The best books about Roman emperors behaving badly

Catharine Edwards Author Of Lives of the Caesars
By Catharine Edwards

Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by the ancient Romans and particularly by the ways they wrote about themselves. A Professor of Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London since 2005, I regularly take part in BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, discussing topics such as Roman decadence. Later generations look back on ancient Rome as mired in luxury and sexual misbehaviour—but that’s because the Romans themselves were constantly accusing one another of terrible vices. What can these claims tell us about Roman society? That’s a question that I’ve often returned to in many years of university teaching—and writing books, such as The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome.  


I wrote...

Lives of the Caesars

By Catharine Edwards (translator), Suetonius,

Book cover of Lives of the Caesars

What is my book about?

Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars (introduced and translated by Catharine Edwards) recounts the lives of Julius Caesar and the eleven emperors who followed him: Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian. His biographies cover the ancestry and career of each emperor in turn. His approach is anecdotal and often salacious, giving rise to a lively and provocative succession of portraits. The account of Julius Caesar, for instance, does not simply mention his crossing of the Rubicon and his assassination, but draws attention to his dark piercing eyes and attempts to conceal his baldness. The Life of Caligula presents a vivid picture of the emperor's grotesque appearance, his waywardness, and his insane cruelties. 

The books I picked & why

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The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars

By Annelise Freisenbruch,

Book cover of The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars

Why this book?

The shift to one-man rule in ancient Rome meant the ruler’s family, including his female relatives, was now centre-stage. Ancient Roman writers are generally dismissive or highly critical of the women who were part of the Roman imperial family. They are accused of arrogance, manipulation, adultery, incest—and poisoning. This engaging and well-researched book shines a spotlight on women such as Livia (Augustus’ wife), Julia (Augustus’ daughter), and Agrippina (Nero’s mother) and explores what influence they had, what they were able to achieve—and why they came in for so much, often sensationalist, criticism.

The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars

By Annelise Freisenbruch,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Like their modern counterparts, the 'first ladies' of Rome were moulded to meet the political requirements of their emperors, be they fathers, husbands, brothers or lovers. But the women proved to be liabilities as well as assets - Augustus' daughter Julia was accused of affairs with at least five men, Claudius' wife Messalina was a murderous tease who cuckolded and humiliated her elderly husband, while Fausta tried to seduce her own stepson and engineered his execution before boiled to death as a punishment.

In The First Ladies of Rome Annelise Freisenbruch unveils the characters whose identities were to reverberate through…


Rome: An Empire's Story

By Greg Woolf,

Book cover of Rome: An Empire's Story

Why this book?

This book provides a brilliant and engagingly written overview of the long-term development of Rome from a small settlement in central Italy to the point where the city controlled an enormous empire stretching across the Mediterranean and beyond. How was it that Rome managed to control such a vast territory for so long? And what finally caused its power to decline? Woolf’s command of structural change in the Roman world, economic, cultural, and environmental, as well as political, is unparalleled. He grapples with a huge range of evidence, from archaeology, as well as ancient texts, to present a compelling account of this complex process.

Rome: An Empire's Story

By Greg Woolf,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Rome as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Rome in the archaic age was a minor satellite between the Etruscan and Greek world. This book traces the expansion of Roman influence first within Italy, then around the Mediterranean world and finally, at breakneck speed, deep into Europe, out to the Atlantic, along the edge of the Sahara and down the Red Sea. But there had been other empires that had expanded rapidily: what made Rome remarkable was that it managed to sustain its position for so long. Rome's Fall poses less of a mystery than its survival. Understanding how this happens involves understanding the building blocks of imperial…


The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero

By Tacitus, Anthony A. Barrett, J. C. Yardley (translator)

Book cover of The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero

Why this book?

This darkly magnificent account of Roman history under the emperors from the time of Tiberius to that of Nero (with some retrospective swipes at Tiberius’ predecessor Augustus) is an ironic masterpiece written by a Roman senator in the early second century CE. Tacitus offers an unflinching analysis of the effects of an autocratic system on the behaviour of rulers—and the ruled. While a handful of individuals dare to speak truth to power, most people, in his account, are caught in the toils of second-guessing how the emperor might want them to behave and what he might want them to say. Tacitus’ hugely influential analysis of what power does to peopleand his breath-taking prosemake this a riveting read.  

The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero

By Tacitus, Anthony A. Barrett, J. C. Yardley (translator)

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'He was atrocious in his brutality, but his lechery was kept hidden... In the end, he erupted into an orgy of crime and ignominy alike'

Such is Tacitus' obituary of Tiberius, and he is no less caustic in his opinion of the weak and cuckolded Claudius and the 'artist' Nero. The Annals is a gripping account of the Roman emperors who followed Augustus, the founder of the imperial system, and of the murders, sycophancy, plotting, and oppression that marked this period in Rome. Tacitus provides the earliest and most detailed account of Boudicca's rebellion in Britain, and his history also…


Augustus

By John Williams,

Book cover of Augustus

Why this book?

This enthralling evocation of the long life of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, uses fictional letters and other invented documents to tell his story, from the point when, as a teenager, he found himself the heir of the assassinated dictator Julius Caesar, to his final days as sole ruler of a vast empire. Emerging as victor from a protracted civil war, Augustus managed to impose a degree of stability across the Roman world, though at a cost. Could the bloodthirsty youth have really turned into the modest statesman? His contemporaries found him hard to read. Williams charts with subtlety and insight the phases in Augustus’ self-reinvention, shining a particular spotlight on his fraught relationship with Julia, his daughter, whom he found himself obliged to send into exile, as a conspicuous offender against his flagship legislation on adultery.

Augustus

By John Williams,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Augustus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

By the author of Stoner, the surprise international bestseller

After the brutal murder of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, Octavian, a shy and scholarly youth of nineteen, suddenly finds himself heir to the vast power of Rome. He is destined, despite vicious power struggles, bloody wars and family strife, to transform his realm and become the greatest ruler the western world had ever seen: Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor.

Building on impeccable research, John Williams brings the legendary figure of Augustus vividly to life, and invests his characters with such profound humanity that we enter completely into the heat and…


Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome

By Caroline Vout,

Book cover of Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome

Why this book?

This provocative analysis of the sex lives of Roman emperors invites us to reflect on the relationships between emperors and the favourites who were objects of their sexual desires. Vout looks at gossipy anecdotes in Suetonius’ imperial biographies, as well as poems celebrating the eunuch Earinus (of whom the emperor Domitian was said to be enamoured) and statues of the beautiful youth Antinous (beloved of the emperor Hadrian). Why were Romans so interested in the objects of imperial desire? What did it mean to be the emperor’s lover? And what can this material tell us about the way Romans imagined imperial power? 

Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome

By Caroline Vout,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The relationships between Roman emperors and their objects of desire, male and female, are well attested. The salacious nature of this evidence means that it is often omitted from mainstream historical inquiry. Yet that is to underestimate the importance of 'gossip' and the act of thinking about an emperor's private life. In this book Dr Vout takes the reader from Rome, and Martial's and Statius' poems about Domitian's favourite eunuch, to Antioch and dialogues in praise of Lucius Verus' mistress, to the widespread visual commemoration and cult of Hadrian's young male lover, Antinous. She explores not the relationships themselves but…


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