The best books about the grit and glamor of Ancient Rome

Josiah Osgood Author Of Rome and the Making of a World State, 150 BCE–20 CE
By Josiah Osgood

Who am I?

I am a historian of ancient Rome. My interest was sparked in my high school Latin classes. On my first trip to Rome, several years later, I truly fell in love. I could see the famed orator delivering his fierce attacks against Catiline amid the grand temples of the Forum and its surrounding hills. I could imagine myself standing in a crowd, listening. In Washington DC, where I now live and teach at Georgetown University, there are classical buildings all around to keep me inspired. I have written a number of books about Roman political history and have also translated the biographer Suetonius and the historian Sallust.

I wrote...

Rome and the Making of a World State, 150 BCE–20 CE

By Josiah Osgood,

Book cover of Rome and the Making of a World State, 150 BCE–20 CE

What is my book about?

Rome and the Making of a World State offers a clear and lively account of the fall of the Roman Republic. By moving beyond the conventional stopping date of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, this book traces not only political breakdown but also a longer arc of cultural transformation. In the midst of violence and civil war, the Romans reimagined citizenship and extended it widely, developed a more inclusive vision of empire, and turned the city of Rome into an artistic center with a lively literary scene. With rich descriptions of Rome and also Pompeii in southern Italy, Osgood shows how marble temples, lavish baths, and vast sports arenas sprang up among dingy, disease-filled streets in which large numbers of people lived enslaved. 

The books I picked & why

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The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found

By Mary Beard,

Book cover of The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found

Why this book?

No city of the Roman world survives more fully than Pompeii in southern Italy. Baths, bars, houses, and temples have been recovered, along with pots and pans, foodstuffs, medical instruments, and skeletons with evidence of an appallingly high rate of disease. For a knowledgeable and witty guide to the city you can’t beat Mary Beard, who helps us see it was not all marble columns and pretty paintings. I especially love her description of the House of the Tragic Poet, in which Edward Bulwer-Lytton set an early scene of his novel The Last Days of Pompeii, a dinner party hosted by the character Glaucus. Beard reveals that just behind this house was a cloth-processing workshop in which the main agent used would have been human urine. “In the background to Glaucus’ elegant dinner party,” writes Beard, “there must have been a distinctly nasty odor.”        

The Venus Throw: A Novel of Ancient Rome

By Steven Saylor,

Book cover of The Venus Throw: A Novel of Ancient Rome

Why this book?

Mystery writer Steven Saylor’s recreations of late Republican Rome are the best out there. The Venus Throw finds Saylor’s detective, Gordianus the Finder, investigating the death of an Egyptian ambassador visiting the city. Through Gordianus’ search we meet a range of Romans known from historical sources including a noble woman, a love poet, and a eunuch priest of the eastern goddess Cybele. Saylor captures the variety of the city’s inhabitants and its places. You step into elegant houses, a dive bar with sour wine, and public baths where the floor is “heated to just the right temperature by the hot-water pipes underneath.” The Venus Throw is not the first entry in the Gordianus series but you can start with it, as I did, and then read all the others. One of these books’ many strengths is attention to the lives of slaves.

The Spartacus War

By Barry Strauss,

Book cover of The Spartacus War

Why this book?

Nobody embodied the grit and glamor of Rome quite like gladiators. Forced to fight half-nude before audiences numbering into the thousands, they oozed confidence and sex appeal. Most famous of them all was Spartacus, who in 73 BCE broke out of a gladiatorial school in southern Italy and became the leader of what was probably the greatest slave uprising in antiquity. Even slave-owning Romans saw nobility in Spartacus. In modern times he has been a hero for all kinds of people struggling for freedom. I can never stop thinking about Spartacus and learned a lot from Barry Strauss’ absorbing book. An expert in military history, Strauss helps you understand what it was like to fight as a gladiator and how Spartacus’ remarkable insurgency was finally defeated by a savage counterinsurgency.

The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire

By Susan P. Mattern,

Book cover of The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire

Why this book?

This biography of the second century CE celebrity doctor Galen is one of the most surprising and revealing books I’ve ever read about Rome. A native of Asia Minor who got his start treating gladiators, Galen came to Rome and vied for prominence with the city’s intellectuals. By his own account, he wowed Romans with his skill in diagnosis and public vivisections of animals as gruesome as anything you’d see in the arena. Something like one-eighth of all surviving classical Greek literature is made up of Galen’s writings. Susan Mattern excavates this vast body of material to recover Galen’s own astonishing career, his interactions with his patients (including the emperor Marcus Aurelius), and his observations of terrible scenes of Roman life such as a dangerous copper mine, famine in the countryside, and a major fire in 192 that burned down much of the imperial capital.

The Golden Ass

By Apuleius, Sarah Ruden (translator),

Book cover of The Golden Ass

Why this book?

This Roman novel cast a spell on me when I first read it, and that’s fitting, since the book’s all about magic. Our narrator, a good-looking young man whose curiosity about witchcraft is even more insatiable than his sex drive, is turned into “an ass from head to hoof, a beast of burden instead of the man called Lucius.” Mostly through the ass’s eyes we see the underbelly of the Roman Empire: gangs of thieves; peasants trying to eke out a living; traveling fortune-tellers, priests, and other grifters. Inset throughout the novel are further stories of adventure, many quite racy. Apuleius combines the panache of the best Latin literature with the ribaldry of Roman popular culture in a unique blend perfectly captured by Sarah Ruden’s seductive translation.   

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