Best books on Roman history

Making sense of the city of 7 hills

An image of a sitting of the Roman senate
Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate: Cicero attacks Catiline, from a 19th-century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome, house of the Italian Senate. Credits: Wikipedia

Rome is one of the most magical cities you can visit. It reverberates with echoes of its colourful, chaotic history, and every trip is guaranteed to turn up something new for you to discover.

There is no single story of Rome

Mary Beard

Rome isn’t called the eternal city without good reason. According to legend, the city was founded by the brothers Romulus and Remus on April 21st 753 BC – an anniversary still celebrated to this day.

With so many centuries to get to grips with, making sense of the city’s ancient past – knowing your Caesar from your Cicero, or your Palatine from your Pantheon – can sometimes be a bit daunting. Fortunately, the city has proven irresistible throughout history, with chroniclers, biographers, and historians all looking to make sense of the eternal city.

Here are 5 books, ancient and modern, that could help give you a head-start in understanding the city of 7 hills.

The History of Rome by Livy

The History of ROme

There is no better place to start than at the beginning. Writing at the end of the 1st century BC and the start of the 1st century AD, the historian Titus Livius – or Livy, as we know him – composed a monumental work, covering the very earliest foundations of the city, through to his present day. Although only about a quarter of Livy’s work survives, it is one of the most comprehensive – and gripping – accounts of Rome’s earliest history.

Key quote: “Now, if any nation ought to be allowed to claim a sacred origin and point back to a divine paternity that nation is Rome.”

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland

Holland presents the reader with an excellent and engaging narrative account of the Roman Republic, from its origin and meteoric rise, through to its blood-soaked fall. Making one of the most dramatic periods of history – the last century of the Roman Republic – Holland’s narrative is endowed with drama, excellent pace, and an eye for character.

The novel is punctuated with fascinating and entertaining asides; Holland presents himself as a man of diverse interest. The narrative is frequently character driven – with Cicero a key protagonist – a decision partly motivated by a relative paucity of other sources.

However, far from being a weakness, Holland provides a nuanced examination of these figures, whilst they also breathe vibrancy and vitality into the narrative.

Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy

Gaius Julius Caesar is a true colossus of history; few individuals have ever captured the imagination of future generations quite so strongly as Caesar. But Caesar was so much more than the man assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BC – he was a politician, general, womaniser, and tyrant.

Goldsworthy’s excellent biography provides a comprehensive account of Caesar’s rise and fall. As a military historian, Goldsworthy dedicates considerable time to the campaigns – particularly the conquest of Gaul – which helped Caesar make his name, but these details are essential in understanding the man and his context more generally.

The Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius

Readers of a certain age may remember the BBC drama, based on a Robert Graves novel of the same name: I, Claudius. The series aimed to provide viewers with an insight into Rome’s first imperial family, the Julio-Claudians. The Lives of the Caesars, written by the second century AD biographer Suetonius, is the source of much of the narrative of this drama.

Packed full of salacious rumour, sexual scandal, Machiavellian politics and family intrigues, Suetonius lifts the lid on the lives of the first 12 emperors of Rome, from Julius Caesar to Domitian.

The biographies are unusually structured around “rubrics”, rather than the usual chronological approach, with Suetonius breaking down each Life into various thematic chunks including the emperor’s appearance (physiognomic traits are a tell-tale sign of a “good” or “bad” emperor), and the sex-life of the emperor.

Punctuated with anecdotes and illuminating insights into life as the most powerful man in the world, Suetonius’ Lives is a brilliant, bawdy way to get acquainted with the Roman Emperors.

Key Quote: “The story so far has been of Caligula the emperor, the rest must be of Caligula the monster.”

SPQR by Mary Beard

The most recently published of the books on this list, prominent British historian Mary Beard provides a comprehensive and engaging overview of the Roman world until the reign of the Emperor Caracalla in the early third century AD.

In this sense, her narrative extends a lot further than most others, but it is no less engaging for its wider perspective. Beard touches on many of the famous characters and chapters of Roman history with enough expertise to inform, and enough wit to entertain.

Beard’s style, the readability of the book, belies the important point of her work though, which is an encouragement to engage with Roman history. Rome is recognised as having had – for better or for worse – a profound impact on many features of modern society. A better understanding of the origins of our ideas, societies, and politics can help us reshape them and apply them for the future.

Expertly treading the line between erudition and anecdotal entertainment, Beard challenges the reader to recognise the breadth and enduring importance of Roman history.

Key Quote: “There is no single story of Rome”

About the author

Kieren Johns is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, currently studying the relationship between memory, identity, and authority in the Severan dynasty, 193-235AD. He is passionate about the ancient world, having spent time living and studying in Rome previously.

He has previously worked as an online and press copywriter for a financial services company and as a restaurant manager. When he’s not studying, chances are he’s reading something else!

If you want to see more of what Kieren’s up to, you can follow him on Twitter at: @KierenJ3982

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