From gladiators to martyrs, lark-voiced orators to fiddling despots, ancient Rome has given us enough characters to fill a whole season of HBO dramas. So it’s not just a Game of Thrones-style history of the Roman Empire and the Republic that it overthrew. The stories of backstabbing and incest put even the Lannisters to shame, even though the Romans had a lot more going on than even the Lannisters. Roman history is more than just the stories of swordsmen and Caesars. People who were freed and sold vegetables in the Forum Holitorium and patrician wives who took revenge for their murdered relatives in the place of their absent husbands make up the other parts of the story. It’s the stories of Roman antiquity that writers and historians find and bring back to life with the power of their words. They show us the truths that we still live out today. When families work together, they can be very brave. Despotism is dangerous, and it can be hard to navigate a world that doesn’t always treat people fairly.
The Romanists on this list are smart but never stuffy. They are the best at telling nonfiction stories that make the distant past come alive without reducing its specifics. When you follow them, you’ll learn about not just the ancient Rome, though. You’ll also learn about many Romes, as their works show an ancient culture in all its complexity. One of these books is for each of the Caesars we talked about in our first pick. If you want to become a true history fan, start now!
The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (121 AD), translated by Robert Graves
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus is one of the funniest historians to ever write in any language. When he turned his gimlet eye and acid tongue on the Roman Empire’s first rulers, he was anything but calm. When people call him Suetonius, he went from living in a middle-class North African household to being one of the most powerful people in Rome. He was the emperor Trajan’s secretary and then Hadrian’s secretary. Julius Caesar’s biographies by Suetonius are very interesting. They show everything from Nero’s colorful sex life to Vespasian’s ignominious death by diarrhea, and they are very funny.
Classics students have loved the Twelve Caesars’ witty stories for centuries, which have the scandalous taste of a gossip rag. They’ve been a reward for learning the intricacies of Latin grammar. This translation by I, Claudius author Robert Graves is easy to read, so you don’t have to learn the fifth declension to experience them.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1776-1789)
Some people might be surprised to see the Penguin Classics edition of The History of the Fall and Rise of the Roman Empire praised so highly. The three-volume set has more than a thousand pages in each of them. The reason this English classic has been around for so long is because it’s a huge work of scholarship and also a lot more fun than even the most clever dictionary.
In Gibbon’s first book, he talks about how the United States is the same age as his book. His style is still at the top of genteel, white-gloved irony. He is very good at changing the size of things. For example, he can move from the big picture of imperial politics to the little things that drive people’s lives. Gibbon doesn’t spend all 3,000 pages on the problems of the third century, or even stop in 1453, when Constantinople was taken over by the Ottoman Empire. His history goes all the way to the 16th century, and there are plenty of gentle laughs along the way.
The Roman Revolution by Ronald Syme (1939)
The Roman Revolution was written on the eve of World War II. It looks at the last days of the Roman Republic and how Augustus, an autocratic ruler, set up the Principate. Ronald Syme’s clear language and strong arguments aren’t the only things that make this book so disturbing. The rise of Nazi Germany is lurking in the shadows. In the end, it turned out to be an amazing piece of art that still has a lot to say today.
Syme is a well-known expert on Tacitus, but he doesn’t show it. Despite the fact that his text is stuffed with Greek and Latin footnotes, his sentences still ring out like a clarion call. His lively style, laced with sarcastic wit, helps bring Augustus to life, giving us a picture as complex and dynamic as the best Hollywood biopics.
Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt (2002)
In this beautiful, easy-to-read biography of Cicero, we see all the scandal and turmoil of late Republican Rome through the eyes of its best orator. It makes him out to be a lovable antihero who can’t figure out how to get through the plot of a Shakespearean tragedy. He’s clever, pompous, and moved by ideals that don’t line up with the political system he used to manipulate so well.
If you want to learn about the people who made the world go round in the ancient Mediterranean, you should study English literature at Cambridge. Anthony Everitt, who has written a lot about the people who made the world go round, was trained as an all-purpose writer instead of a historian. Cicero, on the other hand, is very well-researched. It explains the intricacies of Republican power-brokering in the late 1800s, even as it tells a story about them. According to Cicero’s own words, the book uses a lot of his letters to his best friend Titus, which are both heartfelt and well-observed.
Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003)
There’s no need to confuse Spiderman with the Cambridge-educated author who wrote Rubicon, even though both of their Twitter accounts have been checked out! This Tom Holland made his writing debut as a novelist, writing creative, well-researched works that show how popular he would become as a popular historian. When it comes to writing, his best stories are about vampires and murder mysteries that mix the last days of the Roman Republic with a late-1990s city. You can think of Julius Caesar in the same frame as a fax machine.
Since the mid-2000s, Holland has been writing nonfiction books about the pre-modern world. In these books, he looks at the West as a cultural entity that is both geography and myth. Rubicon was his first book in this type of book. This book has been widely praised and praised for its literary elegance. It tells the story of how the Roman Republic came to an end, starting with Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.
Shopping in Ancient Rome: The Retail Trade in the Late Republic and the Principate by Claire Holleran (2012)
Let’s face it: Who doesn’t like reading about shopping? This easy-to-read introduction to a fascinating subject is built on a solid foundation of literary and archaeological proof. Claire Holleran’s study covers both the late Republic and the Empire, both of which, she says, relied on a lively retail network that reached across all social groups. The senatorial elites who wore linen and pearls to the freedmen who ran retail operations for their patrons.
In Holleran’s dynamic analysis, he shows how complicated the retail trade and its relationship to social status can be. You can see the colorful bustle of an ancient economy come to life when you go shopping in Ancient Rome. There is a specialized pig market in the Forum Suarium, as well as small bookshops that sold luxury goods to the wealthy. Holleran’s book is the most expensive on this list because it’s about ancient shopping. As long as the library has it, you’re sure to be thrilled and educated by the free copy.
Turia: A Roman Woman’s Civil War by Josiah Osgood (2014)
Josiah Osgood doesn’t think the woman at the heart of this book was named Turia, at least not in the way this book is written. In this very unusual biography, he tells the story of an unknown woman who was honored in a funeral oration from the first century BCE. Older classicists thought this unknown woman was Turia, the wife of Roman consul Quintus Lucretius Vespillo. Osgood, on the other hand, doesn’t agree with his predecessors. She is only called “the wife” in the story, which has some similarities to the movie “Kill Bill.”
This is a heartwarming story with no shortage of drama, even though the title is misleading. Turia illuminates broad themes from Roman history with the pinpoint light of specific relationships. This story is about vengeance and the family. Because we don’t know her name, we can’t help but root for her, even if we don’t know what she looks like. The story starts when the wife’s father and stepmother are killed, just before her wedding day, in the violence between Caesar and Pompey. Her male relatives aren’t there for her when she needs them, so she has to take things into her own hands.
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015)
It’s possible that Mary Beard is the best person to make ancient history popular. Bill Nye did the same thing for science. The well-known Oxford don is just as interesting in print as she is on screen. As a novelist and a tour guide, she moves forward in time from Rome’s foundation myths with the style and charm of a real person. The book SPQR is the perfect introduction to Rome for people who don’t know a lot about the history of the city, from its dark, kingly past to its long-lasting empire.
As a 25-year-old Cambridge grad student, Beard came up with an important, anthropologically influenced take on Rome’s Vestal Virgins. Since then, her writing has been more popular than academic. She’s more likely to have her work appear in the New York Times than in the Journal of Roman Studies. Readers who aren’t familiar with the Roman world can rest easy, though. Even Beard’s best-selling books are based on the sources she knows so well.
The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper (2017)
Kyle Harper is an environmental historian, and he wants to know why the Roman Empire fell. This question has been a source of debate for a few centuries now. Harper’s answer is very detailed and filled with stories. He looks at things like religious zealots, barbarians at the door, and so on. Instead, he focuses on the relationship between the Roman people and the natural world, which is what he wants to talk about. The Fate of Rome was written at a time when climate change was getting more and more attention. It tells a story that is all too familiar to us.
With research from climatologists and pathologists, Harper’s book is sure to be a hit with pop science fans who have read books like Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens” and Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” In Harper’s book, diseases like smallpox, Ebola, and bubonic plague are a big part of the story. He makes the connection between climate and epidemics clear.
The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey (2018)
As a longtime journalist, Catherine Nixey tries to bust up a myth that still affects how we think about the ancient Mediterranean today. She says that the idea that Christianity turned a nasty, brutish Rome into a world of heroism and hope. With such a controversial idea at its heart, it’s no surprise that The Darkening Age made it to the top of the bestseller lists and drew sharp-tongued reactions along the way.
Nixey’s storytelling skills have been honed by years of working on a news desk. Among the vivid set-pieces are the mob killing of the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, who was flayed alive with pottery shards and ripped apart after her death. Nixey’s full-throated arguments could annoy or offend people. People who have been Roman Catholics for a long time and people who are true believers would probably like more nuance in her arguments. But it will never bore you.