The best classical antiquity books

1 authors have picked their favorite books about classical antiquity and why they recommend each book.

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Scribes and Scholars

By L.D. Reynolds, N.G. Wilson,

Book cover of Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature

For half a century, this classic has introduced students to the ways and circumstances in which Greek and Latin texts, often seen as the pillars of any literate education, were transmitted from Antiquity throughout the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. While it is, despite its crisp and lucid presentation, a highly technical manual, it singles out, based on robust empirical evidence, the importance of tradition and unassuming daily labor in the formation and preservation of knowledge. The effects of unconscious or intentional changes in the manual transmission of ancient texts also constitute the core matter of my own field, philology. On a more personal note, I cherish fond memories of a class on Greek textual criticism by Nigel Wilson when I was an undergraduate at Oxford some thirty years ago.


Who am I?

I hold the chair of Old Testament at the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Munich University in Germany. My main area of expertise is Semitic languages, though, which is also the field for which I previously held a chair at Leiden University in the Netherlands for fifteen years (eventually, however, Munich made me an offer one cannot refuse). Hence my main occupation concerns the interpretation of ancient texts in exotic languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician, and others, mostly at the baseline of individual words, grammatical forms, and syntactic constructions. Despite the seemingly dry, specialized character of my work, it is, in my view, a lifestyle rather than a job. 


I wrote...

Aramaic: A History of the First World Language

By Holger Gzella,

Book cover of Aramaic: A History of the First World Language

What is my book about?

In this volume—the first complete history of Aramaic from its origins to the present day—Holger Gzella provides an accessible overview of the language perhaps most well known for being spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. Gzella, one of the world’s foremost Aramaicists, begins with the earliest evidence of Aramaic in inscriptions from the beginning of the first millennium BCE, then traces its emergence as the first world language when it became the administrative tongue of the great ancient Near Eastern empires. He also pays due diligence to the sacred role of Aramaic within Judaism, its place in the Islamic world, and its contact with other regional languages, before concluding with a glimpse into modern uses of Aramaic. 

The Classical World

By Robin Lane Fox,

Book cover of The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian

Robin Lane Fox, best known for his books on Alexander the Great, has produced a superb overview of ancient history, from the emergence of Greece c.776BC to the Roman empire’s zenith under the emperor Hadrian (reigned  AD117-138).  He takes a firmly narrative approach, which makes for a thrilling read. His focus is on the lives of great men such as Pericles, Alexander, and Julius Caesar and on key political and military events rather than on cultural and social factors. While his epic approach may not impress all academics, it will probably still be read with enthusiasm long after more specialist works have been forgotten. Lots of illustrations, some in colour. Ideal for the general reader.


Who am I?

I have been fascinated by ancient Greece and Rome since I first saw Italy and Greece as a teenager, revisiting them whenever I can. I studied ancient history at Cambridge University and have written eight books about it, most recently The Colosseum. After living in Paris, Rome, and London, I am now based in Wiltshire in southwest England, almost within sight of Stonehenge. There is a small megalith outside my own house.


I wrote...

The Colosseum From AD80 To The Present Day

By Nigel Rodgers,

Book cover of The Colosseum From AD80 To The Present Day

What is my book about?

The Colosseum in Rome awed the world when inaugurated in 80AD. It is still Rome’s greatest landmark, a brilliant example of ancient engineering. Inside its vast arena lavish but brutal entertainments were staged for centuries. The Colosseum, my vividly illustrated guide-cum-history, examines the arena’s construction, workings, and checkered history, including the recent partial restoration. One chapter explains the role its games played in the life of the ancient city, another the gladiators’ brief, sometimes glamorous lives. Further chapters outline how the massive structure survived centuries of earthquakes, fires, depredation, and neglect after the fall of the Roman Empire, and its later roles as a palace, fortress, church, tenements, site of black magic, and vegetable garden. There is also a guide as how and when it is best to visit, avoiding the queues and the hottest, most crowded times. Over 200 illustrations include cut-away reconstructions showing how the complex building actually worked.

Before writing the book, I made a special visit to Rome to investigate the recent excavations of the hypogoeum, the network of underground passages and lifts essential to the games.

The Far-Distant Oxus

By Katharine Hull, Pamela Whitlock,

Book cover of The Far-Distant Oxus

A personal favourite of Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome, the book does for Devon and ponies what he did for the Suffolk, the Lakes, and sailing. The authors were teenagers themselves when they wrote it, which is still hard to believe, and they took turns writing alternate chapters. The result is a  classic tale of adventurous children on holiday, and one which draws the modern reader in immediately. Interestingly it was Ransome who found the girls their first publisher.


Who am I?

Although as an adult I very much prefer true-life adventures to fictional ones – it’s why I wrote Heroes and Rescue, as well as Survivors – many of the most enjoyable books I read as a child were fictional accounts of daring and danger, mostly if not entirely centred on children with whom I could identify. I found them inspiring and still do, and can’t help feeling that if after nearly 50 years I can still remember so many of the details – and, trust me, I really can - the authors of these five must really have known what they were up to. I really hope no one will be put off them because of their age because I feel they have genuinely stood the test of time.


I wrote...

Survivors: Extraordinary Tales from the Wild and Beyond

By David Long, Kerry Hyndman (illustrator),

Book cover of Survivors: Extraordinary Tales from the Wild and Beyond

What is my book about?

When it comes to extreme stories of survival few can match these inspirational tales of genuine courage, heroism, and ingenuity. Ranging from Africa to the Antarctic, from classics such as Ernest Shackleton to the crew of Apollo 13 and the man who inspired the movie 127 Hours, these incredible real-life adventures describe how ordinary men, women, and children faced down dangers and were able to achieve extraordinary things by drawing on their strength, bravery, and self-belief. We can all accomplish more than we think can, and Survivors shows how it’s done.

The Ancient City

By Peter Connolly, Hazel Dodge,

Book cover of The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome

This book has the best illustrations of the two main cities of antiquity that l have ever seen. Besides superb photographs (all in colour) of the ruins today, they include Peter Connolly’s brilliant reconstructions of buildings of all sorts: houses, palaces, baths, temples, forums, hippodromes, theatres, amphitheaters, insulae (blocks of flats), bars and aqueducts, plus styles in furniture, clothing, and hair. All are shown in colourful detail, many with cutaway illustrations that recreate city life of 2000 years ago with wonderful vividness. They are complemented by Dr. Hazel Dodge’s lucid, informative text. The first part covers Athens at its democratic peak under Pericles around 434BC, the second Rome at its imperial zenith some 500 years later, when it was the greatest city on earth.


Who am I?

I have been fascinated by ancient Greece and Rome since I first saw Italy and Greece as a teenager, revisiting them whenever I can. I studied ancient history at Cambridge University and have written eight books about it, most recently The Colosseum. After living in Paris, Rome, and London, I am now based in Wiltshire in southwest England, almost within sight of Stonehenge. There is a small megalith outside my own house.


I wrote...

The Colosseum From AD80 To The Present Day

By Nigel Rodgers,

Book cover of The Colosseum From AD80 To The Present Day

What is my book about?

The Colosseum in Rome awed the world when inaugurated in 80AD. It is still Rome’s greatest landmark, a brilliant example of ancient engineering. Inside its vast arena lavish but brutal entertainments were staged for centuries. The Colosseum, my vividly illustrated guide-cum-history, examines the arena’s construction, workings, and checkered history, including the recent partial restoration. One chapter explains the role its games played in the life of the ancient city, another the gladiators’ brief, sometimes glamorous lives. Further chapters outline how the massive structure survived centuries of earthquakes, fires, depredation, and neglect after the fall of the Roman Empire, and its later roles as a palace, fortress, church, tenements, site of black magic, and vegetable garden. There is also a guide as how and when it is best to visit, avoiding the queues and the hottest, most crowded times. Over 200 illustrations include cut-away reconstructions showing how the complex building actually worked.

Before writing the book, I made a special visit to Rome to investigate the recent excavations of the hypogoeum, the network of underground passages and lifts essential to the games.

The Golden Ass

By Apuleius, P.G. Walsh (translator),

Book cover of The Golden Ass

Not so much a novel as a loosely connected set of rambling anecdotes dealing with everything from incompetent market officials to Greek myth and sex and superstition. The whole thing is told with great verve and is a sackful of fun. Try P.G. Walsh's translation available from Oxford. World Classics.


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 World of Late Antiquity

By Peter Brown,

Book cover of The World of Late Antiquity

The third century is the least known era of imperial Rome, but it’s also the hinge between a world that still had distant roots in the city-state that Rome was under the republic, and the world empire it had become. So many changes took place in the hundred or so years between Septimius Severus (r. 193-212) and Constantine (r. 306-337) that it’s impossible to understand later European, North African, and Middle Eastern history without considering them. Peter Brown was one of the first people to recognize that to understand the late Roman empire and early medieval Europe all the way up to Mohammad and Charlemagne, you had to understand the third century. This book inspired a generation of scholars to broaden their horizons to understand the Roman empire in all its colorful diversity.


Who am I?

I grew up playing with toy Roman legionaries, marveling at Roman coins, and poring over diagrams of Roman military equipment and their astonishing feats of engineering, went back and forth between wanting to be a medievalist or a Classicist and ended up settling into the study of the late Roman empire and the way it completely transformed its Classical heritage. Along with writing books on that period, I love writing on much wider ancient and medieval themes in the London Review of Books and the TLS.


I wrote...

The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy

By Michael Kulikowski,

Book cover of The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy

What is my book about?

The Tragedy of Empire begins in the late fourth century with the reign of Julian, the last non-Christian Roman emperor, and takes readers to the final years of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the sixth century. One hundred years before Julian's rule, Emperor Diocletian had resolved that an empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, and from the Rhine and Tyne to the Sahara, could not effectively be governed by one man. He had devised a system of governance, called the tetrarchy by modern scholars, to respond to the vastness of the empire, its new rivals, and the changing face of its citizenry. Powerful enemies like the barbarian coalitions of the Franks and the Alamanni threatened the imperial frontiers. The new Sasanian dynasty had come into power in Persia. This was the political climate of the Roman world that Julian inherited.

Courtesans and Fishcakes

By James Davidson,

Book cover of Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens

Davidson demonstrates that sexual relationships with courtesans and youths in ancient Athens paralleled the markets in other luxuries such as fish and wine rather more than resembling the modern ideal of romantic love. In a society where marriages were mainly business arrangements made between families to ensure the production of legitimate heirs to their estates, such formal relationships were frequently loveless. This led the male partners and those as yet unmarried to resort to employing mistresses, courtesans, and youths as luxurious distractions from the mundane matter of marital maintenance of the bloodline.


Who am I?

When I voyaged into the ancient world in the readings of my youth, it led me to realize that the gay-straight divide in modern perceptions of sexuality and relationships is an artifice. It was constructed by the conceit of the ascetic religions that the only legitimate purpose of sex is the production of children within a sanctified marital relationship. In Antiquity, the divide followed a more natural course between the groups who were the sexually active partners (mainly adult men) and those who were sexually passive (mainly women, youths, and eunuchs). My hope is to disperse some of the confusion that the obscuration of this historical reality has caused.


I wrote...

Alexander's Lovers

By Andrew Chugg,

Book cover of Alexander's Lovers

What is my book about?

Alexander's Lovers reveals the personality of Alexander the Great through the mirror of the lives of his lovers, including his companion and deputy Hephaistion, his queen Roxane, his mistress Barsine and Bagoas the Eunuch. It includes all the intimate details and obscure references that standard modern accounts leave out and reveals a more convincing, realistic, and human picture of the king as opposed to the fake persona of a rampaging conqueror conjured up by many modern accounts. If you would like to get to know Alexander on a more personal level, then this book provides you with a unique opportunity.

The Last Great War of Antiquity

By James Howard-Johnston,

Book cover of The Last Great War of Antiquity

This book is, to me, the Platonic Ideal of scholarly military history. Howard-Johnston examines a somewhat obscure but vastly important war between the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire that lasted from 602 to 628 and left both empires vulnerable to the new Islamic power that was about to emerge in Arabia. His narrative is lively, his knowledge of the sources is unmatched, his interpretations masterful, and he exposes the inner workings of the book regularly in philosophical comments on the job of the military historian, causation in history, and the problems of source interpretation. That it took him longer to write than the war itself lasted is also one of my favorite pieces of historian-author trivia!


Who am I?

I fell in love with medieval military history in high school, and have been studying and writing about it as an undergraduate at Harvard, as a graduate student at Oxford, and as a professor of history ever since, eventually bringing the comparative methods and urge to generalize of a world historian to the task. I’ve written ten books and numerous articles. Good history gives me the thrill of time travel without the risk of the bubonic plague, and it has spawned related interests in sword and sorcery fantasy lit and wargaming, alongside my interests in painting, cartooning, and cooking the food of my native New Orleans. My motto: Have fun!


I wrote...

War and Conflict in the Middle Ages: A Global Perspective.

By Stephen Morillo,

Book cover of War and Conflict in the Middle Ages: A Global Perspective.

What is my book about?

This book offers the first global history of armed conflict between 400 and 1500 (or 1800?), an age shaped by climate change and pandemics at both ends. Examining armed conflict at all levels, and ranging from China and the Central Asian steppes to western Europe and beyond, it explores the technological, social, and cultural determinants of warfare and the tools and tactics used by warriors on land and at sea.

Armed conflict played a central role in the making of the medieval world, and medieval people used war and conflict to create, expand, and defend their communities and identities. Broad in its scope and rich in detail, this is a go-to guide for students and aficionados of military history, medieval history, and global history.

Coming in August 2022

The Mysteries

By Joseph Campbell,

Book cover of The Mysteries: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Vol 2

The international colloquia known as the Eranos conferences were designed to bring together scholars from diverse fields - historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and theologians - to interact, share insights and seek a higher synthesis in thought and understanding. The Mysteries is a collection of papers delivered from these varying perspectives in pursuit of a deeper understanding of the mystery cults of antiquity. This collection of essays is characterised by its outstanding quality, the variety of topics and outlooks represented, and the testimony it provides to that enduring search for a higher order of meaning.  


Who am I?

For longer than I can remember I have been fascinated by ancient civilizations, earth mysteries, cave art, magic, mythology, and shamanism. As an author, my research and writing continues to be inspired by these interests. I specialise in the ethnography of sacred landscapes and rituals; and more generally in esotericism, consciousness, and healing. My non-fiction is published by Inner Traditions and Scarlet Imprint; literary prose and poetry by Corbel Stone Press and Paralibrum. My essays on energy healing have appeared in the peer-reviewed Paranthropology Journal and the Journal of Exceptional Experiences and Psychology as well as on my academia.edu page.


I wrote...

Mystai: Dancing out the Mysteries of Dionysos

By Peter Mark Adams,

Book cover of Mystai: Dancing out the Mysteries of Dionysos

What is my book about?

The two-thousand-year-old Dionysian-themed frescoes of Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries are the only surviving depiction of the secret rites of a Greco-Roman mystery cult. Mystai leads the reader, step by step, in a process of patient detective work to decode the clues embedded in the imagery and reveal the lost secrets of the initiatory process. Lavishly illustrated, Mystai includes full-colour reproductions of the recently restored frescoes and related artefacts that illuminate key aspects of the ritual process.

Child of the Sun

By Kyle Onstott,

Book cover of Child of the Sun

What would happen if a randy teenage boy became Emperor of Rome after winning a pitched battle against a usurper? Would the magisterial traditions and decorum of the office triumph over adolescent hormones or vice versa? Actually, there is no need to speculate about the answer, because it happened in real life and was recorded in several ancient histories that have come down to us. This novel, though billed upon its publication as erotic, is quite closely based on those histories. Clue: the hormonal impulses of teenage boys are quite hard to suppress.


Who am I?

When I voyaged into the ancient world in the readings of my youth, it led me to realize that the gay-straight divide in modern perceptions of sexuality and relationships is an artifice. It was constructed by the conceit of the ascetic religions that the only legitimate purpose of sex is the production of children within a sanctified marital relationship. In Antiquity, the divide followed a more natural course between the groups who were the sexually active partners (mainly adult men) and those who were sexually passive (mainly women, youths, and eunuchs). My hope is to disperse some of the confusion that the obscuration of this historical reality has caused.


I wrote...

Alexander's Lovers

By Andrew Chugg,

Book cover of Alexander's Lovers

What is my book about?

Alexander's Lovers reveals the personality of Alexander the Great through the mirror of the lives of his lovers, including his companion and deputy Hephaistion, his queen Roxane, his mistress Barsine and Bagoas the Eunuch. It includes all the intimate details and obscure references that standard modern accounts leave out and reveals a more convincing, realistic, and human picture of the king as opposed to the fake persona of a rampaging conqueror conjured up by many modern accounts. If you would like to get to know Alexander on a more personal level, then this book provides you with a unique opportunity.

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