The best books on the connection of ancient Rome to an American identity

Why am I passionate about this?

My fascination with the relationship between Rome and America grows out of the work I have done on early American culture, contemporary political thought, and ancient Rome. My most recent work, Rome and America: Communities of Strangers, Spectacles of Belonging, took shape through a lot of conversations over the years with friends and colleagues about the different tensions I saw in Roman politics and culture around questions of national identity, tensions that I saw being played out in the United States. I don’t like tidy histories. I am drawn to explorations of politics and culture that reveal the anxieties and dissonance that derive from our own attempt to resolve our incompleteness. 


I wrote...

Rome and America: Communities of Strangers, Spectacles of Belonging

By Dean Hammer,

Book cover of Rome and America: Communities of Strangers, Spectacles of Belonging

What is my book about?

Rome and America: Communities of Strangers, Spectacles of Belonging is a timely and engaging exploration of the Roman and American founding myths in the cultural imagination. I argue for the exceptional nature of the myths as a journey of Strangers, but also trace the tensions created by these myths in attempts to answer the question, “Who are We?” The wide-ranging chapters venture to some unexpected places: early American travelogues, westerns, bare-knuckle boxing, early American theater, government documents detailing Native American policy, and the writings of Noah Webster, W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Charles Eastman. This volume culminates in an interpretation of the current crisis of democracy, with suggestions of how the myth can recast a much-needed discussion of identity and belonging.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of On Revolution

Dean Hammer Why did I love this book?

I first encountered this book in my senior seminar in college. Little did I know how much Hannah Arendt’s works would figure into my own thinking and writing. In On Revolution, Arendt provides a provocative interpretation of how the American founders looked to Rome, specifically Virgil, for their own understanding of founding. My current book begins with Arendt’s insight but departs substantially from her conclusion.

By Hannah Arendt,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Tracing the gradual evolution of revolutions, Arendt predicts the changing relationship between war and revolution and the crucial role such combustive movements will play in the future of international relations.

She looks at the principles which underlie all revolutions, starting with the first great examples in America and France, and showing how both the theory and practice of revolution have since developed. Finally, she foresees the changing relationship between war and revolution and the crucial changes in international relations, with revolution becoming the key tactic.


Book cover of Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America

Dean Hammer Why did I love this book?

I am an academic writer, but I admire when someone is able to write a thoughtful book that is accessible to a popular audience. Are We Rome? made a big splash and launched a cottage industry of comparisons (and debates about comparisons) of America to Rome. In exploring parallels between Rome and America, Murphy serves up dire warnings about how America’s worldview could portend its own demise. My latest book approaches the question of Rome and America in a different way, but tries to blend scholarship with a more accessible style that everyone might find interesting. 

By Cullen Murphy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What went wrong in imperial Rome, and how we can avoid it: “If you want to understand where America stands in the world today, read this.”—Thomas E. Ricks

The rise and fall of ancient Rome has been on American minds since the beginning of our republic. Depending on who’s doing the talking, the history of Rome serves as either a triumphal call to action—or a dire warning of imminent collapse.

In this “provocative and lively” book, Cullen Murphy points out that today we focus less on the Roman Republic than on the empire that took its place, and reveals a…


Book cover of Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture

Dean Hammer Why did I love this book?

One of the issues I have sought to counter in my work is our sense of the Romans as boring. At times they even saw themselves that way. We know the Romans by way of their contributions to law, constitutionalism, administration, and oratory. This collection of essays is engaging because of the surprising ways in which Rome not only figures into popular culture, from Broadway to the movies, but is employed in explorations of marginal identities.    

By Sandra R. Joshel (editor), Margaret Malamud (editor), Donald T. McGuire (editor)

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The phenomenal success of the recent film Gladiator ensures that ancient Rome will continue to inspire moviemakers and attract audiences as it has done since the dawn of cinema. Indeed, the creators of popular culture have so often appropriated elements of Roman history and society for films and television programs, novels and comic books, advertising and computer games that most people's knowledge of ancient Rome derives from these representations. In Imperial Projections, scholars from a variety of fields-classics, history, film studies, and gender theory-provide an interdisciplinary look at how ancient Rome has been depicted in the media and what these…


Book cover of The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910

Dean Hammer Why did I love this book?

Winterer provides the classic discussion of the place of Rome (and then Greece) in early American education and intellectual life. The book is about how American classicists sought to shape a relationship to the classical past that persists to this day, creating a canon of ancient texts as a reaction against and refuge from modernity. The real payoff of this book for me lies in showing how the past is never just the past but a continuing aspect of our own identity-formation.

By Caroline Winterer,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Debates continue to rage over whether American university students should be required to master a common core of knowledge. In The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910, Caroline Winterer traces the emergence of the classical model that became standard in the American curriculum in the nineteenth century and now lies at the core of contemporary controversies. By closely examining university curricula and the writings of classical scholars, Winterer demonstrates how classics was transformed from a narrow, language-based subject to a broader study of civilization, persuasively arguing that we cannot understand both the rise of…


Book cover of Time and Antiquity in American Empire: Roma Redux

Dean Hammer Why did I love this book?

I ran across this book recently and it resonated with my attempts to expand how we think about the relationship between past and present. In my own thinking about Rome and America, I wanted to move away from just talking about analogies. Storey opens up a way of thinking about the relationship between Rome and America that departs from analogies and explores how America incorporated a Roman logic of empire, not by recalling a past but by grafting itself onto a constellation of images and metaphors that connect past with present. The book is challenging, but opens up a different way of thinking about history.

By Mark Storey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Time and Antiquity in American Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a book about two empires-America and Rome-and the forms of time we create when we think about them together. Ranging from the eighteenth century to the present day, through novels, journalism, film, and photography, Time and Antiquity in American Empire reconfigures our understanding of how cultural and political life has generated an analogy between Roman antiquity and the imperial US state-both to justify and perpetuate it, and to
resist and critique it.

The book takes in a wide scope, from theories of historical time and imperial culture, through the twin political pillars of American empire-republicanism and slavery-to the…


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Empire in the Sand

By Shane Joseph,

Book cover of Empire in the Sand

Shane Joseph Author Of Empire in the Sand

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been a writer for more than twenty years and have favored pursuing “truth in fiction” rather than “money in formula.” I also spent over thirty years in the corporate world and was exposed to many situations reminiscent of those described in my fiction and in these recommended books. While I support enterprise, “enlightened capitalism” is preferable to the bare-knuckle type we have today, and which seems to resurface whenever regulation weakens. I also find writing novels closer to my lived experience connects me intimately with readers who are looking for socio-political, realist literature.

Shane's book list on exposing corporate, political, and personal corruption

What is my book about?

Avery Mann, a retired pharmaceuticals executive, is in crisis.

His wife dies of cancer, his son’s marriage is on the rocks, his grandson is having a meltdown, and his good friend is a victim of the robocalls scandal that invades the Canadian federal election. Throw in a reckless fling with a former colleague, a fire that destroys his retirement property, and a rumour emerging that the drug he helped bring to market years ago may have been responsible for the death of his wife, and Avery’s life goes into freefall.

Does an octogenarian beekeeper living on Vancouver Island hold the key to Avery’s recovery, a man holding secrets that put lives in jeopardy? Avery races across the country to find out, with crooked bosses, politicians, and assassins on his tail. Joseph spins a cautionary tale of corporate and political greed that is endemic to our times.

Empire in the Sand

By Shane Joseph,

What is this book about?

Avery Mann, a retired pharmaceuticals executive, is in crisis. His wife dies of cancer, his son’s marriage is on the rocks, his grandson is having a meltdown, and his good friend is a victim of the robocalls scandal that invades the Canadian federal election.

Throw in a reckless fling with a former colleague, a fire that destroys his retirement property, and a rumour emerging that the drug he helped bring to market years ago may have been responsible for the death of his wife, and Avery’s life goes into freefall.

Does an octogenarian bee keeper living on Vancouver Island hold…


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