In the Eternal City, where monuments from three millennia jostle in the streets, history is often rewritten to bolster arguments about the present and future.
So states Bosworth (History/Reading Univ., U.K.; Mussolini’s Italy, 2005, etc.) in a scholarly survey focusing on the centuries since the French Revolution. The French conquerors of Italy, unsurprisingly, claimed to be reviving the republican values of classical Rome, a claim that would be taken up in the 19th century by Italian nationalists fighting against the restored French monarchy and other foreign occupiers. This link to ancient, pagan Rome earned Garibaldi, Mazzini and even King Victor Emmanuel the implacable hostility of Rome’s popes, who saw any secular order in the city as a threat and proposed their own version of history, rooted in man’s sinfulness and the pope’s eternal authority. The unified Italian nation created in 1861 had to wait nine years before it included Rome—by military force. In the years before World War I, liberal national governments celebrated their links to the classical Roman past with edifices like the hideous Victor Emmanuel monument, looming over the Forum since its completion in 1911. But liberal nationalism had begun to give way to imperialism even before Mussolini seized power and trumpeted his vision of a Roman past based on military might. Post–World War II contention over the meaning of Rome’s history (treated rather briefly here) included those on the far left, like the members of the Red Brigade that assassinated Christian Democratic politician Aldo Moro, who claimed themselves heirs to the anti-fascist Resistance. Through it all, the common people of Rome, whether devoutly Catholic or eternally cynical, tended to ignore “the most recent reading of history, composed by their betters,” rooting their lives instead in family and neighborhood.
Bosworth’s main point seems blindingly obvious, and the more interesting material giving specific instances of Rome’s History Wars through the centuries is developed with a density of detail that makes this a book for academics rather than general readers.