Book Review: The Sack of Rome by Alexander Stille

Too few Americans know who Silvio Berlusconi is, let alone why this man is one of the most notorious public figures in Europe. The former Prime Minister of Italy has become a symbol of the shortcomings of Italian politics, the physical embodiment of corruption, the political power of the Mafia, manipulation of the media, and the erosion of democracy in Italy. When I bring his name up to most traveling Italians, they hang their head in shame, saying that he is the disgrace of Italy.

Non-Italians should take note. The most troubling aspect of Burlusconi’s story is not what he did to Italy, but that his brand of politics might be part of a larger, global trend.  The best way to learn about Berlusconi is via a wonderful book by New York Times‘ correspondent Alexander Stille called The Sack of Rome which lays out the story of Burlusconi’s rise to power in an engaging, informative, and through-provoking manner.

As describes his career, “If you combined the political might of President Bush, the star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the media holdings of Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch, the money of Ross Perot and Steve Forbes, and the real estate and personal arrogance of Donald Trump, and if this same media-political Frankenstein had also been charged with innumerable serious crimes, you would begin to get an idea of how long a shadow Berlusconi casts over Italian public life. And because Italy has long been a laboratory for bad new political ideas, Berlusconi’s combination of media, money, celebrity, and politics is more than simply a dark, fascinating fairy tale; it is a glimpse into the future of modern democratic politics.”

The Sack of Rome is worth a read, both for interested observers, expats in Europe, travelers to Italy, or if only to understand the dangers of mixing money, power, media and politics. The first casualty of this combination is democracy, as Italy has painfully realized. A stern warning to anyone living in a country heavily influenced by mass media – that is to say, all of us.

Buy read the New Yorker review below, or buy it on

Arriving after the recent ouster of Silvio Berlusconi as Italy’s prime minister, this fluent account of the tycoon’s media and political careers frames his ascent as both uniquely Italian and disconcertingly universal. Berlusconi used an acute sales instinct to forge political alliances and to appeal to a vast middle class of Italians. Along the way, he developed alleged ties to the Mafia, dodged charges of bribery and cronyism, and exploited his position to preserve his media dominance. Some of Stille’s most colorful anecdotes are pressed into service more than once, but his exposition of the various abuses and scandals is clear and damning. Pointing to the rise of super-rich politicians in America, the trend toward a depoliticized electorate, and the increasing consolidation of media under a few corporate powerhouses, Stille also makes an impassioned, if occasionally unpersuasive, argument that Berlusconi “is a reflection of ourselves in a fun-house mirror, our features distorted and exaggerated but distinctly recognizable.”

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