The best books showing daily life in ancient Athens and Rome (at their respective peaks)

Nigel Rodgers Author Of The Colosseum From AD80 To The Present Day
By Nigel Rodgers

Who am I?

I have been fascinated by ancient Greece and Rome since I first saw Italy and Greece as a teenager, revisiting them whenever I can. I studied ancient history at Cambridge University and have written eight books about it, most recently The Colosseum. After living in Paris, Rome, and London, I am now based in Wiltshire in southwest England, almost within sight of Stonehenge. There is a small megalith outside my own house.

I wrote...

The Colosseum From AD80 To The Present Day

By Nigel Rodgers,

Book cover of The Colosseum From AD80 To The Present Day

What is my book about?

The Colosseum in Rome awed the world when inaugurated in 80AD. It is still Rome’s greatest landmark, a brilliant example of ancient engineering. Inside its vast arena lavish but brutal entertainments were staged for centuries. The Colosseum, my vividly illustrated guide-cum-history, examines the arena’s construction, workings, and checkered history, including the recent partial restoration. One chapter explains the role its games played in the life of the ancient city, another the gladiators’ brief, sometimes glamorous lives. Further chapters outline how the massive structure survived centuries of earthquakes, fires, depredation, and neglect after the fall of the Roman Empire, and its later roles as a palace, fortress, church, tenements, site of black magic, and vegetable garden. There is also a guide as how and when it is best to visit, avoiding the queues and the hottest, most crowded times. Over 200 illustrations include cut-away reconstructions showing how the complex building actually worked.

Before writing the book, I made a special visit to Rome to investigate the recent excavations of the hypogoeum, the network of underground passages and lifts essential to the games.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian

Why did I love this book?

Robin Lane Fox, best known for his books on Alexander the Great, has produced a superb overview of ancient history, from the emergence of Greece c.776BC to the Roman empire’s zenith under the emperor Hadrian (reigned  AD117-138).  He takes a firmly narrative approach, which makes for a thrilling read. His focus is on the lives of great men such as Pericles, Alexander, and Julius Caesar and on key political and military events rather than on cultural and social factors. While his epic approach may not impress all academics, it will probably still be read with enthusiasm long after more specialist works have been forgotten. Lots of illustrations, some in colour. Ideal for the general reader.

By Robin Lane Fox,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The classical civilizations of Greece and Rome once dominated the world, and they continue to fascinate and inspire us. Classical art and architecture, drama and epic, philosophy and politics-these are the foundations of Western civilization. In The Classical World , eminent classicist Robin Lane Fox brilliantly chronicles this vast sweep of history from Homer to the reign of Hadrian. From the Peloponnesian War through the creation of Athenian democracy, from the turbulent empire of Alexander the Great to the creation of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Christianity, Fox serves as our witty and trenchant guide. He introduces us…

Book cover of Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic

Why did I love this book?

This is history rewritten almost as a thriller. Zooming through the centuries from 753 BC – the year Rome was traditionally founded – to the death of Augustus the first emperor in AD14, Tom Holland’s sizzling prose grabs you from the start and keeps you reading. His theme is the rise of Rome from an obscure hill village to ruler of the Mediterranean world, his focus is on the last turbulent decades of the Roman Republic torn by civil strife and its final replacement by Augustus’s empire. It was an age of extremes – extreme violence, extreme luxury, extremely brilliant individuals. The Rubicon, incidentally, is a tiny river, once the northern boundary of Italy proper. By crossing it in 49BC, Caesar sparked the civil wars that wrecked the Republic.

By Tom Holland,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Rubicon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Roman Republic was the most remarkable state in history. What began as a small community of peasants camped among marshes and hills ended up ruling the known world. Rubicon paints a vivid portrait of the Republic at the climax of its greatness - the same greatness which would herald the catastrophe of its fall. It is a story of incomparable drama. This was the century of Julius Caesar, the gambler whose addiction to glory led him to the banks of the Rubicon, and beyond; of Cicero, whose defence of freedom would make him a byword for eloquence; of Spartacus,…

Book cover of The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome

Why did I love this book?

This book has the best illustrations of the two main cities of antiquity that l have ever seen. Besides superb photographs (all in colour) of the ruins today, they include Peter Connolly’s brilliant reconstructions of buildings of all sorts: houses, palaces, baths, temples, forums, hippodromes, theatres, amphitheaters, insulae (blocks of flats), bars and aqueducts, plus styles in furniture, clothing, and hair. All are shown in colourful detail, many with cutaway illustrations that recreate city life of 2000 years ago with wonderful vividness. They are complemented by Dr. Hazel Dodge’s lucid, informative text. The first part covers Athens at its democratic peak under Pericles around 434BC, the second Rome at its imperial zenith some 500 years later, when it was the greatest city on earth.

By Peter Connolly, Hazel Dodge,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Ancient City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Superb, detailed reconstructions of buildings provide the starting-point for a vivid exploration of these two great cities and the lives of the people who inhabited them. Peter Connolly's illustrations and reconstructions have a unique authority, with their blend of superb draughtsmanship, imagination, and meticulous research. The text appeals to a wide spectrum of readers, from young adults to professional historians.

Book cover of The Penguin Dictionary of Ancient History

Why did I love this book?

Dictionaries are not usually meant to be fun but this fact-packed book is so well-written that it is a joy to read. Wonder who on earth was Cicero? What the Punic wars were all about? How the Greeks defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis? What was so special about Greek theatre? And why  Rome conquered Britain? You will find all the answers here. Besides military and political events, it covers literature, philosophy, art, religion, sport, and society, all the way from 776BC and the first Olympic Games to the end of the Roman Empire in the west in AD476.

By Graham Speake,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Penguin Dictionary of Ancient History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ranging from the year of the first Olympic Games in 776 BC to the fall of the Roman Empire in AD 476, this dictionary contains over 2000 entries providing a reference guide to the ancient Greco-Roman world. It includes entries on personalities, events, politics, literature, art and society.

Book cover of Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matter

Why did I love this book?

Simon Goldhill powerfully demonstrates why we remain indebted to the ancient world in so many ways. It is not just that classical columns often decorate our buildings or that classical legends inspire our films and books, our whole life still bears the cultural and psychological imprint of ancient Greece and Rome. Our current obsession with gyms, for example, stems from the Greek passion for exercising in public (and they did so naked). Gymnasium is in origin a Greek word. While Greeks and Romans took different views from us on numerous things, from romantic love to slavery, the issues they first confronted and debated still matter. Unsurprisingly for the ancient world, far from being peopled with dead white marble statues gathering dust in museums, throbbed with impassioned life. The echoes of their tumultuous lives haunt us still.

By Simon Goldhill,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Simon Goldhill examines the most basic areas of our lives today, from marriage and sex to politics and entertainment. Whether we are falling in love or waging wars in the name of democracy, he reveals how Classical ideas continue to shape our behaviour and our attitudes in crucial ways. Full of surprising facts and startling stories, it will appeal to anyone interested in history and its influence on our lives. It is as wide-ranging as it is readable, with a brilliant cast of characters. Few books could bring together Freud, Plato, Queen Victoria, Romeo and Juliet, George W. Bush and…

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Interested in Rome, Athens, and ancient history?

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