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Thursday, November 15, 2012

“Romans: Their Lives and Times”, by Michael Sheridan


202 pages, St Martin’s Press, ISBN-13: 978-0312131586

First things first: Romans: Their Lives and Times is most certainly NOT a historical overview of Roman history, as one might think from the title. It is a quasi-philosophical collection of vignettes about a few times, persons, and events in Roman history. It reminded me of a taxi ride through Rome, with a driver pointing out interesting historical tidbits about various places while passing by.

Romans do nothing by halves – nowhere is the espresso more bitter, the monuments as grandiose, the intrigue so ancient and the style as contrived. In this book, the author, a former correspondent, shows readers the true Rome and the true Romans. The book provides an evocative mixture of history, literature, and politics, including diarists and commentators to chronicle almost every generation of Roman hedonism and decay. Here is the Rome of the Popes, of a poet who loathed priests (Shelley, his wife and their son) in happiness and in tragedy. Here, too, are the city's inimitable railways, its innumerable cats. Sheridan the historian unravels the curious story of Mussolini’s son-in-law and the British ambassador and as befits his period as a leading newspaper correspondent, new thoughts on Don Giulio Andreotti, seven times Prime Minister, as well as the Moro and Calvi affairs and other scandals.

The glories and savageries of ancient republican and imperial Rome permeate journalist Sheridan's account: Reminders of Rome's ancient past are everywhere as Sheridan shows the influence of the symbolism and history of the Roman state on the universal Church and even on Mussolini's Italy. Sheridan deftly traces the history of the Latin language and literature from the ancient past until modern times, as it served as the Catholic Church's lingua franca until the 1960s. Sheridan writes not only of the native Romans, but of foreigners who, like himself, were attached in some way to the ancient city, such as Edward Gibbon, who conceived his great history amid the ruins of the Forum, and the aforementioned Shelley’s. Sheridan draws an arresting portrait of the complex Count Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law, whose specious rise and tragic fall paralleled that of Fascist Italy. The author also devotes two chapters to the Catholic Church, providing a snapshot of the church during the sea change of Vatican II and following its progress through the increasingly conservative reigns of Paul VI and John Paul II. Finally, Sheridan discusses the scandal-ridden turmoil of current Italian politics. Tracing the fabled inefficiencies, corruption, and surprising stability of the modern Italian state to ancient Rome, Sheridan muses that “its success depended upon the mechanism elaborated by Cicero and savaged by Juvenal: that is, the relationship between patron and client, the reciprocal use of favor, the courteous mutual understanding that oils every transaction.” A pleasant journey through the past and present of Europe's greatest cities.

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