Saturday, November 21, 2020

A Book Recommendation: The Eternal City

One book I've enjoyed this year is The Eternal City: Rome as Idea and Reality, by Jessica Maier. Published by University of Chicago Press. It was just released this month (11/4). While I mostly read fiction, I enjoy many non-fiction topics such as history, how-to, and art, and in many respects, The Eternal City covers all these categories.

The concept of learning from maps is unusual as most history books are straight forward chronological records. However, as author Maier shows through her map technique Rome's population through every age has had its own perception of their city and its purpose. It shows how the change in time, populations, and their ideas and beliefs also affect history. Rome's citizens essentially changed not only the physical appearance of Rome but also overlapped those changes with the past. The city and its structure have changed both physically and spiritually over time; indeed, different cities have emerged during Rome's long history, but each was built on the past.  

Maier gives an example of this in her introduction. She writes about the church of San Clemente (a disciple of St. Peter and the 4th Bishop of Rome). The church is built in the beautiful Roman basilica style still common in the 1100s. The builders constructed the church on the foundations of another basilica dedicated to Clemente, which was built in 385CE (Current Era, another change in history). This lower basilica was in turn built on the site of the Temple of Mithras (a Roman god) constructed around 200 CE. Visitors to San Clemente can descend a staircase (through the gift shop!) to travel 60' below San Clemente to see the remains of the two previous buildings. This example shows the "vertical, chronological layering" (Maier) of Rome.  

As Maier states, "Rome is more than brick and mortar. It also exists in the realm of ideas of history, myth, and symbolism." Another purpose of her book is to show how all large cities are similar in these types of changes.

Images and ideas take the reader from the beginnings of Rome to the time of the Ceasars, to the age of popes, through Rome's decline and recovery, and now its tourist period. The Eternal City shows how the city's population changed through time and how that changed Rome. Surprisingly, each era's maps show not only the physical changes but also society's perceptions about the city.

Rome, as one of the world's oldest continuing cities, has a long progression of maps. Some have a similarity to today's concept of maps, but not as directionally precise, and historical maps are often affected by the maker's era and purpose. Others are visual landscapes of the city, which in part, also serve as maps. The book's maps, visual images, and photographs are beautiful and insightful and tied to each age's beliefs, prejudices, and sense of humanity.

In the age of global warming, this book, in some sense, is also a warning. People are creative, adaptable, and constantly changing their landscape. This book brings awareness of those changes and of how we need to be aware of them and to be more careful in our choices going forward.

For more reviews please see the following authors' posts:

Margaret Fieland 
Skye Taylor 
Diane Bator 
Anne Stenhouse   
Connie Vines  
Fiona McGier 
Dr. Bob Rich
Beverley Bateman 


  1. Hi Rhobin, this book sounds like just my sort of thing and thank you for featuring it. anne

  2. What a fascinating way to study the history of a city with so much to teach us. I remember visiting York England and we visited the Viking museum which took us underground to see the long buried Viking village below the current city. I can only imagine how amazing it would be to see similar evidence below Rome.

  3. History needs to be taught, or written, by a gifted story-teller, because that's what it is: the story of people who lived in the past. When you have to memorize dates or events, it gets boring. When you can let the stories flow over you, you'll experience it in a visceral way and never forget it. Sounds like this book does that.

  4. I also love history, and all the lessons it can teach us, and this sounds like a fascinating way to present it.

  5. Sounds like an interesting book and a way to get you into learnng history