The best books about awesome women you’ve never heard of

Who am I?

I’ve loved history since my grandfather told me tales about my ancestors and their exploits. I haunted libraries, reading up on whatever current era I had a passion for: Roman, medieval England, American Civil War, etc. but I was always disappointed that little or no space was given to women’s stories. They had to have existed or all those famous men wouldn’t have been born. It took some digging and a feminist revolution, but finally remarkable women’s lives began to surface in academia and I now turn their stories into popular fiction. I hope these recommendations help readers learn about awesome women who didn’t make it into the history books. Enjoy!

I wrote...

Twilight Empress: A Novel of Imperial Rome

By Faith L. Justice,

Book cover of Twilight Empress: A Novel of Imperial Rome

What is my book about?

Princess Placidia expects to do her duty to God and empire, marry, and raise imperial heirs. But in AD 410, the city of Rome falls to the Goths, and she must save the tottering Roman Empire from the incompetent hands of her brother the emperor. To do so, she must marry. Will it be her captor, the dashing king of the Goths? Or his enemy the Roman general who’s loved her for years?

In her climb to Empress, Placidia must outwit rebellious generals, defeat usurpers, and secure the Roman borders from Vandals and Attila the Hun. But it’s the knife in the hands of those closest that cuts the deepest. Will a confrontation with her scheming children be the battle she can’t survive? 

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The books I picked & why

Hypatia of Alexandria

By Maria Dzielska, F. Lyra (translator),

Book cover of Hypatia of Alexandria

Why did I love this book?

I fell in love with Hypatia, the fifth-century mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher when she was featured in an art installation. She had a romantic story: a beautiful pagan scholar, revered by her students and the Alexandrian city fathers and murdered by a Christian mob. I embarked on a quest to find out more about this remarkable woman whom I’d never heard of and vowed to tell her story.

However, the facts on the ground were scant and contradictory. Hypatia was young or maybe sixty when she died. She was murdered because she was a woman or a pagan or collateral damage in a political play. This book answered all my questions and more. It launched my writing career. Recommended as a readable book for the history buff.

By Maria Dzielska, F. Lyra (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Hypatia of Alexandria as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hypatia-brilliant mathematician, eloquent Neoplatonist, and a woman renowned for her beauty-was brutally murdered by a mob of Christians in Alexandria in 415. She has been a legend ever since. In this engrossing book, Maria Dzielska searches behind the legend to bring us the real story of Hypatia's life and death, and new insight into her colorful world.

Historians and poets, Victorian novelists and contemporary feminists have seen Hypatia as a symbol-of the waning of classical culture and freedom of inquiry, of the rise of fanatical Christianity, or of sexual freedom. Dzielska shows us why versions of Hypatia's legend have served…

Book cover of Galla Placidia Augusta: A Biographical Essay

Why did I love this book?

While researching the fifth century for my first novel, I found a trio of powerful women who became the protagonists in my historical novel series. Roman Princess Galla Placidia was taken hostage by the Goths when they sacked Rome in 410. She returned to court to rule during the twilight of the Western Roman Empire. Empress Placidia held the empire together against rebel generals and ravaging hordes of barbarians.

Her long life was filled with romance, danger, political intrigue, and inevitable loss. Her tale is chronicled in this “biographical essay” which is over 300 pages of readable scholarly work. This book is close to my heart because I had to physically go to the New York Public Library and take notes before I found a used print copy. Thank you NYPL!

By Stewart Irvin Oost,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Galla Placidia Augusta as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

Book cover of Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity

Why did I love this book?

Who knew that women were such powerful figures during the transition from the Roman Empire to the Byzantine era? Hollum did. He chronicles the lives and contributions of three generations of Theodosian empresses. This book was the major source of information on the main characters in the second and third books in my Theodosian Women series.

Read about the remarkable Empress Pulcheria. Granddaughter of Theodosian the Great, she outwitted a whole court of experienced men to become Augusta and Regent for her minor brother at the age of fifteen! She ruled by his side for most of his life and laid the foundations for the dawn of the Byzantine Empire. What had you accomplished by age fifteen?

By Kenneth G. Holum,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Theodosian Empresses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Theodosian Empresses sets a series of compelling women on the stage of history and offers new insights into the eastern court in the fifth century.

Book cover of In Her Own Words: The Life and Poetry of Aelia Eudocia

Why did I love this book?

I metaphorically danced on the rooftop when I discovered this book. Do you know how likely it is that writing from the wild fifth century comes down to us? Much less writing by a woman? It had to survive barbarian incursions, fires, floods, and ravenous insects as well as “curators” of collections who decide which books get kept and which get used as fuel for the hypocaust.

This one features Empress Aelia Eudocia. Born Athenais, she was a pagan poetess who married the Most Christian Emperor Theodosius II and is the titular Rebel Empress in the third of my Theodosian Women series. Sowers not only provides us with Eudocia’s words translated from Greek, but fills in the history and politics of her life. A real find!

By Brian P. Sowers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Her Own Words as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Her Own Words: The Life and Poetry of Aelia Eudocia is the first full-length study to examine Eudocia's writings as a unified whole and to situate them within their wider fifth-century literary, social, and religious contexts. Responsible for over 3,000 lines of extant poetry, Eudocia is one of the best-preserved ancient female poets. Because she wrote in a literary mode frequently suppressed by proto-orthodox (male) leaders, much of her poetry does not survive, and what does survive remains understudied and underappreciated. This book represents a detailed investigation into Eudocia's works: her epigraphic poem in honor of the therapeutic bath…

Book cover of Uppity Women of Ancient Times

Why did I love this book?

This one is just for fun. I regularly pick up these modern collections of brief biographies of ancient warrior women, doomed queens, she captains, etc. I like to see if “my” characters are included and how they fare with a non-scholarly author. Also, I like to see if any catch my eye for further research and possibly(?) a novel.

Like its sister books, this one is written in a breezy modern style with a certain amount of snark. Leon gives two pages each to about one hundred women who lived from 2500 BC to AD 450 around the Mediterranean and the western Roman provinces. All are real women who made a difference and their names survived, but you’ve probably never heard of most of them. Check it out!

By Vicki Leon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Uppity Women of Ancient Times as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Profiles two hundred unusual women throughout history, including gladiators, public servants, murderers, rulers, scientists, and homemakers

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