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The Roads to Rome by Catherine Fletcher; Italy Reborn by Mark Gilbert reviews – the long path to prosperity

The Roads to Rome by Catherine Fletcher; Italy Reborn by Mark Gilbert reviews – the long path to prosperity

There are few concepts as resonant as “Roman road”. The words ooze purpose, chutzpah and superiority. Catherine Fletcher’s epic study unpacks every aspect of the subject: from the roads’ construction and military importance to their hold over our imaginations and those of imperialist imitators. “They offer a lesson in the exercise of power across the centuries,” she writes.

It’s estimated there were a total of around 100,000km of Roman roads. Fletcher travels across 14 countries to trace the routes and the reasons for their existence: Cicero suggested that they bound states together through “alliance, friendship, covenant, agreement, treaty”, but they were also, of course, military supply lines for the suppression of rebels.

The speed of ancient communication is startling. Messengers could travel 50 to 80 miles a day, “which meant most Italian towns would receive letters from Rome within five days”. The journey time for Rome to London was a mere nine days (although by 1529 it took two weeks because of areas of conflict).

Fletcher is a thoroughly enjoyable narrator because she peppers her learned prose with wry humour, first-person asides and comparisons between past and present. She describes her trains, meals and chance meetings. A wifi code in Turkey is 1453 written twice (since that’s the year the Ottomans conquered Constantinople) or a statue of Byron holds a broken book so that “it now looks more like a sandwich”.

The Appian WayView image in fullscreen

Her analysis of the uses, meanings and metaphors of Roman roads spans millennia. There are insights into toponymy and nuanced readings of pilgrims and crusaders, papist refugees, romantics and “Grand Tourists”. “The journey to Rome is a performance, it has a script,” she writes.

The roads thus become, in Fletcher’s words, “a space for imagination”, where writers ponder ancient history from the very grounded perspective of solid stones. It turns the book into a delightful compendium of literary allusions from Wordsworth, Goethe, Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass (the former slave and 19th-century abolitionist) and many more. And it subtly becomes about the meaning of travel itself. Fletcher quotes Gogol, who spent many years in Rome and who described the burst of creativity that comes from movement: “I put much hope into being on the road,” he wrote; “when I am on the road content usually comes to mind and develops in my head…”

Fletcher is particularly adept at highlighting how many expansionist or imperialist projects have yearned to demonstrate their Roman credentials. An anonymous 19th-century writer spoke of these routes as “the paths over which civilisation has advanced and is still advancing”, and at the height of the British empire Kipling eulogised the Romans’ “great paved roads driven like arrows over hill and dale”.

Such identification with Roman infrastructure took a darker turn in the 20th century, with totalitarian regimes vying to pose as Rome’s rightful heirs: Giuseppe Bottai, Mussolini’s controversial minister for education, boasted that the root of all progress was the Eternal City: “in every place that an aqueduct reaches, where a bridge lies, where a military road stretches, where an arch or a vault was raised, there is Rome.” Fritz Todt, responsible for Hitler’s autobahns, admired Roman and Napoleonic roads that “expressed in their orientation and merciless layout the brutal will to power of a great conqueror”. The Roads to Rome is a nuanced and perceptive book that interrogates “the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are”.

Mark Gilbert’s Italy Reborn deals with the immediate aftermath of Mussolini’s “ventennio”. His is a revisionist book that attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Alcide De Gasperi, the Christian Democrat statesman who, in the decade between 1945 and 1953, laid the foundations for Italian democracy.

It’s commonplace now to deride Italian politics, and the habitually corrupt Christian Democrats, but Gilbert makes a convincing case for De Gasperi’s probity and sagacity: “if”, he writes, “the vase [of Italian democracy] has never since broken irreparably, despite some very hard usage, it is because the clay is good and the craftsmanship of the original potters was outstanding.”

De Gasperi was born in Trentino, in what was then Austro-Hungarian territory, in 1881. A devout Catholic, he rose to lead the Italian Popular party before being effectively imprisoned by Mussolini. Piero Gobetti described his icy poise in 1925: “…he is irritated by adulation, by compliments, by fine words… when he is reading a speech he is cold and incisive; he does not sway the crowd so much with his intensity, but with his precision, emphasising points by modulating his tone to sound more attentive, calmer, slower, less loud…”

Mussolini’s dictatorship, the second world war and the “civil war” of 1943-45 reduced the country to rubble, rancour and bankruptcy. In June 1945 the treasury minister, Marcello Soleri, estimated that the country was likely to run a deficit of 150bn lira (he died a month later). France, Greece and Yugoslavia obtained thousands of square kilometres of Italian territory (and more than 400,000 ethnic Italians), while Italy had to pay $360m in reparations.

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Mark Gilbert, author of Italy RebornView image in fullscreen

There were hundreds of reprisals, including an attempt on the life of the Communist leader, Palmiro Togliatti. The amount of weaponry confiscated by the state by the end of 1948 (564 tons of explosives, 49,640 grenades, 5.5m rounds) show how fragile the peace was. De Gasperi had to build coalitions when both ends of the political spectrum – the Communists and the MSI (the reconstituted Fascists) – were suspected of being uncommitted to the democratic cause.

Unlike those extremists, De Gasperi saw the role of the state in minimalist terms as “a protective wall around the garden in which the flowers and fruits of humankind are born and mature”. To guarantee American aid (which would eventually total $12.4bn), he had to ditch the broad alliance with Togliatti; and his refusal to enter a coalition with the MSI caused a rupture with the Vatican. Gilbert describes the statesman “walking a tightrope” with “the Americans jerking the rope”.

De Gasperi’s political nous and bravery was in evidence on all the big calls: he compelled the king to step down when the referendum results on the abolition of the monarchy were challenged, he made peace with Austria, successfully courted the American establishment, joined the Atlantic alliance, stood up to extremists at his own party’s expense, and was a passionate advocate of European economic cooperation.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was simply nurturing a passion for democracy across the country. In June 1946, 89% of the electorate voted; 92% in 1948. In June 1953, turn out was close to 94%. But Italy would quickly become a very different place: almost 25 million moved from their home town in the decade after De Gasperi’s death and his party became reliant on back-handers and clientelism. “Its factionalism,” writes Gilbert, “became legendary.”

Despite dying in 1954, long before his party’s descent into corruption and criminality, De Gasperi’s reputation was certainly sullied by the fact that his longtime factotum and strategist was Giulio Andreotti, the seven-times prime minister who most symbolised the party’s subsequent proximity to the mafia and other secretive organisations. But Gilbert’s thorough analysis of De Gasperi’s learned speeches, of his steely morals and democratic credentials, give you the wistful feeling that, as with those Roman roads, our predecessors were simply more serious, and competent, than our contemporaries.

Tobias Jones lives in Parma. His latest book is The Po: An Elegy for Italy’s Longest River (Apollo, £12.99)

The Roads to Rome: A History by Catherine Fletcher is published by Bodley Head (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com