August 24, 2011
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Rome: a living portrait of an ancient city

by Stephen L. Dyson

The city of ancient Rome began as a small settlement amid rolling hills and a meandering river. By the time of the early Empire, it was home to a lot of people – probably around a million. It was the largest city the world had known. It is also the ancient city we know best, really the only pre-modern city for which we know any number of the inhabitants as individuals.

Dyson seeks to repopulate the historical city, focusing not just on the monuments but on the people who worked in their shadow. The first chapter, on the historiography of the city, is fascinating, taking special care to observe how Enlightenment scholars like Gibbon torqued the story of Rome in one direction, how Fascist Italy pulled it in another, and how the biases of right-wing European politics affected such familiar sources as Carcopino’s Daily Life. One could wish for more illustration, though I particularly like the way Dyson uses personal snapshots to show us ancient Roman buildings embedded in the fabric of the modern city.