Rome - Day One by Andrea Carandini

Book Review by Caldrail

The origins of Rome have never really caught the public imagination in the same way as the our preconceptions of the imperial period. Not without reason have the ideas of decadent excesses and crumbling empire inspired a century of Hollywood feature films. You might suspect this was purely out of ignorance, since the founding of Rome is not exactly the first thing we think of or read about. Yet so besotted are we with the idea that the Romans were somehow a mirror image of ourselves, modern people dressed in toga's, that we fail to remember that the Romans sprang from a primitive origin. They really did start from scratch.

Worse still, there's an uncomfortable idea lurking in the distant past. Could it be the Romans were in some way different to how we imagine them? In other words, our reluctance to investigate the time of Romulus and Remus is because we sense the alien quality of a society that the Romans themselves were unsure of. It all seems hazy and difficult to rationalise.

Andrea Carandini is an experienced archaeologist who has dug to the first original layer of Roman settlement. If anyone should be able to illustrate the nature of the earliest Romans, who could be better qualified? In Rome - Day One the author takes us on something of a personal journey to that very time. It's a compact volume with plenty of illustrations, maps, and charts. There's even a reconstruction of Rome's original calendar.

What makes Rome - Day One such an extraordinary book is not the erudite descriptions but the energetic style of prose. For a volume so packed with detail, it remains an astonishingly easy read. The author has very wisely avoided complexity in describing the settlement of the Tiber Valley because of his enthusiasm for the subject. This is a book written to bring those early days to the attention of anyone and everyone.

By its very nature this book must be seen as an overview of the authors research and speculation. Those who want more information about the archaeology that inspired it will have to look elsewhere. The truth is that this book can be enjoyed for what it is, a guidebook to the past, without an obsessive need to study every possible intricate piece of evidence. That we can accept Carandini's conclusions so easily is a testament to his skills both as an archaeologist and as a writer.

He finishes with a large number of extracts from the histories written by the Romans themselves of this period. By the time you reach them you cannot fail to be intellectually and emotionally prepared. Instead of dusty old tales, these extracts suddenly take on colour and form. Perhaps that's no surprise for a book that starts with a lengthy quote from the psychologist Sigmund Freud. As with the Roman Empire, our concept of Rome's earliest days is all in the mind. A matter of perception. Unless of course, you know which book to read.

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