Blog – Posted on Friday, Sep 27
The 12 Best Roman History Books (for the Caesar in You)
From gladiators to martyrs, lark-throated orators to fiddling despots, ancient Rome has given us enough colorful characters to populate an entire slate of HBO dramas. But the history of the Roman Empire, and the Republic it supplanted, is more than just a toga-clad version of Game of Thrones — though the accounts of backstabbing and incest put even the Lannisters to shame.
Roman history goes beyond the stories of swordsmen and Caesars. It’s also the story of freedmen hawking vegetables in the Forum Holitorium, and of patrician wives taking vengeance for their murdered kinsmen in the place of their absent husbands. For the writers and historians unearthing these tales — and coaxing them back to life through the power of their prose — Roman antiquity reflects the truths we still live out today. It shows the courage of families standing together, the dangers of despotism, and the quiet horrors of navigating a world that often falls short of justice.
Smart but never stuffy, the Romanists on this list represent the pinnacle of nonfiction storytelling, making the distant past feel fresh and vivid without sanding down its specificities. Under their guidance, you’ll discover not only the ancient Rome, but many Romes, as their works together illuminate an ancient culture in all its complexities.
Here are 12 of the best books on Roman history — one for each of the Caesars profiled in our first pick. Dive into one now, and cross the Rubicon into true history buff status!
1. The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (121 AD), translated by Robert Graves
One of the wittiest historians to work in any language, the legendary Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was anything but tranquil when he turned his gimlet eye and acid tongue to the Roman Empire’s earliest rulers. Best known as just “Suetonius,” he made his way from a moderately prosperous North African household to the inner circles of power in Rome itself — directing the imperial archives under the emperor Trajan and then serving as Hadrian’s own secretary. He seems to have lost this plum post for dallying with the empress Sabina, but Suetonius had the last laugh: his lively biographies of Julius Caesar and the first eleven emperors leave nothing to the imagination, from Nero’s colorful sex life to Vespasian’s ignoble death by diarrhea.
The Twelve Caesars’ droll storytelling, which carries the scandalous savor of a gossip rag, has delighted classics students for millennia, a spice-laden reward for mastering the intricacies of Latin grammar. But thanks to this readable translation by Robert Graves — the learned, silver-tongued author of the historical novel I, Claudius — you can experience them without learning the fifth declension.
2. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1776-1789)
More casual readers might be dismayed to see The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire recommended so highly — the Penguin Classics edition, after all, runs to three volumes, weighing in at more than a thousand pages apiece. But there’s a reason this English classic has had more staying power than Elizabeth II: it’s a monumental work of scholarship — and also a lot more entertaining than even the wittiest of dictionaries.
Gibbon’s first volume might be the same age as the United States, but his style still stands at the pinnacle of genteel, white-gloved irony. He excels at modulating scale — moving from the grand sweep of imperial politics to the petty impulses that animated individual lives. Gibbon doesn’t squander all 3,000 pages on the crises of the third century, or even stop in 1453, when Constantinope fell to the Ottoman Empire: his history stretches all the way to the 16th century, providing plenty of gentle snickers along the way.
3. The Roman Revolution by Ronald Syme (1939)
Written on the eve of World War II, The Roman Revolution takes a look at the Roman Republic’s last gasps and the formation of the Principate under the autocratic Augustus. Needless to say, the troubling subtext of Nazi Germany’s rise looms behind Ronald Syme’s lucid language and forceful argumentation. The result is an extraordinary work that remains fresh and all too relevant even today.
Syme, a noted expert on Tacitus, wears his tremendous erudition lightly. Though his text is weighed down with Greek and Latin footnotes aplenty, all this scholarly apparatus doesn’t prevent his sentences from ringing out like a clarion call. His lively style, liberally sprinkled with sardonic wit, helps bring Augustus to life, producing as complex and dynamic a portrait as the Hollywood biopic at its best.
4. Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt (2002)
This elegant, readable biography of Cicero shows us all the scandal and turmoil of late Republican Rome through the eyes of its greatest orator. Within its pages, he emerges as a lovable antihero forced to navigate the snarled plot of a Shakespearean tragedy: brilliant, pompous, and moved by ideals at odds with a political system he once manipulated so dexterously.
Anthony Everitt, who’s written extensively on the movers and shakers of the ancient Mediterranean, trained as an all-purpose litterateur rather than a historian: his Cambridge degree was in English literature, and his unpretentious voice was a mainstay of popular outlets like The Guardian. Still, Cicero is deeply researched, nailing down the intricacies of late Republican powerbrokering even as it dramatizes them with a storyteller’s skill. Fittingly, for a biography of a voluble and eloquent writer, the book leans heavily on Cicero’s own words, among them his touching and keenly observed letters to his good friend Titus.
5. Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003)
The Cambridge-educated author who wrote Rubicon is not to be confused with his fellow Brit, Spiderman — though both are verified on Twitter. This Tom Holland made his writerly debut as a novelist, producing inventive, deeply researched works that foreshadow his future success as a popular historian. His greatest fictional hits include a vampire story centered on an undead Lord Byron and a Baz Luhrmann-style murder mystery that transposes the last days of the Roman Republic onto a late ‘90s city: think Julius Caesar and a fax machine in the same frame.
Since the mid-2000s, Holland has staked out his turf in the world of nonfiction, where he examines the premodern world in terms of sweeping themes — chief among them the West as a cultural entity, part geography and part myth. Rubicon was his first foray into this genre. Received with widespread acclaim and praised for its literary elegance, this slim book recounts the end of the Roman Republic — starting, of course, with Julius Caesar’s fateful crossing of the Rubicon.
6. Shopping in Ancient Rome: The Retail Trade in the Late Republic and the Principate by Claire Holleran (2012)
Let’s face it — who doesn’t want to read about shopping? This accessible intro to a fascinating topic stands on a solid bedrock of literary and archaeological evidence. Claire Holleran’s analysis straddles the late Republic and the Empire — both of which, she argues, depended on a lively retail network that touched all social classes, from the senatorial elites who clothed themselves in linen and pearls to the freedmen who managed retail operations for their patrons.
Not that the haves and have-nots were always buyers and sellers, respectively: Holleran’s dynamic analysis shows just how complex the retail trade, and its relationship with social status, could get. Shopping in Ancient Rome brings all the colorful bustle of an ancient economy to life, from the specialized pig market in the Forum Suarium to the tiny booksellers who operated as luxury vendors among the urbane elite. Appropriately enough for a study of ancient retail therapy, Holleran’s book is by far the priciest volume on this list. But if you can score a free copy at the library, you’re sure to be delighted — and enlightened.
7. Turia: A Roman Woman’s Civil War by Josiah Osgood (2014)
Spoiler alert: the woman at the center of this book wasn’t actually named Turia — at least, Josiah Osgood doesn’t think so. In this highly unconventional biography, he traces the life of an unnamed lady celebrated in a first-century BCE funeral oration. Older classicists identified this anonymous heroine with a certain Turia, wife of the Roman consul Quintus Lucretius Vespillo, but Osgood breaks ranks with his predecessors. In a narrative conceit that carries shades of Kill Bill, he refers to her only as “the wife”.
Misleading title aside, Turia tells a moving story with no shortage of drama, illuminating sweeping themes from Roman history — vengeance, gender norms, the family — with the pinpoint light of particularized relationships. Its heroine, in particular, is hard not to root for, even if we don’t know her name. The narrative begins when the wife’s father and stepmother are killed, just before her wedding day, in the outbreak of Caesar-on-Pompey violence. With no male relatives to rely on, she’s forced to take revenge herself.
8. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015)
Arguably the greatest popularizer of ancient history ever to bike down the Appian Way, Mary Beard has done for classics what Bill Nye did for science. The noted Oxford don is as engaging in print as she is on-screen. She makes her way forward in time from Rome’s foundation myths with the high style of a novelist and the charm of a tour guide. As a result of her clarity and wit, SPQR is the ideal layman’s introduction to Rome, from its shadowy, kingly past to its remarkably durable empire.
Beard made her name as a 25-year-old Cambridge grad student, when she produced an influential, anthropologically inflected take on Rome’s poorly understood Vestal Virgins. Since then, her writerly output has veered toward the popular, more likely to debut to New York Times acclaim than to circulate quietly in The Journal of Roman Studies. Still, readers new to the Roman world can rest assured — even Beard’s buzziest blockbusters engage deeply with the ancient sources she knows so well.
9. The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper (2017)
Environmental historian Kyle Harper tackles a question that’s preoccupied politicos and antiquarians alike for a few centuries now: why did the Roman Empire fall? In his narratively rich, heavily researched answer, Harper looks beyond many of the usual suspects— barbarians at the gate, religious zealots, and the like. Instead, he narrows in on the relationship between the Roman people and the natural world. Written around a time when climate change was capturing more and more attention, The Fate of Rome tells a story that feels all too close to home.
Buttressing historical narrative with research by climatologists and pathologists, Harper’s work is sure to speak to the pop science buffs who devoured titles like Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diseases — among them smallpox, Ebola, and bubonic plague — form a big part of the story, and Harper makes the connection between climate and epidemics chillingly clear.
10. The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey (2018)
Catherine Nixey, a veteran journalist, tackles a durable myth she sees coloring our view of the ancient Mediterranean even today: the notion that Christianity transformed a nasty, brutish Rome into a world of heroism and hope. With such a controversial thesis at its heart — there’s no missing that firebrand subtitle! — it comes as no surprise that The Darkening Age made its way onto the bestseller lists, courting sharp-tongued reactions all the while.
Honed by years working a newsdesk, Nixey’s deft storytelling relies on vivid set-pieces, among them the mob killing of the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, flayed alive with pottery shards and ripped to pieces after her death. Nixey’s full-throated polemics run the risk of annoying or offending: both career Romanists and true believers would likely appreciate a bit more nuance in her argumentation. But one thing it’ll never do is bore.
11. Perpetua’s Journey: Faith, Gender, and Power in the Roman Empire by Jennifer A. Rea, illustrated by Liz Clarke (2018)
The Christian martyr Perpetua lived and died in Roman Africa during the time of Septimus Severus. In the third-century text that recounts her persecution and execution, we encounter her as a 22-year-old mother, imprisoned alongside her pregnant slave Felicitas. Written in the first person, in the form of Perpetua’s own prison diary, The Passion of Saint Perpetua, Saint Felicitas, and Their Companions has touched — and disturbed — readers for millennia.
In this innovative graphic history — part of a series of hybrid comic book-monographs published by Oxford University Press — classicist Jennifer A. Rea and illustrator Liz Clarke transport us to the last days of Perpetua’s short but remarkable life. Rea’s sensitive historical commentary situates the saint in her own turbulent times, while Clarke’s art shows her as she must have been in life: a young woman confronting impossible circumstances. An indispensable teaching tool for students of early Christianity, Perpetua’s Journey is also sure to impress fans of sophisticated, historically sensitive graphic memoirs like Persepolis and They Called Us Enemy.
12. Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World (2010)
Emma Southon holds a PhD in Ancient History from the University of Birmingham, where she worked on the social history of the Roman family. Though she’s since left the academy, she continues to draw on her classics background in her creative work — co-hosting an educational comedy podcast called History is Sexy, consulting for TV, and, of course, writing witty, accessible nonfiction that brings the ancient world to life.
In Agrippina, Southon profiles a powerful — and notorious — Roman woman vilified by historians from Tacitus onward as the scheming niece-wife of Claudius and possible mother-lover of Nero. Southon’s animated style will go down easy for readers accustomed to smart, irreverent pop culture takes from the likes of Bitch Media and The Cut. But you can also see evidence of her academic training — she’s careful to acknowledge the silence of the historical archives when it comes to figures who, like Agrippina, stood outside the masculine circles of power.
If you like your entertainment with a side of education, check out our roundup of the 30 best biographies of all time!