The best historical novels of the ancient world

Jesse Browner Author Of The Uncertain Hour: A Novel
By Jesse Browner

The Books I Picked & Why

Eagle in the Snow

By Wallace Breem

Book cover of Eagle in the Snow

Why this book?

A Roman general makes his last stand against invading barbarians on the Rhine frontier. A classic in every sense of the word, Eagle in the Snow is in some ways a model for much of the serious historical fiction that followed its publication in 1970: deeply researched yet light-of-touch with arcane detail, action-packed yet always allowing character and emotion to take the foreground and guide the action. Paulinus Gaius Maximus has more than just the Germans to battle against: a pagan in a time of ascendant Christianity, a man of duty in a time of cowardice and self-dealing, thoughtful and deliberate when all around him act mindlessly. The book also excels in its clear-eyed depiction of military tactics, the hardships of winter campaigning, and the loneliness of the soldier far from home.

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The Long Ships

By Frans G. Bengtsson, Michael Meyer

Book cover of The Long Ships

Why this book?

Set among marauding Vikings in the 10th century, it’s a stretch to call The Long Ships a novel of the ancient world, but I love it so much that I don’t care. The book takes us from Scandinavia to England, Ireland, Muslim Spain, and Russia as the protagonists loot, kill, are enslaved, hunt for lost treasure, and ultimately return to their farms to live in peace as the Viking age dwindles to its end. All of this is great fun and educational, but the book’s great feat is to humanize these warriors in a way rarely seen – Vikings, it turns out, are not cold-blooded killers and scourges of civilization. They are warm-hearted killers who have their own, complicated souls.

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The Love-Artist

By Jane Alison

Book cover of The Love-Artist

Why this book?

The Roman poet Ovid was one of the most popular writers of his day, but the defining tragedy of his life – his lifelong exile from Rome at the very height of his powers – remains as mysterious today as it was in his own time. In The Love-Artist, Jane Alison provides that tragedy with a back story, when Ovid, on holiday on the shores of the Black Sea, meets and is enchanted by the witch-like Xenia and persuades her to return with him to Rome, with dire consequences. But it’s the book’s dream-like atmosphere – the sense that we are seeing the world through the eyes of a great poet with one foot in the ambitious world of empire and the other in an unstable netherworld of imagination and mythology – that will remain with the reader.

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By Jim Crace

Book cover of Quarantine

Why this book?

Again, many might not call this a historical novel, but doesn’t all literature ask us to test the limits of our imagination? In Quarantine, Jim Crace takes us to the deserts of Judea, where the young Galilean rabbi Jesus is testing his spiritual faith by spending 40 days fasting in a cliff-top cave. The Bible tells us that the Devil came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, but in Quarantine the temptations come mostly from his inadvertent travelling companions, in particular the venal, brutal trader Musa. Still, the powers of prayer and meditation, and the potential for some sort of redemption, are never undersold or mocked in this difficult yet rewarding novel

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Memoirs of Hadrian

By Marguerite Yourcenar, Grace Frick

Book cover of Memoirs of Hadrian

Why this book?

Written as a letter from the dying Roman emperor Hadrian to his grandson and successor, Marcus Aurelius, Memoirs of Hadrian is in some ways a grand tour of the Roman Empire in its grandest and most peaceful era. You will learn a great deal (especially if Roman history is unfamiliar to you), but mostly it is Hadrian’s thoughts on the nature of society, empire, love, and philosophy that will stay with you. Memoirs of Hadrian is also one of the rare classic historical novels to explore, wistfully and honestly, the complexities of homosexuality and gay love in the ancient world.

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