The best books illustrating the joys of life in classical antiquity

Why am I passionate about this?

As a freelance journalist in Italy, I covered, for Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and others, tough topics: terrorism, the Mafia, the heroin traffic which passed via Sicilian laboratories to the U.S. At a certain point I found this overly negative. After taking a course in Rome on archaeology, by chance I was asked to direct a BBC half-hour documentary on Pompeii. In so doing, I realized that it was  time to focus upon the many positive elements of Italian life and history. From that life-changing documentary came this book on Pompeii, on which I worked for five rewarding years. My next book was on historical Venice.


I wrote...

Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery

By Judith Harris,

Book cover of Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery

What is my book about?

The city of Pompeii was buried in a volcanic eruption in AD 79, but its slow rediscovery began only after 1748. Burial had been virtually instantaneous, and what was found stunned the world because its vestiges, from paintings to homes and shops, foods and furniture, and even a brothel were in amazing condition, considering they had been underground for two millennia. The centuries of rediscovery since then have profoundly affected the entire world. This is the story of those effects upon art and architecture, politics and poetry, and even religion. Today the ruins of the city attracts 2.5 million visitors a year.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Pompeii

Judith Harris Why did I love this book?

British author Robert Harris's best-selling novel Pompeii, published by Random House in 2003, is considered historically accurate. Its hero is Marcus Attilius Primus, a hydraulic engineer put in charge of the Pompeian aqueducts. When the flow of water into the town suddenly stops, Attilius explores Vesuvius in attempting to find the cause. This is not a whodunit but a whenwillit, said The Guardian in its enthusiastic review.

By Robert Harris,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'A pulse-rate-speeding masterpiece' Sunday Times

'A stunning novel . . . the subtlety and power of its construction holds our attention to the end' The Times

During a sweltering week in late August, as Rome's richest citizens relax in their villas around Pompeii and Herculaneum, there are ominous warnings that something is going wrong. Wells and springs are failing, a man has disappeared, and now the greatest aqueduct in the world - the mighty Aqua Augusta - has suddenly ceased to flow . . .

Through the eyes of four characters - a young engineer, an adolescent girl, a corrupt…


Book cover of Rome's Cultural Revolution

Judith Harris Why did I love this book?

Classicist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, a professor at Sidney Sussex College, was for fourteen years director of the British School in Rome. Among his highly recommended books are Rome's Cultural Revolution and Herculaneum: Past and Future. Prof. Wallace-Hadrill, OBE, who directed the Herculaneum Conservation Project for fifteen years, currently specializes in studying the impact the ancient city has had upon the world.

By Andrew Wallace-Hadrill,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rome's Cultural Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The period of Rome's imperial expansion, the late Republic and early Empire, saw transformations of its society, culture and identity. Drawing equally on archaeological and literary evidence, this book offers an original and provocative interpretation of these changes. Moving from recent debates about colonialism and cultural identity, both in the Roman world and more broadly, and challenging the traditional picture of 'Romanization' and 'Hellenization', it offers instead a model of overlapping cultural identities in dialogue with one another. It attributes a central role to cultural change in the process of redefinition of Roman identity, represented politically by the crisis of…


Book cover of Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide

Judith Harris Why did I love this book?

The late Amanda Claridge, a professor at the University of London, introduces us to the ancient city in the book she co-authored: Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, now on offer as Rome, An archaeological guide. Over time, archaeology itself changes, and today's critics say that her presentation of up-to-date archaeology in Rome equally entrances both tourists and her fellow scholars. She taught at both Oxford and the University of London, as well as at Princeton University in the U.S. 

By Amanda Claridge,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The city of Rome is the largest archaeological site in the world, capital and showcase of the Roman Empire and the centre of Christian Europe.

This guide provides:

* Coverage of all the important sites in the city from 800 BC to AD 600 and the start of the early middle ages, drawing on the latest discoveries and the best of recent scholarship

* Over 220 high-quality maps, site plans, diagrams and photographs

* Sites divided into fourteen main areas, with star ratings to help you plan and prioritize your visit:
Roman Forum; Upper Via Sacra; Palatine; Imperial Forums; Campus…


Book cover of The Last Days of Pompeii

Judith Harris Why did I love this book?

Edward Bulwer Lytton's influential 19th century novel The Last Days of Pompeii was inspired by a painting he had seen in Milan. He immediately rushed to Pompeii, where his book was published in 1834, by coincidence exactly when Vesuvius erupted. It became an immediate success and is still being published. As Benjamen Disraeli wrote that November, "A trembling spectator, I watched the artists till I was overcome by the phantasma, and was glad to find myself once more in the solitude of my armchair." Available in economic form. The book became an immediate success and is still being adapted to today's media.

By Edward Bulwer-Lytton,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) was a prolific novelist, poet and playwright in his day; in modern times, his work is considered much as Lovecraft described: “large doses of turgid rhetoric and empty romanticism.”

Originally published in 1834, "The Last Days of Pompeii" itself was probably the first novelization of the catastrophic event.  The city was rediscovered in the mid-1700s and archaeological excavations followed soon after.  Bulwer-Lytton was inspired to write his novel by the painting The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Briullov, painted in the early 1830s.

"The Last Days of Pompeii" tells the story of the Athenian Glaucus, his…


Book cover of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Judith Harris Why did I love this book?

Mary Beard, Cambridge University professor of classics and noteworthy TV personality, is the lively author of a number of books on the ancient world. Roman antiquity endured for a thousand years, and her most beloved book covers that millenium: SPQR: A History of Ancient RomeSPQR is a renowned best seller which enchants even those who have scant knowledge of classical antiquity.

By Mary Beard,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In SPQR, an instant classic, Mary Beard narrates the history of Rome "with passion and without technical jargon" and demonstrates how "a slightly shabby Iron Age village" rose to become the "undisputed hegemon of the Mediterranean" (Wall Street Journal). Hailed by critics as animating "the grand sweep and the intimate details that bring the distant past vividly to life" (Economist) in a way that makes "your hair stand on end" (Christian Science Monitor) and spanning nearly a thousand years of history, this "highly informative, highly readable" (Dallas Morning News) work examines not just how we think of ancient Rome but…


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Down a Bad Road

By Regina Buttner,

Book cover of Down a Bad Road

Regina Buttner Author Of Down a Bad Road

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I have a close girlfriend who was once involved with a man she wanted to marry. The trouble was, the guy was always hanging out with this other woman who he’d known since childhood. Just friends, he said. Nothing going on. Ha! The shenanigans they got up to were unbelievable, and extremely upsetting to my girlfriend, who eventually broke up with the cad. Her unlucky experience got me interested in the psychology of the love triangle, and why some people remain mired in these dead-end relationships. My reading jam is anything twisty and suspenseful, and what’s more fraught than a three-way competition for someone’s affections.

Regina's book list on love triangles that turn deadly

What is my book about?

Jealousy can be deadly.

Ron Burley has a rule against messing around with married women, but lovely Lavender has convinced him to break it. Their steamy affair sets someone off, but it isn’t Lavender’s clueless husband—it’s Marta, Burley’s clingy childhood friend and ex-lover. 

Hoping to win Burley back, Marta dangles a lucrative job offer. Though he’s sorely tempted, Burley’s afraid to trust her due to the sketchy circumstances surrounding their bitter breakup years ago; but this might be his only chance to get back at her for what she did. Meanwhile, Lavender has become suspicious of Burley’s romantic history, and…

Down a Bad Road

By Regina Buttner,

What is this book about?

"Gripping and unforgettable suspense-think North Country, New York noir laced with dark humor. Don't plan on setting this fast-paced thriller down until you read the last page!" –Cam Torrens, author of Stable

Jealousy can be deadly.

Longtime bachelor Ron Burley has a rule against messing around with married women in his rural upstate New York town, but sassy, lovely Lavender has convinced him to break it. Their steamy affair sets someone off, but it isn't Lavender's clueless husband-it's Marta, Burley's clingy childhood friend and ex-lover.

Marta knows Burley is on the verge of going broke, so she secretly tries to…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Rome, classical antiquity, and Pompeii?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Rome, classical antiquity, and Pompeii.

Rome Explore 322 books about Rome
Classical Antiquity Explore 56 books about classical antiquity
Pompeii Explore 20 books about Pompeii