The best books about emperors

5 authors have picked their favorite books about emperors and why they recommend each book.

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Maximinus Thrax

By Paul N. Pearson,

Book cover of Maximinus Thrax: From Common Soldier to Emperor of Rome

I found this book very easy to read yet packed with historical detail. Paul Pearson presents superbly researched history in an engaging narrative style. This book provides a fascinating insight into the life of one of Rome’s least known emperors, and suggests some thought-provoking theories about his character and reputation.


Who am I?

I have had a lifelong love of history, especially ancient history, and have spent years studying it for both interest and pleasure. I also love stories, so I decided to put my knowledge of Roman history to good use, providing what I hope is an authentic backdrop to my novels.


I wrote...

In the Shadow of the Wall

By Gordon Anthony,

Book cover of In the Shadow of the Wall

What is my book about?

Brude, A young pictish warrior, leaves his home in the village of Broch Tava to join a raid on the Roman province beyond the wall. Capture after a disastrous battle, only his dreams of home and the childhood sweetheart he left behind allow him to survive life as a slave. Trained as a gladiator, he eventually wins his freedom and returns home after an absence of thirteen years. There he discovers that much has changed and life in Broch Tava is every bit as dangerous as in the arena. And the great Roman wall still casts a long shadow. With the empire preparing a massive invasion, can Brude survive the deadly snares of his former friend and save his people from death or enslavement?

Julian

By Gore Vidal,

Book cover of Julian

Everyone in Julian is terrified of saying the wrong thing. Like today. “The days of toleration are over,” a student informs teacher Libanius. Julian tells of the rise of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, who fought Christianity and reinstated paganism during the interesting but seldom-examined transition from simple Roman culture to the ornate Byzantine.

Julian’s autobiography is commented on by Priscus and Libanius, two funny, old, bickering philosophers. I like this dueling narration. It shows how history depends on who’s narrating. I also like how, though everyone in Julian loves philosophy, it is personalities and the art of teaching we learn about, not philosophy. Full of surprising historical facts, court intrigue, battles, and especially Gore Vidal’s unique and iconoclastic perspective, Julian is a great book, a revelation.


Who am I?

Ever since I spent a day wandering the Roman forum, imagining Caesar’s funeral at the site of his pyre, standing on the Palatine imagining living in palatial Palatine splendor, and looking down on Senators, plebeians, public baths, the Colisseum, temples, statues, basilicae, patricians, slaves, street vendors, centurions, courtesans, ladies, gladiators, urchins, schoolboys, pickpockets, and priests, I knew I wanted to write about it. I have done intensive research, with skills honed earning a Ph.D. in English from Lehigh University (specialty: literary-historical). I seek out literary historical novels, novels with distinctive style, artful plotting, engaging characterization, and historical fidelity. 


I wrote...

Ashes I: A Novel of the Poor of Ancient Rome

By Theodore Irvin Silar,

Book cover of Ashes I: A Novel of the Poor of Ancient Rome

What is my book about?

It is ancient, late-Republican Rome, and, denied the freedom he was promised, successful merchant-slave, Ariston, sets fire to his master's Palatine villa, rescues a slave-girl, Felicia, from crucifixion, and both escape to the distant Umbrian mountains where they marry and raise a family, setting in play an odyssey that spans generations, an odyssey that leads from the cruel streets of the slums of Rome to chariot races in the Circus Maximus, from bloody, no-holds-barred street boxing to the pursuit of fugitive slaves across the length and breadth of Italia, from the great landed estates of the Roman countryside to the law courts of the Roman Forum.

Emperors and Biography

By Ronald Syme,

Book cover of Emperors and Biography

Ronald Syme was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, and probably the greatest Roman historian. This may seem like one for specialists only, unlike his classic Roman Revolution, but it’s got his distinctive style – florid and lapidary all at once – and is a master class in how to wring valuable information out of poor and deceptive sources.


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.

Septimius Severus

By Anthony Birley,

Book cover of Septimius Severus: The African Emperor

Writing a good biography is very different from writing a narrative history – they’re different art forms. Septimius Severus is the last Roman emperor about whom we can build up a fully rounded biographical portrait until Julian the Apostate, a century and a half later. In Birley’s meticulous telling, Severus comes across as a transformative political genius, a soldier of great skill -- and a monster of a human being.


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.

I, Claudius

By Robert Graves,

Book cover of I, Claudius

Robert Graves’s novel, I, Claudius, about ancient Roman emperor, Claudius, is not just “historical fiction.” It’s literature. In I, Claudius, Graves defends the capability of Claudius, whom most historians consider a crippled idiot. Claudius’s rise is a classic underdog story: stammering cripple outsmarts and outlives a pack of fratricidal wolves.

A familiar/strange culture, a convulsive, treacherous history, unforgettable characters ̶ easygoing Augustus Caesar; haunted Tiberius; severe Antonia; insane Caligula; noble Germanicus; and above all, arch-conspirator Livia, Claudius’s grandmother  ̶ historical fiction your cup of tea or not, I, Claudius is for anybody who likes style, plot, adventure, tragedy, comedy, a hero to root for, and a rich portrayal of a fascinating society.


Who am I?

Ever since I spent a day wandering the Roman forum, imagining Caesar’s funeral at the site of his pyre, standing on the Palatine imagining living in palatial Palatine splendor, and looking down on Senators, plebeians, public baths, the Colisseum, temples, statues, basilicae, patricians, slaves, street vendors, centurions, courtesans, ladies, gladiators, urchins, schoolboys, pickpockets, and priests, I knew I wanted to write about it. I have done intensive research, with skills honed earning a Ph.D. in English from Lehigh University (specialty: literary-historical). I seek out literary historical novels, novels with distinctive style, artful plotting, engaging characterization, and historical fidelity. 


I wrote...

Ashes I: A Novel of the Poor of Ancient Rome

By Theodore Irvin Silar,

Book cover of Ashes I: A Novel of the Poor of Ancient Rome

What is my book about?

It is ancient, late-Republican Rome, and, denied the freedom he was promised, successful merchant-slave, Ariston, sets fire to his master's Palatine villa, rescues a slave-girl, Felicia, from crucifixion, and both escape to the distant Umbrian mountains where they marry and raise a family, setting in play an odyssey that spans generations, an odyssey that leads from the cruel streets of the slums of Rome to chariot races in the Circus Maximus, from bloody, no-holds-barred street boxing to the pursuit of fugitive slaves across the length and breadth of Italia, from the great landed estates of the Roman countryside to the law courts of the Roman Forum.

The Last Tsar

By Edvard Radzinsky,

Book cover of The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II

Radvinsky is a celebrated Russian playwright and historian. Raised in the Soviet Union, when information about the last Romanovs was repressed, his unique take on the tsar’s life makes this both a fascinating history and thoughtful meditation on what Nicholas II represents to Russians.


Who am I?

Jennifer Laam has been long fascinated with the mysteries surrounding the last Romanovs. Book Bub named her debut novel The Secret Daughter of the Tsar one of  "12 Books to Read if You Love Anastasia." She has three books published with St. Martin's Griffin, all focusing on an aspect of Russian history.


I wrote...

The Secret Daughter of the Tsar: A Novel of the Romanovs

By Jennifer Laam,

Book cover of The Secret Daughter of the Tsar: A Novel of the Romanovs

What is my book about?

A compelling alternate history of the Romanov family in which a secret fifth daughter--smuggled out of Russia before the revolution--continues the royal lineage to dramatic consequences

In her riveting debut novel, The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, Jennifer Laam seamlessly braids together the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte. Veronica is an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles when she meets a mysterious man who may be heir to the Russian throne. As she sets about investigating the legitimacy of his claim through a winding path of romance and deception, the ghosts of her own past begin to haunt her.

I, Claudius

By Robert Graves,

Book cover of I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, Born 10 B.C., Murdered and Deified A.D. 54

Most of us want to know more about the Roman Empire than Shakespeare gives us in Julius Caesar, though probably not as much as Gibbon offers us in six volumes. Robert Graves’ I, Claudius does what historical fiction does best: it is a brilliant narrative about a complex and important period of history that most of us want to understand. The emperor Claudius is the narrator, brutally honest, marvelously flawed, tragically situated as emperor between Caligula and Nero. Whew, such company!


Who am I?

Following a forty-year career in journalism, fifteen of those years as a foreign correspondent, I started writing fiction and historical fiction. In the fifteen years, I’ve been at it, I’ve written a family memoir, Misfortunes of Wealth; a newspaper novel, The Paris Herald; and my first venture into historical fiction, Waiting for Uncle John, the story of our first attempt to invade Cuba, in 1851. As one commentator said of Uncle John: “If only President Kennedy could have read this book.” My latest work of historical fiction, Blood and Oranges, tells the story of Los Angeles in the 20th Century through the eyes of a family, two brothers and two sisters, whose members have a hand in the city’s seminal events.


I wrote...

Blood and Oranges: The Story of Los Angeles: A Novel

By James O. Goldsborough,

Book cover of Blood and Oranges: The Story of Los Angeles: A Novel

What is my book about?

An action-packed historical novel of twentieth-century Los Angeles that follows three generations of the Mull family, from the roaring twenties to the fiery nineties. Mulholland’s aqueduct unleashes unimagined wealth, growth, crime, death, and destruction in valley of the angels. There are oil derricks on the beaches, highways covering the orchards, buses mysteriously replacing the world’s best trolley system, gilded church domes in place of brick and ivy, floating casinos in Santa Monica Bay. Hollywood. Murder in the hills; fires in the mountains; riots in the hoods.

The Mull brothers, identical twins from Salinas, rise with the water that nourishes the new city. Willie is a fiery preacher who, like Augustine, can’t quite shake his delight in the opposite sex; Eddie makes a fortune in oil and real estate and a few enemies along the way. Eddie’s daughters, Maggie and Lizzie, set out to right the wrongs of their father, but then must answer to their own children.

Nero

By Richard Holland,

Book cover of Nero: The Man Behind the Myth

Written by a veteran London Times journalist this exciting book reads like a fast paced thriller. What I found most interesting is his detailed description of Nero’s most notorious action, the murder of his mother. He writes “It is in the realm of abnormal psychology that an explanation may lie.” He is clearly unaware that what best explains the spooky full moon melodrama played out on a cosmic stage was the blind faith both Nero and his mother had in astrology (see Nero's astrology chart here). 


Who am I?

The deeper I looked into Nero’s history the more references I found to astrology about which I knew nothing except that it was a “pseudo science”. Then an idea hit me like the proverbial lightning bolt. It didn’t matter that astrology was mere superstition. All that mattered was that Nero and his contemporaries believed in it. Nero’s birthday and time are known so it must be possible to re-create his horoscope. With this mysterious wheel in hand, anyone familiar with ancient astrological lore should be able to make some very intelligent guesses about what Nero’s astrologer would have been advising his imperial client on perhaps a daily basis.


I wrote...

The Nero Prediction

By Humphry Knipe,

Book cover of The Nero Prediction

What is my book about?

Nero is widely regarded as the most despicable Roman emperor who “fiddled” while Rome burnt. In fact Nero was a man of considerable generosity, talent, great ingenuity and boundless energy intent on making his life a work of art, dreaming of an age in which music, not military force, is power. What’s missing here?

Astrology, the seductive mixture of astronomy and superstition which in Nero’s time exceeded every religion in power and influence. So ardent was the belief that horoscopes were roadmaps to the future that believers tailored their actions to match astrological predictions. Meet the self fulfilling prophecy. When Nero’s horoscope became widely known it bedeviled his reign because it predicted when he would be fortunate and when he would be vulnerable, invaluable information for his enemies in the aristocratic class who believed that he was dishonoring the imperial throne by performing in public. All this seen through the eyes of the ex-slave who rose to the position of Nero’s right hand man but who also had a star-crossed destiny hanging over his head.

Napoleon Bonaparte

By Alan Schom,

Book cover of Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life

This relatively recent biography of Napoleon, well researched and written, has Prussia all over it (tangentially), mostly because of the French emperor’s insatiably aggressive appetite, which involved all his neighbors diplomatically, socially, militarily, and economically. Everything Napoleon did had ramifications everywhere else, and it took a united Europe to thwart him. Prussia, along with Great Britain, was in the forefront of this effort. Marshal Blücher's Prussian forces, in fact, provided the last-minute, decisive intervention that led to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1814, a pivotal moment in European and Prussia history


Who am I?

I am what is euphemistically called an "independent scholar," meaning I have no academic affiliation, no straightforward road I must follow (in order, let’s say, to gain tenure), and no duty per se to follow a pre-ordained or politically correct point of view. But being a "freelance"  has obligations which I take very seriously. I feel that my job, in any subject I choose to pursue, is to engage the reader in a joint venture. I must instill in them the same enthusiasm I have for whatever I’m writing about, which in this case is the history of Prussia, and the state of this footprint on earth which war and ceaseless conflict have rearranged countless times. To do that, I usually take an often oblique and "off the radar" approach that I think will pull the reader along with me, making the journey for both of us something that matters.


I wrote...

The Vanished Kingdom: Travels Through the History of Prussia

By James Charles Roy,

Book cover of The Vanished Kingdom: Travels Through the History of Prussia

What is my book about?

Twice in this century Germany initiated wars of unimagined terror and destruction. In both cases, defense of the "Prussian" realm, the heartland of old Germany, was the justification. Few today understand with any precision what "Prussia" means, either geographically or nationalistically, but neither would they deny the psychic resonance of the word: unbridled militarism, the image of the goose-stepping Junker. 

The final catastrophe for Prussia was World War II, when nearly two million refugees fled in the face of Russian forces, perhaps the greatest dislocation of a civilian population during that war. Prussia became, and remains, a geography in shambles. When the Wall came down I determined to see for myself if anything still remained of the old order, and if what replaced it was for the better or worse. The results, generally speaking, were not very pretty, though the search itself was fascinating. The Vanished Kingdom is a concise travelogue with narrative history, along with many photographs and illustrations.

Napoleon

By Philip Dwyer,

Book cover of Napoleon: Passion, Death and Resurrection 1815-1840

Bizarrely not many quality works on Napoleon’s exile and afterlife exist in English. It is much to Dwyer’s credit to have written a superb account of the stricken eagle’s exile on Saint Helena. It depicts well how the reality of confinement contrasted markedly with the myth that was fostered by exiles. This is an excellent analysis of these humid days on the South Atlantic followed in the second half by a masterful analysis of how Napoleon became the new Prometheus and Christ for liberals who opposed the Restoration. A riveting read.


Who am I?

I grew up in Catholic Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s a time of rapid change just before the advent of the Celtic tiger. Experiencing such a transformative moment in the history of that island I became fascinated by revolution. With my Italian roots, I was always outward-looking and interested in just how interconnected European history can be. My work started with a book on the downward spiral of Louis XVI’s court in 1789-1792, but recently I became interested in how Napoleon exported the culture of the French Revolution wherever he went. Now I am preparing a book on Catholicism and the politics of religion during the age of revolutions 1700-1903.

I wrote...

To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII

By Ambrogio A. Caiani,

Book cover of To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII

What is my book about?

In July 1809 Napoleon had Pope Pius VII kidnapped. For almost five years this Pontiff would remain the prisoner of the French Emperor. Napoleon had tried to heal the wounds of the French Revolution’s persecution of the Church. All seemed to be going well and in 1804 Pius even travelled to Paris to crown Napoleon Emperor of the French in Notre Dame. Soon, the French Empire started treating the Papal States like a vassal. Pius rejected alliance treaties with France and refused to appoint bishops to those territories controlled by Napoleon.

Unable to persuade the Pope through diplomatic means the Empire invaded his domain and took him prisoner. For five years Pius VII was bullied and asked to accept unconditionally the will of Napoleon. This gentle but resolute Italian Pontiff remained steadfast in his refusal to do so, thus becoming the French Empire’s most formidable opponent. 

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