The best books on life in early Imperial Rome

David Wishart Author Of Ovid
By David Wishart

Who am I?

I graduated – too long ago now to recall the date comfortably – from Edinburgh University with an MA in Classics (Latin and Greek); add to this the facts that I’m a compulsive daily solver of the London ‘Times’ cryptic crossword, an unabashed conspiracy-theorist, and a huge fan of Niccolo Machiavelli and Mickey Spillane, and you more or less know all that you need to about the genesis of my Marcus Corvinus series. With these picks I am taking you down some lesser-known but, I hope, interesting side streets in Rome. Here we go...

I wrote...


By David Wishart,

Book cover of Ovid

What is my book about?

When young aristocratic layabout Marcus Corvinus is approached by the stepdaughter of the exiled and now dead Roman poet Ovid and asked to clear the return of the ashes for burial, he cheerfully agrees; there should, he thinks, be no problem. Only when he makes the application to the imperial authorities it's turned down flat. So what, Corvinus asks himself, did Ovid do that was so bad that they won't even allow his bones back into Italy? The first book in the Marcus Corvinus series.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day

Why did I love 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...

By Philip Matyszak,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Here is an informative and entertaining guide to everything that any tourist needs for a journey back in time to ancient Rome in AD 200.You need only pack your imagination and a toothbrush - this guide provides the rest, describing all the best places to stay and shop, what to do, and what to avoid. Brought to life with wonderful computer-generated reconstructions of ancient Rome, this highly original, witty book will appeal to tourists, armchair travellers and history buffs.

Book cover of Latin for All Occasions

Why did I love 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.

By Henry Beard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Latin for All Occasions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With more than 200,000 copies in print, Latin for All Occasions and its follow-up, Latin for Even More Occasions, have helped scores of readers harness the language of Caesar and Cicero. Impress your boss with Occupational Latin (Lingua Latina Occupationi); sell your product with Sales Latin (Lingua Latina Mercatoria); flirt with your classics professor with Sensual Latin (Lingua Latina Libidinosa); look like the hipster you are with Pop-Cultural Latin (Lingua Latina Popularis); survive the holidays with Familial Latin (Lingua Latina Domestica) and Celebrational Latin (Lingua Latina Festiva). It’s all here, whether you’re a student of the language or just want…

Book cover of Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration

Why did I love 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.

By O.F. Robinson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Describes ancient Rome and its management from the local government law viewpoint - not many other books do it from this angle

The arrangement of the chapters makes it possible to look comparatively at local government functions rather than just considering the offices of various Roman magistrates and officials

Brings out striking similarities between Roman administration and that of a modern city (e.g. the care of the streets) and also marked differences (e.g. free or subsidised food but no housing)

Nearly all the Latin is translated. No knowledge of the language is required due to the referencing

Will include unique…

The Thieves of Ostia

By Caroline Lawrence,

Book cover of The Thieves of Ostia

Why did I love 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).

By Caroline Lawrence,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The first in Caroline Lawrence's internationally bestselling Roman Mysteries series, re-issued with a fantastic new cover look.

Flavia Gemina is a natural at solving mysteries. The daughter of a ship's captain living in Ostia, the port of Rome, in AD79, she and her three friends, Jonathan, a Jewish boy (and secretly a Christian); Nubia, an African slave girl; and Lupus, a mute beggar boy, must work together to discover who is beheading the watchdogs that guard people's homes, and why.
A talented storyteller, Caroline Lawrence has created a delightfully readable and accessible series that children will want to read time…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Patrick Faas, Shaun Whiteside,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Around the Roman Table as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Craving dolphin meatballs? Can't find a reliable restaurant for boiled parrot? Have a hankering for jellyfish omelettes, sows' wombs in brine, sheep's brain pate, or stuffed mice? Look no further than Around the Roman Table, a unique hybrid cookbook and history lesson. A portrait of Roman society from the vantage point of the dining table, kitchen, and market stalls, Around the Roman Table offers both an account of Roman cating customs and 150 recipes reconstructed for the modern cook. Faas guides readers through the culinary conquests of Roman invasions - as conquerors pillaged foodstuffs from faraway lands - to the…

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