of refugees who have arrived in their city. They fear that Italy’s welfare system – which was already strained by the effects of the long economic downturn here – will not be able to cope. And there’s no doubt that Rome is struggling. There are problems with rubbish collection, roads are filled with potholes – made worse by recent freezing weather – while only recently millions of euros of taxpayers’ money was lost in a local government scandal known as ‘Mafia Capitale’. Rome is not the easiest city to live in and one needs a strong stomach to cope with the bureaucracy, let alone the driving. Yet I for one would live nowhere else. I know of no other city that is as beautiful or as fascinating. I also feel much affection for the Romans – their warmth, their world-weary cynicism and their scathing humor. Despite recent election results, in my experience Romans are surprisingly open towards the foreign. Perhaps centuries of pilgrimage have left their mark. I am sure newly arrived immigrants find Rome a frustrating place, with few job opportunities, and yet I have personally seen numerous instances of kindness and warmth towards them from Romans. Rome is a place where a sense of humanity is both respected and expected. It can seem like a strangely village-like capital, where everyone appears to know everyone else by his or her first name. Rome has known better days but, looking back over three millennia and a dozen and more sackings, it has also known far, far worse. 


Matthew Kneale studied Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford. Fascinated with diverse cultures, he travelled to more than eighty countries and tried his hand at learning a number of foreign languages, including Japanese, Ethiopian Amharic, Romanian and Albanian. He has written five novels, including English Passengers, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. His latest was a non-fiction history book, An Atheist’s History of Belief. He has lived in Rome for the last fifteen years.

Matthew will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival about ‘Rome: A History In Seven Sackings’ on Monday, 25th June. Tickets are available here.