Thursday, May 09, 2019

Review: Rome: Eternal City by Ferdinand Addis — a great bloody history

By Patrick Kidd
1 September 2018
In the early days of spring just over 1,100 years ago all the big players in Rome, politicians and clergy, gathered in the city’s mother church, the Archbasilica of St John Lateran, for a macabre show trial. Two popes were in dispute. One, Stephen VI, had convened the gathering to shore up his own fragile political position. His rival, Formosus, was accused of perjury, breaking canon law and usurping the throne of St Peter. Formosus sat there as mute as the flagstones in the Forum as Stephen accused him of letting ambition lead him into villainy. There was little that he could say. Formosus had been dead for 11 months.
The exhumed pontiff was a bit whiffy, no longer looking like a man whose Latin name meant handsome, but he was kitted out in full papal vestments for what became known as the cadaver synod, from the white camelaucum on his head to his red leather sandals. These have been the traditional footwear of Rome’s leaders, right down to modern popes, since Julius Caesar started to appear in red boots, claiming it was what the ancient Latin kings had worn. An appropriate colour since, as Ferdinand Addis’s superb biography of the Eternal City reminds us, Roman politicians have often trod a bloody path.
Formosus’s counsel, a trembling deacon, put up a defence, but the verdict was never in doubt. Pope Stephen found his predecessor guilty, ordered the corpse to be stripped and for the first two fingers of Formosus’s right hand — the ones with which he gave benediction — to be snapped off, invalidating his authority. The rest of him was then cast where so many ambitious men of Rome have ended up: into the foaming waters of the Tiber.
That should have been the end of it, but political fortunes in Rome, like the original river of blood, ebb and flow. Stephen was bumped off a year later in AD897 and, mirabile dictu, Formosus’s corpse was found still bobbing around downstream. Fished out, whatever gristle was passed off by his supporters as the remains of the wronged pope was carried through the streets to what was this time his final resting place in St Peter’s. As the papal jetsam passed, the images of the saints are said to have bowed their heads in sorrow.
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Jean-Paul Laurens, “Pope Formosus and Stephen VI - The Cadaver Synod” (1870) (via Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes)
The river gave birth to Rome. The city’s history begins, mythically at least, with a pair of twin boys, descendants of the Trojan hero Aeneas, being cast into the Tiber by a jealous great-uncle in the Alban hills and coming ashore at the foot of the Palatine hill, where they were rescued and suckled by a she-wolf before growing up to found the greatest city in the world, then squabbling over who should be prominent. Had Remus won, we might be discussing the history of Remoria. With a shovel blow to the head of his twin, Romulus got naming rights.
Rome’s history is written in blood and Addis, who has a vivid, pacey writing style, spares not the squeamish as he describes three millennia of violence, from the first kings to Il Duce. There is a lot of flesh among the gore, even if some of the story has to be glossed over for the sake of space (if Caligula, for instance, gets a mention it is only a passing one).
In 600 pages we get plenty of entertaining stories, such as the rise and violent fall of the Gracchi, the Jack and Bobby Kennedy of the 2nd century BC, loved by the poor and killed by the elite. A senator declared that whoever brought him the head of Gaius Gracchus, the younger brother, would receive its weight in gold, which led to the man who claimed it ingeniously scooping out poor Gaius’s brains and filling the skull with lead to increase his reward.
Then there is Elagabalus, a Syrian youth put on the throne in AD218 by his ambitious grandmother, but who only wanted to dance and screw. Married and divorced five times while still a teenager, he wasn’t really into women. Whoring himself out to butch men was more his thing. An athlete called Zoticus, renowned for the size of his manhood, was summoned to the imperial chamber. Zoticus bowed and hailed the emperor as his lord. Elagabalus fluttered his eyelashes and replied: “Call me not lord, for I am a lady.” Indeed, he had asked surgeons if they could swap his male genitals for something more feminine. Zoticus apparently got stage fright and couldn’t perform. After four years of this, the same grandmother arranged for Elagabalus to be bumped off. Into the sewer he went, where he acquired the nickname Tiberinus after the method of his departure.
Yet it wasn’t all just bloodshed and debauchery. Addis also sings of the magnificence of Rome: the masters of the arts, propagandists from Virgil to Fellini, who burnished its reputation, and the extraordinary engineering feats in which swamps were drained to become public spaces and aqueducts were built to carry spring water over dozens of miles, a city was famously turned by Augustus from brick to marble and, under the grand vision of Pope Julius II and the talents of Michelangelo and Raphael 1,500 years later, a renaissance flourished.
Far from being Augustine’s City of God, Rome has more often been a city of, as Addis writes, “humans trying, and often failing, to live in history”, yet it holds a powerful spell. “Civis Romanus Sum”, a passport that millions were once proud to boast, invoked by men from Cicero to Lord Palmerston, from St Paul to JFK, may have lost its usefulness when the Goths sacked the city, but the idea of Rome refused to fall.
Even in its darkest days in the late Middle Ages, after centuries of conquest and apathy, when a city of a million souls under Augustus had dwindled to the tens of thousands living in mud huts, something romantic remained for those who were called there. The poet Petrarch, growing up in the early 14th century in Avignon, where the papacy had decamped, felt its pull, as did those embarking on the pilgrimage of a Grand Tour 500 years later.
Petrarch found a scene that was more a giant farmyard than the capital of the world, with cows roaming in the Forum and the Capitoline known as the Monte Caprese, or “hill of goats”. Nonetheless, he was inspired by the ghosts he found among the ruins and urged the creation of a new Rome. Cola di Rienzo, the son of a tavern keeper and Petrarch’s friend, set himself up as a fresh Caesar, adopting the lapsed titles of tribune and senator. He revived the ancient initials SPQR — the Senate and People of Rome — placing them on his banners, just as Mussolini would put them on Rome’s manhole covers 600 years later, as if pasting these sacred letters all over the place would give them greater authority.
The mob murdered both Cola and Mussolini in the end, of course, as they always have done. Yet the dream of Rome never died.

Rome: Eternal City by Ferdinand Addis review – myth, mess and magic

By Emily Gowers
26 September 2018

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Roman Ruins by Giovanni Paolo Panini

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.”

Addis’s chosen formula is to serve up selected highlights, mostly the expected ones – Romulus and Remus, the Ides of March, the Borgias, the Sistine Chapel, Garibaldi and La Dolce Vita are all here – but to come at them from quirky angles. The Carthaginian wars with Hannibal are cleverly introduced via the jokes of Plautus’s comedy The Little Carthaginian, and the Augustan age is seen through the subversive eyes of Ovid the love poet, as he prowls in the new marble porticoes. Every chapter starts with an atmospheric mise en scène, as if leading up to the book’s finale – the golden age of 20th-century Roman cinema. The hammed-up tone works to draw the reader in, even if an introduction such as this can’t do much to lighten the complexity of the radical Gracchis’ land reforms: “Up on the Capitoline Hill, the plebeian assembly has gathered. Brown-clad figures press between the vast old pillars of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.” The dark ages appear to have been not only darker but also colder than before (the word “chill” features in two consecutive chapter-openings that introduce less well-documented eras).

As he moves through the centuries, Addis casts a keen eye over not just the big figures of history but also its crowds, mess and detritus. His focus is as much on the sordid underbelly of urban life as it is on Rome the sublime caput mundi. We are swept on by a flood of watery and intestinal metaphors: “The currents of history flowed towards that grim spring day like water to a plug hole”; “So the story of Eternal Rome’s fall was set in perpetual motion, to ripple down the stream of history in wave and counterwave.” In the 18th century, there was such interest in the great sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, that Grand Tourists went “trooping by the dozen to see the hole, like so many tiny proctologists peering solemnly into the gaping dark”.
Addis doesn’t shy away from baroque descriptions of death and decay. Pope Formosus’s body, thrown into the river, is “a disintegrating lump of Tiber gristle”; an enemy of the Gracchi is “porcupined” by metal styluses, Saint Sebastian “pincushioned with arrows”. Sometimes the transitions are clunky: “Dark clouds seemed to hunch over the Palatine”; “The city was extremely volatile in those years”; “The road would not be altogether easy. These were troubled times.” The art appreciation isn’t always subtle:Piranesi’s “shadows were always darker”, while Bernini’s Saint Teresa is summed up as “the face of ecstasy”.
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Addis’s remarks on La Dolce Vita might be taken as an unkind caricature of his own book: “its endless cameos, its episodic structure, its capering progress of characters with nowhere to go”. But that would be unfair. An end-to end reading throws up many instructive continuities: sexually rapacious women who stripped off in public – from the ladies of the Borgia court to the aspiring starlet whose nudity at a high society party scandalised 1950s Rome; bodies hurled into the Tiber; syphilis; the red shoes worn by pontifical figures from Julius Caesar to latter-day popes; and visitors of all eras who have despaired of ever being able to get a handle on the city. Byron spoke of “mines of inexhaustible contemplation”. Goethe muttered enigmatically: “The more I see of this city, the more I feel myself getting into deep waters.”
Thanks to his enthusiasm, Addis succeeds in keeping his reader afloat. He relishes the highs and lows of Rome’s past in his purplest passages while pricking the bubbles of other people’s poetic licence. He appreciates that the multilayered, “palimpsestic” quality of Rome is both a cliche and a profound truth. He encourages an approach to the city’s myths that is properly sceptical but still open-mouthed. The famous Trevi fountain scene in La Dolce Vita loses none of its magic when we learn what lay beneath the icy surface: Anita Ekberg strode straight in with Nordic sang-froid, but Marcello Mastroianni was allowed to wear fisherman’s waders.
Rome: Eternal City is published by Head of Zeus. To order a copy for £25.80 (RRP £30) 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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