From extraordinary lives and gruesome deaths to humiliating defeat and heady victory, our list brings all the tragedy and victory of ancient Roman to stunning life. Beyond the action and compelling prose, however, these books also hold up to the prism of history the way ancient Rome informs many of the basic assumptions of our modern lives, including religion, citizenship, individual liberty, the state, responsibility, beauty, power, and even humor. Here are our picks on the 10 best books on Ancient Rome.
10. Pagans and Christians
Robin Lane Fox
Award-winning historian Robin Lane Fox details a panoramic account of how Christianity both transformed and became the heart of the Roman Empire. Laying Christianity and paganism side-by-side, Fox contrasts their visions, assumptions, and everyday practices. Acknowledging that Christianity is not the sole heir of ancient Rome, Fox also discusses how other global religions, such as Judaism and Islam were influenced by the Roman Empire and antiquity in general. This massive and brilliant book definitely deserves its spot on the shelf alongside other ancient Rome classics.
9. The Roman Triumph
Beautifully written, brilliantly insightful, this book is highly recommended to all those Romanists, professional and amateur, excavators and tourists, who want to get under the skin of the empire-builders of ancient Rome. – Current Archaeology
A triumph in itself, this rich and provocative book explores the ritual of the triumph in ancient Roman life. Beginning with Pompey the Great’s third triumph of 61 BC, Beard sheds a brilliant light on the influence this ceremony had on a wide swath of the population, including elites, everyday citizens, and slaves. Almost subversively, Beard deconstructs the common argument that a Roman triumph was a sign of victorious imperialism and divine favoritism. Rather, she argues that the ceremony created a context in which militaristic values could be questioned and contested. In doing so, Beard uncovers the nuance, complexity, and sophistication of Roman culture in general. Out of all the books on this list, Beard’s book may spark the most debate and controversy; however, the invigorating discussions that ensue may be the book’s most important achievement.
8. The Roman Revolution
An absolute classic, Ronald Syme’s Roman Revolution beautifully echoes the style of Tacitus as it details the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of one of Rome’s greatest emperors, Augustus. With both fresh and unconventional prose, Syme covers the violent transfer of power and property as Rome lurches from a Republic to an Empire. Written under the shadow of Italian fascism in the 1930s, Syme’s descriptions of the slow erosion of individual liberties at the hands of the citizens themselves act a searing modern condemnation of those who willingly cede their individual power to one leader.
7. The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History
In his stunning piece, Peter Heather presents an extraordinary account of Rome’s destruction at the hands of European barbarians. The heart of his argument is that after centuries of contact with the Romans, the German barbarians learned to create better weapons, fight more effectively, and muster better warriors than their predecessors. In short, ancient Rome was not on the brink of social or moral collapse, as is commonly argued; rather, ancient Rome was destroyed by an external nemesis of Rome’s own making. Heather deftly treats this complicated narrative with colorful skill and strategy, and while it is 1/6th the size of Gibbon’s masterpiece, it is equal in passion and interest.
6. The Twelve Caesars
A collection of the biographies of the first 12 Romans, from Julius Caesar to Domitian, Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars was not only well-known in antiquity, but it also remains a primary source in modern scholarship. As Emperor Hadrian’s personal secretary, Suetonius was in a unique position to fill his account with intriguing drama, gossip, and humorous private anecdotes that casts Imperial Rome not only as a place of bawdy splendor, but also as a place of savagery, vice, and all sorts of depravity. This colorful account provides invaluable information that cannot be found in other texts and acts as the main source on Caligula, his uncle, Claudius, and the heritage of Vespasian.
5 Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician
In Cicero: The Life and Time of Rome’s Greatest Politician, Anthony Everett brilliantly presents the complex life of Cicero, one of ancient Rome’s most talented politicians and rhetoricians. Against the backdrop of political intrigue and civil unrest of Republican Rome, Everitt casts Cicero as almost a beacon of talent and honor. With nuance and care, Everitt acknowledges that while Cicero was often boastful, wily, and indecisive, he was also intensely humane and poignantly depicts Cicero’s despair as he watches the Republic of Rome crumble around him despite his best attempts to save it. And when Cicero stretches out his neck to the assassin’s blade, the reader can’t help feel heartbroken as well.
4. Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic
Tremendously intelligent, vibrant and witty. –The Washington Times
When Julius Caesar crossed a small river called the Rubicon, he plunged Rome into a civil war, a war that would destroy the traditional freedoms of the Republic and establish an empire on its ashes. Holland thrillingly carries the reader through this bloody transformation of power while skillfully weaving a succinct explanation of how the Republic was dismantled by its own citizens. As Holland highlights, the justifications, patterns, and spin of this ancient civil war are compellingly familiar to the modern reader as we sift through our own conflicts and political spin. This dramatic and completely engrossing book serves as a model of how a history of the classical world should be written.
3. The Agricola and the Germania
Tacitus is unquestionably one of the greatest historians and greatest prose stylists in Latin, and his great work, The Agricola and the Germania deserve unequivocally to occupy a spot in the top 3 best books on Ancient Rome. Agricola offers both a portrait of Julius Agricola (one of the most famous governors of Roman Britain) and one of the first detailed accounts of Britain in history. Tacitus, in his well-known brilliance and style, presents us with a fascinating description of Britain’s geography, climate, and people. In the Germania, Tacitus grippingly describes the warlike German tribes and warns that they would be far more difficult to overcome than the Britons. Interestingly, in both the Agricola and in the Germania, Tacitus views these “barbarians” in a more favorable light than his fellow-Romans whom he sees as wallowing in corruption and excess at home.
2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Echoing the timeless style of Tacitus, Edward Gibbon’s six-volume work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a cathedral of brilliance and erudition. Tracing Western Civilization from the height of the Roman Empire to the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Gibbons argues that the Roman Empire fell to barbarian invaders because Rome’s citizens had lost their civic virtue. While Gibbon can lapse into moralism at times, his comprehensive work is one of the most magnificent classics in the English language, and it continues to shape the parameters of modern historical debates today.
1. I, Claudius
One of the really remarkable books of our day, a novel of learning and imagination, fortunately conceived and brilliantly executed – New York Times
Set in first century Rome, I, Claudius have enough depravity and intrigue to make even the most jaded modern politician blush. Physically weak, a stutterer, and inclined to drool, Claudius plays dumb in order to survive the cruel machinations of his power-hungry family, from Augustus, Tiberius, and the insane Caligula–until he himself becomes emperor in 41 AD. Walking a fine line between history and fiction, Robert Grave’s colorful narration presents a compelling account of the hubris of the Roman empire and establishes itself as a premier–and entertaining– source of ancient Rome scholarship.
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