The best fiction books set in ancient Rome

Theodore Irvin Silar Author Of Ashes I: A Novel of the Poor of Ancient Rome
By Theodore Irvin Silar

Who am I?

Ever since I spent a day wandering the Roman forum, imagining Caesar’s funeral at the site of his pyre, standing on the Palatine imagining living in palatial Palatine splendor, and looking down on Senators, plebeians, public baths, the Colisseum, temples, statues, basilicae, patricians, slaves, street vendors, centurions, courtesans, ladies, gladiators, urchins, schoolboys, pickpockets, and priests, I knew I wanted to write about it. I have done intensive research, with skills honed earning a Ph.D. in English from Lehigh University (specialty: literary-historical). I seek out literary historical novels, novels with distinctive style, artful plotting, engaging characterization, and historical fidelity. 


I wrote...

Ashes I: A Novel of the Poor of Ancient Rome

By Theodore Irvin Silar,

Book cover of Ashes I: A Novel of the Poor of Ancient Rome

What is my book about?

It is ancient, late-Republican Rome, and, denied the freedom he was promised, successful merchant-slave, Ariston, sets fire to his master's Palatine villa, rescues a slave-girl, Felicia, from crucifixion, and both escape to the distant Umbrian mountains where they marry and raise a family, setting in play an odyssey that spans generations, an odyssey that leads from the cruel streets of the slums of Rome to chariot races in the Circus Maximus, from bloody, no-holds-barred street boxing to the pursuit of fugitive slaves across the length and breadth of Italia, from the great landed estates of the Roman countryside to the law courts of the Roman Forum.

The books I picked & why

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I, Claudius

By Robert Graves,

Book cover of I, Claudius

Why this book?

Robert Graves’s novel, I, Claudius, about ancient Roman emperor, Claudius, is not just “historical fiction.” It’s literature. In I, Claudius, Graves defends the capability of Claudius, whom most historians consider a crippled idiot. Claudius’s rise is a classic underdog story: stammering cripple outsmarts and outlives a pack of fratricidal wolves.

A familiar/strange culture, a convulsive, treacherous history, unforgettable characters ̶ easygoing Augustus Caesar; haunted Tiberius; severe Antonia; insane Caligula; noble Germanicus; and above all, arch-conspirator Livia, Claudius’s grandmother  ̶ historical fiction your cup of tea or not, I, Claudius is for anybody who likes style, plot, adventure, tragedy, comedy, a hero to root for, and a rich portrayal of a fascinating society.

I, Claudius

By Robert Graves,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked I, Claudius as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A work of historical fiction which recreates the life and times of Emperor Claudius, who lived from 10 BC to AD 41, a time when poisoning, blasphemy, treachery, incest and unnatural vice were commonplace. From the author of CLAUDIUS THE GOD AND HIS WIFE MESSALINA.


The Coin of Carthage

By Winifred Bryher,

Book cover of The Coin of Carthage

Why this book?

Bryher's historical novels, once acclaimed, are out of print. I think Bryher deserves re-discovery. I like how The Coin of Carthage, set during ancient Rome’s war against Carthage, concerns everyday people: traders, farmers, common soldiers. And no Rome. Rome is a glimpse from a hill. I like this ̶ a true peasant’s sense of distance, where very near is still far. We follow the workaday lives of Italian-Greek traders Zonas and Dasius, from Naples docks to Carthage streets, to bucolic Tivoli, farms, markets, courtyards, piers, ships, mule-trains. Setting Italia, characters commoners, heroes Italian-Greeks, the periphery, usually silenced, is given voice. A curiously moving book.

The Coin of Carthage

By Winifred Bryher,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Coin of Carthage (Harvest/HBJ Book)


Semper Fidelis: A Novel of the Roman Empire

By Ruth Downie,

Book cover of Semper Fidelis: A Novel of the Roman Empire

Why this book?

In an ancient Roman Britain garrison town, Roman army physician, Ruso, and his native wife, Tilla, investigate a series of murders. Worse, Emperor Hadrian is coming. Ratcheting tension. The central issue in Semper Fidelis is the rivalry between Roman legionaries and Briton conscripts. The crime is solved, but the story doesn’t end. Briton conscripts riot, and, Hadrian absent, his empress, Sabina, must intercede.

The empress Vibia Sabina (posthumously deified), is my favorite character. Neglected, bored, sarcastic, calculating, duplicitous, funny, she is the perfect spoiled patrician matron.  What I like best is how everybody lies to everybody in Semper Fidelis, a tour-de-force of mendacity. An interesting, different, more-than-just-murder-mystery historical novel.

Semper Fidelis: A Novel of the Roman Empire

By Ruth Downie,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

When Ruso rejoins his unit in the remote outpost of the Roman Empire known as Britannia, he finds that all is not well with the Twentieth Legion. As they keep a suspicious eye on the barbarians to the north, the legionaries appear to have found trouble even closer to home-among the native recruits to Britannia's imperial army.

A young soldier has jumped off a roof, killing himself. Why? Mysterious injuries, and even deaths, begin to pile up in Ruso's medical ledgers, and it soon becomes clear that this suicide is not an isolated incident. Can the men really be under…


Julian

By Gore Vidal,

Book cover of Julian

Why this book?

Everyone in Julian is terrified of saying the wrong thing. Like today. “The days of toleration are over,” a student informs teacher Libanius. Julian tells of the rise of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, who fought Christianity and reinstated paganism during the interesting but seldom-examined transition from simple Roman culture to the ornate Byzantine.

Julian’s autobiography is commented on by Priscus and Libanius, two funny, old, bickering philosophers. I like this dueling narration. It shows how history depends on who’s narrating. I also like how, though everyone in Julian loves philosophy, it is personalities and the art of teaching we learn about, not philosophy. Full of surprising historical facts, court intrigue, battles, and especially Gore Vidal’s unique and iconoclastic perspective, Julian is a great book, a revelation.

Julian

By Gore Vidal,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Gore Vidal's fictional recreation of the Roman Empire teetering on the crux of Christianity and ruled by an emperor who was an inveterate dabbler in arcane hocus-pocus, a prig, a bigot, and a dazzling and brilliant leader.


Augustus

By John Williams,

Book cover of Augustus

Why this book?

Augustus tells the fictionalized life story of the most famous Roman emperor of all, Augustus Caesar, through letters written by the people around him. I like this approach. We see Augustus from multiple, one-step-removed perspectives, just as history presents him, and we also get to see what he is up against.

“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” might be Augustus’s motto, for an exquisite tone of beautiful melancholy haunts his story, as well as the story of his daughter, exiled and imprisoned for life after such great expectations. Augustus is a beautiful, unusual, profound book.

Augustus

By John Williams,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

By the author of Stoner, the surprise international bestseller

After the brutal murder of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, Octavian, a shy and scholarly youth of nineteen, suddenly finds himself heir to the vast power of Rome. He is destined, despite vicious power struggles, bloody wars and family strife, to transform his realm and become the greatest ruler the western world had ever seen: Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor.

Building on impeccable research, John Williams brings the legendary figure of Augustus vividly to life, and invests his characters with such profound humanity that we enter completely into the heat and…


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