Feature

Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History by Robert Hughes

Hughes's formidable history begins with Romulus and Remus and ends with Silvio Berlusconi.

(Knopf, $35)

For great stories, there’s no place like Rome, said Simon Schama in Newsweek. For someone to recount them, consider Robert Hughes. The great art critic has written a book whose “vitally impassioned prose” demonstrates “just how nervously conventional most history writing is.” With his unrivaled command of history and aesthetics, Hughes leapfrogs through 3,000 years, pulling tales from beyond the fringes of our common legends. “If you fancy hewing an obelisk from granite—and schlepping it across town like Pope Sixtus V—Hughes will tell you exactly how.” Excited by Roman building materials? “There’s a love song to Roman concrete that will stay with you as long as the stuff itself does.”

A better Roman tour guide probably doesn’t exist, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. Beginning with Romulus and Remus and ending with Silvio Berlusconi, Hughes grabs onto our historical misconceptions and shakes vigorously. Rome in the age of empire wasn’t the shimmering white-marble city of our imagination but a B.C. version of Calcutta—crowded, filthy, and full of shoddy buildings prone to collapse. Hughes is “highly opinionated, especially on all matters aesthetic, and never pulls his punches.” The early Romans weren’t refined but brutes—nouveaux riches who had much in common with Rome’s recently ousted prime minister. Having fallen for the city in 1959, Hughes also can’t help lament Rome’s current incarnation as a giant tourist trap.

Hughes may be a huge intellect, but his book is “uneven,” said The Economist. Despite the wealth of commendable prose, Hughes’s narrative is too jumpy and is riddled with “disconcerting inaccuracies.” Presented as a meditation on Rome the metropolis, the book too often “drifts away from the city itself to become the story of the making of the Roman Empire.” The task of telling Rome’s history is as monumental as the city itself, and Hughes is certainly capable of telling it. But you get the feeling here that he eventually became “exhausted by the sheer richness of his material.”

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