The best biographies of famous, powerful and important Ancient Romans

Who am I?

I've had a passion for all things Roman since visiting various ancient Roman sites around Britain as a child with school and with my dad. Over the last fifteen years I've been writing novels set in Ancient Rome. I now have ten published Roman historical fiction novels to my name spanning three series, as well as a short story collection and a novella. My Carbo of Rome series, set in the reign of Tiberius, follows a traumatised veteran of the legion as he tries to retire in peace in Rome, but is constantly dragged into the criminal underworld of the poorest parts of the city.

I wrote...

Caesar’s Soldier

By Alex Gough,

Book cover of Caesar’s Soldier

What is my book about?

Out of scandal and betrayal, comes one of Rome’s greatest heroes. Who was the man that would become Caesar's lieutenant, Brutus' rival, Cleopatra's lover, and Octavian's enemy?

Caesar’s Soldier tells the story of Mark Antony’s childhood, the tragic and scandalous deaths of his father and stepfather, his military baptism of fire in Judaea and Egypt, and his rise to become the right-hand man of one of the greatest generals of history, Julius Caesar.

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The books I picked & why

Antony and Cleopatra

By Adrian Goldsworthy,

Book cover of Antony and Cleopatra

Why did I love this book?

The love story of Antony and Cleopatra was immortalised by Shakespeare and by Hollywood.

But there is far more to both of them than simply being each others lovers.

Antony rose from relatively humble beginnings to become, for a while, sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra came from a childhood in exile to be queen of the richest country in the world. Between them they demonstrated military capability, shrewd political judgment, and a love for everything that makes life worth living.

Goldsworthy is an academic historian and a novelist, and though this double biography is detailed, it is never dull. This book has been a valuable resource for my Mark Antony novels. 

By Adrian Goldsworthy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A masterfully told-and deeply human-story of love, politics, and ambition, Adrian Goldsworthy's Antony and Cleopatra delivers a compelling reassessment of a major episode in ancient history.

In this remarkable dual biography of the two great lovers of the ancient world, Goldsworthy goes beyond myth and romance to create a nuanced and historically acute portrayal of his subjects, set against the political backdrop of their time. A history of lives lived intensely at a time when the world was changing profoundly, the book takes readers on a journey that crosses cultures and boundaries from ancient Greece and ancient Egypt to the…

Book cover of Caracalla: A Military Biography

Why did I love this book?

Caracalla was described by Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as the “Common Enemy of Mankind.”

But much of what is known about this third-century Emperor was written by Cassius Dio, a Senator who served under him, and hated him. Caracalla certainly committed his fair share of evil deeds, but arguably not to any greater extent than some Emperors who are lauded today such as Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, and Constantine.

Ilkka Syvanne, a Finnish history professor, attempts to rehabilitate Caracalla’s reputation, with mixed success. You may not agree with all his arguments and conclusions, but you will learn a lot about a fascinating Emperor.

My own copy is covered with notes and highlights as a vital source for my Imperial Assassin series. 

By Ilkka Syvanne,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Caracalla has one of the worst reputations of any Roman Emperor. Many ancient historians were very hostile and Edward Gibbon later dubbed him 'the common enemy of mankind'. Yet his reign was considered by at least one Roman author to be the apogee of the Roman Empire. Guilty of many murders and massacres (including his own brother, ex-wife and daughter) he was, however, popular with the army, improving their pay and cultivating the image of sharing their hardships. Surprisingly this is the first full-length biography of this colourful character in English. Ilkka Syvanne explains how the biased ancient sources in…

Book cover of Fulvia: Playing for Power at the End of the Roman Republic

Why did I love this book?

Most Ancient Roman biographies are about men.

This is mainly because there is much less information about Roman women than men. As in many ancient societies, Roman women were not considered equal to men, and did not hold positions of power or authority.

Writing by Roman women themselves is also rare. But modern biographers and historians are attempting to redress the balance. This book is part of the Women in Antiquity series, and tells the life story, as much as can be known, of a formidable woman.

Fulvia was married to and widowed by two powerful Romans before her third marriage to Mark Antony. She was a huge influence on him, and a power in Rome in her own right, wielding authority in Antony’s name, even when he was in the east, gallivanting with Cleopatra.

Another vital source for my Mark Antony series, this book is a great read about an amazing woman, and a fascinating exploration of the lives of noble Roman women in general. 

By Celia E. Schultz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Fulvia is the first full-length biography in English focused solely on Fulvia, who is best known as the wife of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony). Born into a less prestigious branch of an aristocratic Roman clan in the last decades of the Roman Republic, Fulvia first rose to prominence as the wife of P. Clodius Pulcher, scion of one of the city's most powerful families and one of its most infamous and scandalous politicians. In the aftermath of his murder,
Fulvia refused to shrink from the glare of public scrutiny and helped to prosecute the man responsible.

Later, as the wife…

Book cover of The Mad Emperor: Heliogabalus and the Decadence of Rome

Why did I love this book?

Heliogabalus became Emperor aged 14, manipulated into power by his mother and grandmother.

As a relative and possible illegtimate son of Caracalla, he appears in my Imperial Assassin series in the days before he rose to power. He is considered by many to be one of the worst Roman Emperors on account mainly of his outrageous lifestyle.

He married a Vestal Virgin, and a male charioteer, was reputed to have prostituted himself and to have turned the palace into a brothel, and offered a fortune to any doctor that could turn him into a woman.

He scandalised the religious Romans by replacing Jupiter as head of the gods with the eastern god Elagabal, of whom he was high Priest. But to modern eyes, a more sympathetic reading is of a teenage boy with a confused sexual orientation who unexpectedly had unlimited power and wealth thrust upon him.

Harry Sidebottom writes his story in a brilliantly entertaining but authoratative style, as you would expect from an academic historian who also writes thrilling ancient history novels. 

By Harry Sidebottom,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mad Emperor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Buy the book; it's very entertaining.' David Aaronovitch, The Times

A Financial Times, BBC History and Spectator Book of the Year

On 8 June 218 AD, a fourteen-year-old Syrian boy, egged on by his grandmother, led an army to battle in a Roman civil war. Against all expectations, he was victorious.

Varius Avitus Bassianus, known to the modern world as Heliogabalus, was proclaimed emperor. The next four years were to be the strangest in the history of the empire.

Heliogabalus humiliated the prestigious Senators and threw extravagant dinner parties for lower-class friends. He ousted Jupiter from his summit among the…

The Twelve Caesars

By Suetonius, Robert Graves (translator),

Book cover of The Twelve Caesars

Why did I love this book?

Suetonius wrote his short biographies of Julius Caesar and the following eleven Roman Emperors sometime in the second century AD, probably during the reign of Hadrian.

Although it is biased in order to keep in the good books of the Emperor, it is a great source for the history of the early empire. More importantly though, it is a damned good read, full of gossip and scandal, murder and treachery, and it has delighted and horrified readers for nearly two thousand years.

Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans is also a good contemporary biographical source, but can’t compete with Suetonius for the level of juicy and sordid details that we all, secretly or not so secretly, love. 

By Suetonius, Robert Graves (translator),

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Twelve Caesars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Suetonius, in holding up a mirror to those Caesars of diverting legend, reflects not only them but ourselves: half-tempted creatures, whose great moral task is to hold in balance the angel and the monster within' GORE VIDAL

As private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian, the scholar Suetonius had access to the imperial archives and used them (along with eyewitness accounts) to produce one of the most colourful biographical works in history. The Twelve Caesars chronicles the public careers and private lives of the men who wielded absolute power over Rome, from the foundation of the empire under Julius Caesar and…

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