There’s a reason that many people who take an interest in European history like to call Rome ‘The Eternal City’.
While plenty of other major cities and settlements have their foundations that are thousands of years old, few seem to have stayed as much in the cultural, political, and historical zeitgeist as Rome has., from the classical period, right through the medieval and modern periods.
Call me simple for liking the ancient city that LITERALLY everyone won’t stop talking about, but it’s well-loved and discussed for a reason!
However, as a history or literary enthusiast, that does mean that there is a mountain of content to read about when it comes to Rome.
In this list, I’ll be focusing on the many, many books that have been about Rome, covering a wide range of topics and periods.
We’re starting this list with one of the most iconic figures at pretty much any given point when Rome was for the Romans, in the form of the Roman Emperor.
More specifically, one of perhaps the most surprising figures that no one at the time would assume would become Emperor: The often underestimated Emperor Claudius.
This book, written by the World War 1 poet and writer Robert Graves, details much of the Roman emperor’s life and reign as the most powerful man in Rome, as well as doing an incredible job of framing and explaining just how incredible it was that the man made it to such a prestigious position in the first place.
Despite it being a work of creative fiction, the use of and citing of real historical sources makes it a surprisingly reliable source in itself, even if there are elements that can seem quite embellished on a first reading (it is a fictionalized story, after all!).
Plus, it doesn’t just detail the life of Claudius on his own, but also the many important relationships that both shaped him and influenced him, from his great-granduncle Augustus to his infamous nephew and predecessor Caligula.
The court intrigue and political assassinations alone would be enough to fill the pages with an entire history.
But combine that with the rest of Clausius’s life, and you have a rich and detailed history of one of the most crucial characters in the Julio-Claudian dynasty of emperors.
Now, is that because he actually might or might not have been a halfway-decent emperor after the chaos of Caligula’s reign? Or is it because he managed to last longer than 5 years as Emperor?
Who’s to say? You’ll just have to read on for yourself and find out!
- A vivid and colorful interpretation of Claudius’ life, both before and after becoming emperor.
- Surprisingly useful as a historical source, thanks to its impressive bibliography.
- A window not just into Claudius’s life, but also into those other key historical figures around him.
- While some historical characters are portrayed in ways backed up by historical sources, some of them seem to be complete works of fiction.
Okay, so the last entry, whilst a great character analysis of a key player in Rome’s earlier history, doesn’t seem to go that much into detail about the city itself.
Sure, there’s plenty to discuss when talking about the senate assassinations, but we don’t see that deep-dive in other aspects away from Imperial matters.
It’s a common issue with historical works. The temptation to talk about the ‘great men’ of history can leave our perspectives looking a little flat.
Fortunately, that’s something that Mary Beard helps remedy with her incredible work on the city itself, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.
One of the first things that you’ll probably notice about this work is that it isn’t covering a period of serious internal strife or conflict inflicted on itself.
I know. Rome, not in the midst of an empire-destroying civil war? Shocker, right?
Instead of the later Empire and decline, Beard chooses to focus on the first 1000 years of its known existence, taking us from the founding of the city with Romulus and Remus, all the way up to the late Roman Republic.
Where, yes, we do start to see some of the civil wars that Rome is often known for.
However, that just means that this book has something for everyone.
You have the people who are invested in the origins of this old cornerstone of European culture, the years of Rome’s early expansion and conflicts (looking at you Carthage), to even the foundations of the Empire that would itself come to define what it meant to be a European ‘Empire’.
Plus, there are plenty of details about Roman life in this period too, from customs to beliefs.
All without dizzying or confusing technical jargon to interrupt the flow of the book.
This is a work that should be on anyone’s reading list if they’re even remotely interested in the how’s and why’s of Ancient Rome and its history.
- Covers an incredibly large period in amazing detail.
- Includes a range of topics, from ancient society, beliefs, and traditions in Rome.
- Avoids complicated technical jargon, making it incredibly easy to read.
- Readers who are more interested in the military history of Rome and its empire might not get what they are looking for here.
However, just as much as everyday life defines what the character of a city might be, it can be hard to ignore just how much of an impact historical figures have had on it. Especially a city as big and time-spanning as the eternal city.
It’s a fact that Suetonius, a key Roman historian during the late 1st and 2nd century AD, is all too keen to share in his writings. The Twelve Caesars is proof enough of that.
This collection of his notes, excellently translated and updated by James B. Rives, details the key figures in Rome’s early imperial days, documenting the figures from virtually every Emperor of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian Dynasties.
From the foundation of the empire under Julius Caesar and Augustus to the depravity, petulance, and chaos that figures like Caligula and Nero became infamous for, to the eventual return to stability and order under the last years of the Flavians and Hadrian.
There’s a massive amount of time covered, and Suetonius covers it excellently, especially for what is effectively a first and second-hand account.
Now, is there any sign of subjectivity in Suetonius’ writings? Oh, most definitely. The biases of Suetonius’s work are pretty clear for those with a critical eye, especially with how he treats the later members of the Julio-Claudian line.
However, when that is taken into account and with other sources, we think that lends an interesting characteristic to his work.
This isn’t a dry, after-the-fact account of events with all the charisma of an instruction manual. This is a living, breathing account of the time, and how these other historical figures affected Rome and the empire, for better and for worse.
- A vivid 1st-hand account of how the early Roman Emperors affected Rome and the Roman Empire.
- Covers a wide range of characters and a surprisingly long period for a 1st-hand account.
- A reliable translation of the original text.
- While an interesting facet of his writing, Suetonius’ biases can be frustrating for those without historical context or other sources to reference.
If there’s one name that many fans of Antiquity should be familiar with, it’s the name Tom Holland.
No, not the Hollywood actor. The British historian! Many of his books and interpretations on 1st-hand accounts are still regarded as the best in recent years.
So, what does it look like when he tackles one of, if not perhaps the most crucial period in Ancient Roman history, the end of the Roman Republic, and the early foundations of its new empire?
Well, in the case of Rubicon, you get a gripping retelling of this tumultuous period out there!
Many of the major political players of this time are brought to life in vivid detail, from Cicero (arguably one of the most important and famous Roman senators from this period) to Spartacus (yes, THAT Spartacus), to Cleopatra, Octavian Augustus, and, of course, the man, the myth, the legend himself, Julius Caesar.
All of it is in an easy-to-digest format and one that anyone with an eye for history can appreciate.
- A great retelling of the chaotic civil wars that brought an end to the Roman Republic, and gave birth to an empire.
- Many historical figures are rendered in vivid detail.
- An amazing work from a distinguished author on the subject of antiquity.
- Because it covers a massive geographical area and time, this probably isn’t the ideal first book for someone looking to learn about Ancient Rome for the first time.
Given the significant place that Rome holds in a lot of people’s and countries’ imaginations, it’s perhaps not too surprising that many of the books and novels around the world treat the period with an air of seriousness.
However, if you’re looking for a book that has a bit of fun mixed in with factual information about this historical period, Thermae Romae is a good option.
It’s the time of the Roman Empire, and architect and bathhouse designer Lucius is struggling to come up with a design that is something creative and new that people will want to commission him for.
As he tries to collect his thoughts on the matter in an old bathhouse, he finds a strange drain that miraculously takes him to another time and place.
But what other place could have a deep appreciation for public baths and bath etiquette? Why, modern-day Japan, of course!
The designs that Lucius takes back with him to Ancient Rome make him and his new Bathhouse, Thermae Romae, an instant hit. Not just with regular people, but the high-society members of the Roman aristocracy as well.
There’s a deep insight and appreciation for both traditions of bathing the author, Mari Yamazaki. This light-hearted time-traveling shenanigans-filled ride is an easy one for anyone to pick up and enjoy.
Plus, the manga format allows for a lot more visual humor than a typical book might allow for too.
(Don’t worry. Everything stays PG in this book, so you don’t have to feel worried or paranoid about reading this one in public!)
So, if you’re looking for a book on Ancient Rome that has a little more humor in it, you know what to look for!
- The manga format makes for a quick and easy read.
- A hilarious visual novel that also demonstrates a love of both types of bathhouses and their customs.
- It doesn’t exactly stick to the historical fact when the book shows old Roman bathhouses. But considering the time-travel plot elements, you’re not exactly coming here for hard facts!
I’ve mentioned a lot of books in this list that focus exclusively on Ancient Rome. That’s not too surprising, of course. Rome’s been around for a while at this point!
But it’s not like the city just got up and legs and walked away, or completely vanished. It’s still the capital of Italy and is considered one of the best places to visit when it comes to visiting the country.
So, of course, there are going to be plenty of books and novels set in Modern Italy. Like Anthony Capella’s The Food of Love.
20-something-year-old American Laura is traveling the world and has made a stop in Italy, where she almost immediately falls in love with the amazing food and treats that she is experiencing for the first time.
But it’s not just the food that Laura falls in love with when she’s over on the Italian Peninsula.
She also starts falling for a man that tells her he is a chef at the famed Templi restaurant. As the two grow closer, he continues to shower her with incredible culinary.
Italian is a Romance language, after all. So why wouldn’t it be the perfect place to set a romance story like this?
Joking aside, the chemistry between these star-crossed lovers is hard to deny, especially when it is grounded in an experience that brings so many people together. Especially with a culinary tradition that is as varied and loved as Italian cuisine is.
If you’re in the mood for a classic romance tale with a culinary spin to proceedings, this is the book for you!
- A classic romance novel in one of the most romantic settings in the Mediterranean.
- A delight to read through if you’re a fan of good food as well!
- The characters, unlike the food, might come across as a little bland and generic at times. The fact that we never even learn how old the characters are is kind of proof enough of that.
Okay, it’s back to the history books we go!
It was during the Roman Empire that we see the evolution and widespread adoption of what is now the largest and most widely practiced religion in the world, Christianity.
It’s kind of weird to consider Christianity as an underground or oppressed movement, given how mainstream it is now. But that was the case for the first 150 to 200 years it was around.
So, what changed? What allowed Christianity to become the world’s largest religion? And what happened to the formerly dominant old Greco-Roman gods that it replaced?
That fascinating story and the many interactions between two very distinct faith groups is something that Robin Lane Fox explored masterfully here, in Pagans and Christians.
The book outlines the journey that the Christian faith took in the Mediterranean world, from the first century AD, all the way up to the conversion of the first Christian emperor, Constantine.
In explaining where Christianity first found its early followers, as well as documenting the many interactions that this guarded faith would have with the dominant pagan faiths, both good and bad.
Written by an author well-versed in the period, you’re in safe hands while exploring Ancient Rome during this moment of biblical proportions!
- A fascinating look at the religious and corresponding political landscape of Rome and the empire as it relates to both pagans and Christians.
- The author is an established expert in this field, providing sources and evidence from the time, while also giving their interpretations, without being obtrusive.
- The author sometimes tends to go off on tangents about specific details. They are often interesting sources of information, but it can make following his main points a little tricky at times.
Time for another fictional work that takes place in this fascinating historical time and place!
It’s the first century AD. Not only is the Roman Republic well and truly over, but many individuals who otherwise remembered and fought in the name of it are also gone, either lost to the sands of time or dead in the wake of its many civil wars.
Such is the fate of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who’s 3 children have now been taken hostage by the new Roman Empire and brought to Rome.
The journey to the Roman capital is too much for one of the children, dying and leaving the 10-year-old twins Selene and Alexander alone in a new world, adopted into the household of the Emperor’s sister, Octavia.
Being forced to adapt and grow up in this new world, Selene finds herself as a stranger in a strange land but eventually finds her love for the arts and new family tempering her longing to return home.
Not to mention her growing affection for the young heir to the empire.
It’s this tragic backstory of both Selene and Alex that makes them incredibly sympathetic and makes you invested in this strange, ancient world.
It’s a trick that Michelle Moran pulls off incredibly well, and one that makes this a very compelling book to pick up and read for yourself.
- A compelling protagonist and a secondary protagonist that are very easy to root for.
- The romantic plot line that unfolds as Selene gets older makes for an intriguing turn of events, as she becomes even more involved in political drama, like her parents before her.
- It’s a coming-of-age story based in Ancient Rome. What’s there not to love?
- Moran’s knowledge of Ancient Roman customs and historical events is on full display here!
- The facts and customs of the ancient world do sometimes make this story feel more like a history lesson than historical fiction.
Many of the books that we have covered have all endeavored to try and paint a picture of at least an aspect of Roman life in Rome.
However, if you’re looking for a book that takes a crack at the ancient world from an archaeological lens first and foremost, you can find yourself struggling at times.
Luckily, we have just the perfect book to help fill that hole in your reading needs: Rome: An Archaeological Guide by Amanda Claridge.
This book takes a look at the architectural feats of engineering that are littered across the city and surrounding areas, as well as many other major Roman works of engineering.
From the Roman Forum to Capitoline Hill, and, of course, the truly gargantuan Colosseum that is still standing to this day, some 1800 years after it was first built.
Because ultimately, when the greatest symbols of your civilization that you leave behind are giant monuments of cement, stone, and marble, people are going to be curious about how exactly you managed it!
Plus, this covers a truly massive scale of time as well, from 800BC, when the city was still just a slightly larger-than-average Iron Age settlement, up to 600AD, at the last point that the Roman Capital was officially held by Romans.
(Okay, purists might say that Rome in 600AD was technically ‘Byzantine’, but that’s a minor detail at most. These later Romans still considered themselves Roman, and there had been relatively little cultural drift at this point to be mistaken for a different civilization.)
So, if you’re just as much a fan of Roman architecture as you are historical figures and military campaigns, this is a book that you need to check out for yourself or the history nerd in your life!
- An excellent book about a much-loved, but sometimes omitted, aspect of life in Rome and as a Roman.
- This is a collection of authors that are professionals in the field.
- Covers a truly massive period, over 1200 years of evolving Greco-Roman Architecture.
- The Kindle version of the book references page numbers when Kindle doesn’t show them, making navigating the book for the right material a nightmare.
Now, if we’re discussing books about Ancient Rome, we can’t exactly have this list without arguably one of the most influential works of them all, historian Edward Gibbon’s most famous work The Decline & Fall Of The Roman Empire.
In the same way that Tolkien defined effectively the entirety of what modern high fantasy looks like, Edward Gibbon is not just a titan of Roman historical analysis. He is the titan of Roman historical analysis.
Virtually every author since on the topic has been in response to his seminal work, whether supporting and confirming it or deconstructing or criticizing it and its conclusions.
Gibbon’s work covers a massive variety of different topics that we’ve already touched on in this list.
From military campaigns and political assassinations to social and religious changes that presided over the Empire’s last 300 to 500 years, there is a truly massive amount of data collected and questions asked. Many of which Gibbons eventually answers excellently.
And all of this reads with elegance and flow that is still as enjoyable to read now as it was back when it was first published in the late 18th century.
As more archaeological evidence and records have been unearthed, there have been a number of changes to our presumptions about what happened to Rome in its last centuries, and some of the conclusions that Gibbon made have been challenged over time.
However, if you are someone that considers themselves an academic on the Roman Empire and Rome itself, you owe it to yourself to try and obtain a copy of this incredible collection someday.
- A genre-defining analysis of the Roman Empire, and the many aspects that likely contributed to its decline.
- Covers an incredibly large amount of topics in a beautifully elegant fashion.
- Some excellent accounts of life in roman cities and towns are given, including the capital of Rome itself.
- The sheer size of this collection might be a little intimidating to newcomers to Ancient Rome. You may want to try another book that is easier to digest.
- Discoveries in the last 200+ years have brought some of the conclusions Gibbon came to contentious.
So, which these incredible Roman book will you pick up today? Something old? Or something new?
Frequently Asked Questions
What Does SPQR Stand For?
You may have seen the abbreviation SPQR when learning about Ancient Rome, especially with the book SPQR: A History Of Ancient Rome.
This is an abbreviation of the Roman phrase ‘Senatus Populus Que Romanus’, which means ‘the Senate and the People of Rome’.
Who Is The Best Roman Writer?
During Roman times, Virgil was considered to be one of the greatest poets and writers of the Empire.
His best-known work, The Aeneid, is considered to be one of the greatest pieces of Roman literature, and arguably one of its most important cultural myths.
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