The best historical novels about political shenanigans in ancient Rome

Fiona Forsyth Author Of Rome's End
By Fiona Forsyth

Who am I?

Ever since I stumbled through the “Early Roman Empire” paper in Finals using I, Claudius by Robert Graves, I have held a deep admiration of those authors who can portray the complex world of Rome with such authority. I went on to teach the Greeks and Romans for 25 years, so I have grown to love these characters—Caesar is a philandering schemer, Augustus has ice for blood, Livia is a skilled practitioner of poisons… How can one resist such entertaining people who operate in a system where the upper classes must compete through bribery, intrigue and occasional revolutions? 


I wrote...

Rome's End

By Fiona Forsyth,

Book cover of Rome's End

What is my book about?

45 B.C.E. Rome is under a Dictator. Caesar has won the final battle of a bloody Civil War, and Romans are ready for peace. So, when Lucius Sestius Quirinalis, an aspiring lawyer, is called into his father’s study one autumn morning, he is thinking of nothing more than the family’s latest case. The charge against the historian Sallust is his corrupt rule in Roman Africa. But it is his research into the twenty-year-old Catilinarian Conspiracy which is proving unsettling for some, possibly even Rome’s new Dictator. In the build-up to the Ides of March, Lucius will meet with betrayal, murder and disillusionment.

The books I picked & why

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Roman Blood

By Steven Saylor,

Book cover of Roman Blood

Why this book?

This is the first book in Saylor’s “Roma sub rosa” series, and introduces one of the nicest heroes in historical mystery! Gordianus the Finder is the Roman equivalent of our private detective and he works for a young politician and orator, Cicero. Based on a real lawsuit from 80 BCE, Saylor makes great use of the actual speech made, and conveys the skill and showmanship of the lawyer at a time when a good speech was seen as entertainment for the masses. Into this original material though he weaves a hideous and complex murder plot. Riveting stuff! 

I am a huge fan of Cicero, and it was really interesting—if a little hard at times!—to see him portrayed with all his flaws and weaknesses.


SPQR II: The Catiline Conspiracy: A Mystery

By John Maddox Roberts,

Book cover of SPQR II: The Catiline Conspiracy: A Mystery

Why this book?

Maddox Roberts has written the superb SPQR series of historical mysteries, named after the Latin phrase meaning “The Senate and The People of Rome”. The whole series, with its cynical and arrogant hero, Decius Caecilius Metellus, is full of energy and wonderfully colorful characters, but I chose this book for one scene: the ritual of the October Horse. I defy you to read this and not end up exhausted as you cheer on our hero’s magnificent victory. The author’s research is impeccable and is used so skilfully you don’t notice it’s there. I cannot think of a higher compliment to give an historical writer. Cicero gets a nice write-up, which I appreciate!


Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

By Robert Harris,

Book cover of Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

Why this book?

Harris is of course already a world-famous thriller writer and his technique is impeccable. He brings two great things to this account of the rise of Cicerofirstly, the narrator is Cicero’s slave-secretary, Tiro, and secondly, Harris sees the campaign trail with the eye of someone who was a notable political journalist and observer. He brings this expertise to a dissection of Roman elections that I found breath-taking and utterly convincing. Tiro was a brilliant choice of narrator as wellintimately involved in the action, but a slave, he constantly reminds us of a very unpleasant side of life in Rome. 


I, Claudius

By Robert Graves,

Book cover of I, Claudius

Why this book?

This is the masterclass in the portrayal of the first hundred years or so of the Roman Empire. Graves was a considerable scholar in his own right, providing the translation for the Penguin edition of Suetonius’ “Twelve Caesars”. He was also a poet and novelist, and his picture of the naïve Claudius making his unwitting way to power is probably on most people’s list of all-time great historical novels. What I particularly found striking was just how much work went into running the Roman empire, and one almost has sympathy for Augustus as he tries to mould Roman rule into something that is efficient and fair. The BBC adaptation, in my opinion, did a good job: Sian Phillips as Livia is a complete joy.


Ovid

By David Wishart,

Book cover of Ovid

Why this book?

Marcus Valerius Corvinus is a natty young aristocrat-about-town, the despair of his strait-laced father. Young Marcus is determined to take no part in Roman government and concentrates on partying. Of course, he is not nearly as feckless and two-dimensional as he tries to make himself out to the reader, and when the lovely Perilla asks for his help, we get not only a mystery but also a very-well-done romance. Wishart starts off this series in wise-cracking style which is a feature of Marcus’ first person narration, but there is genuine historical mystery behind it all, which scholars have worried over for years—why was the poet Ovid exiled? Wishart knows his stuff, and his enthusiasm for Rome pervades his novels. Debauchery and treachery abounds!


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