The best novels set in the later Roman Empire

The Books I Picked & Why


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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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…

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