The best books on life in early Imperial Rome

David Wishart Author Of Ovid
By David Wishart

The Books I Picked & Why

Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day

By Philip Matyszak

Book cover of Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day

Why this book?

Think Blue Guide, Michelin, or Lonely Planet. If you’re lucky enough to own a time machine and are planning a holiday in late-first-century Rome then this is the book to slip into your shoulder bag. It has everything you’d expect to find in a good travel guide: information on where to stay and what to see and do, advice on eating out, and the best places to shop, plus tips on how best to fit in with the natives, what to do if while you’re there you get into difficulties, and a whole lot more. The perfect introduction to Rome under the Flavians. All you’ll need now – because the chances of finding an English-speaker anywhere in the city are going to be zilch – is a decent phrasebook...

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Latin for All Occasions

By Henry Beard

Book cover of Latin for All Occasions

Why this book?

Here it is! Everything from a simple ‘I’ll have a bucket of fried chicken’ (‘Da mihi sis hamam carnis gallinaceae frictae’) to a crafted curse like ‘May conspirators assassinate you in the mall!’ (‘Utinam coniurati te in foro interficiant!’), via such gems as ‘Do you want to dance? I know the Funky Broadway’ (‘Visne saltare? Viam Latam Fungosam scio’) and ‘Eat my shorts!’ (‘Vescere bracis meis!’). Need to know how to impress your native-speaker co-diner in a pretentious restaurant? Try ‘Vinum bellum iucundumque est, sed animo corporeque caret’ (‘It’s a nice little wine, but it lacks character and depth.’). Or maybe you just need a few pejorative terms to hurl at the driver who has cut in on your hired chariot; if so then ‘Airhead!’ (‘Caput vanis!’), ‘Dork!’ (‘Caudex!’) or ‘Space cadet!’ (‘Tiro astromachus!’) might, inter alia, fit the bill. A constant source of delight; Cicero wouldn’t have approved, let alone Marcus Cato, but Juvenal would have loved it.

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Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration

By O.F. Robinson

Book cover of Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration

Why this book?

From the ridiculous to the sublime, although still very much in the same ballpark. Written by a female classical historian whose husband was involved in local civic administration, this book will tell you everything you want to know (and a lot that you’d rather not, on a full stomach) about how the city of Rome in the late first century was organised, serviced, plumbed, policed, and kept happy. The Roman history anorak’s dream.

Should you want an equally-detailed guide to Who was Who (and related to Whom) in the late Republic and early Empire, then try Ronald Syme’s The Augustan Aristocracy – an impenetrable gem (if gems can be impenetrable), and certainly not a cover-to-cover bedtime read, but nevertheless one of my favourite reference books.

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The Thieves of Ostia

By Caroline Lawrence

Book cover of The Thieves of Ostia

Why this book?

Not a single book, but a series of (I think) eighteen. If you have a kid (or grandkid) who just might be showing an interest in all things Roman (or one you’d like to tweak in that direction), then you can’t do better than this. Set (initially, at least) in late-first-century Ostia, the books follow the adventures of sea-captain's daughter Flavia Gemina and her friends who battle nasties such as serial dog-killers and slave-traffickers – plus, eventually, running foul of Emperor Titus himself. Gripping stuff, an excellent read whether you’re child or adult, and Lawrence’s attention to historical detail is impeccable. With cameo appearances by, among others, Pliny the Elder (spoiler: he dies in the end).

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Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome

By Patrick Faas, Shaun Whiteside

Book cover of Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome

Why this book?

Lastly, one you can try for yourself at home (party togas, garlands, and changing the dining room furniture are purely optional): proof that Roman eating habits didn’t stop at roast dormice, larks’ tongues, and dodgy mushrooms (although you will find a recipe for the first on p289).

This is a lovely book, not just for the culinary background but because it includes over 150 authentic recipes taken from the works of ancient authors, in particular Marcus Gavinus Apicius, the legendary chef and epicure who (if he existed at all) flourished during the early part of the first century. Fancy trying meatballs with a Roman slant? Or stuffed cuttlefish with an Apician sauce? Or something more exotic like roast suckling pig or boiled ostrich vinaigrette? Congratulations; you need look no further.

Oh, and one more thing; you might want an authentic Roman wine to go with your meal. If so, then check out the website for Mas Gallo-Romain, a working Roman vineyard in France, and take it from there; I can personally recommend their Turriculae (‘Contains Seawater, Reduced Grape Must and Fenugreek’). And if you’re lucky enough to be able to take the tour at any stage then all the better.

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