The best books for exploring the Roman Republic and its collapse

Jeremiah McCall Author Of Rivalries that Destroyed the Roman Republic
By Jeremiah McCall

Who am I?

I am a historian and history teacher in Ohio with a passion for studying the endlessly fascinating Roman Republic. It was a time when many believed the gods walked the earth, when legend and reality mixed. The resulting stories lure us with their strangeness while reminding us of our modern world. For me, no topic in the Republic captures this paradox of strangeness and familiarity more than the political systems of the Republic. Our very ideas about representative democracy come from the Romans. But the legacy is deeper. In Roman politicians’ thirst for votes and victory, their bitter rivalries we can, perhaps, see the dangers of excessive political competition today.


I wrote...

Rivalries that Destroyed the Roman Republic

By Jeremiah McCall,

Book cover of Rivalries that Destroyed the Roman Republic

What is my book about?

This is the story of how some Roman aristocrats grew so competitive in their political rivalries that they destroyed their Republic, in the late second to mid-first century BCE. Politics had always been a fractious game at Rome as aristocratic competitors strove to outshine one another in elected offices and honors. And for centuries it had worked—or at least worked for these elite and elitist competitors. Enemies were defeated, glory was spread round the ruling class, and the empire of the Republic steadily grew. When rivalries grew too bitter, when aristocrats seemed headed toward excessive power, the oligarchy of the Roman Senate would curb its more competitive members, fostering consensus that allowed the system—the competitive arena for offices and honors, and the domination of the Senate—to continue.

The books I picked & why

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Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar

By Tom Holland,

Book cover of Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar

Why this book?

Dynasty is just a good historical read, one I enjoyed thoroughly. This is the place to go for a readable researched, thoroughly engaging story of the final collapse of the Republic under Caesar and how his heirs ushered in a new political system. The pivotal period where Octavian, adopted son of murdered Gaius Julius Caesar, survived in a cutthroat political and military arena and made himself Princeps, the first emperor, is just fascinating. The subsequent men and women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and all of their political, and sometimes murderous, machinations come to life under Holland’s pen. An excellent choice for navigating imperial politics, often family politics.

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar

By Tom Holland,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'This is a wonderful, surging narrative - a brilliant and meticulous synthesis of the ancient sources . . . This is a story that should be read by anyone interested in history, politics or human nature - and it has never been better told' - Boris Johnson, Mail on Sunday

Rome was first ruled by kings, then became a republic. But in the end, after conquering the world, the Republic collapsed. Rome was drowned in blood. So terrible were the civil wars that the Roman people finally came to welcome the rule of an autocrat who could give them peace.…


Politics in the Roman Republic

By Henrik Mouritsen,

Book cover of Politics in the Roman Republic

Why this book?

Mouritsen’s short, detailed, survey of Roman politics in the Republic packs such a punch in terms of its sophisticated, but brief, analyses of Roman political systems including the fall of the Republic. In short, I think Mouritsen has done as good a job as any historian, page-for-page examining in brief the mechanics of Republican politics and their collapse. I certainly relied on his broader analysis of Roman political systems and their collapse on a number of occasions in my book as we investigated the turbulent tenures of this and that aristocrat. Politics in the Roman Republic is an excellent first step to Mouritsen’s thoughtful analysis, since it will provide the stories of essentially all the key aristocrats who form the evidence for his analysis. For those who want even more understanding of the political and competitive systems as they operated, Mouritsen’s book is a terrific next step.

Politics in the Roman Republic

By Henrik Mouritsen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Politics in the Roman Republic as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The politics of the Roman Republic has in recent decades been the subject of intense debate, covering issues such as the degree of democracy and popular influence, 'parties' and ideology, politics as public ritual, and the character of Rome's political culture. This engaging book examines all these issues afresh, and presents an original synthesis of Rome's political institutions and practices. It begins by explaining the development of the Roman constitution over time before turning to the practical functioning of the Republic, focusing particularly on the role of the populus Romanus and the way its powers were expressed in the popular…

Roman Lives: A Selection of Eight Roman Lives

By Plutarch, Robin Waterfield (translator),

Book cover of Roman Lives: A Selection of Eight Roman Lives

Why this book?

Though Plutarch is not our only source for the political and military anecdotes detailing Roman aristocrats, their achievements, and their foibles, good translations of his biographies provide some of the most accessible and enjoyable reading for those who want to get a little closer to the source material. Waterfield’s translation is contemporary and excellent. The selection of Plutarch’s biographies in this volume span the sweep of the Middle and Late Republic, Cato the elder to Caesar. And he narrates with his usual style including all manner of interesting oddities and side comments about Roman society to spice the details up. An outstanding choice for learning more about the ancient historical record in a very readable set of biographies.

Roman Lives: A Selection of Eight Roman Lives

By Plutarch, Robin Waterfield (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Marcus Cato Sulla Aemilius Paullus Pompey The Gracchi Marius Julius Caesar Anthony 'I treat the narrative of the Lives as a kind of mirror...The experience is like nothing so much as spending time in their company and living with them: I receive and welcome each of them in turn as my guest.' In the eight lives of this collection Plutarch introduces the reader to the major figures and periods of classical Rome. He portrays virtues to be emulated and vices to be avoided, but his purpose is also implicitly to educate and warn those in his own day who wielded…

Women in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook

By Bonnie MacLachlan,

Book cover of Women in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook

Why this book?

Even though the details of specific aristocratic women in the late Republic are often fleeting, serious digging into our sources provides a much fuller and richer picture of Roman women, a critical half of the Roman people. McClachlan offers a brief, but rich introduction to the available literary evidence. The book extends before and beyond the Republic, painting a picture that transcends the political structure of Monarchy, Republic, and Empire. The English translations are very readable (not always the case to be sure).

What makes her work so engaging for those who want to dig into the Romans’ own words, is that McLachlan essentially writes in each chapter a combination of narrative, context, and commentary that work seamlessly with the passages from the ancient sources to deliver an engaging narrative about the topics from Legendary Dido, to the historical women protesting the Oppian laws. It is such an accessible way to engage the ancient sources more deeply! This is a must-read overview for those who want to know more about the women of Rome.

Women in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook

By Bonnie MacLachlan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This sourcebook includes a rich and accessible selection of Roman original sources in translation ranging from the Regal Period through Republican and Imperial Rome to the late Empire and the coming of Christianity. From Roman goddesses to mortal women, imperial women to slaves and prostitutes, the volume brings new perspectives to the study of Roman women's lives. Literary sources comprise works by Livy, Catullus, Ovid, Juvenal and many others. Suggestions for further reading, a general bibliography, and an index of ancient authors and works are also included.

The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction

By David M. Gwynn,

Book cover of The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction

Why this book?

I’ve used this text a number of times teaching courses on the Republic and it is a terrific overview that will expand on many areas. Short, informative, packed with anecdotes and examples and surveying the whole of the Republic. For those interested in a more academic survey, while still very approachable, text on the period of the Republic, Gwynn’s work offers just the right balance of depth and briskness. 

The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction

By David M. Gwynn,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The rise and fall of the Roman Republic occupies a special place in the history of Western civilization. From humble beginnings on the seven hills beside the Tiber, the city of Rome grew to dominate the ancient Mediterranean. Led by her senatorial aristocracy, Republican armies defeated Carthage and the successor kingdoms of Alexander the Great, and brought the surrounding peoples to east and west into the Roman sphere. Yet the triumph of the Republic was also its
tragedy.

In this Very Short Introduction, David M. Gwynn provides a fascinating introduction to the history of the Roman Republic and its literary…

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