The best books about travel and leisure in ancient Rome

Who am I?

I love exploring new places, buildings, and artworks. Luckily, my job, as a professor of ancient Roman art history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, allows me to do so! I am fascinated by the material culture of the Roman Empire and the ways in which buildings and objects—whether grand monuments like the Pantheon in Rome or humbler items like a terracotta figurine of a gladiator—shape how we experience the world and relate to other people. Whether I am living in Paris or Rome, excavating in Greece or Italy, or traveling elsewhere in the former lands of the Roman Empire, these topics are never far from my mind.


I wrote...

Book cover of Souvenirs and the Experience of Empire in Ancient Rome

What is my book about?

If you think souvenirs and memorabilia are just a modern phenomenon, think again! Tourists and sports fans in the Roman Empire could purchase travel souvenirs, keepsakes of sporting events, and miniature replicas of famous statues and monuments. Straddling the spheres of religion, spectacle, leisure, and politics, ancient Roman souvenirs allow us to look beyond our traditional sources of Roman history and catch a glimpse of the experiences, interests, imaginations, and aspirations of ordinary people living in the empire from Britain to Syria, and everywhere between. Ancient souvenirs shaped how people “saw” places, people, and events they might never see in person, and they allowed sub-elites to participate, even if vicariously, in an empire-wide culture of travel, leisure, and spectacle.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Leisure and Ancient Rome

Maggie L. Popkin Why did I love this book?

Chariot racing. Gambling. Alcohol. Sex. If you’ve ever wondered what ancient Romans did for fun, look no further than Jerry Toner’s book. His book makes me laugh and learn in equal measure. Toner excels at revealing what is distinctive about ancient Roman practices (regularly bathing nude in public)—but also what feels startlingly modern (betting on horses and drinking with friends). From the wealthiest to the poorest of Romans, Toner shows just how serious the business of fun was in the Roman world. I love this book because it makes me think about quintessentially Roman topics from a bottom-up, rather than elite, perspective.

By J. P. Toner,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

What role did leisure play in the life of ancient Rome? For us in the modern world, leisure is secondary to work. But in ancient Rome leisure was central to social life and an integral part of its history. By exploring the nature and role of leisure, Toner offers a new way of looking at Roman society at all levels, not just among the elite. He examines the imperial games and the baths, as well as the forms of leisure associated with popular culture, such as gambling, the taverns, theatre and carnivals. He shows how these activities, while central to…


Book cover of Travel in the Ancient World

Maggie L. Popkin Why did I love this book?

Anybody who studies travel in ancient Rome knows the name of Lionel Casson, and after reading his magnum opus, you will understand why. Reading his book makes me feel that I am taking a tour of the Roman world in all its glory: its diversity, its impressive infrastructure, its cultural highlights, and its religious pilgrimage sites. Travel could be exciting or dangerous, luxurious or barebones, for business or for pleasure. In Casson’s engaging and accessible prose, however, it is always a revelatory window into Roman culture and history. Casson’s book helped me understand the personal, emotional aspects of travel in ancient Rome and, consequently, made me feel closer to ancient Romans themselves.

By Lionel Casson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Travel in the Ancient World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The only book of its kind in any language, Travel in the Ancient World offers a lively, comprehensive history of ancient travel, from the first Egyptian voyages recorded in Old Kingdom inscriptions through Greek and Roman times to the Christian pilgrimages of the fourth and sixth centuries. Rich in anecdote and colorful detail, it now returns to print in paperback with a new preface by the author.


Book cover of Theater and Spectacle in the Art of the Roman Empire

Maggie L. Popkin Why did I love this book?

This lavishly illustrated book offers a visually stunning and information-packed tour of ancient Rome’s most popular forms of entertainment: chariot racing, gladiatorial combats, and theater performances. I was astonished by the sheer range and creativity of Roman spectacles and their material commemorations, from action figures of gladiators with removable helmets, piggy banks with pictures of lucky winning charioteers, and mosaic puzzles that challenged viewers to guess the names of famous racehorses based on visual clues. As an art historian, I particularly love the beautiful color illustrations; my own copy of this book is dog-eared because I am constantly returning to look at the fascinating objects she discusses. For me, this book about spectacles is spectacular in its own right. 

By Katherine M. D. Dunbabin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Theater and Spectacle in the Art of the Roman Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Theater, spectacle, and performance played significant roles in the political and social structure of the Roman Empire, which was diverse in population and language. A wide and varied range of entertainment was available to a Roman audience: the traditional festivals with their athletic contests and dramatic performances, pantomime and mime, the chariot races of the circus, and the gladiatorial shows and wild beast hunts of the arena. In Theater and Spectacle in the Art of the Roman Empire, which is richly illustrated in color throughout, Katherine M. D. Dunbabin emphasizes the visual evidence for these events.Images of spectacle appear in…


Book cover of Destinations in Mind: Portraying Places on the Roman Empire's Souvenirs

Maggie L. Popkin Why did I love this book?

Although we often dismiss souvenirs as kitsch, they can be deeply meaningful to people, both today and in antiquity. Taking a phenomenological approach to ancient Roman souvenirs of places, Kimberly Cassibry shows how people would have held, used, and interacted with small objects showing seaside resort towns on the Bay of Naples, the Circus Maximus in Rome, Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, and the western empire’s network of imperial roads. Her book taught me just how large makers and materials loom in how places came to be represented and conceptualized in Roman antiquity. I love that Cassibry forces me to think anew about my own travel souvenirs and how I interact with them to make meaning of places my loved ones or I have visited. 

By Kimberly Cassibry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Destinations in Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Destinations in Mind, Kimberly Cassibry asks how objects depicting different sites helped Romans understand their vast empire. At a time when many cities were written about but only a few were represented in art, four distinct sets of artifacts circulated new information. Engraved silver cups list all the stops from Spanish Cadiz to Rome, while resembling the milestones that helped travelers track their progress. Vivid glass cups represent famous
charioteers and gladiators competing in circuses and amphitheaters, and offered virtual experiences of spectacles that were new to many regions. Bronze bowls commemorate forts along Hadrian's Wall with colorful enameling…


Book cover of Roman Sports and Spectacles: A Sourcebook

Maggie L. Popkin Why did I love this book?

If you want to know what some Romans thought about sport and spectacle in their own words, turn to Anne Mahoney’s sourcebook, which offers translations of key literary passages and inscriptions. From Horace’s descriptions of unruly theater audiences to Ovid’s advice to young Roman men about how to pick up girls at the circus, this sourcebook brought the world of Roman spectacle to life for me. I love that she shows how the themes that make modern sport and fandom so complex—religion, gender, politics, and money—were just as relevant in ancient Rome. I always come away from reading the sources she compiles feeling that Roman sports fans are not so different from us today.

By Anne Mahoney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Roman Sports and Spectacles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Roman Sports and Spectacles: A Sourcebook contains numerous translations from the Latin, including famous authors, such as Cicero, Seneca, Tertullian and Augustine, and the not so famous, including graffiti, advertisements and tombstones to paint a world view of what sports Romans played and what they thought of them. The world of Roman sports was similar in many ways to our own, but there were significant differences. For one thing Roman sports centered during religious festivals and the participants were most often slaves. Roman sports were not team sports, but individual competitions. And sports like chariot racing and gladiatorial competitions were…


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Book cover of The Blighted Mission

E. Chris Ambrose Author Of The Mongol's Coffin

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Who am I?

As an art school drop-out who'd been majoring in sculpture, I'm fascinated by material culture—artifacts created by early peoples that reveal their cultural values. Often, the relics and sites that engage both archaeologists and readers suggest unexpected depths of knowledge that show human ingenuity through the ages. I strive to incorporate the details of an artifact or monument's creation into the clues and descriptions in my work, hopefully illuminating a little-known historical realm, if only by torchlight as the adventure unfolds. The fact that I get to explore so many exotic locations, in research if not in person, is a definite plus!

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What is my book about?

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The Blighted Mission

By E. Chris Ambrose,

What is this book about?

A disgraced British anthropologist hopes his YouTube adventure channel will redeem him, but vengeful treasure hunters have other plans.

From the author of the internationally best-selling Bone Guard archaeological adventures!

On the trail of a legendary Jesuit mission in Baja—and the treasure it may contain—Nigel Rowe leaps into action to save the life of his producer when the man takes a bullet meant for Nigel. Alas, the list of those who might wish him dead spans the globe and ranges from American treasure hunters to Russian mobsters to his own dear brother, with their mother's consent if not her explicit…


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