The best novels set in the later Roman Empire

Who am I?

Ian Ross was born in England and studied painting before turning to writing fiction. He has been researching the later Roman empire and its army for over a decade, and his interests combine an obsessive regard for accuracy and detail with a devotion to the craft of storytelling. His six-novel Twilight of Empire series follows the career of Aurelius Castus as he rises from the ranks of the legions to the dangerous summit of military power, against the background of a Roman world in crisis.


I wrote...

Book cover of War at the Edge of the World

What is my book about?

The epic first installment in a sequence of novels set at the end of the Roman Empire, during the reign of Emperor Constantine. Centurion Aurelius Castus - once a soldier in the elite legions of the Danube - believes his glory days are over, as he finds himself in the cold, grey wastes of northern Britain, battling to protect an empire in decline.

The books I picked & why

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Emperor

By Colin Thubron,

Book cover of Emperor

Why this book?

There are a great many novels about Roman emperors, and even a few about the rulers of the later age – Gore Vidal’s Julian, for example – but this one stands out for its originality. The emperor of the title is Constantine, one of the towering figures of Roman history, and incidentally quite important in my own books too. The novel covers the two months leading up to the battle of Milvian Bridge in AD312, but rather than giving us a panoramic view of the military campaign in Italy, Thubron chooses to tell the story as a collection of letters and diary entries. So we get the internal thoughts and reflections, ambitions and fears of a range of protagonists: Constantine himself, his wife Fausta, a Christian bishop, and several competing imperial ministers and servants. The central dilemma is the emperor’s own crisis of faith, which will lead up to his famous Christian vision before the battle. Thubron leaves the vision itself ambiguous, and the story breaks off at this point; only history tells us what happens next. But despite a few anachronisms this short novel is packed with vivid detail and startling insights, and has the feel of genuine experience. If historical fiction is about bringing the past imaginatively to life, this unjustly-neglected work does just that.

Emperor

By Colin Thubron,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Emperor Constantine crosses the Alps at the head of a great army from the Rhineland in AD 312, and marches south to take Rome from the tyrant Maxentius. As he lays siege to the city of Verona, Constantine waits for the arrival of his wife, Fausta - his enemy's sister - whose cool detachment torments him. Emperor is a superbly imaginative reconstruction of the dramatic weeks leading up to Constantine's triumph in Rome. Written in the form of extracts from his own journal and letters from his empress, her frivolous female companion, his cynical secretary and a Christian bishop…


Eagle in the Snow

By Wallace Breem,

Book cover of Eagle in the Snow

Why this book?

Eagle in the Snow has picked up a lot of new readers in the last couple of decades, partly I think as it was rumoured to be one of the inspirations for the film Gladiator, but it’s a great read and well deserves its classic status. The story begins in northern Britain, with the empire in its dying days, but the scene soon shifts to the Rhine frontier of Germania. General Maximus is an old soldier sent to hold the line against the advancing barbarian hordes, but in the freezing winter of AD406 he faces insurmountable odds as the frontier collapses and the Romans prepare to go down fighting. Breem was a soldier himself in his youth, and there’s real sense of authenticity about his hard-bitten warrior hero and the grim challenges of command. The story itself doesn’t have too much grounding in fact – the Romans had abandoned the lower Rhine by AD406, and there was no epic last stand against the barbarians – but Breem evokes the desperate scenes of battle on the ice and in the frozen forests against a relentless foe so powerfully that it’s hard to take issue with the historical lapses!

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…


Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

By Stella Duffy,

Book cover of Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

Why this book?

The Empress Theodora is one of the most colourful and notorious figures in eastern Roman (or ‘Byzantine’) history, and in this book, and the sequel The Purple Shroud, Stella Duffy brings her brilliantly to life. After spending her early years in the coarse and brutally competitive demimonde of performers, dancers and prostitutes surrounding the Hippodrome of Constantinople, Theodora scales to the heights of imperial power with tenacity and determination. But she always appears as a figure of her age, immersed in the complex and often bewildering culture and society of the 6th century AD. Duffy uses the travails of Theodora’s life to take us on a tour of the eastern Mediterranean, from the slums and palaces of Constantinople to the desert monasteries of Egypt. It’s an engaging tale of rags to riches, to rags again to riches again, and remains scrupulously close to the few historical sources that survive, while conjuring up the strange world of ‘Byzantium’ in all its dazzling glory.

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

By Stella Duffy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Two of the most famous mosaics from the ancient world, in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, depict the sixth-century emperor Justinian and, on the wall facing him, his wife, Theodora (497-548). This majestic portrait gives no inkling of Theodora's very humble beginnings or her improbable rise to fame and power. Raised in a family of circus performers near Constantinople's Hippodrome, she abandoned a successful acting career in her late teens to follow a lover whom
she was legally forbidden to marry. When he left her, she was a single mother who built a new life for herself as…


A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening

By Mario De Carvalho, Gregory Rabassa,

Book cover of A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening

Why this book?

The setting for this book is only marginally late Roman, but the picture it evokes, of the shadows lengthening over the classical world, is entirely appropriate. Our hero Lucius is the duumvir, or leading magistrate, of a provincial city in Lusitania at the end of the 2nd century AD. Cultured and urbane, devoted to the classical traditions and philosophies of Rome, Lucius is disturbed both by the appearance of a fervent sect of Christians in his city, and by rumours of an approaching horde of Moorish barbarians. With conflict both within the city and without, and the daughter of the richest citizen turning to the new religion, Lucius soon finds his nerves stretched and his ideals questioned. As the barbarians surround the city walls, and Lucius tries to repel their assault with his ragged band of militia, the duumvir’s faith in his own civilisation is tested to destruction. A God Strolling in the Cool of Evening won a major international literary award, and it’s easy to see why. For me, the main attraction is the portrait of its flawed and troubled protagonist, and the twilit cultural landscape he inhabits.

A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening

By Mario De Carvalho, Gregory Rabassa,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Portuguese Writers' Association Grand Prize for Fiction and the Pegasus Prize for Literature, and a best-seller in Portugal, Mario de Carvalho's A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening is a vivid and affecting historical novel set at the twilight of the Roman Empire and the dawn of the Christian era. Lucius Valerius Quintius is prefect of the fictitious city of Tarcisis, charged to defend it against menaces from without -- Moors invading the Iberian peninsula -- and from within -- the decadent complacency of the Pax Romana. Lucius's devotion to civic duty undergoes its most…


At the Ruin of the World

By John Henry Clay,

Book cover of At the Ruin of the World

Why this book?

The end of the Roman Empire in the west is a fascinating but notoriously vague saga, which often seems to be composed entirely of footnotes. In this novel John Henry Clay takes a handful of those footnotes and rebuilds mid 5th century Gaul and Italy on a grand scale. The empire is on its knees, but the aristocratic elites of the southern provinces are still living the good life on their villa estates, until all is thrown into turmoil by the invasion of Attila and his Huns. Part family drama, part broad-canvas military and political epic, the first half of the novel reaches a climax in the defeat of the Hunnic hordes by General Aetius. But in its second half the story accelerates dramatically, as Avitus, the father of the central pair of characters, leads a Romano-Gothic army from Gaul to seize power in Rome. The ramifications of Avitus’s bid for imperial glory are impressively worked out, and although we know his attempt to restore the greatness of Rome is doomed from the start, the sense of impending tragedy provides a powerful narrative momentum. Just for a moment, perhaps, it almost seems as if things might turn out differently…

At the Ruin of the World

By John Henry Clay,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked At the Ruin of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A.D. 448. The Roman Empire is crumbling.

The Emperor is weak. Countless Romans live under the rule of barbarian kings. Politicians scheme and ambitious generals vie for power.

Then from the depths of Germany arises an even darker threat: Attila, King of the Huns, gathering his hordes and determined to crush Rome once and for all.

In a time of danger and deception, where every smile conceals betrayal and every sleeve a dagger, three young people hold onto the dream that Rome can be made great once more. But as their fates collide, they find themselves forced to survive in…


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