The best historical novels of the ancient world

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

Who am I?

If you want to learn about historical societies and events, read history books. But if you want to understand your own world, and how it has emerged from and been shaped by the eternal, unchanging human psyche, intellect and fragility, read historical fiction. A great historical novel should always be first and foremost about the time in which it is written. That is what first drew me to the story of Petronius in The Uncertain Hour – if it doesn’t have a human heart, no amount of technical historical detail will kindle it in the reader’s imagination.


I wrote...

Book cover of The Uncertain Hour: A Novel

What is my book about?

A.D. 66. Having been falsely implicated in a plot to assassinate the emperor Nero, Titus Petronius has a choice: await the executioner at dawn, or die a noble Roman death by his own hand. Deciding that his will be a suicide like no other the world has ever seen, he summons a small circle of intimate friends to his magnificent villa on the coast of southern Italy. As they feast on course after course of the most sumptuous and exotic fare the empire has to offer, his guests are expressly forbidden to dwell on the imminent tragedy; instead, they are enjoined to sing, eat, drink, and celebrate. But as his life dwindles to a few precious hours, Petronius himself cannot shake off the ghosts of his past or his regret over mistakes that can no longer be set right.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

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.

Eagle in the Snow

By Wallace Breem,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Eagle in the Snow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A novel about General Maximus, one of the inspirations behind Ridley Scott's massively successful film GLADIATOR.

'Behind me I left my youth, my middle age, my wife and my happiness. I was a general now and I had only defeat or victory to look forward to. There was no middle way any longer, and I did not care.'

In the year AD 406 Rome was on the defensive everywhere, and a single Roman legion stood desperate guard on the Empire's Rhine frontier. Maximus, the legion's commander, is urged to proclaim himself emperor, but he stands by his concept of duty…


The Long Ships

By Michael Meyer, Frans G. Bengtsson,

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.

The Long Ships

By Michael Meyer, Frans G. Bengtsson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This saga brings alive the world of the 10th century AD when the Vikings raided the coasts of England.

Acclaimed as one of the best historical novels ever written, this engaging saga of Viking adventure in 10th century northern Europe has a very appealing young hero, Orm Tostesson, whose story we follow from inexperienced youth to adventurous old age, through slavery and adventure to a royal marriage and the search for great treasure. Viking expeditions take him to lands as far apart as England, Moorish Spain, Gaardarike (the country that was to become Russia), and the long road to Miklagard.…


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.

The Love-Artist

By Jane Alison,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A darkly brilliant first novel imagines a missing chapter in the life of Ovid. Why was Ovid, the most popular author of his day, banished to the edges of the Roman Empire? Why do only two lines survive of his play Medea, reputedly his most passionate work, and perhaps his most accomplished? Between the known details of the poets life and these enigmas, Jane Alison has interpolated a haunting drama of passion and psychological manipulation. On holiday in the Black Sea, on the fringes of the Empire, Ovid encounters an almost otherworldly woman who seems to embody the fictitious creations…


Quarantine

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

Quarantine

By Jim Crace,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

With an introduction by Stuart Evers

So this is happiness, she thought. Or this, at least, is what adds up to happiness. The prospect of never running after men and camels any more, of being Miri without shame or hesitation, of letting drop her headscarf for a change so that nothing intervened between her and the sky.

Five travellers venture into the Judean wilderness in search of redemption. Instead, amidst the barren rocks, they are met by a dangerous man, Musa, and fall under his dark influence. As the unforgiving days and bitter nights erode their resolve, it becomes clear…


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.

Memoirs of Hadrian

By Marguerite Yourcenar, Grace Frick,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Framed as a letter from the Roman Emperor Hadrian to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian is translated from the French by Grace Frick with an introduction by Paul Bailey in Penguin Modern Classics.

In her magnificent novel, Marguerite Yourcenor recreates the life and death of one of the great rulers of the ancient world. The Emperor Hadrian, aware his demise is imminent, writes a long valedictory letter to Marcus Aurelius, his future successor. The Emperor meditates on his past, describing his accession, military triumphs, love of poetry and music, and the philosophy that informed his powerful…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Rome, the Middle Ages, and exile?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Rome, the Middle Ages, and exile.

Rome Explore 236 books about Rome
The Middle Ages Explore 303 books about the Middle Ages
Exile Explore 13 books about exile

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Winter King, Beyond Good And Evil, and Existentialism Is a Humanism if you like this list.