The best books to challenge your thinking about the Titans of Roman history

Who am I?

I never set out to read & write so much about Roman history; it was an accident. I happened to visit Rome when I was young, quite poor and decidedly light on my knowledge of Roman history. Five minutes out of the train station and into the streets and I was hooked for life. I had to know more and started reading. Then I found gaps in the library and started writing. Roman history never stops changing, even thousands of years later. New discoveries, new scholarship, new interpretations, all keep Roman history fresh & exciting. I love sharing what I find. Thank you for joining the adventure.


I wrote...

Evil Roman Emperors: The Shocking History of Ancient Rome's Most Wicked Rulers from Caligula to Nero and More

By Phillip Barlag,

Book cover of Evil Roman Emperors: The Shocking History of Ancient Rome's Most Wicked Rulers from Caligula to Nero and More

What is my book about?

Nero fiddled while Rome burned. As catchy as that aphorism is, it’s sadly untrue, even if it has a nice ring to it. The one thing Nero is well-known for is the one thing he actually didn’t do. But fear not, the truth of his life, his rule, and what he did with unrestrained power, is plenty weird, salacious, and horrifying. But was he Rome’s worst ruler?

Roman history, deviant or otherwise, is a subject of endless fascination. What’s never been done before is to look at the worst of the worst at the same time, comparing them side by side, and ranking them against one another. Until now.

The books I picked & why

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Caesar

By Christian Meier,

Book cover of Caesar

Why this book?

When I wrote my first book—an exploration of Caesar’s leadership—I read a lot about the guy. This was the book I came back to most often as a guidepost. It helped me get past the biases I brought into my project and understand better the essence of who Caesar really was. There are a lot of books about Caesar, and rightly so; he is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic personalities of all time. For me, a great book is one that leaves me feeling like I could travel in time, sit down with the subject, and know what to expect from them. That’s a rare feat, especially for someone like Caesar. But he felt almost…familiar after reading this book. 


Cleopatra: A Life

By Stacy Schiff,

Book cover of Cleopatra: A Life

Why this book?

It’s possible that Cleopatra is the single most misunderstood figure in all of history. She has been used as an example, an allegory, a warning. Her name conjures images of mysticism, sensuality, and seduction. These caricatures do her injustice. This excellent book scrapes away all the mythologizing and paints the fullest, clearest picture of this remarkable leader, the world she lived in, and the motivations behind the choices she made. She wasn’t Roman (she wasn’t really Egyptian, either), but she had a huge impact on Roman history and is an integral part of the Roman story. 


Caligula: A Biography

By Aloys Winterling, Deborah Lucas Schneider (translator), Glenn W. Most, Paul Psoinos

Book cover of Caligula: A Biography

Why this book?

Few books challenge conventional knowledge about a historical figure like this one. This might be bad business for me personally. After all, my book about Evil Roman Emperors likes to wallow in the more salacious aspects of Roman history, and this book undermines some of those narratives where Rome’s third emperor is concerned. Winterling’s book takes a deep and critical look at the life of this maligned figure from history. While he stops short of vindicating Caligula, the author does a great job of giving a more complete and nuanced perspective of who he was and what made him tick. Was he truly crazy? Did he really think himself a god? Should his name be inextricably linked with violence and debauchery? Read and find out.


Nero

By Edward Champlin,

Book cover of Nero

Why this book?

Was Nero really such a monster? The New York Times and the British Museum are among the venerable institutions attempting to answer this question. It’s part of a broad trend to rethink the life and rule of one of history’s most famous villains. I’d like to think that this book helped start this historical reframing. Nero was not without his virtues. But he most definitely had vices in abundance. The question is not whether he was good or bad; rather, how did those two dimensions interact? Champlain does a great job of looking at Nero with a measure of objectivity and helping readers see things a bit differently. 


Constantine the Emperor

By David M. Potter,

Book cover of Constantine the Emperor

Why this book?

Constantine has come to be synonymous with the conversion of Rome to Christianity, and in the popular imagination the image often goes no further. I certainly always linked the man with this outcome in my mind. But he was so much more. He was ambitious to the point of revolutionary. He was ruthless to the point of megalomaniacal. He both stabilized the Empire and contributed to the factors that led to its fall. This book helped me understand the whole figure of Constantine, contradictions and all.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Rome, Nero, and emperors?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Rome, Nero, and emperors.

Rome Explore 204 books about Rome
Nero Explore 15 books about Nero
Emperors Explore 22 books about emperors

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like S.P.Q.R, Ghost on the Throne, and Nero if you like this list.