The best books on ancient Rome

41 authors have picked their favorite books about ancient Rome and why they recommend each book.

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Hadrian's Wall

By Derry Brabbs,

Book cover of Hadrian's Wall

Last, but certainly not least, the iconic landmark captured through the lens of a master. Despite the sub-title to my previous book, Mike Bishop’s preferred route along Hadrian’s Wall is from west to east, with the prevailing wind at his back. Derry Brabbs obviously agrees, because this beautifully illustrated book takes us from the Solway Coast to Wallsend in a series of stunning photographs that capture the Wall in the kind of breathtaking detail that perfectly illustrates why Brabbs is one of the UK’s most highly regarded photographers. It’s not just about the amazing vistas and moody landscapes, there is a very readable narrative, but it’s the photographs that will draw you back time and time again.


Who am I?

Douglas Jackson is the author of eleven historical novels, including the 9-book Valerius Verrens series, which involves his Hero of Rome in conspiracies, battles, and intrigues from the Boudiccan rebellion in 60AD to the battle of Mons Graupius in 84AD. His next book, appropriately titled The Wall, will be published in 2022. His first job when he left school at sixteen was helping to restore one of Julius Agricola’s marching camps in the Cheviot Hills. The Romans have fascinated him ever since, to the point where he's managed to make a living out of writing about them. With Hadrian’s Wall almost on his doorstep, there was never any doubt he'd set a book there.


I wrote...

Hero of Rome

By Douglas Jackson,

Book cover of Hero of Rome

What is my book about?

Rome's grip on Britain is weakening. Roman cruelty and exploitation has angered their British subjects; the Druids are on the rise; the warrior queen Boudicca will lead the tribes to war. The Roman Tribune, Gaius Valerius Verrens must lead the legionary veterans at Colonia in a last stand against the rising tide of rebellion and the unstoppable horde of Boudicca's rebel army.

The Eagle of the Ninth

By Rosemary Sutcliffe,

Book cover of The Eagle of the Ninth

This was the book that made me want to write historical fiction. I cared so desperately about the characters that I wanted to be there with them, wishing I could do something to help; they are still very clear in my mind. We were living near the USAF Academy at the time, and I convinced my mother to drive me out to their library where I pored over and made copious notes on Roman military history so that I could write my own story about the missing Ninth Legion. (I still have the notes!) 


Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by history, and when I dreamed of being an author, imagined I’d write historical fiction. However, it took many writing detours to arrive there. (Nim’s Island, by the way, has no basis in historical fact!). When I first imagined the story that led to the Minoan Wings trilogy, I fell in love with researching this era, which is particularly intriguing because there are virtually no written records. Visiting the ruins of a four-thousand-year-old town on Crete under the guidance of an archaeologist who had not only excavated there but had become passionately involved with my imaginary characters, was an absolute highlight of my life. 


I wrote...

Cuckoo's Flight

By Wendy Orr,

Book cover of Cuckoo's Flight

What is my book about?

If Clio had stayed to load the kiln as she should have, she’d never have seen the ship. But she saw it, and the world changed. Now the oracle is demanding the greatest sacrifice: a young maiden to serve the goddess – and Clio’s grandmother creates a sacred statue to save Clio’s life.

But Clio is torn between the demands of guarding the statue and caring for her beloved horses. Disabled in an accident, she must try to put aside her own grief at no longer being able to ride – and in the process, save a friend’s life and stop a war. 

Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day

By Philip Matyszak,

Book cover of Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day

Think Blue Guide, Michelin, or Lonely Planet. If you’re lucky enough to own a time machine and are planning a holiday in late-first-century Rome then this is the book to slip into your shoulder bag. It has everything you’d expect to find in a good travel guide: information on where to stay and what to see and do, advice on eating out, and the best places to shop, plus tips on how best to fit in with the natives, what to do if while you’re there you get into difficulties, and a whole lot more. The perfect introduction to Rome under the Flavians. All you’ll need now – because the chances of finding an English-speaker anywhere in the city are going to be zilch – is a decent phrasebook...


Who am I?

I graduated – too long ago now to recall the date comfortably – from Edinburgh University with an MA in Classics (Latin and Greek); add to this the facts that I’m a compulsive daily solver of the London ‘Times’ cryptic crossword, an unabashed conspiracy-theorist, and a huge fan of Niccolo Machiavelli and Mickey Spillane, and you more or less know all that you need to about the genesis of my Marcus Corvinus series. With these picks I am taking you down some lesser-known but, I hope, interesting side streets in Rome. Here we go...


I wrote...

Ovid

By David Wishart,

Book cover of Ovid

What is my book about?

When young aristocratic layabout Marcus Corvinus is approached by the stepdaughter of the exiled and now dead Roman poet Ovid and asked to clear the return of the ashes for burial, he cheerfully agrees; there should, he thinks, be no problem. Only when he makes the application to the imperial authorities it's turned down flat. So what, Corvinus asks himself, did Ovid do that was so bad that they won't even allow his bones back into Italy? The first book in the Marcus Corvinus series.

Menaechmi; Or, The Twin-Brothers

By Plautus, Henry Thomas Riley (translator),

Book cover of Menaechmi; Or, The Twin-Brothers

Ever wonder where Shakespeare got his ideas from? He plundered the classics, especially Plutarch and Plautus. Plautus can't really complain about that as his plays are mostly re-workings of (now lost) Greek originals. This play is Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, set 1500 years earlier. It's still a good read and should elicit a few giggles. Try Riley's translation on Digireads.


Who am I?

They say true happiness is finding something you love, and getting paid to do it, which makes me one happy bunny. Ancient history has been my passion, my hobby and my job for the past three decades, and I still wake up every morning looking forward to another day of it. Thanks to the internet I can study the classics and still hike in the mountains and kayak the mountain lakes of my corner of British Columbia. It doesn't get better than this.


I wrote...

Hercules: The First Superhero

By Philip Matyszak,

Book cover of Hercules: The First Superhero

What is my book about?

Hercules the superman, the monsterslaying machine, the myth – who was the man beneath the lionskin headdress, and does he really live up to his legend? This unique biography tells the story of the first superhero from his traumatic birth to his dramatic death.

The Epigrams Of Martial

By Henry George Bohn,

Book cover of The Epigrams Of Martial

With this one I'm not going to recommend an edition, because while Martial is witty, bitingly sarcastic and a keen commentator on his society he can also be breathtakingly obscene. Imagine teenage scrawls on toilet walls - if those scrawls were written by Shakespeare - and you'll be close enough. So pick your edition with care – however broad you imagine your mind to be, an unexpurgated Martial will stretch it a bit more and have you chuckling and nodding the rest of the time.


Who am I?

They say true happiness is finding something you love, and getting paid to do it, which makes me one happy bunny. Ancient history has been my passion, my hobby and my job for the past three decades, and I still wake up every morning looking forward to another day of it. Thanks to the internet I can study the classics and still hike in the mountains and kayak the mountain lakes of my corner of British Columbia. It doesn't get better than this.


I wrote...

Hercules: The First Superhero

By Philip Matyszak,

Book cover of Hercules: The First Superhero

What is my book about?

Hercules the superman, the monsterslaying machine, the myth – who was the man beneath the lionskin headdress, and does he really live up to his legend? This unique biography tells the story of the first superhero from his traumatic birth to his dramatic death.

Hannibal

By Ross Leckie,

Book cover of Hannibal

Ever wonder how in the world Hannibal got elephants across the alps? Ross Leckie’s violent and graphic account answers that question and more as it plunges the reader into the mind of the Carthaginian general driven to avenge his father’s defeat and this country’s humiliation in the first Punic War. The book revels in the fascinating details of ancient military campaigns and battle tactics. It’s a blood-drenched fever-dream of a novel that’s not for the squeamish, but a compulsive read for the rest of us.


Who am I?

I fell in love with historical novels as a kid somewhere between reading Johnny Tremain and Ben and Me (from the point of view of a mouse living in Ben Franklin’s hat) in elementary school and Mika Waltari’s The Roman and The Egyptian and Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur in junior high. And that love led me to write After the Lost War, a historical novel in verse based on the life of the poet Sidney Lanier, who served in the confederate army in the civil war, survived to start a family and died from tuberculous he contracted as a prisoner of war.


I wrote...

After the Lost War: A Narrative

By Andrew Hudgins,

Book cover of After the Lost War: A Narrative

What is my book about?

Andrew Hudgins imagines himself in the life of a now largely forgotten poet, Sidney Lanier, who served as a soldier for the Confederacy.

Roman Woman

By Lindsay Allason-Jones,

Book cover of Roman Woman: Everyday Life in Hadrian's Britain

This follows a British woman who has married a Roman army veteran through a year in Britain during the reign of Hadrian. It is filled with tons of accurate detail about every aspect of daily life. It is written as a novel but because the author is a scholar of Roman British history and archaeology, you can count on her accuracy in a way that I ordinarily don’t rely on with novels.

Who am I?

As Damion Hunter, I have written six novels set in the first and second centuries of the Roman Empire, for which I have done extensive research. My picks are all books that I have found most useful and accessible for the writer who wants to ground her fiction in accurate detail and for the reader who just wants to know the little stuff, which is always more interesting than the big stuff.


I wrote...

Shadow of the Eagle

By Amanda Cockrell, Damion Hunter,

Book cover of Shadow of the Eagle

What is my book about?

Faustus Valerianus is the son of a Roman father and a British mother. Now both parents have died within a month of each other, and so he sells the family farm and enlists, joining legendary general Julius Agricola's campaign to conquer the entirety of the British Isles, ending with a devastating battle among Caledonia's dark mountains, in which he is followed by both the call of his mother's blood and his father's restless shade.

The first in The Borderlands series.

An Imperial Possession

By David Mattingly,

Book cover of An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC - AD 409

In my opinion the definative, academic standard account of the Roman occupation of Britain. Professor Mattingly’s book is very well organised, with sections which easily engage the reader on specific aspects of the Roman presence here, for example religion, political organisation, the military, agriculture, and industry. It also explains in great detail the various impacts across Britain of the transition from the Late Iron Age to the Roman period.  


Who am I?

Dr. Simon Elliott is an award-winning and best-selling historian, archaeologist, author, broadcaster, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kent, Trustee of the Council for British Archaeology, Ambassador for Museum of London Archaeology, Guide Lecturer for Andante Travels, and President of the Society of Ancients. He frequently appears on broadcast and social media as a presenter and expert regarding the ancient world, and currently has 12 books on sale on similar themes, with three more due later this year. He is also a PR Week award-winning, highly experienced communications practitioner who has advised a wide variety of clients at a senior level on their interaction with the world of the media and politics. 


I wrote...

Roman Britain's Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispana?

By Simon Elliott, Simon Elliott,

Book cover of Roman Britain's Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispana?

What is my book about?

Legio IX Hispana had a long and active history, later in its career founding both Lincoln and York in Britain, from where it guarded the northern frontiers in the Roman province. However, it is last mentioned in history in AD 82 and epigraphy in AD 108, after which it completely disappears. The mystery of its disappearance has inspired debate and imagination for centuries. In his new best-selling work, Dr. Simon Elliott analyses whether it was most likely lost in the north of Britain, in the south here, on the Rhine or Danube, or in the east.

The Emperor's Babe

By Bernardine Evaristo,

Book cover of The Emperor's Babe

I’m embarrassed that I only read this book recently because it’s a wonderful engagement with ancient evidence to create a vision of Roman Britain. Evaristo uses the burial of the so-called Spitalfields Lady – a woman buried in a sarcophagus with scallop shell decorations and a rich range of grave goods – to create Zuleika, a lively girl who lives with her Nubian parents in Roman London; in blank verse, the story follows her life from being married off as a child bride to catching the eye of the emperor Septimius Severus. Evaristo mixes historical detail with contemporary slang and references, bringing her vision of London under a multi-cultural Roman Empire vividly to life.


Who am I?

I’m a Reader in Latin Language and Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. In my research and my teaching, I think a lot about the literature and culture of the Roman empire around the first century A.D. As well as sharing my enthusiasm about the people whose writing and objects have survived down to us, I also enjoy reading and exploring how contemporary authors have used their creative freedom to recreate the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome.


I wrote...

Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture

By Liz Gloyn,

Book cover of Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture

What is my book about?

In this book, the first in-depth study of how post-classical societies use the creatures from ancient myth, Liz Gloyn reveals the trends behind how we have used monsters since the 1950s to the present day and considers why they have remained such a powerful presence in our shared cultural imagination. She presents a new model for interpreting the extraordinary vitality that classical monsters have shown, and their enormous adaptability in finding places to dwell in popular culture without sacrificing their connection to the ancient world.

Her argument takes her readers through a comprehensive tour of monsters, from the much-loved creations of Ray Harryhausen in Clash of the Titans to the monster of the week in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, before looking at the afterlives of the Medusa and the Minotaur. From the siren to the centaur, all monster lovers will find something to enjoy in this stimulating and accessible book.

Life and Letters from the Roman Frontier

By Alan K. Bowman,

Book cover of Life and Letters from the Roman Frontier

Vindolanda is one of Britain’s best Roman sites, in part because of the letters which have been discovered. Written by Roman soldiers and their families, these letters include birthday party invitations, complaints about debts and shopping lists and they only surviving letters from a woman to a female recipient. They provide a staggeringly intimate look at daily living in a Romano-British fort and Alan K. Bowman brings the whole site to life.


Who am I?

Emma Southon has a PhD in Ancient History from The University of Birmingham and has been obsessed with Romans since she was 16. Her first book for general audiences was Agrippina: A Biography of the Most Extraordinary Woman in Rome and she co-hosts the podcast History is Sexy with the writer Janina Matthewson. She lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.


I wrote...

A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome

By Emma Southon,

Book cover of A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome

What is my book about?

In Ancient Rome, all the best stories have one thing in common--murder. Romulus killed Remus to found the city, Caesar was assassinated to save the Republic. Caligula was butchered in the theater, Claudius was poisoned at dinner, and Galba was beheaded in the Forum. In one 50-year period, 26 emperors were murdered.

But what did killing mean in a city where gladiators fought to the death to sate a crowd? In A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Emma Southon examines a trove of real-life homicides from Roman history to explore Roman culture, including how perpetrator, victim, and the act itself were regarded by ordinary people. Inside Ancient Rome's darkly fascinating history, we see how the Romans viewed life, death, and what it means to be human.

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