Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro – Rome: An Urban History from Antiquity to the Present

Rome by Laura Jane via Flickr

An introduction from Commissioning Editor Beatrice Rehl

Rome is one of the most astounding cities in the world. As a giant outdoor museum, it combines layers of history, from antiquity to the present, that document its development from a small town, to capital of a vast empire, to the center of Roman Christianity, and beyond.  As one walks through the city, one takes in the jumble of each phase in this long history, all the while enjoying breathtaking urban settings set off by romantic umbrella pines, sub-tropical flora, and a topography of hills and dales that provides a better work-out than any machine at the health club. It took me many years and several visits to appreciate fully the magic of Rome. During my most recent trip I officially joined the ranks of Romaholics, those who can never get enough of the city – because there is always something new to discover, and because one never becomes jaded to its most famous sites.

Just because of Rome’s central place in the Western cultural imagination, many universities and colleges now offer a semester-long course that traces the city’s fascinating history, development, and changes in fortune throughout the millennia.  When I learned that such courses were springing up in North American universities and colleges, I invited Rabun Taylor and Katherine Rinne to develop and write a book that could serve as its primary textbook.  I do not think that I could have found a better or more responsive author team for this project.  Like many Romaphiles they know the city and its monuments inside out. As importantly, they have been able to translate their passion for Rome into the pages of their well-illustrated book. Anyone reading Rome: An Urban History, from Antiquity to the Present is sure to catch the Rome bug.  This is one disease you will never regret!


That Rome, the Eternal City, is the subject of more scholarly inquiry than any other urban center in the world, past or present, should surprise nobody. Its importance was established early; its political power long predominated and the cultural residue of that power has endured. Its physical fabric, a sumptuous palimpsest, pleases the eye and rewards scrutiny. Its admirers have always been legion, and the presence of hundreds of institutes, libraries, museums, archives, study-abroad programs, archaeological digs, and foreign academies in the city ensures that Rome’s unmatched capacity for regenerative grandeur will continue in perpetuo.

That Rome, the Eternal City, should never have received an urban biography spanning its three millennia of human occupation – that might suitably provoke surprise. Yet it is true. Perhaps those closest to the subject, knowing well the divine density and sheer amplitude of the city’s flesh and blood, have avoided the long view for fear that even their best eff orts would serve up a flavorless, skeletal carcass. After all, how many subjects, at the very minimum, must an urban historian broach? Politics, architecture, industry, commerce, trade, planning, infrastructure, demographics, geography, ecology, roads and connectivity, relations to the hinterland and other cities? Ideas, arts, salons, literary circles, and patronage networks? Crime, grime, gangs, poverty, invasion, flood, fi re, famine, plague, and displacement? Should the city’s past life be expressed as journalism, biography, documentary, or social, economic, intellectual, or political history?

“All of these things and more,” a conscientious scholar might reply, while looking urgently for the door. Rome may simply prove too big, venerable, and variable to confront over the longue durée. Authors have understandably preferred the periodic approach, privileging a single, cohesive historical era. In recent decades several fine studies have focused on Rome under various political leaders (Augustus, Hadrian, certain popes, Mussolini) or periods (prehistory, Republican or imperial Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Risorgimento, Fascism). Some are genuinely urbanistic in their approach – that is, they have sought to characterize the city as an organism that interacts intensively with the people it hosts. But others present Rome simply as a passive or indistinct venue of events – as a place that was great only because of the great individuals who animated it. Ironically, this most palpably historical of cities is vulnerable to such inattention precisely because of its historical supremacy. Conceptually, Rome as capital city is a universal symbol, an abstraction standing in for an ancient empire, on the one hand, and the Catholic Church, on the other – both of which encompass a universe of human experience.

Rome, the physical place, serves as the protagonist, and its most powerful citizens are agents in its perpetual state of realization.

This book has little of the abstract about it. Rome, the physical place, serves as the protagonist, and its most powerful citizens are agents in its perpetual state of realization. By necessity we paint with a broad brush and view from a distance, seeking out connections, movements, and interventions writ large on the landscape. Our approach moves to the rhythms of an urban environment over time. It is the perpetual process of shaping and reshaping that environment – and the fact that Rome’s urban processes are so often anchored to tangible monuments of the past – that persuaded us to take the long chronological view, daunting as it seemed.

The core idea of this book, and indeed the chronological core of its narrative too, belong to the late Spiro Kostof. A pioneer of the environmental approach to urban history, he sketched out a compelling and original vision of medieval Rome, from Constantine to the fourteenth century, for the annual Mathews Lectures at Columbia University in 1976. These twelve unpublished lectures, presented here in modified and updated form as Chapters 15 – 23 and 25, adopt several broad themes: the physical and experiential nature of the medievalization of Rome, the gradual consolidation of the urban and suburban fabric under the Church, the imprint of ethnic and political enclaves on the city, and the fundamentally ritual, performative character of medieval Rome, both for residents and for pilgrims. The two living authors have extended the narrative chronologically forward (Rinne) and backward (Taylor) in a manner that seeks to honor Kostof’s spirit of bold inquiry and his knack for lively narrative. If any theme predominates, it is that of the city as theater and of the purposive human acts that unfold therein – concepts articulated memorably by Lewis Mumford. One benefit of taking the long view is that it tends to magnify the importance of continuity while diminishing the significance of the categories by which European history is periodized (Iron Age, Roman, medieval, Renaissance, etc.). Nevertheless, we recognize the usefulness of such categories for orienting the reader, and we use such broad labels (inoffensively, we hope) throughout. Indeed for teaching purposes the book can be easily divided by period: ancient (Chapters 2 – 14), medieval (15–25), and modern (26–35). But Rome’s perpetual inclination to return to its reimagined past strongly recommends starting at the beginning. Even veterans of Rome, we hope, will find the book engaging and provocative. Translations of primary texts are by the authors unless otherwise noted. The references in the Works Cited section are necessarily abridged, but we are confident that the ideas and topics we present are well and fairly represented there, as encapsulated in the citations concluding each chapter.”

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