Rome: A History of the Eternal City

I started watching this a couple of weeks ago after seeing a conversation on twitter. I watched the first couple of episodes of Rome: A History of the Eternal City and loved them from the outset. The first episode told the story of Ancient Rome and it’s emperors with the introduction of Christianity and the second episode dealt with early Christianity and the beginnings of the Roman Catholic church. I will be honest and say I enjoyed the second episode much more as it was starting to get more into my area of interest and I may have had a bit of a moment when the presenter mentioned the Theophylact popes. And that’s because as you’re all aware, I have a little bit of a thing for the history of the Catholic church and have started spending more and more time reading about it. I’ll also admit that when I read “The Bad Popes” by Russell Chamberlin (which also spoke about the Theophylact Popes as well as my favourite renaissance bad boys Alexander VI and Julius II) I may have had one heck of an internal flail about how much I love the history and corruption of the church. Any way, I’m going off on a tangent and I should probably should get back on track.

The series is presented by the brilliant Simon Sebag Montefiore (please do go follow him on twitter, cuz he’s a top bloke!), author of such books as Jerusalem and “Catherine the Great and Potemkin”. In the series, Montefiore goes to Rome both as historian and tourist to spread some light on the history of religion in the City, and he does an absolutely outstanding job. As a presenter Monterfiore is engaging and, unlike some presenters I’ve seen on historical documentaries, brings the subject to life. It was refreshing to actually sit down and watch a historical documentary and not be bored completely to tears.

The third and final episode in the series concentrated mainly on the Renaissance Popes, and watching it I was completely in my element. The episode starts in around 1350, with the city of Rome turned from a bustling city to a dirty little backwater. Rome now had no Pope, they had fled to Avignon where the Papacy came under the control of the French King, resulting in a succession of French Popes. And with no Pope in Rome, crime ran rife as the city came under the control of two families who would become well known in Renaissance history: The Orsini and the Colonna. And as these two families ruled the city, the poet Petrarch wrote that the city had become “the rubbish heap of history”. Montefiore gave some interesting figures in the first few minutes of the episode – in the mid fourteenth century the population of Rome was just a mere 30,000 residents as opposed to nearly a million during the time of Imperial Rome. Yet Rome was rescued by a woman by the name of St Catherine of Sienna. In 1370, at the age of 23 and completely heartbroken at the downfall of Rome, believing that the Pope had betrayed Christianity by abandoning the City. And so she bombarded Avignon with letters, yet despite the letters he showed no signs of returning and so she went to Avignon herself to beg him to return. In 1377, the Pope returned to Rome after 70 years of his predecessor’s exile.

Montefiore then goes on to show the audience the largest private palace in Rome, and a palace that is still owned by the Colonna family (I had thought they were all gone, but it seems I was wrong) and has been for the past 700 years. This family, who at one point had been one of the two major warring families in the city (and in all honesty still were, the feud with the Orsini was incredibly long standing) ended up helping to fully restore the papacy to greatness in 1417. And they did so by having one of their own family members elected to the Papacy. An interesting thing I never knew until watching was that in the Colonna palace there is a chair which sits in the throne room, a mark of respect to the family Popes – when a member of their family is Pope, it gets turned to face the correct way. When someone else is Pope, the chair faces the wall.

The main reason I got very overexcited about this episode was the sheer fact that the Borgia family would be mentioned. And as soon as I saw the defaced insignia of Alexander VI on the side of the Castel Sant’Angelo I might have squeaked out loud. 
Montefiore starts the Borgia story with the story of Calixus III, or Alfonso Borgia who was elected in 1455. He was the man who raised his nephew, Rodrigo Borgia, to the cardinalate. And Rodrigo Borgia would go on to be known as one of the most corrupt Pope’s in history.

The majority of the segment on the Borgia family was taken up with the infamous Cesare Borgia (my lovely lovely Cesare, completely vilified and totally not as evil as he’s made out to be).

There were a couple of moments in the parts about Cesare that made me go “hmmm, really?”
  • That he “probably murdered his brother”. The rumours that Cesare murdered Juan didn’t surface until over a year after Juan’s death, and they spread from Venice where many friends of the Orsini family were based. The Orsini were the most likely perpetrators, and Cesare wasn’t even thought of as a suspect until long after it happened.
  • That Cesare’s victims were found dead in the Tiber every morning. Erm, ok. I’d love to know where this came from, as all told Cesare didn’t really kill all that many people. Those he did kill either really peed him off (Alfonso of Aragon any one?) or killed as part of his takeover of the Romagna. I have only come across a couple of stories about Cesare having people killed and chucked in the river – Lucrezia’s lover Perotto and her maiden Pantisilea; and a second story which I can’t remember off the top of my head but will update when I do remember (It’s late, and I’m tired, forgive me?)
I was however very impressed at the amount of Borgia information crammed into such a short segment. You had the story of Cesare being used as the model for Machiavelli’s Prince (great book, everyone needs to read it) and my most favourite story of Borgia debauchery – the Ballet of Chestnuts, in which a number of er…courtesans were brought into the Vatican, chestnuts were scattered on the ground and the women had to pick them up in their mouths. The men were then let loose among them, and the man who performed the best was given a rather expensive pair of gloves as a prize. Excellent!
The remainder of the the episode concentrated on the Renaissance artists and the further Popes such as Julius II. I really loved the part on Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, and one day would love to stand in an empty chapel as Montefiore did, just to look at those magnificent frescoes. And the final aspect of the programme concentrated on Rome leading up to the modern day, it’s affect on the Papacy and how the Vatican ended up becoming the world’s smallest country of just 0.2 square miles.
All in all an absolutely astounding series and I’m really glad I sat down and watched it. I am highly impressed with the history shown in the programme and I certainly learnt a lot from watching it. If you can, then please do catch up with this brilliant little series on Iplayer.
Also, visit Simon Montefiore’s website and twitter.

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