The best books on Rome in the third century

Michael Kulikowski Author Of The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy
By Michael Kulikowski

The Books I Picked & Why

The World of Late Antiquity

By Peter Brown

The World of Late Antiquity

Why this book?

The third century is the least known era of imperial Rome, but it’s also the hinge between a world that still had distant roots in the city-state that Rome was under the republic, and the world empire it had become. So many changes took place in the hundred or so years between Septimius Severus (r. 193-212) and Constantine (r. 306-337) that it’s impossible to understand later European, North African, and Middle Eastern history without considering them. Peter Brown was one of the first people to recognize that to understand the late Roman empire and early medieval Europe all the way up to Mohammad and Charlemagne, you had to understand the third century. This book inspired a generation of scholars to broaden their horizons to understand the Roman empire in all its colorful diversity.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph

By Jas Elsner

Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph

Why this book?

Very few books put the history in art history with as much success as this one does. Instead of telling a linear story, in which the third century is a precipice over which Classical art falls into decline, Elsner picks out the many different strands and streams of artistic production that run in parallel with one another, and gets you to think about how they interact with contemporary social developments.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Emperors and Biography

By Ronald Syme

Emperors and Biography

Why this book?

Ronald Syme was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, and probably the greatest Roman historian. This may seem like one for specialists only, unlike his classic Roman Revolution, but it’s got his distinctive style – florid and lapidary all at once – and is a master class in how to wring valuable information out of poor and deceptive sources.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World

By Simon Swain

Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World

Why this book?

This is a dense study of what was once cordoned off as ‘the Second Sophistic’, the flourishing of a revived Classical Greek culture under Roman hegemony. It’s the first really successful transformation of that perspective to a much broader vision of ‘being Greek under Rome’. It gets you to take seriously the many different ways in which language shapes identity, and places the medical writings of Galen and the sprawling histories of Cassius Dio back into the mainstream of Greek cultural history.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Septimius Severus: The African Emperor

By Anthony Birley

Septimius Severus: The African Emperor

Why this book?

Writing a good biography is very different from writing a narrative history – they’re different art forms. Septimius Severus is the last Roman emperor about whom we can build up a fully rounded biographical portrait until Julian the Apostate, a century and a half later. In Birley’s meticulous telling, Severus comes across as a transformative political genius, a soldier of great skill -- and a monster of a human being.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Random Book Lists