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.
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.
No matter where I am in the world, I have a shelf devoted to books about Italy. Which may be why, although I started out this post planning to write a gift guide — something I do everycouple of years — I found that everything that came to mind to include was… a book.
While that partly speaks to the fact that I’m a nerd bookworm, it also speaks to something else: whether you’re interested in fiction or memoir, food or art, ancient history or World War II, there are a number of compulsively-readable books about Italy out there these days.
What is my bar for “compulsively readable”? In the last three years, I’ve gone through two transatlantic moves. Each time, I’ve had to winnow down my library. Most of the books on this list are ones that I found myself re-buying after my last move. That’s how much I couldn’t live without them.
So. Here are the books about Italy I’ve sometimes bought not once, but twice — and the person on your gift-giving list (other than you!) who might like them best.
The best book about Italy for the one on your list… who, faced with a table of magazines at the doctor’s office, always reaches for the New Yorker.
Haven’t heard of Elena Ferrante? First, crawl out from under your rock. Second, run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore to pick up the first novel in her “Neapolitan quartet”: My Brilliant Friend.
The series pins down human emotions, flaws and foibles with such searing precision, it’s sometimes almost excruciating to read. On the surface, it’s about two girls who grow up together in the shadows of a working-class neighborhood in postwar Naples. And if you love Italy, especially the south or bella Napoli, it will give you a raw, intense look at a people and culture that tend to be stereotyped, not examined.
And yet, as in any true masterpiece, so many of the observations Ferrante makes apply far beyond the backstreets of Naples. For example…
So you're coming to Rome… but you don't know much (or maybe at all!) about its history or art or sites, and the idea of digging into that thick old Rough Guide you've got is less appealing than gelato in a snowstorm. What do you do?
Crack the books — the fun ones, that is.
Really. There are fun books about Rome that you can actually (gasp!) learn from. And even if you don't remember the ins and outs of what you read by the time you get here, hopefully all that educational entertainment will have done something every bit as important: made you excited to see the forum, the Vatican, or whatever it is that you only originally put on your list because, well, it sounded important.
A caveat: I'm only recommending books here that I've read. And I know I'm missing lots of great ones. So, have you read an excellent book or novel about Rome? Put it in the comments!
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, Ross King. I still haven't read The Agony and the Ecstasy (I know, I know)… but I have to say that, for me, it'll be hard to beat King's version of the Michelangelo-versus-the-pope knockdown. King is the guy who wrote Brunelleschi's Dome — also a recommendation, if you're heading to Florence. And he has a knack for narrative that will have you hanging on every twist and turn in the Sistine Chapel saga.
Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff. This brand-new take on the woman history loves to hate wasn't quite as groundbreaking as it promised to be. After all, it's hard to completely reset someone's reputation when the only surviving sources about them come from their enemies. Even so, Schiff gets pretty close, trying to shine a light through the sources' (fortunately predictable) biases to illuminate who the real woman would have been. But all that aside, Cleopatra is, on its own, an addictive biography. You know how it all ends, but you can't help turning the page for more, more, more of this confident, extraordinary, anything-but-promiscuous woman Schiff paints for us. Plus, while most of the book deals with Alexandria, its section on what Rome would have looked like to Cleopatra on her visit (in brief: a backwater) is pretty entertaining.
Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's, R. A. Scott. She's been slammed for some historical inaccuracies, but there's no denying that Scott's a storyteller. And deserves major kudos for telling the sweeping 200-year history of St. Peter's Basilica with both page-turning speed and colorful details (Michelangelo didn't just "make his escape"; he made it "wrapped in a lavendar cloak the color of dusk, riding headlong against a sharp north wind"). The enormity of the basilica, and its history, here comes compact (less than 300 quick-read pages). That's a downside if you plan to be the next big St. Peter's Basilica expert… but a positive if you don't want your head to hurt.
Caesar: Life of a Colossus, Adrian Goldsworthy. He's the most famous Roman to have lived, and Goldsworthy does him justice. In this fat (632-page) but readable biography, he delves into the man behind the myth, from the stand-up to Sulla that got the 18-year-old banished from Rome right up to the world-rocking murder… with all of the juicy betrayals, affairs and shenanigans in between. Better yet is Goldsworthy's deftness in contextualizing Caesar and exposing the Republic's "rot". Be warned, there's a lot of detail here, and it might be little much for anyone who's not already drawn to the Roman Republic or Caesar himself. But for geeks like me those who want a real grasp on the guy who changed it all, it's just right.
Rome: The Biography of a City, Christopher Hibbert. For those who want the whole history, told in a relatively comprehensive and non-textbook kind of way, this is the big daddy. Hibbert's book takes you right through from 753 B.C. to the 20th century. It's hefty, but readable — although this is one I wouldn't go for until you're already pretty interested in the city. It also comes with a handy section on the history of individual sites in Rome, even the more minor.
The Smiles of Rome: A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers, Susan Cahill. If you want something that you can pick up, put down, pick up, put down, look no further. This anthology of works by writers who lived in, or visited, Rome — from Ovid to Fellini, Henry James to John Updike — is full of by turns poignant, cutting, and witty impressions of the city. At the end of each piece, there are suggestions for a walk you can take that incorporates the sites written about.