The best new books about the Roman Empire

Greg Woolf Author Of Rome: An Empire's Story
By Greg Woolf

Who am I?

I am an historian and archaeologist of the Roman world, who has lectured on the subject around the world. This summer I am moving from a position in London to one in Los Angeles. One of the attractions of Roman history is that it is a vast subject spanning three continents and more than a thousand years. There is always something new to discover and a great international community of researchers working together to do just that. It is a huge privilege to be part of that community and to try and communicate some its work to the widest audience possible.

I wrote...

Book cover of Rome: An Empire's Story

What is my book about?

A decade ago I wrote the first edition of this history of Rome from its foundation to the Arab Conquests that nearly overwhelmed the empire a millennium and a half later. I was travelling a lot in those days, and I wrote whenever and wherever I had a moment. Part of it was drafted in Brazil at the busy university of UNICAMP, and I finished it in beautiful Erfurt in the green heart of Germany. 

This edition was written entirely in lockdown, sitting at my desk in Scotland surrounded by the latest books on Roman history. It has been exciting to see how fast the subject is changing, and I have tried to reflect that in the new text. There is more on the beginning and much more on the end of the story, Roman material culture plays a bigger part, and again and again, new research has made me rethink my views. I hope my readers learn as much from it as I learned rewriting it!

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Early Roman Expansion Into Italy: Elite Negotiation and Family Agendas

Why did I love this book?

This book rewrites the story of how Roman imperialism got started. It is written by one of the best archaeologists in the field, and it shows. It is brilliantly illustrated, and it explains the world into which Rome emerged. Instead of the traditional story of virtuous Roman heroes and bold wars of conquest, it shows why other Italian peoples decided to join up with Rome. We get a sense of how other Italians saw things. And we understand how the ruling families, Roman and Italian alike, came together and built a state that would conquer the Mediterranean in all their interests. Revolutionary!

By Nicola Terrenato,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Early Roman Expansion Into Italy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book presents a radical new interpretation of Roman expansion in Italy during the fourth and third centuries BCE. Nicola Terrenato argues that the process was accomplished by means of a grand bargain that was negotiated between the landed elites of central and southern Italy, while military conquest played a much smaller role than is usually envisaged. Deploying archaeological, epigraphic, and historical evidence, he paints a picture of the family interactions that tied together both Roman and non-Roman aristocrats and that resulted in their pooling power and resources for the creation of a new political entity. The book is written…

Book cover of Building Mid-Republican Rome: Labor, Architecture, and the Urban Economy

Why did I love this book?

The monuments we see when we visit Rome were constructed under the emperors. But Rome was already a great metropolis before they began work, one that was architecturally unique and built on a scale to dwarf most ancient cities. What this book does is reconstruct the great building projects of the Republic, beginning with the original fourth-century walls of Rome and the first aqueducts. It asks (and answers) questions like: Where did they get the stone? Who provided the labour? How long did it take them? And what technologies did they use? This was a Rome built without marble, without concrete, and not a royal foundation, but one managed by generations of magistrates riding the wave of a slow economic boom. Completely fascinating.

By Seth Bernard,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Building Mid-Republican Rome offers a holistic treatment of the development of the Mid-Republican city from 396 to 168 BCE. As Romans established imperial control over Italy and beyond, the city itself radically transformed from an ambitious central Italian settlement into the capital of the Mediterranean world. Seth Bernard describes this transformation in terms of both new urban architecture, much of it unprecedented in form and extent, and new
socioeconomic structures, including slavery, coinage, and market-exchange. These physical and historical developments were closely linked: building the Republican city was expensive, and meeting such costs had significant implications for urban society. Building…

Book cover of Migration, Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy

Why did I love this book?

Migration is the great theme of the twenty-first century. Our experience has set historians on a quest to see how new the mass movement of peoples really is. Isayev’s book is one of the first full-length studies of migration in Roman times.

It is enormously wide-ranging, bringing together the evidence of archaeology and of Roman comedy and history with the insights of geographers and sociologists. We see populations transplanted against their will, enslaved prisoners, hostages, and refugees, but also settlers and traders trying to make their fortune, and explorers and travelling scholars. Best of all we explore the ways that Romans thought about this, sometimes encountering chillingly familiar hostility but more often positive views of new arrivals. Romans often thought of themselves as a city of immigrants, and saw their willingness to accept newcomers as one reason for their success. Isayev does a wonderful job of opening up this new field of Roman history.

By Elena Isayev,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Migration, Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Migration, Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy challenges prevailing conceptions of a natural tie to the land and a demographically settled world. It argues that much human mobility in the last millennium BC was ongoing and cyclical. In particular, outside the military context 'the foreigner in our midst' was not regarded as a problem. Boundaries of status rather than of geopolitics were those difficult to cross. The book discusses the stories of individuals and migrant groups, traders, refugees, expulsions, the founding and demolition of sites, and the political processes that could both encourage and discourage the transfer of people from…

Book cover of The Science of Roman History: Biology, Climate, and the Future of the Past

Why did I love this book?

Already when I was writing the first edition of Rome. An Empire’s Story it was clear that the subject was being transformed by scientific discoveries. Over the last decade, science-led projects have changed our notions of ancient Roman nutrition and health, of Romans’ impact on the environment, on the animals and plants they farmed, and also of their own vulnerability to plague and climate change. Scheidel, who is a world leader in this field, has gathered together historians using everything from human DNA and skeletal material to the remains of ancient seeds and animals to explain how the life sciences can unlock whole new areas of ancient history. This is a fast-moving field, and this short book gives a crash course on what has been done to date, and what might come next.

By Walter Scheidel (editor),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

How the latest cutting-edge science offers a fuller picture of life in Rome and antiquity

This groundbreaking book provides the first comprehensive look at how the latest advances in the sciences are transforming our understanding of ancient Roman history. Walter Scheidel brings together leading historians, anthropologists, and geneticists at the cutting edge of their fields, who explore novel types of evidence that enable us to reconstruct the realities of life in the Roman world.

Contributors discuss climate change and its impact on Roman history, and then cover botanical and animal remains, which cast new light on agricultural and dietary practices.…

Book cover of Urban Space and Aristocratic Power in Late Antique Rome: Ad 270-535

Why did I love this book?

Many histories of Rome end in the second century that period in which Edward Gibbon judged “the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous”. But there is a great deal of Roman history after that. Rome survived a great military crisis in the third century. The next generation of emperors based themselves near the frontiers to ward off future attacks. Machado’s extraordinary book tells the story of the City of Rome after the emperors had gone, returned into the hands of an aristocracy fascinated by its past but also committed to Roma Aeterna (Eternal Rome). Using statues and inscriptions and archaeology and a mass of little read ancient literature, Machado paints a vivid picture. Far from the new centres of power, the Roman aristocracy rebuilt, repaired, and steered the city through religious transformations, barbarian sacks, and beyond the fall of the western empire.

By Carlos Machado,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Urban Space and Aristocratic Power in Late Antique Rome as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Between 270 and 535 AD the city of Rome experienced dramatic changes. The once glorious imperial capital was transformed into the much humbler centre of western Christendom in a process that redefined its political importance, size, and identity. Urban Space and Aristocratic Power in Late Antique Rome examines these transformations by focusing on the city's powerful elite, the senatorial aristocracy, and exploring their involvement in a process of urban
change that would mark the end of the ancient world and the birth of the Middle Ages in the eyes of contemporaries and modern scholars. It argues that the late antique…

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