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.
SPQR by Mary Beard
Another fantastic (and impressively concise) overview of Roman history. Written by Mary Beard, the famous Cambridge classics professor, it’s straight-talking and incisive. Beard treats you like you’re a smart person who probably has heard of the story of Romulus and Remus, but might need your memory jogged, just in case… and who definitely is curious about how that story came to be and what all that fratricide really meant. A great read that makes a complicated subject very readable.
Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp
For every Caesar or Cleopatra, there were millions of Romans most of us know very little about — but who shaped the empire as we know it. It’s these “normal” people — ordinary men, women, soldiers, prostitutes, slaves, freedmen and the poor — who Robert Knapp brings to life in this well-written book.
That’s not an easy task, given that few of these Romans have been written about in the public record. But Knapp does a wonderful job of drawing together the plenty of evidence that there is, from graffiti to inscriptions to the census, to make these people feel as real to us as any senator. Don’t miss this for a fuller understanding of ancient Rome as 99% of people would have experienced it.
Women in Ancient Rome by Paul Chrystal
Like Invisible Romans, Women in Ancient Rome brings an often-overlooked population to life. Chapters focus on fascinating topics like the dark arts and women’s medicine. They’re also peppered with anecdotes and tales of real Roman woman — many of which turn our concept of the quiet, obedient Roman matron on its head. Think Fulvia, who hated Cicero so much that she took his head after his execution and pierced his tongue with her hairpins, or Brutus’s wife Porcia, said to have killed herself by swallowing hot coals. Trust me. You don’t have to be interested in “feminist history” to find this a rollicking book of ancient Roman history.
Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy
I know, I know, you want at least one book on here about Caesar. I don’t blame you. He’s fascinating. And while I’ve read quite a few books about Julius Caesar, Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography remains my favorite. It’s long — Caesar lived quite a life, after all! — but manages to fascinate all the way through. Read it not only for a comprehensive, authoritative look at the guy who changed Roman (and world) history forever, but for a fascinating portrait of a society, and empire, on the brink of change.
Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography by Matthew Dennison
There are many excellent biographies of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. (One of my favorites is also written by Adrian Goldsworthy). Far fewer of Livia, his (in)famous wife. Often made one-dimensional, she’s all too often seen as the villain. Not once Dennison’s through with the evidence. What he finds is a woman with far more intelligence — and power — than most people found comfortable. Complex but balanced, this is a biography that will make you see Livia, and Augustan Rome, in a different light.
Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
She may be the most famous woman of all time… and one of the most misunderstood. Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff takes on the difficult task of not only sifting through the legends, but of piecing Cleopatra’s life together when so few primary sources about it are available. (And those that exist are written by Roman men who weren’t exactly disposed to think highly of her). Ambitious? Yes. And the result is worth it. This is a nuanced, engaging biography of one of history’s most fascinating women.
Caligula: A Biography by Aloys Winterling
There’s so much nonsense out there about Caligula. I know because I participated. Almost 10 years ago, I was an interviewee on the documentary Caligula: 1000 Days of Terror. I told stories (most of them via Suetonius… see below) that I thought would be contextualized and caveated in the script. Oops. They weren’t, which made Caligula out to be the total nut that most of us think he is — a cruel, crazy emperor who even named his horse a consul.
Could that have been the case? Of course. But are there another, possibly more likely, explanations? Definitely. In his biography, Aloys Winterling takes a savvier view. He looks at Caligula’s actions in the context of his time, politics and personality. The result is a far different — and likely much more truthful — perspective on the emperor we love to hate.
The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius
Okay, this one is a classic. But I couldn’t ignore it. After all, there’s nothing like reading ancient Roman history written by an ancient Roman. That being said, some of these tomes can seem rather dense to the casual reader.
Which is why writings by Suetonius, who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries, make for the perfect gateway drug. Think of him as the Gossip Girl of ancient historians: juicy, colorful and no-holds barred. He has a knack for the kinds of details that bring ancient personalities to life (Augustus was afraid of thunder and lightning; Caesar front-combed his hair to hide his baldness). And he knows how to tell a rollicking story about sex, murder and worse.
But keep in mind that, like any good gossip, Suetonius isn’t always entirely truthful. Read his stories with a hefty grain of salt — but do read them. They’re not exactly nonfiction, but they’ll give you a good understanding of where many of the stories and stereotypes about past emperors came from.
Next up on my reading list: The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar by Peter Stothard, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper, Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome by Guy de la Bédoyère and The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey.
Have you read any of these books? Let me know what you thought of them in the comments!
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