The best books about Roman emperors

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

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Nero

By Michael Grant,

Book cover of Nero: Emperor In Revolt

A magisterial, affectionate portrait of Nero and his times, this book is full of delightful touches of humor. Grant writes that although Nero enjoyed giving feasts, “we are not told if he was amused by the famous contemporary glutton Arpocras, who ate four tablecloths at a time, and broken glass as well.”


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.

Renan's Antichrist

By William G. Hutchison, Joseph-Ernest Renan,

Book cover of Renan's Antichrist

This book by the renowned nineteenth-century biblical scholar is a great read because it epitomizes the traditional anti-Nero bias to the point of parody. Renan writes that “Nero’s actions float between the black wickedness of a cruel dunce and the irony of a cynic. He did not possess an idea that was not puerile. The sham world of art in which he dwelt had made the veriest fool of him.”


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.

Memoirs of Hadrian

By Marguerite Yourcenar, Grace Frick,

Book cover of Memoirs of Hadrian

This splendid work of fiction recreates the times of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. I list it as one of the perceptions I relate in my book is how when I began reading intensely from 12 on I did so first to escape the reality around me, and then, with growing astonishment, to explore how extraordinarily varied reality was, and that what seemed impossible, or fantasy, had in many cases and at other times, been real—as the life of Hadrian had been. This had the effect of reducing the force of the claims of those around me that our reality was Reality: I began to realize 'Reality' contains multiple realities, both in the past and present, and that I need not be bound by the one I found myself within.


Who am I?

Quite young, I realized my life was based on the fantasies and wish-fulfillments of my parents. As a teenager I turned to science fiction and fantasy whose stories so often engaged imaginatively and decisively with fundamental issues of good and evil, truth and falsity, courage and deception, unlike my reality. In my struggle to portray that reality and its transformation something Freud wondered about proved helpful, whether our careful effort to reconstruct the past was wholly true or in part illusory. If it was effective as an explanation, then he felt it was valid, and I have written in the same spirit.


I wrote...

Family Matters

By Lance Lee,

Book cover of Family Matters

What is my book about?

Family Matters is a generations-long reckoning with family myth, loss, and transformation from 1865 to the 1970s, showing how family suffering metamorphosized into comedy on an abiding public, cultural scale in the original The Addams Family television series of 1964-1966 created by the author's father, David Levy, from the original Charles Addams New Yorker cartoons. It is also the story of how the author's parents though drawn from widely divergent backgrounds strove to realize the American Dream. Levy's ancestors derived from Jewish Eastern Europe, Lucille Wilds' from Anglo-Welsh aristocratic, and German roots. The breakdown of that effort both as a slow ebbing and with an abrupt jolt provides the narrative drive and climax of Family Matters.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

By Donald Robertson,

Book cover of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

While William Irvine’s book introduced me to Stoic philosophy, Donald took me further into the incredible life of Roman emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius. This book takes you deeper into Stoic philosophy. I get asked whom I’d want to have lunch with, dead or alive, and I answer Marcus Aurelius. During his reign he was the most powerful person in the Western hemisphere. History is littered with examples that prove Lord Acton’s quip “Power corrupts; absolutely power corrupts absolutely.” Marcus is a rare exception.


Who am I?

I am an investor who happens to love writing, music, and simply life in general. I was born in Murmansk, Russia, where I spent my first 18 years. My family moved to Denver in 1991, and I have lived there since. I’m CEO of IMA, a value investing firm where I have creative freedom to focus on things I love. I was so fortunate to stumble into writing; it has completely rewired my mind by providing a daily two-hour refuge for focused thinking. I am constantly on the lookout for new stories and fresh insights. Writing is what keeps me in student-of-life mode, and there is so much to learn!


I wrote...

Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life

By Vitaliy Katsenelson,

Book cover of Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life

What is my book about?

Soul in the Game is a book of inspiring stories and hard-won lessons on how to live a meaningful life. Drawing from the lives of classical composers, ancient Stoics, and contemporary thinkers, it is my exploration of practical wisdom that has helped me overcome my greatest challenges: in work, family, identity, health – and in dealing with both success and failure.

Part autobiography, part philosophy, part creativity manual, Soul in the Game is a unique and vulnerable exploration of what works, and what doesn’t, in the attempt to shape a fulfilling and happy life.

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?

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.

Augustus

By John Williams,

Book cover of Augustus

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.  


Who am I?

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.

The Age of Arthur

By John Morris,

Book cover of The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650

John Morris was an ancient historian specializing in the later Roman Empire who late in life turned his attention to Dark Age Britain. I only met him very briefly at a conference in the mid-1970s, by which time he was already very ill. He wrote by far his best-known work while presiding over the translation of a host of source materials for early medieval Britain and their publication by Phillimore, all the time fighting his own battle against cancer. He didn’t just accept Arthur as a real historical figure but made him the pivotal figure of British history in the decades around 500, accepting as authoritative all sorts of stories written many hundreds of years later. In so doing he was largely responsible for bringing the Arthurian Period of British history into existence and certainly gave it enormous popular appeal. Rarely has one writer had such an impact on a…


Who am I?

As a university historian and archaeologist my focus has been the Early Middle Ages. In the 1990s I wrote several books about the fifth and sixth centuries which barely mentioned Arthur but popular histories and films based on his story just kept coming, so I decided to look again at his story and work out how and why it developed as it did. I have published three well-received books on the subject, each of which builds on the one before, plus articles that have been invited to be included in edited volumes. I disagree with much in the five books above but collectively they reflect the debate across my lifetime. It is a great debate, I hope you enjoy it. 


I wrote...

King Arthur: The Making of the Legend

By Nicholas J. Higham,

Book cover of King Arthur: The Making of the Legend

What is my book about?

According to legend, King Arthur saved Britain from the Saxons and reigned over it gloriously sometime around A.D. 500. Whether or not there was a “real” King Arthur has all too often been neglected by scholars; most period specialists today declare themselves agnostic on this important matter. In this erudite volume, Nick Higham sets out to solve the puzzle, drawing on his original research and expertise to determine precisely when, and why, the legend began.

Higham surveys all the major attempts to prove the origins of Arthur, weighing up and debunking hitherto claimed connections with classical Greece, Roman Dalmatia, Sarmatia, and the Caucasus. He then explores Arthur’s emergence in Wales—up to his rise to fame at the hands of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Certain to arouse heated debate among those committed to defending any particular Arthur, Higham’s book is an essential study for anyone seeking to understand how Arthur’s story began.

Helena

By Evelyn Waugh,

Book cover of Helena

Helena is Evelyn Waugh’s most overlooked novel but it is my favourite. I love it for how Waugh depicts Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constatine, but what raises it to a place in any best-of list is a passage of writing that ranks as Waugh’s best - and he sets a very high bar for himself. Towards the end of the book Helena prays for her salvation but, reading it, we realise that Waugh is praying for his own salvation too, for those “who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation… of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.” 


Who am I?

I am a writer and historian, specialising in the early-Medieval period and the fractious but fruitful encounter between the Christian and Islamic worlds. My fiction is informed by my non-fiction work: it’s a great help to have written actual histories of Northumbria in collaboration with some of the foremost archaeologists working on the period. I regard my work as the imaginative application of what we can learn through history to stories and the books I have selected all do this through the extraordinarily varied talents of their authors. I hope you will enjoy them!


I wrote...

Edwin: High King of Britain

By Edoardo Albert,

Book cover of Edwin: High King of Britain

What is my book about?

The first of the Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, Edwin: High King of Britain tells how the exiled king of Northumbria, hunted by his enemies, regains his throne. But in the fractured world of 7th-century Britain, there are many men seeking power, and to be a king is to lead a short and violent life. As the High King, Edwin seeks answers to the questions that torment him: his purpose, his destiny, and his end.

Bernard Cornwell said of Edwin: High King of Britain: ‘A splendid novel that leaves the reader wanting more.’

Terra Incognita

By Ruth Downie,

Book cover of Terra Incognita: A Novel of the Roman Empire

An unlikely pair fight crime and corruption in second-century Britain. 

Meet Ruso and Tilla. He’s an educated, idealistic Roman serving as an army medic with the 20th Legion. She’s a feisty, pragmatic Briton and former slave. Together they fight injustice, solve murders, and share an endearing talent for getting themselves into awkward pickles by misconstruing each other’s intentions. 

In Terra Incognito, Ruso travels to the British frontier, where he is the outsider and Tilla the one who understands the rules. Can a tough Roman soldier learn to take advice from his barbarian housekeeper? Can he trust her not to betray him or run away to rejoin her people? Tilla proves trustworthy, and a great crime-fighting partnership is formed.


Who am I?

I enjoy authors who craft twisty mystery plots with vivid historical settings filled with memorable characters. I enjoy them even more when they make me laugh out loud. When I read for pleasure, I don’t want books filled with gritty realism or tragic stories. I want a bit of fun, but my dry sense of humor is left wanting by many novels purported to be funny. I often find their main characters either annoyingly frivolous or painfully cynical. Give me intelligent characters, stories filled with hope, and an occasional one-liner that tickles my funny bone. I hope this list has introduced you to authors who do just that.


I wrote...

Fountains and Secrets

By Lisa E. Betz,

Book cover of Fountains and Secrets

What is my book about?

A quirky mystery set in first-century Rome. When her husband’s friend goes missing, spunky Livia Aemilia eagerly joins the search for clues. She discovers two key facts: A) the missing man is tied to more serious crimes and B) her husband does not appreciate her sleuthing behind his back. 

Oops. Livia makes amends, but her curiosity soon gets her into trouble again. Worse, her husband discovers the mastermind behind the crimes is a ruthless longtime enemy. He orders her to cease investigating without explaining why, which only infuriates her into reckless action. Can they learn to trust each other and work together before their enemy identifies the pesky woman who’s been asking too many questions?

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