The best novels about ancient Greece and Rome

Who am I?

I’m a Reader in Latin Language and Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. In my research and my teaching, I think a lot about the literature and culture of the Roman empire around the first century A.D. As well as sharing my enthusiasm about the people whose writing and objects have survived down to us, I also enjoy reading and exploring how contemporary authors have used their creative freedom to recreate the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome.


I wrote...

Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture

By Liz Gloyn,

Book cover of Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture

What is my book about?

In this book, the first in-depth study of how post-classical societies use the creatures from ancient myth, Liz Gloyn reveals the trends behind how we have used monsters since the 1950s to the present day and considers why they have remained such a powerful presence in our shared cultural imagination. She presents a new model for interpreting the extraordinary vitality that classical monsters have shown, and their enormous adaptability in finding places to dwell in popular culture without sacrificing their connection to the ancient world.

Her argument takes her readers through a comprehensive tour of monsters, from the much-loved creations of Ray Harryhausen in Clash of the Titans to the monster of the week in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, before looking at the afterlives of the Medusa and the Minotaur. From the siren to the centaur, all monster lovers will find something to enjoy in this stimulating and accessible book.

The books I picked & why

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The King Must Die

By Mary Renault,

Book cover of 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.


The Emperor's Babe

By Bernardine Evaristo,

Book cover of 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.


Circe

By Madeline Miller,

Book cover of 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. 


Lavinia

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of 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.


Medicus: A Crime Novel of the Roman Empire

By Ruth Downie,

Book cover of 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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Rome, murders, and heroes?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Rome, murders, and heroes.

Rome Explore 204 books about Rome
Murders Explore 338 books about murders
Heroes Explore 47 books about heroes

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Alchemist, A Midwife's Tale, and The Eagle of the Ninth if you like this list.