The best books on women in Ancient Rome that cut the clichés

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a professor of ancient art at Vassar College where I teach Roman art and archaeology. I have published widely in the field and traveled extensively in the Mediterranean. My first encounters with Roman art occurred as a child in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC where I would stand before Roman portrait heads because their faces seemed stern and grim, yet ordinary and matter-of-fact. I have continued to observe Roman portraits over the years, but admit that I still sometimes find them daunting.


I wrote...

Roman Women

By Eve D'Ambra,

Book cover of Roman Women

What is my book about?

This book examines the daily lives of Roman women by focusing on the mundane and less celebrated aspects of daily life—family and household, work and leisure, worship, and social obligations—of women of different social ranks. Using a variety of sources, including literary texts, letters, inscriptions, coins, tableware, furniture, and the fine arts, from the late Republic to the high Imperial period, Eve D'Ambra shows how these sources serve as objects of social analysis, rather than simply as documents that recreate how life was lived. She also demonstrates how texts and material objects take part in shaping realities and what they can tell us about the texture of lives and social attitudes, if not emotions of women in Roman antiquity.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Imperial Women of Rome: Power, Gender, Context

Eve D'Ambra Why did I love this book?

It is a learned but lucid work that shows us why we don't know the names of many of the emperors' wives and female kin. Boatwright looks at a range of activities of the imperial women across Roman institutions (the imperial gov't and its laws, the military machine, and the family and the court). Important now to understand how power takes hold in conservative, entrenched societies, and how leading women are exploited in these regimes. 

By Mary T. Boatwright,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Imperial Women of Rome explores the constraints and activities of the women who were part of Rome's imperial families from 35 BCE to 235 CE, the Roman principate. Boatwright uses coins, inscriptions, papyri, material culture, and archaeology, as well as the more familiar but biased ancient authors, to depict change and continuity in imperial women's pursuits and representations over time. Focused vignettes open each thematic chapter, emphasizing imperial
women as individuals and their central yet marginalized position in the principate. Evaluating historical contingency and personal agency, the book assesses its subjects in relation to distinct Roman structures rather than…


Book cover of Augustus

Eve D'Ambra Why did I love this book?

It is a historical novel about the first Roman emperor who is responsible for formalizing the system of Roman global rule, i.e., the Roman Empire. So not about Roman women front and center, but the story of Augustus' life and career is told through letters, both official and personal. I include it here because Augustus' daughter, Julia, whom he exiled to a remote island in 2 BC, is represented by her (fictional) journal entries. These are sharp, moving, and poignant about the demands of private life vs. public duty.  

By John Williams,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

By the author of Stoner, the surprise international bestseller

After the brutal murder of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, Octavian, a shy and scholarly youth of nineteen, suddenly finds himself heir to the vast power of Rome. He is destined, despite vicious power struggles, bloody wars and family strife, to transform his realm and become the greatest ruler the western world had ever seen: Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor.

Building on impeccable research, John Williams brings the legendary figure of Augustus vividly to life, and invests his characters with such profound humanity that we enter completely into the heat and…


Book cover of Image and Status: Roman Working Women in Ostia

Eve D'Ambra Why did I love this book?

This is the book that changed my perspective on Roman art. It focuses on relief sculptures, mainly from tombs in the port of Rome, that commemorated the livelihoods of ordinary people, artisans, shopkeepers, and laborers, with scenes of their work rendered in their own artistic styles (rather than those of the official state monuments). Now some of these tomb plaques are included in mainstream Roman art history textbooks, but the effect of this book taking both class (particularly those of low status) and gender seriously in the study of ancient art and archaeology was groundbreaking. 

By Natalie Boymel Kampen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Image and Status as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Book by Kampen, Natalie


Book cover of The Brothel of Pompeii: Sex, Class, and Gender at the Margins of Roman Society

Eve D'Ambra Why did I love this book?

Tourists, who are marched through the only designated, purposely-built brothel in Pompeii, stare at the cubicles with built-in masonry beds and wall paintings depicting sexual acts. Richardson pieces together an array of evidence, from various finds and graffiti to the early excavation reports, to assess the experiences of both the male clients and the female prostitutes. According to Richardson, more than sex was provided by the women of the brothel. This book imaginatively reconstructs the activities of the brothel in an intriguing way.

By Sarah Levin-Richardson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this book, Sarah Levin-Richardson offers the first authoritative examination of Pompeii's purpose-built brothel, the only verifiable brothel from Greco-Roman antiquity. Taking readers on a tour of all of the structure's evidence, including the rarely seen upper floor, she illuminates the subculture housed within its walls. Here, prostitutes could flout the norms of society and proclaim themselves sexual subjects and agents, while servile clients were allowed to act as 'real men'. Prostitutes and clients also exchanged gifts, greetings, jokes, taunts, and praise. Written in a clear, engaging style, and accompanied by an ample illustration program and translations of humorous and…


Book cover of Women's Lives, Women's Voices: Roman Material Culture and Female Agency in the Bay of Naples

Eve D'Ambra Why did I love this book?

It is an anthology of essays that provide a range of topics and approaches to women who lived and worked in these small towns, now spectacularly preserved despite their sudden destruction by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. The lives lived here tend towards the gritty, workaday world with studies of women in business and trade, although elite women, public priestesses, also make an appearance. Two that feature women's names scratched on walls (graffiti) and drawings of women etched in or painted on Pompeian walls (by Erika Zimmermann Damer and Margaret L. Laird) argue for women's (partial) literacy and their greater visibility. These essays do much to make the fascinating archaeological material accessible.

By Brenda Longfellow (editor), Molly Swetnam-Burland (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women's Lives, Women's Voices as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Literary evidence is often silent about the lives of women in antiquity, particularly those from the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Even when women are considered, they are often seen through the lens of their male counterparts. In this collection, Brenda Longfellow and Molly Swetnam-Burland have gathered an outstanding group of scholars to give voice to both the elite and ordinary women living on the Bay of Naples before the eruption of Vesuvius.

Using visual, architectural, archaeological, and epigraphic evidence, the authors consider how women in the region interacted with their communities through family relationships, businesses, and religious practices,…


You might also like...

Ferry to Cooperation Island

By Carol Newman Cronin,

Book cover of Ferry to Cooperation Island

Carol Newman Cronin Author Of Ferry to Cooperation Island

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Sailor Olympian Editor New Englander Rum drinker

Carol's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

James Malloy is a ferry captain--or used to be, until he was unceremoniously fired and replaced by a "girl" named Courtney Farris. Now, instead of piloting Brenton Island’s daily lifeline to the glitzy docks of Newport, Rhode Island, James spends his days beached, bitter, and bored.

When he discovers a plan for a private golf course on wilderness sacred to his dying best friend, James is determined to stop such "improvements." But despite Brenton's nickname as "Cooperation Island," he's used to working solo. To keep historic trees and ocean shoreline open to all, he'll have to learn to cooperate with other islanders--including Captain Courtney, who might just morph from irritant to irresistible once James learns a secret that's been kept from him for years.

Ferry to Cooperation Island

By Carol Newman Cronin,

What is this book about?

Loner James Malloy is a ferry captain-or used to be, until he was unceremoniously fired and replaced by a girl named Courtney Farris. Now, instead of piloting Brenton Island's daily lifeline to the glitzy docks of Newport, Rhode Island, James spends his days beached, bitter, and bored.

When he discovers a private golf course staked out across wilderness sacred to his dying best friend, a Narragansett Indian, James is determined to stop such "improvements." But despite Brenton's nickname as "Cooperation Island," he's used to working solo. To keep rocky bluffs, historic trees, and ocean shoreline open to all, he'll have…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in ancient Rome, Italy, and the upper class?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about ancient Rome, Italy, and the upper class.

Ancient Rome Explore 292 books about ancient Rome
Italy Explore 380 books about Italy
The Upper Class Explore 85 books about the upper class