Where do you start with a project like Robert Hughes’s Rome, and more importantly where do you stop? The Roman Empire? The Roman Catholic Church? Latin literature? Italian art? European culture? It’s a massive undertaking and even with 500 pages to work in, you wonder whether Hughes wouldn’t have been better off sticking very firmly to the theme of the city rather than rambling through its various cultural associations, but then the passages about the Roman mastery of concrete are never going to be as pleasurable as reading about the sexual peccadillos and excesses of the Roman emperors.
There is something special about Rome; I’ve enjoyed visiting Athens, but Athens doesn’t have any atmosphere, and it certainly doesn’t have the character that Rome does. In Rome you feel the history, you constantly trip over it, it gets mixed into everyday life in a way I’ve never seen anywhere else. Rome’s got soul. And indeed Italy seems to have more history than it can cope with — it never ceases to amaze me that there are vast sites such as Herculaneum and Hadrian’s villa that haven’t been fully excavated.
Hughes fesses up in his preface to having been educated by the Jesuits. His teachers would be reaching for the cane if they could see this homework. The bad news is that the book is fantastically sloppy. There’s repetition such as Tacitus being quoted on Nero and the early Christians twice, slips such as some of the poetry of the Romanesco poet Belli not being translated and straight cock-ups such the death of Vercingetorix, reported once as beheading and then again as strangulation.
Then there’s this passage: “This proved a costly defeat and ended with the British defeat of Italian forces at El Alamein in 1943. Now the Germans sent the Afrika Corps to North Africa, Germany attacked the Soviet Union and dragged Italy with it.” If a contemporary 15-year-old is a bit hazy on the progress of the Second World War that’s one thing, but Hughes was alive at the time, and dates are eminently checkable.
What Hughes does well is what we know he does well-covering the art. On the art, he’s informative, insightful and entertaining. It’s almost worth getting the book just to read Giorgio De Chirico’s withering vituperation of the Surrealists. And like a good bear-leader, Hughes has an abundance of obiter dicta and one-liners to amuse (the origin of the word “fornication”, according to Hughes is from the arches — fornix — where the prostitutes of Rome used to ply their trade).
Perhaps there is a revisionist history of Julius Caesar somewhere that I’ve missed, so it’s unsurprising that Hughes goes along with the accepted portrait of Caesar as a charismatic adventurer, when really Caesar should be bracketed with figures such as Eichmann or Mladic, but then he did write rather well (“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” as Nabokov suggested). Caesar also demonstrated a Hannibal Lecter-like level of pretension in addressing his last words to Brutus in Greek (according to some sources at least — Hughes is a little sweeping in his classical references).
What’s often overlooked is how often the Romans came close to losing their empire, before sacking Rome became a standard European pastime in the decline so lovingly charted by Gibbon. Hughes gives a good account of the Punic wars and Hannibal and his elephants and the catastrophe for the Romans at Cannae. But again, like Caesar’s reputation it’s all about good PR. Very few writers ever make reference to the battle of Arausio (near modern Orange) when the Romans again lost their entire army in 105 BC and the only reason that Rome was saved was because the Cimbri tribe was too untogether to get down to Rome.
In his epilogue, Hughes highlights the horror of visiting present-day Rome, a city jam-packed with tourists round the clock, every day of the year; but really what he is describing is the horror of living or visiting anywhere that is worth visiting — Rome, London, Cambridge or any city or town that has a marking on the map of world culture. We’ve moved from an era of mass tourism to an era of tsunami tourism. Soon it’ll be much more pleasant to stay at home and read the book (or watch the Blu-Ray).