The best books about Stoicism and ancient Rome

Who am I?

I received my first introduction to the Stoics when completing a Master’s in Philosophy. It was enough to spark a life-long interest. Later in life I read Stoicism widely, along with classical history, including Gibbon and Durant. What struck me about Gibbon’s work was how the ancient “golden age,” with the enlightened rule of its “five good emperors,” including Marcus Aurelius, closely mirrored the trajectory of the contemporary American empire. Today, pundits sometimes casually refer to the US as a reincarnation of the Roman Empire. They talk of Pax Americana, imperial presidencies, and American exceptionalism. I wondered how far one could take that idea and this led me to begin work on The Last Stoic.


I wrote...

The Last Stoic

By Morgan Wade,

Book cover of The Last Stoic

What is my book about?

The Last Stoic is a story of appetite and fear, both modern and ancient. Half of the story's narrative occurs in the time and place of the ancient Roman Empire; the other half occurs in the present-day United States. The parallels between the two eras are so strong that the narrative continues uninterrupted as the setting shifts from historic Rome to modern America, alternating from chapter to chapter. 

Marcus, a young man from a northern provincial border town, journeys deep into the heart of the empire and witnesses first-hand the excesses that can lead to ruin, both personal and political. In both eras, the writings of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (The Meditations) insinuate themselves unexpectedly into Marcus' life. Ultimately, it is this unanticipated instruction that gives the young man the strength he requires to survive. It becomes evident that the words of the venerable Stoic emperor have as much relevance to our own era as they did to his.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is readers supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By Edward Gibbon,

Book cover of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Why this book?

Gibbon’s masterpiece first gave me the idea for The Last Stoic. In 2003, as American tanks rolled into Baghdad, I’d finally worked up the nerve to read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It lives up to its reputation: it is a rich and rewarding read. Gibbon is rightly lauded for the grace of his prose, which is full of wit and insight. But what struck me most, in passages describing how the ancient “golden age” had passed from prosperity and relative peace to decay and continual war, is how closely the trajectory of the contemporary American empire mirrors that of the Roman empire. Admittedly, reading this series is an undertaking. But it is a worthwhile investment you will not regret.  


Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from Their Beginnings to Ad 325

By Will Durant,

Book cover of Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from Their Beginnings to Ad 325

Why this book?

For anyone interested in the broad sweep of world history, Durant’s Story of Civilization is a must-read. The scope of the work is simply breathtaking, extending from the dawn of human civilization to the end of the Napoleonic era. And Durant somehow manages to bring all the countless threads together and into context in an accessible manner. From Gibbon I turned to Durant for a more general view. In the volume Caesar to Christ, the similarities between the American and ancient Roman empires are made even starker. For instance, he writes, “the Roman patriciate and upper-middle class passed with impressive speed from stoic simplicity to reckless luxury.” Gibbon echoes the same sentiments in the first volume of the Decline and Fall


Meditations

By Marcus Aurelius, Maxwell Staniforth (translator),

Book cover of Meditations

Why this book?

Marcus Aurelius, the last of Gibbon’s “five good emperors,” wrote his Meditations near the end of his life while encamped by the Danube, defending against invaders from the north. It is believed that his journal, entitled “To Myself,” was never meant for publication. It wasn’t discovered by scholars until the fourth century. But, as distant heirs, we are fortunate that the parchment managed to survive the empire’s disintegration and the heedlessness of time. It provides a wonderful distillation of Stoic wisdom. It is personal and practical in a way that makes it a useful guide to life. The intimate style allows one to imagine sitting with Aurelius, listening to him ponder life’s mysteries. Carpe diem, he urges; I can “find rest from vain fancies if I perform every act in life as though it was my last.”


Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life

By A.A. Long,

Book cover of Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life

Why this book?

Another Stoic classic. Written, again, in a highly accessible, conversational style. In fact, the only teachings by Epictetus that we know of today were recorded from his lectures by his disciple Arrian.  This book has given great solace to many people over the years. It is said that Frederick the Great never campaigned without it. And, the war hero Admiral James Stockdale credits Epictetus with helping him endure seven and a half years in a North Vietnamese military prison—including torture—and four years in solitary confinement. “No man is free who is not master of himself.”


A Man in Full

By Tom Wolfe,

Book cover of A Man in Full

Why this book?

Tom Wolfe’s second novel shares similarities with The Last Stoic in that it looks critically at contemporary society through a Stoic lens.  One of the characters, Conrad Hensley, discovers the writings of Epictetus while in prison and imparts this wisdom to the corrupt and covetous Charlie Croker, turning his life upside down. He comes to realize the truth of Arius Didymus’ statement that “excessive impulses are disobedient to reason,” and are therefore detrimental. Written in Wolfe’s inimitable and lively style, the book makes a powerful indictment on the preoccupations of our age: appetite and fear.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in stoicism, political corruption, and life satisfaction?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about stoicism, political corruption, and life satisfaction.

Stoicism Explore 50 books about stoicism
Political Corruption Explore 22 books about political corruption
Life Satisfaction Explore 110 books about life satisfaction

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Enchiridion, A Field Guide to a Happy Life, and Being Better if you like this list.