The Best Roman History Books: 9 Favorite Reads on Ancient Rome

Some of the best Roman history books I own

What are the best books to learn Roman history… especially if you’re not an expert or academic? I get this question a lot. It’s usually after someone has seen a documentary about ancient Rome and wants to learn more, but feels overwhelmed by all of the options out there.

I studied (and love!) history. And I know ancient Roman history pretty well. But I also love clear, accessible writing and — most of all — a good story. All too often, Roman history books can be the opposite — dense and academic.

There’s another problem, too. So many of the lists I’ve seen of “best Roman history books” only cover expected ground. (Think lots of recommendations for what to read read about Caesar and Octavian, not so much about… anything else).

Looking for books on ancient Rome that are exciting, compulsively readable and refreshing? Here are some of my favorites for 2020.

Veni, Vidi, Vici: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Roman but Were Afraid to Ask by Peter Jones

This is a great Roman history “taster”. Breezily written, it’s divided up into digestible stories that tell the story of Rome from birth to decline. Read them all together for the full sweep of Roman history. Or dip into the different bits for short anecdotes that bring Rome’s history to life. Either way, you’ll get a sense of why those of us hooked on ancient history are the way we are.

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Lockdown in Italy: Locals on What Life is Like

Like many parts of the world, Italy has been on coronavirus lockdown on and off since March 2020. 

We’ve heard what lockdown in Italy is like from the news. And many of us, sadly, have experienced some form of lockdown ourselves.

But what do locals say? Here are some of my favorite stories from locals in Italy on how it all feels, what it’s really like, and how they’re keeping themselves busy. Plus, some social media accounts to follow for live updates (which include images of beautiful meals and landscapes. Because Italy is still Italy!). 

Also, make sure to check out my previous post on how you can help Italy. 

Are there any stories you’ve read from locals in Italy, or other social media accounts, that you think should be on this list? Pop your suggestions in the comments.

Life on lockdown in Italy: must-reads from locals 

Even before the lockdown, Rome was… different. My dear friend Eric Reguly, the Rome-based European bureau chief of the Globe & Mail, went for a strange sort of passeggiata: “For the first time in my dozen years in Rome, I could hear the water from Piazza Navona’s baroque fountains the moment I entered the square.” His postcard from a bizarrely quiet capital city is lovely, and strange.

Even the first day of lockdown “wasn’t as quiet as I expected,” writes Rome resident Jeannie Marshall. “Oblivious to government directives, the parrots were squawking in the eucalyptus trees and the neighbourhood cats were sunning themselves on the sidewalk.” Her beautifully-written account of the early days of lockdown reads like a love letter to Rome that manages to warm your heart, despite the sometimes chilling details.

Then it all changed. “Welcome to the Zona Protetta,” writes blogger and journalist Erica Firpo, who lives in Rome with her family. She describes exactly what everyone in Italy can and can’t do and how they’re coping.

Erica also is updating followers @ericafirpo on Instagram and @Moscerina on Twitter. And her husband Darius Arya, whose nonprofit the American Institute for Roman Culture I mentioned here, is posting regularly on Instagram at @dariusaryadigs and on Twitter and on Facebook at @saverome.

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Rome in the time of coronavirus. Welcome to the Zona Protetta, a more cautious #Italy with the same vibe as those quiet Ferragosto days of closures, but with much more temperance and some new rules. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte put into effect country-wide DPCM 9 decree fondly known as #Iorestoacasa (I’m staying at home), deigning the entire country a protected zone where all citizens, residents and guests follow the same (understandably) rigid decorum regulations, closures and travel rules to prevent the spread of the #coronavirus, aka COVID-19. It’s a big deal, it’s serious, and we are following these rules through (at least) April 3, 2020. What does this mean for me? For my family? For my neighbors? First and foremost, it means there is nothing to be afraid of, instead everything to admire as Italy is doing its very best to shut down the virus. Our part is easy, we just have to follow through and be responsible to ourselves and our fellow citizens. This is more than washing hands and staying one meter distance apart. We’ve been asked to remain at home and make smart, conscientious choices. I’ve shared more about what we are doing (and not doing) on my site (link in bio) and you may have caught me frustrated this morning after attempting to write and homeschool at the same time. We’re all in this together and we’ll get through this. I ❤️🇮🇹

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Elyssa Bernard of Romewise has a no-nonsense take on the situation, answering questions from curious readers and would-be travelers to Italy like is it safe to visit Rome right now? and should I cancel my trip to Italy?. She’s also updating followers on Instagram and Twitter.

The magazine The Local in Italy has a heartwarming roundup of ways that Italians are keeping their (and one another’s) spirits up. (Yes, there are  all those great videos of people singing from their terraces).

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Coronavirus in Italy: How to Help Italy

Italy is ground zero for the coronavirus outbreak in Europe. It’s sad and frightening. But the fear and anxiety in Italy isn’t just about health. It’s also the blow to the Italian economy. Italy was previously predicted to grow its GDP by 0.5%. It’s now expected to see GDP drop by up to 0.7 % instead. Tourism, which contributes 14% of the country’s GDP, is one factor. Italy is expected to get 4.7 million fewer international tourist arrivals this year. 

For anyone who loves Italy, lives in Italy, or wants to travel there, the danger of an economic slowdown isn’t theoretical. In Italy, most businesses, including restaurants, shops and even tour companies are small, private and often family-owned. Many rely on tourists. That means individuals, artisans and families across the country are being seriously affected. Some are laying off employees. Others will have to close.

This economic impact is concerning in more ways than one. You don’t have to know an Italian business owner to feel it. The variety and vitality of all of these small businesses is what so many of us love, and find unique, about Italy. It’s one reason why many people choose to travel there.

So one thing that’s been on my mind — along with all of the health concerns — is what we can do to help Italy’s small businesses and artisans stay on their feet.

Even if you’ve decided against traveling to Italy anytime soon because of coronavirus, there are still ways you can help.

Most business owners in the tourism industry say that the most helpful thing is to book your next trip there, now, at a date that you feel more comfortable with.

In many cases, this can save you money, too — not just on airfares, which we know are rock-bottom at the moment, but on hotels and tours too. (I’ll share some discount codes I know of below, and if you know of any others, please pass them on).

But here’s another thought. If you’re cancelling or postponing a trip, what about considering putting a small amount of that money that you’ve saved… toward supporting something about Italy that you love (or were hoping to experience)?

For example: Were you especially excited about tasting cacio e pepe and wine in Italy? Then consider treating yourself to a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano or a bottle of Barolo. The art? Consider donating to a foundation that restores and protects cultural heritage. The history? Buy a book written by a historian, expert or tour guide living in Italy. Shopping? Support Italian artisans by buying from them directly online. (And if you can’t buy from them, consider following them on social media or engaging on their pages. Every little bit of support counts!).

Not only will you help keep the things we all love about Italy going, so that when you do go, it’s everything you dreamed of — you’ll also get to enjoy just that small part of your Italy experience without even going there. (Yet).

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The Revealed Rome Handbook: Now Updated for 2020

Rome Italy guidebook

Planning to travel to Italy in 2020? Then I have good news: The Revealed Rome Handbook, which has sold thousands of copies worldwide since it was first published back in 2012, has just been updated and published for 2020!

With more than 200 information-packed — but never overwhelming! — pages, it gives you all the tips and tricks for travel to Rome in one handy place. (At least, that’s what 80+ customer reviews from around the world say…).

It’s available for purchase as a print book or digital version on Amazon or through my site here

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Italy Photography Prints for Sale (Along with Other Goodies)

Every once in a while, readers ask if I have any of my Italy photography for sale. I’m now very pleased to say that I do! I’ve opened a storefront on Redbubble, a premier website for all things photography. You can find canvas prints, posters and greeting cards of some of the many, many Italy photos I’ve taken over the years.

It’s a place where I can offer other gifts and goodies made out of my images, too. Here are some of my favorites so far:

A laptop case that will take you right out of the office and to the country roads of Tuscany:

Italy photography prints and gifts for saleThe classiest bag for toiletries:

Italy photography prints and gifts for sale

The prettiest clock featuring Rome’s rose garden in bloom:

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Driving in Italy: Tips for Your First Time (or Tenth)

Beautiful view in Italy for post on driving in Italy tips

Driving in Italy used to be something I found incredibly daunting. I was fine as long as I was in the passenger’s seat. But driving in Italy myself? Or by myself? Terrifying. And that’s coming from someone who will jump on pretty much any chance to do things like scuba diving, bungee jumping or paragliding.

It took me a long time to get over my fear… almost a decade, in fact. But I finally took a deep breath, rented a car and took my first trip, solo, last year. That was followed up by not one, but two more several-day road trips throughout Italy — from cities to countryside.

And you know what? It was fine. (With one caveat. More on that later…).

But knowing some key tips before I started driving in Italy definitely helped.

Whether you’re wondering what it’s like driving in Italy as an American (or Australian, or…), and whether it’s your first time driving in Italy or your tenth, here are answers to some of the most common questions I hear.

First things first: Should you drive in Italy?

If you’re planning on spending all of your time in cities, no. You don’t want a car in downtown Rome, Florence, Milan, etc (and you probably aren’t even allowed to drive one there — read on for more about why). And train connections between cities, and many towns, in Italy are very good — so it’s just not necessary and more of a hassle than it’s worth.

It’s if you want to explore beyond the city limits that it gets more complicated. It’s true that you can still take trains and buses to even rural towns in many parts of Italy. And for some people, that may be the best way to go. But you’re still limited.

I love staying at agriturismi (farm-stays) in the countryside, for example, and they’re usually all but impossible to get to without a car. Same for vineyards, hot springs and, really, many of the other things that make Italy’s countryside so special.

A rural road in Tuscany for driving in Italy tips post
Hotels like this are all but impossible to access without a car.

(While some towns will have taxi services from the train station, I wouldn’t rely on this; you’d have to book a taxi in advance. And then you’d be stuck at the agriturismo/vineyard/whatever until, of course, you hired a taxi again).

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How to Be a Responsible Tourist in Rome

Weather in Rome in fall

Sustainable tourism, particularly sustainable tourism in Italy, always has been a topic close to my heart. And while I know the phrase “responsible tourism” or “sustainable travel” sounds like a snooze, if you enjoy the places you visit, it’s so important. Being aware of how to be a “good” tourist is the number-one way we can all safeguard these places — not just for future generations, but heck, even for when we go back to them ourselves, whether in one year or five.

So I was thrilled to recently get the opportunity to share how to be a good tourist in Italy for not one, but two websites. Here are my tips on how to travel responsibly in Rome — from the moment you book flights to when you’re on the ground and even after you get home. Some of my tips were also included in a roundup of suggestions about responsible tourism from top travel bloggers at Rome2Rio.

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Do You Need to Book Restaurants in Rome? (Really?)

Do you have to book restaurants in Rome?

Over the years, I’ve found that one of the biggest surprises for first-time visitors involves whether you need to book restaurants in Rome.

Many of us, after all, are used to restaurants back home. Whether in the US, UK or Canada, unless you’re talking about a super-trendy or Michelin-starred restaurant, it’s often fairly easy to walk into a restaurant for dinner and get seated without much of a wait. It’s easy to assume that Rome is the same. Why shouldn’t you be able to walk into a humble trattoria on a Thursday evening and find a table?

Then there’s that all-pervasive myth about Italy: The idea that no matter where you eat, you’ll eat well. So even if you can’t get in to one place, the next place should be just as good. After all, the center of Rome is just teeming with good restaurants, right? And, of course, we all love that idea of “discovering” that perfect hole-in-the-wall spot — no research or reservations needed.

The problem? In Rome, none of this holds water. (Or wine, as the case may be…).

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What Is Panettone? (…It’s Not What You Think)

The best gifts for travelers to Italy

If anyone were to ask you “What is panettone?”, you’d say it’s pretty easy to answer: It’s that dry, bread-like cake, shaped like a dome, sort of tasteless, that pops up around Christmas and that supposedly nobody likes… right?

Not quite.

Last Christmas, I went to Milan to investigate where panettone comes for BBC Travel. I learned about the history of panettone, how it’s made and the traditions of how (and when) it’s eaten in Milan (and around Italy).

What is panettone?
Beautifully-wrapped panettoni are in the window displays of every self-respecting bakery in Milan this time of year — like this one at Pasticceria Cucchi

And, needless to say, I learned what all the fuss is about.

Spoiler alert: When it’s made properly — and good Lord, is it laborious to make properly — it is a completely. Different. Food.

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What to Do in Rome at Night

What to do at night in Rome

No matter where you are in your trip planning, you probably have some idea of what to do in Rome… during the day. But what should you do in Rome at night time?

Here are some of my favorite things to do in Rome at night.

What to do in Rome at night when you… want to do as the locals do, part I

The funny thing about this question is that, in many ways, it’s surprisingly easy to answer. Trying to figure out how to fill your schedule between the time that the sites close and night falls and when you go to sleep? Go to dinner.

That might sound glib. It shouldn’t. Keep in mind that Romans tend to eat dinner at about 9pm — so much so that restaurants that cater to locals won’t even open until 8pm. They also tend to linger at dinner longer (and, for better or for worse, serving can be slower) — which means you’ll see many groups of friends, or couples, sit down at 9pm and not leave until 11pm or even midnight.

What to do at night in Rome like the locals
Too early: This is what a typical local restaurant looks like at about 8pm

So, obviously, that’s one way to fill your time. (And if you really want to fit in, don’t forget to read up on Italian dining etiquette first).

Which may leave you with the opposite problem: If you aren’t eating until 9pm, what do you do from 6pm until 9pm?

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