The best novels about ancient Greece and Rome

The Books I Picked & Why

The King Must Die

By Mary Renault

The King Must Die

Why this book?

Mary Renault’s retelling of the life of the Greek hero Theseus, from his childhood up to escaping the labyrinth, was one of the earliest novels set in the ancient world that I read. It completely captured my imagination through the way it mixes the bones of the myth with a world which tries to reconstruct what it might have been like to live in ancient Greece. Renault’s writing is full of detail and her characters are rich and complicated.


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The Emperor's Babe

By Bernardine Evaristo

The Emperor's Babe

Why this book?

I’m embarrassed that I only read this book recently because it’s a wonderful engagement with ancient evidence to create a vision of Roman Britain. Evaristo uses the burial of the so-called Spitalfields Lady – a woman buried in a sarcophagus with scallop shell decorations and a rich range of grave goods – to create Zuleika, a lively girl who lives with her Nubian parents in Roman London; in blank verse, the story follows her life from being married off as a child bride to catching the eye of the emperor Septimius Severus. Evaristo mixes historical detail with contemporary slang and references, bringing her vision of London under a multi-cultural Roman Empire vividly to life.


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Circe

By Madeline Miller

Circe

Why this book?

Miller returns to the mythic world of The Song of Achilles to explore the life of Circe, the witch most famous for the year that Odysseus spent with her on the island of Aeaea on his way home from the Trojan War. No ancient text focuses on her as a protagonist, so she appears in our sources only in passing episodes; Miller takes advantage of this absence to make Circe the heroine of her own story rather than the bit player in other people’s. 


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Lavinia

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia

Why this book?

Lavinia’s marriage is at the centre of the conflict in the second half of Virgil’s Aeneid – will she marry Turnus, her betrothed, or will she marry Aeneas, the newly-arrived Trojan upstart? Yet famously all we really find out about Lavinia and how she feels about this situation is her blush before the final battle begins; she never actually speaks. Le Guin remedies this silence by telling the story of the Trojans’ arrival from Lavinia’s perspective, visited by a ghostly Virgil in visions, and giving a different perspective to stories of war and conflict.


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Medicus: A Crime Novel of the Roman Empire

By Ruth Downie

Medicus: A Crime Novel of the Roman Empire

Why this book?

This is the first book in Downie’s Medicus series, a series of crime novels based around Ruso, a Roman military doctor. Ruso finds himself based in Britain, in an attempt to escape his past, and finds himself reluctantly drawn into a series of mysterious deaths of women working at a local bar. He also finds himself unexpectedly buying Tilla, a British woman, to rescue her from her abusive previous owner – so with a new job, a new household, and a new set of questions to answer, he has plenty on his plate. Downie spins an excellent murder mystery and gives her reader liberal doses of both comedy and tragedy.


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