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

The Books I Picked & Why

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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