The best books about ideological and popular uses of ancient Rome in the twentieth century

Why am I passionate about this?

I am Professor of Classics at George Mason University. I learned about ancient Romans and Greeks in my native Germany, when I attended a humanist high school, possibly the oldest in the country. (It was founded during the reign of Charlemagne, as the eastern half of the Roman Empire was still flourishing.) My mother once informed me that I betrayed my passion for stories long before I could read because I enthusiastically used to tear pages out of books. In my teens I became fascinated with stories told in moving images. I have been a bibliophile and, em, cinemaniac ever since and have pursued both my obsessions in my publications.

I wrote...

Arminius the Liberator: Myth and Ideology

By Martin M. Winkler,

Book cover of Arminius the Liberator: Myth and Ideology

What is my book about?

The Romans suffered one of their most devastating defeats when the Germanic chieftain Arminius completely destroyed three legions under the command of Quintilius (or Quinctilius) Varus in the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. My book traces the origin and development of the Arminius myth in antiquity and the ideological use and abuse of history and historical myth in nationalist and patriotic appropriations of Arminius since the nineteenth century. My main focus is on Weimar-era nationalism, National Socialism, and the variety of reactions to the ideological taint of the Arminius figure after 1945. In particular, I examine various representations of Arminius in the era of visual mass media in Germany, Italy, and the U.S.: painting, theater, and, primarily, cinema and television.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Sawdust Caesar: The Untold History of Mussolini and Fascism

Martin M. Winkler Why did I love this book?

An American journalist, expelled from Italy in 1925, traces roots, rise, and rule of Il Duce in this 1935 book, which is as vivid as its title.

Mussolini appears as a cheap showman, who, “acting the Hero,” revived ancient Roman pomp and spectacles. He was also aware of the power of mass media, especially the cinema, “posing before men and moviemen.”

One of the virtues of Seldes’ book are the extensive quotations, which unmask Mussolini and others in their own words. Fascist documents, quoted at length, include “The Fascist Decalogue” (note its VIII. Commandment!) and the “Fascist Catechism,” which must be read to be (dis)believed.

Seldes’ book has become valuable again in the current age of assorted domestic and foreign media- and image-obsessed demagogues, autocrats, and dictators.

Book cover of Hitler's State Architecture: The Impact of Classical Antiquity

Martin M. Winkler Why did I love this book?

Scobie presents a concise exposition of the Nazis’ inferiority complex vis-à-vis imperial Rome.

Hitler, ever a fan of grotesque gigantomania, found a soulmate in Albert Speer. Their designs for rebuilding major cities on Roman principles became reality only to a small degree.

The apex was to have been Berlin, renamed Germania, as world capital. Its most stupendous building, modeled on but dwarfing the Pantheon in Rome, was the Great Hall (also People’s Hall, Hall of Glory). It was to accommodate 180,000 standing people. Above it a copper-plated dome sixteen times the size of St. Peter’s in Rome was to have risen.

Inside, the balcony from which Hitler was to deliver his addresses would have made him appear tiny. The contrast exemplifies the essence of Kitsch: unrestrained grandiosity turns ridiculous.

By Alex Scobie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hitler's State Architecture as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Adolf Hitler admired ancient Rome as the "crystallization point of a world empire," a capital with massive public monuments that reflected the supremacy of the State and the political might of the ancient world's "master-race." He also admired the way Mussolini turned the monuments of imperial Rome into validatory symbols of Fascism. Hitler planned a Reich that would be a as durable as the Roman Empire. Its capital, Berlin, would surpass the architectural magnificence of ancient Rome before the advent of Christianity as its official religion.

This book examines Hitler's views on Roman imperialism, town planning, and architecture, and shows…

Book cover of Ben-Hur: The Original Blockbuster

Martin M. Winkler Why did I love this book?

Solomon’s gargantuan tome is a labor of love, offering a comprehensive tribute to General Lew Wallace’s epic historical novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, from 1880.

Solomon traces its genesis, composition (during which Wallace, previously not a devout believer, saw the light), publication, and sensational worldwide impact in all manner of modern media, which even included Ben-His and Ben-Hers towels.

After stage adaptations with thrilling on-stage chariot races, the cinema took over. The appropriately big MGM production of 1959 can boast what was for decades believed to be the most spectacular action sequence ever filmed. In a nod to contemporary politics, an Arab sheik puts a Star of David on Ben-Hur just before the race. And the film’s Romans closely resemble Nazis—not for the first or last time.

By Jon Solomon,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Ben-Hur was the first literary blockbuster to generate multiple and hugely profitable adaptations, highlighted by the 1959 film that won a record-setting 11 Oscars. General Lew Wallace's book was spun off into dozens of popular publications and media productions, becoming a veritable commercial brand name that earned tens of millions of dollars.

Ben-Hur: The Original Blockbuster surveys the Ben-Hur phenomenon's unprecedented range and extraordinary endurance: various editions, spin-off publications, stage productions, movies, comic books, radio plays, and retail products were successfully marketed and sold from the 1880s and throughout the twentieth century. Today Ben-Hur Live is touring Europe and Asia,…

Book cover of Spartacus

Martin M. Winkler Why did I love this book?

Fast ran afoul of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and was sent to prison for contempt of Congress.

To him, as to Karl Marx and others, the gladiator Spartacus, who led history’s best-known slave revolt (73 to 71 B.C.), symbolized the proletariat’s revolution against capitalist oppressors and depraved imperialists.

Despite some dubious history and one distasteful distortion concerning the Romans’ exploitation of slaves, Fast’s 1951 novel is a stirring tale, intended “so that the dream of Spartacus may come to be in our own time.”

When no publisher would touch his book, Fast had it printed and distributed on his own.

The screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation was by Dalton Trumbo, another HUAC victim. His screen credits for Spartacus and, a little earlier, for Exodus ended the blacklist.

By Howard Fast,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The best-selling novel about a slave revolt in ancient Rome and the basis for the popular motion picture.

Book cover of Hollywood's Ancient Worlds

Martin M. Winkler Why did I love this book?

Richards’ book broadens the perspective advanced here with a concise overview of American and British films and some American-European co-productions about ancient Greek, Roman, biblical, and other cultures.

Its main focus is on the 1950s and 1960s, when epic filmmaking reached its height with color and widescreen cinematography, giant sets, huge casts, stereophonic sound, extreme lengths, and ruinous costs.

Richards rides to the rescue of several less-than-stellar films but can be severe as well, e.g. about 300: “probably the most Fascistic film to come out in cinemas since the fall of the Third Reich.” (No argument here.)

A few inaccuracies concerning antiquity and cinematic details detract from the book’s value, but they are instructive, since errors can create new fictions from the fictions that films invariably create from history.

By Jeffrey Richards,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hollywood's Ancient Worlds as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book offers a new, full analysis of the Ancient World epic and how this film genre continues to comment on modern-day issues.Few genres have been subject to such critical scorn as the Ancient World epic. Yet they have regularly achieved huge box office success. This book tells the history of the Ancient World epic from the silent screen successes of "Intolerance" and "The King of Kings" through the 'golden age of the epic' in the 1950s (Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra etc) through to the 1990s revival with "Gladiator", its successors in cinema (Alexander, Troy, 300) and on television…

You might also like...

Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

Book cover of Snow on Magnolias

Betty Bolte Author Of Notes of Love and War

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Author Editor Traveler Crocheter Reader

Betty's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Magnolia Merryweather, a horse breeder, is eager to celebrate Christmas for the first time after the Civil War ended even as she grows her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after the terror of the past four years. Only, all of her plans are thrown into disarray when her secret lover returns and starts asking questions she can’t answer without disaster following.

Bryce Day comes home to Alabama after he’s discharged from the First Alabama Cavalry USA with guilt weighing on his heart. His neighbors won’t cotton to his Unionist bent, and the woman of his heart likely…

Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

What is this book about?

One terrible lie, a desperate measure to save her past, just might destroy her future…

Award-winning author of historical fiction presents a new novel of love and lies, secrets and sensuality, and the hands of fate weaving it all together.

The American Civil War is finally over and Christmas beckons. Magnolia Merryweather, backyard horse breeder, is eager to celebrate for the first time since the war began even as she continues to grow her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after all the terror of the past four years. She’s preparing to follow in her mother’s matriarchal footsteps,…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in ancient Rome, Rome, and Italy?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about ancient Rome, Rome, and Italy.

Ancient Rome Explore 295 books about ancient Rome
Rome Explore 322 books about Rome
Italy Explore 391 books about Italy