179 books directly related to Rome 📚

All 179 Rome books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Hero of Rome

By Douglas Jackson,

Book cover of Hero of Rome

Why this book?

Another book that inspires a strong memory of where I was when I read it. This time I was on a winter holiday in Scotland with my family and certain scenes are burned into my mind, so expertly were they written. This novel has a superb hero, great setting in Roman Britain, and the legendary warrior-queen, Boudicca. What more could you ask for? Hero of Rome is full of action and adventure and kicks off an excellent series that really doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Dans la Rome des Césars

By Gilles Chaillet,

Book cover of Dans la Rome des Césars

Why this book?

This French book is quite simply the best reconstruction of Rome in the age of Constantine you could hope for. If you read French or are happy to translate it, the sections about each area of the city are informative and interesting, accompanied by beautiful photographs, but even if you speak no French and have no intention of reading it, this book is still worthwhile. Between these sections, the book is filled with large, fold-out maps of reconstructed Rome, including every known building and right down to the alleyways, lovingly depicted. I have used it as a source for every book I’ve set in Rome now for the better part of a decade. An invaluable source and lovely work.

24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There

By Philip Matyszak,

Book cover of 24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There

Why this book?

Matyszak is one of the most knowledgeable and most entertaining authors on the subject of the Roman world. His guides to legionaries and gladiators and so on are both fun to read and highly educational. He is extremely accurate in his detail, yet provides that detail in such a way as to be highly enjoyable. 24 Hours in Ancient Rome is a unique book. It takes us through everyday life in the ancient city through the eyes of its people, almost like a reality TV show, hour by hour from the bakers in the middle of the night to the tavern owners at lunchtime, twenty-four guides to the city giving you twenty-four wonderful angles of Rome.

Rome (Oxford Archaeological Guides)

By Amanda Claridge,

Book cover of Rome (Oxford Archaeological Guides)

Why this book?

I am a Roman historian and spend as much time as I can in the eternal city. This is absolutely the best guidebook. Amanda lived in Rome for many years, knows every fragment of ancient architecture, and is fantastic at explaining the most complicated ruins. The book is short enough to carry with you everywhere and is full of wonderful maps and plans. Absolutely essential.

A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World's Greatest Empire

By J.C. McKeown,

Book cover of A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World's Greatest Empire

Why this book?

The author is a scholar, a professor of Classics, so he knows his stuff. He is also a wonderful writer. This is a collection of small and fascinating facts about Rome and the ancient world. A sampling of entries includes notes on Hannibal’s reputed use of jars of poisonous snakes as catapult ammunition, Roman fly fishing, window glass, and the mechanics of Nero’s revolving dining room.

The Thieves of Ostia

By Caroline Lawrence,

Book cover of The Thieves of Ostia

Why this book?

Not a single book, but a series of (I think) eighteen. If you have a kid (or grandkid) who just might be showing an interest in all things Roman (or one you’d like to tweak in that direction), then you can’t do better than this. Set (initially, at least) in late-first-century Ostia, the books follow the adventures of sea-captain's daughter Flavia Gemina and her friends who battle nasties such as serial dog-killers and slave-traffickers – plus, eventually, running foul of Emperor Titus himself. Gripping stuff, an excellent read whether you’re child or adult, and Lawrence’s attention to historical detail is impeccable. With cameo appearances by, among others, Pliny the Elder (spoiler: he dies in the end).

Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration

By O.F. Robinson,

Book cover of Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration

Why this book?

From the ridiculous to the sublime, although still very much in the same ballpark. Written by a female classical historian whose husband was involved in local civic administration, this book will tell you everything you want to know (and a lot that you’d rather not, on a full stomach) about how the city of Rome in the late first century was organised, serviced, plumbed, policed, and kept happy. The Roman history anorak’s dream.

Should you want an equally-detailed guide to Who was Who (and related to Whom) in the late Republic and early Empire, then try Ronald Syme’s The Augustan Aristocracy – an impenetrable gem (if gems can be impenetrable), and certainly not a cover-to-cover bedtime read, but nevertheless one of my favourite reference books.

Eagle in the Snow

By Wallace Breem,

Book cover of Eagle in the Snow

Why this book?

For writers of historical fiction, Eagle in the Snow has attained almost mythical status. First published fifty years ago, the book is still in print mainly through the enthusiastic recommendation of readers. Wallace Breem wrote only two other works and died in 1990, so there will be nothing more from his pen. It adds piquancy to the themes of the story: it’s a tale of the passing of things and the dying of an empire. It’s the tale of a man struggling against the fading of the light, even though he knows the struggle is hopeless. It’s a story of endings in a world that does not understand its mortality.

Maximinus Thrax: From Common Soldier to Emperor of Rome

By Paul N. Pearson,

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

Why this book?

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.

Catiline's War, The Jugurthine War, Histories

By Sallust,

Book cover of Catiline's War, The Jugurthine War, Histories

Why this book?

A self-contained description of a war fought in Africa against an ambitious monarch, in which the Roman superpower struggles with an elusive enemy. Roman efforts are badly hampered by corrupt generals and Sallust, writing a generation later makes no attempt to conceal his contempt for the aristocratic establishment which happily pocketed Jugurtha's bribes. A book that reads well and is relevant today. Get the Oxford University Press edition, and get the Catiline conspiracy thrown in for free.


By Gore Vidal,

Book cover of Julian

Why this book?

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.


By Colin Thubron,

Book cover of Emperor

Why this book?

There are a great many novels about Roman emperors, and even a few about the rulers of the later age – Gore Vidal’s Julian, for example – but this one stands out for its originality. The emperor of the title is Constantine, one of the towering figures of Roman history, and incidentally quite important in my own books too. The novel covers the two months leading up to the battle of Milvian Bridge in AD312, but rather than giving us a panoramic view of the military campaign in Italy, Thubron chooses to tell the story as a collection of letters and diary entries. So we get the internal thoughts and reflections, ambitions and fears of a range of protagonists: Constantine himself, his wife Fausta, a Christian bishop, and several competing imperial ministers and servants. The central dilemma is the emperor’s own crisis of faith, which will lead up to his famous Christian vision before the battle. Thubron leaves the vision itself ambiguous, and the story breaks off at this point; only history tells us what happens next. But despite a few anachronisms this short novel is packed with vivid detail and startling insights, and has the feel of genuine experience. If historical fiction is about bringing the past imaginatively to life, this unjustly-neglected work does just that.

At the Ruin of the World

By John Henry Clay,

Book cover of At the Ruin of the World

Why this book?

The end of the Roman Empire in the west is a fascinating but notoriously vague saga, which often seems to be composed entirely of footnotes. In this novel John Henry Clay takes a handful of those footnotes and rebuilds mid 5th century Gaul and Italy on a grand scale. The empire is on its knees, but the aristocratic elites of the southern provinces are still living the good life on their villa estates, until all is thrown into turmoil by the invasion of Attila and his Huns. Part family drama, part broad-canvas military and political epic, the first half of the novel reaches a climax in the defeat of the Hunnic hordes by General Aetius. But in its second half the story accelerates dramatically, as Avitus, the father of the central pair of characters, leads a Romano-Gothic army from Gaul to seize power in Rome. The ramifications of Avitus’s bid for imperial glory are impressively worked out, and although we know his attempt to restore the greatness of Rome is doomed from the start, the sense of impending tragedy provides a powerful narrative momentum. Just for a moment, perhaps, it almost seems as if things might turn out differently…

What Life Was Like: When Rome Ruled the World: The Roman Empire 100 BC-AD 200

By Time-Life Books,

Book cover of What Life Was Like: When Rome Ruled the World: The Roman Empire 100 BC-AD 200

Why this book?

Frequently, I write about everyday men and women. Consequently, I need to get a feel for what everyday life was like. What did people eat? How did they dress? Where did they work? I visit a lot of museums and have traveled extensively, but when I’m writing at home, I like books with lots of pictures, not only of historical sites, but photos of objects: cookware, weapons, clothing, jewelry, houses. This helps me bring the ancient world to life. This book is packed with pictures and well-researched information.

Ancient Rome

By Dorling Kindersley, Simon James,

Book cover of Ancient Rome

Why this book?

Found in the children’s section, I depend Eyewitness Books. I’ve collected a number of them and find them extremely useful for quick reference. Loaded with photographs and snippets of well researched information, they are enjoyable for readers of all ages. Topics in this book include: Family life, the bloody arena, a trip to the baths, worship and sacrifice, a dinner party, and much more. Ancient Rome is brought to life.

The World of Late Antiquity

By Peter Brown,

Book cover of The World of Late Antiquity

Why this book?

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.

Emperors and Biography

By Ronald Syme,

Book cover of Emperors and Biography

Why this book?

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.

Septimius Severus: The African Emperor

By Anthony Birley,

Book cover of Septimius Severus: The African Emperor

Why this book?

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.

Defeat of Rome in the East: Crassus, the Parthians, and the Disastrous Battle of Carrhae, 53 BC

By Gareth C. Sampson,

Book cover of Defeat of Rome in the East: Crassus, the Parthians, and the Disastrous Battle of Carrhae, 53 BC

Why this book?

I purchased this book in 2008, while I was researching The Other Alexander. However, I refused to open it until I had completed my own research over a year later. I did not want it to color my own work surrounding the history of Marcus Crassus. Why do I love it? Because here was a scholar with far more credentials than I who, it turns out, agreed with the premise of my own novels.

Daily Life in Ancient Rome: The People and the City at the Height of the Empire

By Jerome Carcopino,

Book cover of Daily Life in Ancient Rome: The People and the City at the Height of the Empire

Why this book?

A historical novel has to do more than just re-tell a part of history. The author has the duty to make history come alive for the reader, even if fictionalized. That means details about daily life and customs, not just buildings and battles. This book was enormously helpful in describing everyday Roman life. What the Romans were eating and wearing in Rome, they probably also ate (as near as they could) and wore in their colonies. Here I found everything from going to the barber to going to the circus.

S.P.Q.R: A History of Ancient Rome

By Mary Beard,

Book cover of S.P.Q.R: A History of Ancient Rome

Why this book?

There are lots of great histories that are changing the way we see the ancient world, but for an accessible overview of a whole civilization this book is hard to beat. With an eye for the extraordinary and the everyday, and a career’s worth of expertise packed into every page, this is a guidebook to make the foreign familiar. Combining archaeological advances with ancient texts, this book will update those who think they already know something about Roman civilization, challenge those who think they know everything, and amaze those who currently know nothing.

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

By Tom Holland,

Book cover of Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

Why this book?

This is history rewritten almost as a thriller. Zooming through the centuries from 753 BC – the year Rome was traditionally founded – to the death of Augustus the first emperor in AD14, Tom Holland’s sizzling prose grabs you from the start and keeps you reading. His theme is the rise of Rome from an obscure hill village to ruler of the Mediterranean world, his focus is on the last turbulent decades of the Roman Republic torn by civil strife and its final replacement by Augustus’s empire. It was an age of extremes – extreme violence, extreme luxury, extremely brilliant individuals. The Rubicon, incidentally, is a tiny river, once the northern boundary of Italy proper. By crossing it in 49BC, Caesar sparked the civil wars that wrecked the Republic.

The Roman Revolution

By Ronald Syme,

Book cover of The Roman Revolution

Why this book?

Considered a controversial masterpiece, this book has helped reveal far more than many realize. It examined the fall and overthrow of the Roman Republic and the re-establishment of the monarchy centered on the life and career of Octavian, who became Augustus, the first emperor. Syme, a much-respected scholar of ancient Rome, was immensely skilled in the use of prosopography, the technique of examining and tracing genealogical connections between the various leading families of republican and imperial Rome. He showed that republican Rome was ruled by an oligarchy, in this case, where a small group of powerful people, related by blood, marriage links, are in control. Syme’s expertise in examining the nomenclature of ancient history has allowed further discoveries to be made, mainly the family connections between the Roman Emperors of the first and second centuries. This is not the best book for an introduction to Roman history, but it is an incredibly important one for revealing the family relationships and political motivations of the Roman aristocracy. This is not just ancient history, but very much portrays how politics functions now.

A Brief History of the Romans

By Noel Lenski, Richard J.A. Talbert, Mary T. Boatwright, Daniel J. Gargola

Book cover of A Brief History of the Romans

Why this book?

This is probably the best recent one-volume history of Rome, which covers the entire scope of the Roman world from its beginnings to its collapse. It is nicely illustrated, and gives a solid summary of the Roman environment that is easily understood by non-specialists. It is an exciting story: from a village on the Tiber River to ruling the world, an unexpected process that is well laid out.

The Art of Rome

By Bernard Andreae,

Book cover of The Art of Rome

Why this book?

This is a lavishly illustrated work showing the major pieces of Roman art, an important component of their ideology and self image. It explains how the Romans built on the Greek tradition of art and architecture and created their own artistic world, much of which is still with us today.

I, Claudius

By Robert Graves,

Book cover of I, Claudius

Why this book?

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.

Defeat of Rome: Crassus, Carrhae and the Invasion of the East

By Gareth C. Sampson,

Book cover of Defeat of Rome: Crassus, Carrhae and the Invasion of the East

Why this book?

Rome suffered many military reverses during the course of its 800-year history, but of them all the reverse at Carrhae in 53BC was more keenly felt than any other (even the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest resulted in the loss of only three eagles). The loss of seven eagles to the barbarian Parthians stunned the Roman world and led to a crisis of confidence, made worse by the realisation that an army of 50,000 Romans had been defeated by 10,000 Parthians. This excellent title explores the background to the battle and how the numerically inferior Parthians were able to defeat the army of Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy

By Denise Eileen McCoskey,

Book cover of Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy

Why this book?

If you’re curious about what the ancient Greeks and Romans thought about their neighbors—Persians, Egyptians, etc.— you’ll want to read this book from cover to cover.  It’s smart, learned, and doesn’t shy away from hard truths.  After you read it, you’ll also want to read Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, David M. Goldenberg’s The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and The Origins of Racism in the West, edited by Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler.

The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian

By Robin Lane Fox,

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

Why this book?

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.

Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire: A Study in Social Control

By K.R. Bradley,

Book cover of Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire: A Study in Social Control

Why this book?

My novels take place in several ancient Mediterranean lands where slavery was an accepted, unchallenged reality. It’s hard for today’s writers and readers to grasp what relationships must have been like between human chattel and their owners in a world totally devoid of modern mores. Some authors who write about that time period choose to ignore the slaves and focus on the masters, but I was determined to get into the minds of both groups and explore their lives equally. Bradley’s subtitle, “A Study in Social Control,” held the key for me. His book revealed the “carrots and sticks” at work in such societies and helped me bring them to life in my fiction.

A Monument to Dynasty and Death: The Story of Rome's Colosseum and the Emperors Who Built It

By Nathan T. Elkins,

Book cover of A Monument to Dynasty and Death: The Story of Rome's Colosseum and the Emperors Who Built It

Why this book?

A large part of the last book of my trilogy focuses on one character’s involvement in the construction of the Flavian Amphitheater, known today as The Colosseum. As with other complex issues I’ve written about — the Jewish Revolt, social constraints on women, relationships between masters and slaves — I’ve had to make sense of this grandest construction project of the first century. Elkins’ scholarly book helped me get out of the “tourist-in-Rome mindset” and into the “you-are-there-as-it’s-being-built mindset.” I’m currently writing that section, so the jury is still out, but Elkins’ in-depth research and clear exposition provide a good road map.

Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matter

By Simon Goldhill,

Book cover of Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matter

Why this book?

Simon Goldhill powerfully demonstrates why we remain indebted to the ancient world in so many ways. It is not just that classical columns often decorate our buildings or that classical legends inspire our films and books, our whole life still bears the cultural and psychological imprint of ancient Greece and Rome. Our current obsession with gyms, for example, stems from the Greek passion for exercising in public (and they did so naked). Gymnasium is in origin a Greek word. While Greeks and Romans took different views from us on numerous things, from romantic love to slavery, the issues they first confronted and debated still matter. Unsurprisingly for the ancient world, far from being peopled with dead white marble statues gathering dust in museums, throbbed with impassioned life. The echoes of their tumultuous lives haunt us still.

The Histories

By Tacitus, Kenneth Wellesley (translator),

Book cover of The Histories

Why this book?

The year 68 CE is a very important, not to mention interesting, year in Roman History. Because history was written by the upper class, we tend to lose sight that Nero was a populist, a man of the people. Tacitus gives you the scoop here on all the soap opera that unfolds with the end of the Julio-Claudian line. If you think history is boring, you might be surprised at how fast-paced and scandalous these accounts are.

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

By Robert Graves,

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

Why this book?

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!

Nero: The Man Behind the Myth

By Richard Holland,

Book cover of Nero: The Man Behind the Myth

Why this book?

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). 

Women in the Classical World

By Elaine Fantham, Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, H.A. Shapiro

Book cover of Women in the Classical World

Why this book?

A team of experts got together to create this wonderful book. It is well illustrated, clearly written throughout, and firmly based on textual and other evidence. That is, the authors typically start with a general statement such as “There were increased opportunities for women to be educated in the Hellenistic world,” and then go on for a few pages to show how this came about by translating and commenting on the relevant texts, and showing the relevant vase paintings. Ancient Greek history tends to be very male-oriented – almost all ancient Greek writing was done by men, for instance – so this book is a much-needed antidote.

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries, and Curiosities

By Alberto Angela, Gregory Conti (translator),

Book cover of A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries, and Curiosities

Why this book?

This book provides an exemplary hour-by-hour guide to what life was like for a citizen of Rome at the height of its power. I love that Angela not only gives us the high-society angle, bringing us into the lush gardens and sumptuous homes of Rome’s wealthy and powerful, but also the crowded apartments and streets that were home to the vast majority of the ancient city’s citizens. You walk alongside them, getting a ground-level view of the patterns of a normal day in all its mundane details, from clothing to food to labor to entertainment, rendered in fascinating prose.

Daily Life in Late Antiquity

By Kristina Sessa,

Book cover of Daily Life in Late Antiquity

Why this book?

This is the only book on the list that relates directly to my main topic of research, but that is a strong recommendation in itself. In truth, there are lots of books about ‘late antiquity’ (or ‘the later Roman Empire’), and many of them are very good indeed. But they also tell a familiar story in familiar ways: they discuss politics, military actions, transforming towns, and (increasingly) plague and climate change. Sessa’s book deals with all of these themes in some way, but flips the whole thing on its head. This book looks at the period from the bottom up, thinking about the lived experiences of women and children, of country-dwellers, and those who inhabited the less glamorous corners of the empire. Reading this made me think again about lots of topics that I thought I knew well. It is also accessibly written and introduces a sometimes complex period very clearly.

The Science of Roman History: Biology, Climate, and the Future of the Past

By Walter Scheidel (editor),

Book cover of The Science of Roman History: Biology, Climate, and the Future of the Past

Why this book?

Already when I was writing the first edition of Rome. An Empire’s Story it was clear that the subject was being transformed by scientific discoveries. Over the last decade, science-led projects have changed our notions of ancient Roman nutrition and health, of Romans’ impact on the environment, on the animals and plants they farmed, and also of their own vulnerability to plague and climate change. Scheidel, who is a world leader in this field, has gathered together historians using everything from human DNA and skeletal material to the remains of ancient seeds and animals to explain how the life sciences can unlock whole new areas of ancient history. This is a fast-moving field, and this short book gives a crash course on what has been done to date, and what might come next.

Urban Space and Aristocratic Power in Late Antique Rome: Ad 270-535

By Carlos Machado,

Book cover of Urban Space and Aristocratic Power in Late Antique Rome: Ad 270-535

Why this book?

Many histories of Rome end in the second century that period in which Edward Gibbon judged “the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous”. But there is a great deal of Roman history after that. Rome survived a great military crisis in the third century. The next generation of emperors based themselves near the frontiers to ward off future attacks. Machado’s extraordinary book tells the story of the City of Rome after the emperors had gone, returned into the hands of an aristocracy fascinated by its past but also committed to Roma Aeterna (Eternal Rome). Using statues and inscriptions and archaeology and a mass of little read ancient literature, Machado paints a vivid picture. Far from the new centres of power, the Roman aristocracy rebuilt, repaired, and steered the city through religious transformations, barbarian sacks, and beyond the fall of the western empire.

A Season for the Dead

By David Hewson,

Book cover of A Season for the Dead

Why this book?

If you diligently work your way down this list, you’ll travel to Sicily, Venice, Florence, and Naples. But none of these cities beat Rome. I’m biased, of course. My wife and I lived in Rome when we were first married. When I close my eyes, I swear I see Caravaggios and I can still smell the woodsmoke and simmering pasta sauce that perfume Rome’s air. All of which brings me to Hewson’s Nic Costa novels. I don’t think anyone nails Rome’s sinister criminal quality the way Hewson does, but he still manages to capture the Eternal City’s beauty, food, and art. (Hewson’s a Brit who travels to Italy often; it's totally worth checking out his Instagram account.) Currently 10 books in the series. If you like them, investigate his standalone novels, some of which are also set in Italy.

The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Biography and Portraits of the City - Two-Volume Slipcased Set

By Andrea Carandini,

Book cover of The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Biography and Portraits of the City - Two-Volume Slipcased Set

Why this book?

In two volumes, this is quite simply one of the most beautiful books I own. Much more than an atlas of maps, it includes illustrations of archaeological evidence from across the city and is full of reconstruction drawings. It is a book to simply lose yourself in and spend time browsing through the pages that set out the city of Rome. The overlaying of the ancient buildings from Rome onto the modern street grid, also allows for the reader to see how those ancient buildings, such as the Theatre of Pompey, continue to shape the streetscape of the city of Rome.

Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250

By John Clarke,

Book cover of Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250

Why this book?

This book is truly a staple for the study of Roman sex through Roman art. Clarke, a professor at the University of Texas, draws attention to the kind of details in ancient paintings and everyday objects we may miss when viewing them from behind museum glass, and interprets them to cast new light upon how the Romans viewed themselves as sexual beings. The pictures are also great. 


By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of Lavinia

Why this book?

In Vergil's Aeneid, Lavinia is a princess destined to marry the hero Aeneas and bear him a son who will be the ancestor of Julius Caesar. Le Guin makes Lavinia the center of her story. Her Lavinia is not a passive prize for the Trojan warrior, but a young woman attempting to find her way in a society that does not offer even princesses many opportunities for choice. 

But what’s really meaningful to me is the way Le Guin enters the world of another writer's story and creates her own based on it, remaining faithful to the original but taking it in new directions. Lavinia does this without disrespect to the great work it arises from, which is what I sought to do in my own book.

Age of Conquests: The Greek World from Alexander to Hadrian

By Angelos Chaniotis,

Book cover of Age of Conquests: The Greek World from Alexander to Hadrian

Why this book?

The later period of Greek history, after the conquests of Alexander the Great, is considerably less well known that the history of Classical Greece, but it was a fascinating period that radically changed the society and culture of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. This book covers the period of Alexander's conquests, the fragmentation of his empire into multiple kingdoms after his death, and the Roman conquest and domination of the Greek world.

It outlines the rise and fall of dynasties and kingdoms, the Roman conquest, and the transformation of the region, firstly by the Greek culture promoted by Alexander and his successors, and then by Roman rule. It provides an accessible and informative narrative of a period in which the Middle East and Greek world underwent transformational changes.

The Coin of Carthage

By Winifred Bryher,

Book cover of The Coin of Carthage

Why this book?

Bryher's historical novels, once acclaimed, are out of print. I think Bryher deserves re-discovery. I like how The Coin of Carthage, set during ancient Rome’s war against Carthage, concerns everyday people: traders, farmers, common soldiers. And no Rome. Rome is a glimpse from a hill. I like this ̶ a true peasant’s sense of distance, where very near is still far. We follow the workaday lives of Italian-Greek traders Zonas and Dasius, from Naples docks to Carthage streets, to bucolic Tivoli, farms, markets, courtyards, piers, ships, mule-trains. Setting Italia, characters commoners, heroes Italian-Greeks, the periphery, usually silenced, is given voice. A curiously moving book.


By John Williams,

Book cover of Augustus

Why this book?

Augustus tells the fictionalized life story of the most famous Roman emperor of all, Augustus Caesar, through letters written by the people around him. I like this approach. We see Augustus from multiple, one-step-removed perspectives, just as history presents him, and we also get to see what he is up against.

“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” might be Augustus’s motto, for an exquisite tone of beautiful melancholy haunts his story, as well as the story of his daughter, exiled and imprisoned for life after such great expectations. Augustus is a beautiful, unusual, profound book.

The Silence of the Wave

By Gianrico Carofiglio, Howard Curtis (translator),

Book cover of The Silence of the Wave

Why this book?

Arguably, this is not a book about surfing. The Silence of the Wave is about an Italian undercover police officer dealing with trauma and guilt. But within this hardboiled story of crisis and the dark and ugly undercurrents of our modern world, Carofiglio beautifully illustrates the lasting impact surfing can have on a person’s life. Like first love, surfing may be in your past, but it is never forgotten and often takes on a mythic quality that at once can feel like a dream and also lead you back to your true self.

Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words

By Jeremy Mynott,

Book cover of Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words

Why this book?

The history of ornithology is an extraordinarily rich topic and one full of interest and rewards. This book is a celebration of the beginnings of our ornithological knowledge. A classics scholar and ornithologist, Jeremy Mynott has translated all the numerous texts here himself, and in so doing providing a consistent, knowledgeable, highly readable text. One of the things that comes across so vividly in this book is how much of our knowledge about birds — including, for example, the fact that young birds, like the nightingale, acquire their song by listening to their father — were so well established so long ago! 

The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples

By Herwig Wolfram, Thomas Dunlap (translator),

Book cover of The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples

Why this book?

Herwig Wolfram is the Grand Master of Germanic history. His mighty History of the Goths is a work cited perhaps more than any other by any author writing about this period, and its influence of study of Early Middle Ages is unparalleled. But History of the Goths is a heavy, dense, scholarly work, and not easy to find these days. The Roman Empire is a more popular synthesis, focusing not just on Goths, but on all Late Antiquity Germanic tribes – Franks, Burgundians, Saxons, and others – providing a rich view of the barbarians from the perspective of their Roman neighbours. 

La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World

By Dianne Hales,

Book cover of La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World

Why this book?

If you love Italy—and if you don't love it now, you definitely will—after reading this engaging, vibrant tribute to Italy! Knighted by the President of Italy for her writing about Italy, author Dianne Hales describes the native, inherent passion of Italians—la passione italiana— as the source and nurturer of our civilization's love for art, music, architecture, cars, ceramics, sculpture, design, literature, film, food, and wine. Bursting with talent and passion, the legacy of Italian passion for life in our culture is ubiquitous and all-encompassing. Italy and its passion itself have taken hold of our imaginations, and your imagination will take you directly to la bella Italia, as it did for me, while reading this engaging book.

Casa Rossa

By Francesca Marciano,

Book cover of Casa Rossa

Why this book?

This book made me fall in love with Puglia, the hot, dusty “heel of the boot” with its lemons, olives, and cactus, its boxy farmhouses. Not that the story, bouncing from Paris to New York to a long-gone Rome, doesn’t deliver—the narrator, Alina, talks about a family secret passed from woman to woman, disintegrating memories, a past she must understand before the movers arrive and the house with its mural of a naked woman painted on a patio wall is no longer theirs. Present and past, the known and the unknown combine, and all of it is tied to alluring, sensual Puglia. As a storyteller, Marciano demands your attention, painting the life story of a family whose Italy is unlike the one you think you know.


By Lew Wallace,

Book cover of Ben-Hur

Why this book?

The glamour and excitement of the films distract somewhat from this book’s true message. A young Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur longs for a Jewish king to vanquish Rome, but suffers injustice through no fault of his own and is brutally enslaved. After perilous experiences on land and sea, he returns to Jerusalem and witnesses the last days of Jesus’s life: healing of outcasts, gracious forgiveness, and a mercilessly cruel death. Ben-Hur finally comes to faith in this divine anti-hero.

The historic, geographic, and cultural detail in this long book is stunning, as are the realistically portrayed characters and the romantic side story. But it is the spiritual message that impressed me most: a downtrodden slave finally chooses to follow Jesus rather than pursue worldly riches and fame. He experiences redemption, learns to forgive, and starts a new life.

To Forestall the Darkness: A Novel of Ancient Rome, AD 589

By Vann Turner,

Book cover of To Forestall the Darkness: A Novel of Ancient Rome, AD 589

Why this book?

This book is set in Italy at the end of the 6th century. It is a vivid account of an engineer who struggles to survive in a largely devastated country and longs to revive the former advanced Roman technology. It depicts a cruel world: old Romans attacked by Lombards, and merciless clashes between Pagans, Arian, and Catholic Christians. Of great interest to me were the personal interactions of both leaders and ordinary people.

Although, for my taste, it included an unnecessary preoccupation with violence and sex, the vivid cultural and factual detail provided me with much background information and food for thought. The characters are well developed and the story exciting.

Midnight in the Piazza

By Tiffany Parks,

Book cover of Midnight in the Piazza

Why this book?

I discovered this book through a podcast I love about living the expat life. Thirteen-year-old Beatrice has landed in Rome with her professor father, and she would rather not be there. But Rome is full of wonders and Beatrice becomes entranced by the turtle fountain in the piazza outside her apartment, especially when those turtles seem to vanish. The author lives in Rome and is very knowledgeable about the art and culture of Italy, so I learned a lot about art and history without realizing I was learning at all. Middle grade readers will love the mystery, and who would not want to sneak into an ancient Roman building in the middle of the night to catch a thief? 

This Is Rome

By Miroslav Sasek,

Book cover of This Is Rome

Why this book?

This last book is a classic and part of a series that would be helpful for other travel adventures. It’s the only non-fiction book on the list. But it’s a great introduction for kids wanting to know more about the place they are travelling. While originally published in 1960 the book was updated in 2007. This is a great overall introduction to Rome and its history and a good place to start piquing a young traveler’s interest. 

The Lantern Bearers

By Rosemary Sutcliff,

Book cover of The Lantern Bearers

Why this book?

This is my all-time favourite novel by Rosemary Sutcliff—an author whose works inspired me to become a writer of historical fiction, and, long in the future, encouraged me to craft my own Tudor young adult novel.

Set in early Britain, it tells the story of Aquila, a young man of British birth. A Viking raiding party destroys Aquila’s home and family. After he is left to die by the original raiders, a leader of another Viking group takes Aquila across the sea to his home as a slave. For years, bitterness and hopelessness also enslave Aquila.

The Lantern Bearers is such a beautiful, richly layered story of healing, redemption, and the victory of the human spirit. It even introduces the reader to the young Arthur Pendragon as he steps towards his destiny. Believe me, I still read this book when the world seems dark, and I need reminding of hope.

The Aeneid of Virgil

By Virgil, Allen Mandelbaum (translator),

Book cover of The Aeneid of Virgil

Why this book?

Historical fiction is by no means a modern concept. Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet, Virgil, sets his epic tale in the distant past. Aeneas and his men voyage through Europe, North Africa, and the underworld, encountering physical and emotional devastation before arriving on Italian shores to found Rome. Elements may be fantastical but that past comes to life with the brilliant, bracing clarity of a spring morning.


By Diana Peterfreund,

Book cover of Rampant

Why this book?

Unicorns—white horses with horns on their heads. If that was your first thought, prepare for Rampant to turn your world upside down. These unicorns aren’t the fairytale variety. They are man-killers. Literally. I loved how this book took unicorns and made them creatures to be feared. And the best part of all: the only ones that can stop them are a group of teenage girls. Dark secrets, a forbidden romance, and girls that can kick unicorn tail. What more could you want?

Raphael, Painter in Rome

By Stephanie Storey,

Book cover of Raphael, Painter in Rome

Why this book?

Stephanie Storey brings Renaissance giant Raphael to life in this gorgeous and impeccably researched novel. We see Raphael’s early career through his time in Rome as painter to popes, and watch as he navigates the potentially deadly politics inherent in being an artist to the powerful. The novel also gives us an up-close and personal look at Raphael’s rivalry with his contemporary, Michelangelo. Raphael’s antics will entertain even as his lifelong question for perfection in his work will resonate with artists of every stripe – I know it did with me!

Love & Vengenace

By Gina Danna,

Book cover of Love & Vengenace

Why this book?

If Game of Thrones and the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand had a baby, it would be this novel. I know that’s a Greek Spartan on the cover, but if you can overlook that, there’s a very good story weaving through the horrible fates being thrown at Marcus and Gustina. And I mean seriously horrible. What this story lacks in deep point of view, and strong characterization, it makes up for with well-written, albeit very, very graphic, sex and violence. Part of me died when Andy Whitfield did, so this story in its own way is a road back to what was the absolute best, and worst, depending on your perspective, of the decadence and brutality that was Ancient Rome.

Nova Praetorian

By N.R. Walker,

Book cover of Nova Praetorian

Why this book?

I love a well-written historical thriller with a flair for romance and this one is great. I know how hard it is to write a good historical thriller. I’ve done many for the medieval period, but this one specialises in the Roman period. A notoriously difficult period to write about for fiction. I couldn’t find anything wrong in there. The dynamic between the protagonists is very well handled and the action is superb. The politics and thriller aspects are deftly handled, never bogging down the action. Thoroughly enjoyable trip to ancient Rome.

The D. Case: Or the Truth about the Mystery of Edwin Drood

By Charles Dickens, Carlo Fruttero, Franco Lucentini

Book cover of The D. Case: Or the Truth about the Mystery of Edwin Drood

Why this book?

This novel is two books for the price of one. It contains the unfinished manuscript of The Mystery of Edwin Drood that Dickens was writing when he died. Chapters from the Dickens book alternate with scenes from a conference in Rome devoted to unfinished works. The conference attendees who resemble fictional sleuths, including Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, and Hercule Poirot, look for clues in the Dickens text to deduce how he would have finished the story. The book also offers insights into the life and death of Charles Dickens and a stunning ending. I love the book for its unique combination of a mystery and a novel by a literary giant.  

The Aeneid

By Virgil, David West,

Book cover of The Aeneid

Why this book?

Decades ago I wouldn’t have recommended Vergil’s Aeneid. It’s a scandal for a Latin teacher to say that, but there you have it. And then one day the light came on, and I saw the incredible depth of the characters, to say nothing of the artistry of the poetry itself. As I have taught the poem to juniors and seniors each year and worked on my own translation along the way, I never cease to be amazed by Vergil as a writer. He crafts each scene, each character, as if he were a sculptor or a jeweler working the most exquisite cameo. Don’t miss out on a world classic that is too often overlooked in the modern age. For this, I chose a prose translation that really showcases Vergil’s storytelling. 

Mistress of Rome

By Kate Quinn,

Book cover of Mistress of Rome

Why this book?

Mistress of Rome was the first book I ever read by Kate Quinn, but it wasn’t my last. Frankly, I fell in love with Thea, a slave in ancient Rome. Ms. Quinn never shied away from the hard stuff. The reality was Thea was a slave and, as a slave, had very limited choices in her life. Ms. Quinn crafted a novel full of rich characters who sometimes made poor choices, or had their choices made for them all the while set against the beautiful background of ancient Rome, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a novel.

Beloved and God: Story of Hadrian and Antinous

By Royston Lambert,

Book cover of Beloved and God: Story of Hadrian and Antinous

Why this book?

This book is about the sublimation of an erotic relationship between a teenage boy and the emperor Hadrian that led to the creation of the last classical religious movement of Antiquity. The murky sacrificial drowning of Antinous in the River Nile prompted the emperor in his role as chief priest of Rome to deify the youth, setting up temples in his name and going so far as to define a celestial constellation in his image. Lambert’s posthumously published investigation rigorously rakes through the still glowing embers of this affair to define how it was ignited.


By Christian Meier,

Book cover of Caesar

Why this book?

When I wrote my first book—an exploration of Caesar’s leadership—I read a lot about the guy. This was the book I came back to most often as a guidepost. It helped me get past the biases I brought into my project and understand better the essence of who Caesar really was. There are a lot of books about Caesar, and rightly so; he is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic personalities of all time. For me, a great book is one that leaves me feeling like I could travel in time, sit down with the subject, and know what to expect from them. That’s a rare feat, especially for someone like Caesar. But he felt almost…familiar after reading this book. 

Caligula: A Biography

By Aloys Winterling, Deborah Lucas Schneider (translator), Glenn W. Most, Paul Psoinos

Book cover of Caligula: A Biography

Why this book?

Few books challenge conventional knowledge about a historical figure like this one. This might be bad business for me personally. After all, my book about Evil Roman Emperors likes to wallow in the more salacious aspects of Roman history, and this book undermines some of those narratives where Rome’s third emperor is concerned. Winterling’s book takes a deep and critical look at the life of this maligned figure from history. While he stops short of vindicating Caligula, the author does a great job of giving a more complete and nuanced perspective of who he was and what made him tick. Was he truly crazy? Did he really think himself a god? Should his name be inextricably linked with violence and debauchery? Read and find out.

Greece and Rome at War

By Peter Connolly,

Book cover of Greece and Rome at War

Why this book?

It was this book that sparked my interest in the Roman Army—and I know from talking with others that it has created a host of other Roman military history buffs since its original publication.

The second and third parts of the book detail the evolution of the Roman army from its origins as a city-state militia, transforming from a legion based on maniples into one based on cohorts, and finally becoming the professional army and navy of the Caesars. 

Peter Connolly both wrote and illustrated the text. Using archaeological and epigraphic evidence he produced exquisite, painstakingly detailed paintings of arms and armour of infantry and cavalry, siege weapons, and warships. As an introduction to the subject, it has never been bettered.

Connolly was the honourary patron of The Ermine Street Guard reenactment society in which I served honourably for ten years.

The Roman Army at War 100 BC - AD 200

By Adrian Goldsworthy,

Book cover of The Roman Army at War 100 BC - AD 200

Why this book?

Adrian Keith Goldsworthy could be said to be the gold standard in histories of the Roman Empire in English. He has written several books about ancient commanders and campaigns. This thought-provoking book about the Roman Army was his PhD thesis at Oxford University. 

As a writer on Roman military matters myself, I have frequently referred to Goldsworthy’s study. Inspired by John Keegan's revisionist landmark book Face of Battle, Goldsworthy draws upon Classical sources covering 300 years—Julius Caesar, Tacitus, Polybius, Plutarch, Flavius Josephusto present his interpretation of how the Roman army actually “waged war”. The extensive footnotes point to other writers and evidence for further personal study.

Frankenstein's Prescription

By Tim Lees,

Book cover of Frankenstein's Prescription

Why this book?

This book arrived in the avalanche of volumes that descended on my house the year I agreed to join the judging panel for the World Fantasy Awards, and for me it shone out. The story’s told by Hans Schneider, who kills a fellow student when a duel goes wrong and ends up working in a low-rent asylum. There he meets the mysterious Dr. Lavenza and joins him in a mission to locate Victor Frankenstein’s formula for eternal life. It’s written with style and wit and a great sense of period. I felt so strongly about the lack of a paperback edition that I later offered to create one for the Brooligan Press. And for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t make a penny from its sales!

Destinations in Mind: Portraying Places on the Roman Empire's Souvenirs

By Kimberly Cassibry,

Book cover of Destinations in Mind: Portraying Places on the Roman Empire's Souvenirs

Why this book?

Although we often dismiss souvenirs as kitsch, they can be deeply meaningful to people, both today and in antiquity. Taking a phenomenological approach to ancient Roman souvenirs of places, Kimberly Cassibry shows how people would have held, used, and interacted with small objects showing seaside resort towns on the Bay of Naples, the Circus Maximus in Rome, Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, and the western empire’s network of imperial roads. Her book taught me just how large makers and materials loom in how places came to be represented and conceptualized in Roman antiquity. I love that Cassibry forces me to think anew about my own travel souvenirs and how I interact with them to make meaning of places my loved ones or I have visited. 

Roman Sports and Spectacles: A Sourcebook

By Anne Mahoney,

Book cover of Roman Sports and Spectacles: A Sourcebook

Why this book?

If you want to know what some Romans thought about sport and spectacle in their own words, turn to Anne Mahoney’s sourcebook, which offers translations of key literary passages and inscriptions. From Horace’s descriptions of unruly theater audiences to Ovid’s advice to young Roman men about how to pick up girls at the circus, this sourcebook brought the world of Roman spectacle to life for me. I love that she shows how the themes that make modern sport and fandom so complex—religion, gender, politics, and money—were just as relevant in ancient Rome. I always come away from reading the sources she compiles feeling that Roman sports fans are not so different from us today.

Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day

By Philip Matyszak,

Book cover of Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day

Why this book?

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...

Latin for All Occasions

By Henry Beard,

Book cover of Latin for All Occasions

Why this book?

Here it is! Everything from a simple ‘I’ll have a bucket of fried chicken’ (‘Da mihi sis hamam carnis gallinaceae frictae’) to a crafted curse like ‘May conspirators assassinate you in the mall!’ (‘Utinam coniurati te in foro interficiant!’), via such gems as ‘Do you want to dance? I know the Funky Broadway’ (‘Visne saltare? Viam Latam Fungosam scio’) and ‘Eat my shorts!’ (‘Vescere bracis meis!’). Need to know how to impress your native-speaker co-diner in a pretentious restaurant? Try ‘Vinum bellum iucundumque est, sed animo corporeque caret’ (‘It’s a nice little wine, but it lacks character and depth.’). Or maybe you just need a few pejorative terms to hurl at the driver who has cut in on your hired chariot; if so then ‘Airhead!’ (‘Caput vanis!’), ‘Dork!’ (‘Caudex!’) or ‘Space cadet!’ (‘Tiro astromachus!’) might, inter alia, fit the bill. A constant source of delight; Cicero wouldn’t have approved, let alone Marcus Cato, but Juvenal would have loved it.


By Ross Leckie,

Book cover of Hannibal

Why this book?

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.

The History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome

By T. Cato Worsfold,

Book cover of The History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome

Why this book?

When I wrote, Vestal Virgin—suspense in ancient Rome, this was the only book I found specifically about the Vestals. Written in 1934, it covers topics including: religious duties, civil duties, dress, and discipline. The Virgins were sworn to chastity on penalty of death, understanding their duties and how they were disciplined was essential to my story. I couldn’t have written my historical novel without help from this book.

The Roman Way

By Edith Hamilton,

Book cover of The Roman Way

Why this book?

An oldie (first published in 1932) but a goodie. Hamilton's short essays on the classic Latin writers--from the first writers of Latin comedy through to the epic poets and historians who did so much to shape the language--aren't just a crash course on the Roman literary canon. They're an accessible introduction to Roman culture from the ground up.

The Ancient City

By Arjan Zuiderhoek,

Book cover of The Ancient City

Why this book?

Historians of Greece and Rome have been arguing about how to describe ancient cities on and off since the eighteenth century and some of their debates have got stuck deep in the mud. This little book offers the best way out of these impasses. It is super clear, really up to date and incorporates the very latest research. Especially good on economy and society.

The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy: Or, the Geography, History, & Antiquities of Parthia

By George Rawlinson,

Book cover of The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy: Or, the Geography, History, & Antiquities of Parthia

Why this book?

Although this book was first published in 1873, it remains one of the foundations of research on the Parthian Empire. Why do I include it among these more modern works? Here’s an excerpt:

"Of the thirty sons who still remained to Orodes, king of Parthia, [he] selected as his successor Phraates, the eldest of the thirty. Orodes proceeded further to abdicate in his favour, whereupon Phraates became king. Phraates, jealous of some of his brothers, removed them by assassination, and when the ex-monarch ventured to express disapproval, added the crime of parricide to fratricide by putting to death his aged father."

The book is full of astounding little gems like this. That’s why. It is a fascinating exploration of one of the great, but few understood empires of the ancient world.

The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic

By Mike Duncan,

Book cover of The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic

Why this book?

Duncan walks the reader through the generations leading up to the fall of the Republic, examining the political, economic, and social conditions that led to civil war and, eventually, the transition to Empire. While Duncan provides biographies of key figures like the Gracchi brothers, he also sets them in the context of their world: its constraints, its faith, its competing pressures. The Storm Before the Storm opens a window into an under-examined period of history, one which has echoes in modern-day politics.

Marcus Aurelius: A Biography

By Anthony Birley,

Book cover of Marcus Aurelius: A Biography

Why this book?

Although some people assume we don’t know much about Marcus Aurelius, the truth is that we probably know more about him than most other ancient philosophers, and certainly, there are several modern biographies of Marcus Aurelius but the best is this one by the British historian, Anthony Birley. Birley adopts a scholarly approach but he also keeps quite a tight focus on the events of Marcus’ life. (Frank McLynn’s biography is more widely-read but ranges more freely over topics such as the Roman empire’s economy.)  

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By Edward Gibbon,

Book cover of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Why this book?

This is the first great study of the Roman world. Although over 200 years old, it is still influential in the way we look at Rome. It is also one of the great monuments of English prose. Although we may no longer agree with many of his conclusions, it is a joy to read and helps us understand the basis of the Roman world.

Galen: Psychological Writings: Avoiding Distress, Character Traits, the Diagnosis and Treatment of the Affections and Errors Peculiar to Each Person'

By P.N. Singer,

Book cover of Galen: Psychological Writings: Avoiding Distress, Character Traits, the Diagnosis and Treatment of the Affections and Errors Peculiar to Each Person'

Why this book?

Galen is his own best advocate and his own worst enemy. This volume includes translations of five works, including one discovered only in 2005 and another preserved largely in Arabic. It tells us much of his life in Rome, his book collecting, and his views on education and ethics.

Pagans and Christians

By Robin Lane Fox,

Book cover of Pagans and Christians

Why this book?

I first encountered Lane Fox when I was working on my dissertation in graduate school. Working on “Gentiles” in the New Testament, I had to thoroughly understand the historical background. This book became my “pagan Bible,” in effect. The first half fully details ancient concepts and rituals, and the second emphasizes which elements were absorbed by the rise of Christianity and which were rejected and why.

A Companion to Marcus Aurelius

By Marcel van Ackeren,

Book cover of A Companion to Marcus Aurelius

Why this book?

This is a large and expensive academic book containing over thirty chapters by different authors (disclaimer: two of them are by me). It’s perhaps not the sort of thing that a typical general reader is likely to buy. But taken together these chapters constitute the fullest discussion of Marcus Aurelius available in English and most questions that people are likely to have about Marcus or his philosophy are probably answered somewhere in its five hundred plus pages.

The Annals of Imperial Rome

By Michael Grant, Tacitus,

Book cover of The Annals of Imperial Rome

Why this book?

Ancient Rome's greatest historian is also one of its greatest writers. In sharp, bitter, brilliant sentences he chronicles the rise of the tyrannical emperors who succeeded Julius Caesar. His passionate anger at the loss of Roman liberties for the sake of wealth and security will alarm you; but his description of the hollowing out of Rome's political, judicial, military, and religious institutions until nothing remains but terror will freeze your blood.

The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps

By Jessica Maier,

Book cover of The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps

Why this book?

This first-rate book, at once scholarly and accessible, is typical of the excellent production value of the University of Chicago Press, which is the major publisher of cartographic studies. Maier offers a fascinating reading of a good choice of maps.

The Penguin Dictionary of Ancient History

By Graham Speake,

Book cover of The Penguin Dictionary of Ancient History

Why this book?

Dictionaries are not usually meant to be fun but this fact-packed book is so well-written that it is a joy to read. Wonder who on earth was Cicero? What the Punic wars were all about? How the Greeks defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis? What was so special about Greek theatre? And why  Rome conquered Britain? You will find all the answers here. Besides military and political events, it covers literature, philosophy, art, religion, sport, and society, all the way from 776BC and the first Olympic Games to the end of the Roman Empire in the west in AD476.

The First Man in Rome

By Colleen McCullough,

Book cover of The First Man in Rome

Why this book?

Growing up, my hobby was reading historical novels. A great writer can transport the reader into different cultures, the past as well as the future. McCullough spent 13 years researching the background. Beginning with The First Man in Rome, she surveyed the history of the late Republic (from Sulla, Caesar, and Pompey) to the reign of Augustus (seven novels). Throughout, her descriptions of both private and political life highlight the integration of “religion and society.” Eliminating the dry, jargon-loaded scholarly debates of Classicists, her novels bring the ancient world to life. I learned more about ancient Roman religion from these novels than any scholarly textbook.

Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from Their Beginnings to Ad 325

By Will Durant,

Book cover of Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from Their Beginnings to Ad 325

Why this book?

For anyone interested in the broad sweep of world history, Durant’s Story of Civilization is a must-read. The scope of the work is simply breathtaking, extending from the dawn of human civilization to the end of the Napoleonic era. And Durant somehow manages to bring all the countless threads together and into context in an accessible manner. From Gibbon I turned to Durant for a more general view. In the volume Caesar to Christ, the similarities between the American and ancient Roman empires are made even starker. For instance, he writes, “the Roman patriciate and upper-middle class passed with impressive speed from stoic simplicity to reckless luxury.” Gibbon echoes the same sentiments in the first volume of the Decline and Fall

The Serpent and the Pearl

By Kate Quinn,

Book cover of The Serpent and the Pearl

Why this book?

While this novel moves effortlessly between three narrators, I loved that one of them is plucked straight from the dusty pages of history. While Lucrezia Borgia typically gets plenty of press, her contemporary Giulia Farnese was the beautiful young woman who didn’t have a choice in becoming the mistress of Cardinal Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI. Here we see her learning to wade through Italian politics at the height of Borgia treachery.

The Uncertain Hour: A Novel

By Jesse Browner,

Book cover of The Uncertain Hour: A Novel

Why this book?

In A.D. 66, Petronius, the author of the food-filled first novel, The Satyricon, has been implicated in an assassination plot to rid the world of Emperor Nero. He now faces a terrible choice: to end his life with honor, or to face an executioner at dawn. The Uncertain Hour is the sumptuous, beautiful tale of Petronius’s last, marvelous feast before he takes his place among the stars in the heavens.

The Love-Artist

By Jane Alison,

Book cover of The Love-Artist

Why this book?

The Roman poet Ovid was one of the most popular writers of his day, but the defining tragedy of his life – his lifelong exile from Rome at the very height of his powers – remains as mysterious today as it was in his own time. In The Love-Artist, Jane Alison provides that tragedy with a back story, when Ovid, on holiday on the shores of the Black Sea, meets and is enchanted by the witch-like Xenia and persuades her to return with him to Rome, with dire consequences. But it’s the book’s dream-like atmosphere – the sense that we are seeing the world through the eyes of a great poet with one foot in the ambitious world of empire and the other in an unstable netherworld of imagination and mythology – that will remain with the reader.

The Early Roman Expansion Into Italy: Elite Negotiation and Family Agendas

By Nicola Terrenato,

Book cover of The Early Roman Expansion Into Italy: Elite Negotiation and Family Agendas

Why this book?

This book rewrites the story of how Roman imperialism got started. It is written by one of the best archaeologists in the field, and it shows. It is brilliantly illustrated, and it explains the world into which Rome emerged. Instead of the traditional story of virtuous Roman heroes and bold wars of conquest, it shows why other Italian peoples decided to join up with Rome. We get a sense of how other Italians saw things. And we understand how the ruling families, Roman and Italian alike, came together and built a state that would conquer the Mediterranean in all their interests. Revolutionary!

Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome

By Rebecca Langlands,

Book cover of Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome

Why this book?

We often assume that the Romans were in love with love but, actually, they could be very divided over it. Love, for some, was not only destructive, it was practically criminal. The author of this academic book looks at the ethics of love and sex in Rome and considers the surprising appeal of ‘sexual virtue’, abstention, and chastity in ancient society. 

Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome

By Cyril Mango,

Book cover of Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome

Why this book?

The best survey of Byzantine civilization by the best Byzantinist of recent times, this book covers all the main features of Byzantine life, thought, and culture with profound but unobtrusive learning, including many interesting details and covering ethnography, religion, literature, art, and architecture.

Mango’s penetrating analysis often reveals defects of the Byzantines and their empire that other scholars usually overlook, and his overall evaluation of Byzantium is more negative than my own, but his writing is lucid, brilliant, and always worth reading. I particularly recommend this book as an introduction for readers who know little if anything about the Byzantines and their empire.

Semper Fidelis: A Novel of the Roman Empire

By Ruth Downie,

Book cover of Semper Fidelis: A Novel of the Roman Empire

Why this book?

In an ancient Roman Britain garrison town, Roman army physician, Ruso, and his native wife, Tilla, investigate a series of murders. Worse, Emperor Hadrian is coming. Ratcheting tension. The central issue in Semper Fidelis is the rivalry between Roman legionaries and Briton conscripts. The crime is solved, but the story doesn’t end. Briton conscripts riot, and, Hadrian absent, his empress, Sabina, must intercede.

The empress Vibia Sabina (posthumously deified), is my favorite character. Neglected, bored, sarcastic, calculating, duplicitous, funny, she is the perfect spoiled patrician matron.  What I like best is how everybody lies to everybody in Semper Fidelis, a tour-de-force of mendacity. An interesting, different, more-than-just-murder-mystery historical novel.

The Satyricon

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

Book cover of The Satyricon

Why this book?

Who knew that the emperor Nero appointed an Advisor on Tastefulness, who also penned a bawdy and gritty novel about the adventures of several friends in the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD? Fairly few, and the even more surprising fact is that hundreds of pages of his text survive today. You can still read either in Latin or in English translation about two young men proposing to fight for the affections of the youth Giton and you can join them all in a visit to an archetypal Roman brothel. There is nothing else remaining that provides a more direct and authentic insight into daily experiences and relationships in ancient Rome.

The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000

By Chris Wickham,

Book cover of The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000

Why this book?

Another synthesis of the ‘Dark Ages’ Europe, this one from the Penguin History series. An easy, but thorough read, painting a broad canvas from Ireland to Byzantium, and from the last days of Rome to the last days of Anglo-Saxon England, shines the light on the centuries that, while still seen as shrouded in the darkness of violence and barbarism, are in fact the true cradle of the European civilization as we know it today.

Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior

By Catherine Hanley,

Book cover of Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior

Why this book?

There is no better place to start this list than with Empress Matilda, England’s first reigning queen. Matilda, who vied for the English throne against her cousin, King Stephen, has always been a personal favourite of mine. She came tantalisingly close, in 1141, to securing her coronation and recognition of her rule. I was therefore very excited to read Catherine Hanley’s expertly written biography. I love the detail given on Matilda’s actions, with Hanley’s research impeccably detailed. This is one of the most valuable accounts of the life of an early English monarch.

Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe

By Peter Heather,

Book cover of Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe

Why this book?

Peter Heather’s work is one of the broadest in scope on the topic of the European ‘Barbarians’, while still retaining enough detail to keep the reader’s attention pinned. A great starter for this period of history, encompassing the entire first millennium AD, the time when the heart of European civilization gradually moved from the Mediterranean South to the cold Barbarian North. It reads like a novel – but is supported by years of painstaking research. If you can only read one book on Barbarian Europe, this is the book.

Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat

By Donald W. Engels,

Book cover of Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat

Why this book?

This book is full of amazing, surprising, and sometimes heartbreaking stories of how the status of cats changed during the Middle Ages. I learned a ton from this book. Even if you think you know everything about cats, you’re bound to be surprised by many of the stories here. A must-read for cat lovers and history buffs.

Hunting the Eagles

By Ben Kane,

Book cover of Hunting the Eagles

Why this book?

A wonderful book that will show us the story of a Roman soldier, his experiences, his way of thinking, and his ability to rebuild himself. We can also learn a lot about Roman culture and their way of seeing the world. A great book that leaves no one indifferent. I really recommend this book because it shows the importance of not giving up in the face of different circumstances and changes that occur in life. I recommend this book to all types of readers.

A Murder on the Appian Way

By Steven Saylor,

Book cover of A Murder on the Appian Way

Why this book?

If you love ancient Rome and a good murder mystery then this is the book you should read. The author has studied history and is considered an expert on ancient Rome, and judging by how accurate his descriptions are, it must be true. I am in love with this book (and the rest of the Roma Sub Rosa series) because it made me feel like I was walking down the Appian Way myself. Plus the mystery is so well given. A true must if you are in love with ancient Rome. 

The Silver Pigs: A Marcus Didius Falco Mystery

By Lindsey Davis,

Book cover of The Silver Pigs: A Marcus Didius Falco Mystery

Why this book?

What happens when you take a tough, ex-legionary who solves crimes for a living, and give him a large extended family of nosy sisters, eccentric uncles, and a mother who shall be obeyed? You get the wickedly funny noir send-up featuring Marcus Didius Falco. In addition to being cracking good mysteries, every book in this series brings fascinating details of ancient Rome to vivid life through Ms. Davis’s snarky and memorable descriptions. 

In this first book, Falco finds himself working undercover in a sliver mine in Britannia, a brave but ill-advised scheme that almost ends in his death. In the end, his friends must extricate him from his rash decisions, establishing an amusing precedent for many future predicaments. 

A Voice in the Wind

By Francine Rivers,

Book cover of A Voice in the Wind

Why this book?

This is the gold standard of Ancient World Christian Fiction for a reason. The author is an RWA Hall of Fame recipient and ACFW Lifetime Achievement Award winner. This first book in the Mark of the Lion series is so much more than a book about early Christianity and why Rome hated it. Words to describe Hadassah and Marcus’s story are… epic, profound, life-changing, powerful, captivating, and I could go on and on. It still freaks me out and totally awes me when reviews for my novels mention her in the same sentence. I want to be flattered and offended on her behalf at the same time, which is completely crazy. If you’re only going to invest in one book from my list, it should be this one. 

A Choice of Destinies

By Melissa Scott,

Book cover of A Choice of Destinies

Why this book?

Melissa Scott has written the best “What would’ve happened if Alexander didn’t die?” alternate history. It’s a popular question among historians, but usually assumes he survived his final illness. Scott takes a different tack, choosing instead to diverge some years before his death. Here, he returns from Asia to put down a revolt in Greece. After that, he goes west, against first Rome, then Carthage. Although the characters aren’t as fleshed out as in some of her later military SF (this was an early work), her grasp of military maneuvers and politics, for which she would later earn attention, is on full display. It’s a viable tale of what might have happened, had Alexander decided to take on Rome, or Carthage, at that point in their histories.

The Cicero Trilogy

By Robert Harris,

Book cover of The Cicero Trilogy

Why this book?

Imperium, Lustrum, and Dictator chart the disintegration of Rome’s republic and the inexorable rise, then sudden fall, of Julius Caesar. Told from the vantage point of Cicero, the most persuasive speaker of the age, it’s thrilling from the outset, an epic political thriller that seems to foreshadow the beginning of the modern world. The events are so incredible, so momentous, you have to keep reminding yourself they’re true.

White Wolf (Sons of Rome)

By Lauren Gilley,

Book cover of White Wolf (Sons of Rome)

Why this book?

My best/worst book hangovers are thanks to Lauren Gilley. She can wring every emotion out of me, but I’ll come back for more every time. As a massive fan of her outlaw bikers Dartmoor MC series, I wasn’t sure how she’d translate to fantasy, but shame on me for doubting. Gilley doesn’t half-ass things, so Sons of Rome with its Russian history, Roman legends, incredible character building, diverse, engaging casts, and meaty plotlines comes together in four big books (with a 5th on the way). Be warned; you don’t emerge from a Gilley book the same person you went in.

Enslaved: An Ancient Rome Romance

By Cassandra Dean,

Book cover of Enslaved: An Ancient Rome Romance

Why this book?

I am so thrilled this author is rereleasing this novel and am stoked to revisit Lucia and Marcus’s story. When I first agreed to participate with this list, it was the first book that came to mind. Dean’s storytelling is so powerful. She plays to the history of Rome, and the conflict and dynamics unique to the time period so well as you journey through an impossible romance that refuses to die, much like its hero and heroine. What I appreciated most about this novel is how Marcus is allowed to be more than a slave and gladiator and how Lucia does what she must to survive her situation while always holding fast to the defiance and strength she shared with Marcus in their early days.  

Quo Vadis?

By Henryk Sienkiewicz, Jeremiah Curtin (translator),

Book cover of Quo Vadis?

Why this book?

I’ve read a lot of books in my life, and this might be the only one that’s ever made me cry. The story follows an ambitious young Roman as he meets members of a strange new cult. At first, he’s opposed to them, but slowly falls in love with one of the new religion’s adherents, and joins them in their struggle against the oppressive Roman government. I’ve never been a big fan of romance, but this book showed me why love is so integral to good storytelling. It also gives a great example of how to weave religion or morals into a historical narrative without being overbearing or taking away from the story itself.

Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

By Robert Harris,

Book cover of Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

Why this book?

My favorite novel set in Ancient Rome, and perhaps my favorite novel period. This series follows the personal slave of the famous Roman Statesman Cicero. The first-person perspective allows us to see directly into the inner workings of the Roman Republic. The details are visceral, the emotions are real. Despite his vanity and arrogant tendencies, you find yourself constantly cheering for Cicero in his struggle to achieve respect in the cutthroat world of Roman politics. This book was a major inspiration for me as I began writing my own series, and I continue to return to it to this day.

Harriet and the Secret Rings

By Debra Clewer,

Book cover of Harriet and the Secret Rings

Why this book?

I have always found ancient history fascinating. I couldn’t learn enough about ancient Rome and Greece during my teenage years. As an adult, one of my bucket list holidays is to visit the amazing ruins throughout Italy, including Mt Vesuvius. Through Harriet’s adventure, we experience ancient Rome in its glory days as if we were there. I found it fascinating to read and learn about the everyday life of an ancient Roman family with twists and turns of a thrilling adventure as Harriet is chased through ancient streets by Roman soldiers. It is great escapism into a place in the past where I wish I could travel to and immerse myself in an ancient society and civilization. 

Constantine the Emperor

By David M. Potter,

Book cover of Constantine the Emperor

Why this book?

Constantine has come to be synonymous with the conversion of Rome to Christianity, and in the popular imagination the image often goes no further. I certainly always linked the man with this outcome in my mind. But he was so much more. He was ambitious to the point of revolutionary. He was ruthless to the point of megalomaniacal. He both stabilized the Empire and contributed to the factors that led to its fall. This book helped me understand the whole figure of Constantine, contradictions and all.

The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works: Gallic War, Civil War, Alexandrian War, African War, and Spanish War

By Kurt A. Raaflaub (editor), Robert B. Strassler (editor),

Book cover of The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works: Gallic War, Civil War, Alexandrian War, African War, and Spanish War

Why this book?

If you want to witness the Roman Army in action, read Julius Caesar, the masterly commander who led it to victory on so many battlefields. This volume in the excellent Landmark series contains all the ‘after action reports’ of Julius Caesar’s campaigns (in his own words supplemented with accounts by his adjutants).

The new translations of the Commentaries on the wars in Gaul, Africa, Spain, Greece, and Egypt in this collection are highly accessible. I recently edited a new volume on Julius Caesar and included in it extracts from older translations of his Commentaries: with its maps and notes, The Landmark Julius Caesar helped me clarify some ambiguities in the text I was working with. 

Hefty but handsomely produced, this volume is an instant heirloom.

Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History

By Mary Beard, John North, Simon Price

Book cover of Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History

Why this book?

Mary Beard is a professor of Classics at Cambridge University who also does popular documentaries on ancient Rome for the BBC (available on YouTube). This volume reaches back to the founding of Rome and the traditions of how Romulus and the first king of Rome, Numa, created Roman religion. It highlights the origins of the major Roman religious festivals.

Brides of Rome: A Novel of the Vestal Virgins

By Debra May Macleod,

Book cover of Brides of Rome: A Novel of the Vestal Virgins

Why this book?

Brides of Rome offers a unique look into the life of the Vestal Virgins of Rome. The story is told through the viewpoints of several fascinating women, one of which is a vestal virgin, and another one is Cleopatra. Each one has a battle of her own and although some find a bitter end, others survive and thrive. The Roman Empire is notorious for its mistreatment of women, but this book shows a refreshing look at some that received the respect they deserved.

Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome,

By M.C. Bishop, J. C. N. Coulston,

Book cover of Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome,

Why this book?

To understand the Roman Army as it changed through time, studying the arms and armour used by its soldiers is essential. 

Archaeologists Mike Bishop and Jon Coulston explain the evidence upon which interpretations of Roman arms and armour are made, and then examine equipment from five historical periods from 200 BC to AD 400. The book is illustrated throughout with 154 exquisite line drawings—of helmets, daggers, spearblades, swords, and scabbards—allowing direct comparisons of the material. There are also 8 plates of particular artefects, which augment the text. 

As a veteran of The Ermine Street Guard, I know that Roman period re-enactors will find this book especially valuable as a source when researching particular military items.

How to Survive in Ancient Rome

By L.J. Trafford,

Book cover of How to Survive in Ancient Rome

Why this book?

This is quite simply the best entry-level guide to the ancient culture, world, and city of Rome I have found. Written in a humorous and engaging manner, it walks the reader through the history of Rome from its legendary founding to the date the book is nominally set (the reign of Domitian), all from the point of view of someone of Domitian’s time. It covers every subject from the dos and don’ts of dinner parties to the importance of gods. A perfect start for someone new to the subject, and equally entertaining for the scholar.

The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome

By Peter Connolly, Hazel Dodge,

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

Why this book?

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.

Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome

By Patrick Faas, Shaun Whiteside,

Book cover of Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome

Why this book?

Lastly, one you can try for yourself at home (party togas, garlands, and changing the dining room furniture are purely optional): proof that Roman eating habits didn’t stop at roast dormice, larks’ tongues, and dodgy mushrooms (although you will find a recipe for the first on p289).

This is a lovely book, not just for the culinary background but because it includes over 150 authentic recipes taken from the works of ancient authors, in particular Marcus Gavinus Apicius, the legendary chef and epicure who (if he existed at all) flourished during the early part of the first century. Fancy trying meatballs with a Roman slant? Or stuffed cuttlefish with an Apician sauce? Or something more exotic like roast suckling pig or boiled ostrich vinaigrette? Congratulations; you need look no further.

Oh, and one more thing; you might want an authentic Roman wine to go with your meal. If so, then check out the website for Mas Gallo-Romain, a working Roman vineyard in France, and take it from there; I can personally recommend their Turriculae (‘Contains Seawater, Reduced Grape Must and Fenugreek’). And if you’re lucky enough to be able to take the tour at any stage then all the better.

The Twelve Caesars

By Suetonius, Robert Graves (translator),

Book cover of The Twelve Caesars

Why this book?

It’s important to state up-front that Seutonius is garbage. You need to consider him to be like the National Enquirer or TMZ of his era. He was all about the clickbait; in that regard, centuries ahead of his time. That said, the salacious stories in here are pure fun and inspired Robert Graves in his creation of I Claudius.

A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening

By Mario De Carvalho, Gregory Rabassa,

Book cover of A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening

Why this book?

The setting for this book is only marginally late Roman, but the picture it evokes, of the shadows lengthening over the classical world, is entirely appropriate. Our hero Lucius is the duumvir, or leading magistrate, of a provincial city in Lusitania at the end of the 2nd century AD. Cultured and urbane, devoted to the classical traditions and philosophies of Rome, Lucius is disturbed both by the appearance of a fervent sect of Christians in his city, and by rumours of an approaching horde of Moorish barbarians. With conflict both within the city and without, and the daughter of the richest citizen turning to the new religion, Lucius soon finds his nerves stretched and his ideals questioned. As the barbarians surround the city walls, and Lucius tries to repel their assault with his ragged band of militia, the duumvir’s faith in his own civilisation is tested to destruction. A God Strolling in the Cool of Evening won a major international literary award, and it’s easy to see why. For me, the main attraction is the portrait of its flawed and troubled protagonist, and the twilit cultural landscape he inhabits.

Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph

By Jas Elsner,

Book cover of Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph

Why this book?

Very few books put the history in art history with as much success as this one does. Instead of telling a linear story, in which the third century is a precipice over which Classical art falls into decline, Elsner picks out the many different strands and streams of artistic production that run in parallel with one another, and gets you to think about how they interact with contemporary social developments.

The Life Of Crassus (Plutarch's Lives)

By Plutarch,

Book cover of The Life Of Crassus (Plutarch's Lives)

Why this book?

This is as close to the horse’s mouth as we can get, yet it’s still a hundred years after the events of Republican Rome’s demise. Remember the Viet Nam war? It was one of America’s great foreign policy failures. Rome hated failure like a teenager hates acne. Cover it up, deny it, erase it. That is what Plutarch does in this work. I think it speaks to Crassus' towering achievements that Plutarch has anything nice to say about him at all!

Caesar's Women

By Colleen McCullough,

Book cover of Caesar's Women

Why this book?

This is my favorite of McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. Though fictional, they are impeccably researched, rendering the collapse of the Republic in truly astonishing detail. McCullough manages to render the twists and turns of Roman politics in a way that a reader can not only follow them, but understand why they mattered so much. You’ll feel as though you are right there in the Forum or the dining-room with Caesar, Antony, Pompey, Servilia, Fulvia, and the rest. McCullough’s vivid prose drives home that these were real people, living real lives, with the same petty concerns and daily frustrations as all of us, even when they were also shaping the fates of nations.

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician

By Anthony Everitt,

Book cover of Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician

Why this book?

When we were first figuring out how to write our biography of Cato, Everitt's work on Cicero was our go-to guide. It doesn't simply cover in fascinating detail the key events from the end of the Roman Republic--it's a model of how to bring an ancient figure to life, situating Cicero in the midst of the all-too-modern political controversies that shaped his life.

Marcus Aurelius in Love

By Marcus Aurelius, Amy Richlin,

Book cover of Marcus Aurelius in Love

Why this book?

This book contains a selection of letters from the correspondence between Marcus Aurelius and his rhetoric teacher Fronto. Most of these letters date from Marcus’s youth and show a quite different side to his character. Richlin argues – controversially – that some of these letters give evidence of a homosexual relationship between Marcus and Fronto. Although I’m not convinced by that claim, this volume remains a really helpful way to access these letters in a modern translation with helpful notes. The youthful Marcus we meet is a nice counterpoint to the older Marcus of the Meditations.

Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070

By Robin Fleming,

Book cover of Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070

Why this book?

Britain After Rome is the best account of what it was like to live in Britain in the centuries before the Norman Conquest. Vividly recreating ordinary people’s lived experiences, Fleming mines the archaeological and material record to illuminate the non-political changes that transformed Roman Britain into the Britain of 1066. While plenty of books focus on the activities of kings and bishops in those centuries, Fleming’s engaging and erudite survey tells the history of everyone.

Medicus: A Crime Novel of the Roman Empire

By Ruth Downie,

Book cover of Medicus: A Crime Novel of the Roman Empire

Why this book?

This is the first book in Downie’s Medicus series, a series of crime novels based around Ruso, a Roman military doctor. Ruso finds himself based in Britain, in an attempt to escape his past, and finds himself reluctantly drawn into a series of mysterious deaths of women working at a local bar. He also finds himself unexpectedly buying Tilla, a British woman, to rescue her from her abusive previous owner – so with a new job, a new household, and a new set of questions to answer, he has plenty on his plate. Downie spins an excellent murder mystery and gives her reader liberal doses of both comedy and tragedy.

The Forgotten Legion

By Ben Kane,

Book cover of The Forgotten Legion

Why this book?

Ben instantly became one of my favourite authors after this. It’s not often you can feel an author’s passion for their work, but it shone from every page in this book. I was already hooked on ancient Rome, but I just found this stood out amongst its peers. Ben didn’t concentrate on the generals and senators that would write their names into history, but on the everyday soldiers that lived by the edge of their sword. It is a book I will certainly never forget

Emperor: The Gates of Rome: A Novel of Julius Caesar

By Conn Iggulden,

Book cover of Emperor: The Gates of Rome: A Novel of Julius Caesar

Why this book?

This is the book that started me off down the path of loving all things Roman. I had just returned from my holiday in Cyprus and rushed to my local bookstore, looking for anything that might be similar to Cornwell’s Excalibur. I found this, and what is sure to be a lifelong infatuation begun. Taking the characters of Caesar and Brutus, and telling their story from when they were children right up to their deaths was a masterstroke. Each year when the next in the series was released it felt like returning to an old friend, and I was gutted when it came to an end.

Building Mid-Republican Rome: Labor, Architecture, and the Urban Economy

By Seth Bernard,

Book cover of Building Mid-Republican Rome: Labor, Architecture, and the Urban Economy

Why this book?

The monuments we see when we visit Rome were constructed under the emperors. But Rome was already a great metropolis before they began work, one that was architecturally unique and built on a scale to dwarf most ancient cities. What this book does is reconstruct the great building projects of the Republic, beginning with the original fourth-century walls of Rome and the first aqueducts. It asks (and answers) questions like: Where did they get the stone? Who provided the labour? How long did it take them? And what technologies did they use? This was a Rome built without marble, without concrete, and not a royal foundation, but one managed by generations of magistrates riding the wave of a slow economic boom. Completely fascinating.

A Companion to the Archaeology of the Roman Republic

By Jane DeRose Evans (editor),

Book cover of A Companion to the Archaeology of the Roman Republic

Why this book?

This book has everything in it across 37 chapters: technology, landscapes, material culture, identity, and empire. It is one of the few volumes in this series of Companions and Handbooks from various publishers that takes an explicitly archaeological focus. It includes developments in the city of Rome over time, but broadens out to include Italy and Rome’s empire. The book benefits from drawing on the research of 37 leading experts, who present in concise sections key findings based on archaeological research – often from archaeological projects that they have led in the field.

Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean

By Sarah E. Bond,

Book cover of Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean

Why this book?

Not primarily a book about archaeology, but I’ve included this book because it explores the tricky matter of how we can gain access to the ordinary people of ancient Rome. Some of whom, such as the mint-workers, made the things that archaeologists discover in the 21st century in Italy. The author takes up the challenge of recovering these overlooked professions from funeral workers, through bakers and tanners, to criers who all featured in the ancient cities of Italy. There is a paradox running through the book that although these people were the ancient world’s “essential workers’, they were also stigmatised or taboo.  This paradox explains much about Roman society and its contradictions.

Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome

By E.M. Berens,

Book cover of Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome

Why this book?

The ancient world has always held a fascination for me. It must be in my genes because one of my fondest memories is my father telling me stories about the Greek gods. As a kid, I also found a book in our house that had been handed down through generations within my family entitled The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome by E.M. Berens. This book was published in 1892 but Berens is still in print, no doubt in its umpteenth edition.

My book has a leather cover, the spine frayed so that the webbing that binds the folios is exposed. The pages are mottled, yellowing. It is a treasure. Inside, the lives of the fickle, adulterous, benevolent, or malevolent deities are revealed; their bickering and flaws similar to mortals but their ability to bless, curse, and manipulate man’s fate, divine.

The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus

By William Shakespeare,

Book cover of The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus

Why this book?

A very early effort at a blood-soaked Roman tragedy written (at least partly) by England’s poet laureate. It throws its characters into a boiling cauldron of destructive evil, devising ghastly ways of killing most of them, and features one of the Elizabethan theatre’s most uncompromising villainous monsters, the racially profiled Aaron. It is customary among Shakespeare scholars to try to disown Titus for its lurid gratuitousness, but it does contain some fine poetic writing, brief flashes of the riches to come, and an anticipation of the subtler malevolence that would come to dominate the English stage in the succeeding Jacobean era. Those inclined to celebrate chaos as a purely constructive force might profit from lingering amid Shakespeare’s horrors.

Pope Joan

By Donna Woolfolk Cross,

Book cover of Pope Joan

Why this book?

I love this novel because of how it takes what seems like an impossible story (a female pope?!) and writes it so carefully and compellingly that the impossible becomes completely plausible. The young woman’s journey from her home and family to becoming pope…how she navigates a world that is completely not designed for her…I was totally captivated by the story.

Daily Life in the Middle Ages

By Paul B. Newman,

Book cover of Daily Life in the Middle Ages

Why this book?

Intriguing, little-known facts make this book another way to travel into the past, showcasing everything from eating, cooking, clothing, housing, and relaxing. It provides fascinating details of what everyday life was really like in the Middle Ages, facts that can’t be gleaned simply by watching movies or television programs.

Poison (The Poisoner Mysteries #1)

By Sara Poole,

Book cover of Poison (The Poisoner Mysteries #1)

Why this book?

I read this trilogy out of order but I’ll go ahead and recommend the first book. I found these on my hunt for things to do with the Borgias, and this is an absolutely brilliant set of books for it. Centered on a smart, strong woman in late 15th century Rome, it shows us a side usually left to male characters as she is embroiled in politics, plotting, and murder at the behest of the Borgias during the Papacy of Alexander VI. For anyone who loves to see every possible angle to a period of history, this is certainly one to add to their list. The only sad note is the series is, and seems likely to remain, incomplete, without a satisfactory resolution.

Römische Tage

By Simon Strauss,

Book cover of Römische Tage

Why this book?

Germans have been in love with Italy since always, a love that found its culmination with Goethe’s famous Italienische Reise in 1816. It’s a love that lasts forever, for it’s a love that never finds fulfillment. Germans are like the stuffed up straight guy who’s in love with a lively beauty above their level, that is Italy; they’re forever stuck in the moment of enchantment, they can never grasp or really fathom their love, let alone turn it into a real affair or just begin to understand this incredible woman. Promising young German writer Strauss takes up residence in the famous Via Corso in Rome (close to Casa di Goethe), and tries to make his moment come alive under the heavy burden of history. Maybe not as urgent or dramatic as the other four books, but still here we have a one man-boy against all of Rome, all of our western cultural tradition.

The Master

By Colm Toίbίn,

Book cover of The Master

Why this book?

The Master is a bravura portrayal of a great writer and a complex, lonely individual. The novel begins when James is at a low point in his writing career. We often forget that great writers have these lows, but for any writer the writing life is full of insecurity and real or imagined failure and James was no exception. At the start of this novel, he has chosen to retreat from public life by buying a house in Rye, England. In this new, private existence, he endures the consequences of his need for a protected space in which to write, and to conceal his sexuality. This, in the context of the notorious Oscar Wilde case.

The Master is a beautiful novel, nuanced and deeply moving. It takes a great writer to pull off a consummate portrayal of another great writer, and Toίbίn is never less than convincing in his evocation of James’ voice and his interior world.

The Order

By Daniel Silva,

Book cover of The Order

Why this book?

Daniel Silva has written a long series about Israeli spy chief and art restorer Gabriel Allan. I enjoyed the series and there’s a subplot the author has long weaved together with Gabriel Allan and the Vatican. If you ever visit Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, you might hear the church bells from the Catholic Church next to her house. It’s a stunning contrast. I like the powerplay between Gabriel and the Vatican portrayed in the story, and I gain a little history even though it’s a work of fiction.

Beautiful World, Where Are You

By Sally Rooney,

Book cover of Beautiful World, Where Are You

Why this book?

This is the most recent novel to make my list. As much as I relished Rooney’s earlier work, her latest is heftier, for it grapples with the genuine planetary and personal crises faced by her generation. Her characters don’t shy away from speaking openly about love, sex, and relationships—or the perverse economic system that is rapidly bringing humanity to its knees with consumer-driven smiles painted on its faces. Neither do her characters hold back from earnest discussions of Marxism. The latter note is getting wide play culturally, particularly with millennials, but mainstream media has rarely picked up on the reverberations underfoot. Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You? is not so reticent—and more rewarding for its brazen honesty about the personal and the political.

Roman Blood

By Steven Saylor,

Book cover of Roman Blood

Why this book?

My other great hobby is “murder mysteries.” Steven Saylor’s mystery novels utilize real people and events in Ancient Rome, in this case, the famous advocate Cicero. Roman Blood highlights the first famous case of Cicero, defending a man accused of patricide, the worst crime in Roman culture (he won). Readers will recognize the beginnings of “forensic science,” as he and his secretary Tiro follow the clues in formulating the defense. Again, one can learn so much about Roman religion and society in this format.

Theater and Spectacle in the Art of the Roman Empire

By Katherine M. D. Dunbabin,

Book cover of Theater and Spectacle in the Art of the Roman Empire

Why this book?

This lavishly illustrated book offers a visually stunning and information-packed tour of ancient Rome’s most popular forms of entertainment: chariot racing, gladiatorial combats, and theater performances. I was astonished by the sheer range and creativity of Roman spectacles and their material commemorations, from action figures of gladiators with removable helmets, piggy banks with pictures of lucky winning charioteers, and mosaic puzzles that challenged viewers to guess the names of famous racehorses based on visual clues. As an art historian, I particularly love the beautiful color illustrations; my own copy of this book is dog-eared because I am constantly returning to look at the fascinating objects she discusses. For me, this book about spectacles is spectacular in its own right. 

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944

By Rick Atkinson,

Book cover of The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944

Why this book?

The Day of Battle was Volume Two of Rick Atkinson’s acclaimed Liberation Trilogy. While all three volumes of this series are well worth reading, Atkinson was at his best in the second volume which deals with the much-neglected campaigns of Sicily and Italy. The doyen of British military history and a veteran of the Italian campaign, the late Sir Michael Howard wrote that The Day of Battle was ‘one of the truly outstanding records of the Second World War’. I think it is too.

Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World

By Simon Swain,

Book cover of Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World

Why this book?

This is a dense study of what was once cordoned off as ‘the Second Sophistic’, the flourishing of a revived Classical Greek culture under Roman hegemony. It’s the first really successful transformation of that perspective to a much broader vision of ‘being Greek under Rome’. It gets you to take seriously the many different ways in which language shapes identity, and places the medical writings of Galen and the sprawling histories of Cassius Dio back into the mainstream of Greek cultural history.

Rome's Wars in Parthia: Blood in the Sand

By Rose Mary Sheldon,

Book cover of Rome's Wars in Parthia: Blood in the Sand

Why this book?

An excellent account of the military and political rivalry between Rome and Parthia, the two superpowers of the ancient world, spanning 300 years. Sheldon shows how the Roman defeat at Carrhae in 53BC resulted in a Roman obsession not only to reclaim the eagles lost in the battle, but also to avenge a humiliating military defeat, leading to 250 years of military campaigns and political intrigues.

Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt Against Rome AD 66-73

By Neil Faulkner,

Book cover of Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt Against Rome AD 66-73

Why this book?

The empire-shaking Great Revolt looms over my second and third novels, and Faulkner’s book illuminated it for me in a way that nothing else did. He unravels the interwoven historical, social, religious, ethnic, cultural, and political conflicts that led to the disastrous Jewish rebellion against Rome. His work is controversial in some quarters because it goes against the grain of Christian thinking about this time and place. Personally, I found it revealing and eloquent. To me, this a must-read for anyone trying to understand the “why” behind the cataclysm that befell the Jewish people between 66 and 73 AD and still impacts our world today.


By Edward Champlin,

Book cover of Nero

Why this book?

Was Nero really such a monster? The New York Times and the British Museum are among the venerable institutions attempting to answer this question. It’s part of a broad trend to rethink the life and rule of one of history’s most famous villains. I’d like to think that this book helped start this historical reframing. Nero was not without his virtues. But he most definitely had vices in abundance. The question is not whether he was good or bad; rather, how did those two dimensions interact? Champlain does a great job of looking at Nero with a measure of objectivity and helping readers see things a bit differently. 

Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli

By Kyo Maclear, Julie Morstad (illustrator),

Book cover of Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli

Why this book?

Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli is a visual feast! Pages are strewn with illustrations created in designer colors and, of course, Schiaparelli’s signature color: SHOCKING PINK! Entering this book, readers might have the impression of sniffing a fragrant bouquet of flowers or savoring an Italian pastry. Schiaparelli’s life was not easy, but her resolve to conquer her problems and become an artist/fashion designer is inspiring. She Blooms! The true story is engaging and fast-paced. The pictures are imaginative and exciting, just like Schiap herself. Get your hands on this book. You won’t be disappointed!

The Roman Retail Revolution: The Socio-Economic World of the Taberna

By Steven J. R. Ellis,

Book cover of The Roman Retail Revolution: The Socio-Economic World of the Taberna

Why this book?

I adore this book because it explains the development of streets lined with shops that we see in Pompeii and identifies this phenomenon as a key development in the Roman empire. Steve shows that shops develop as part of the façade to what were houses of the elite in the second century BCE, but then proliferate in the towns of Italy. Ultimately, he shows how shops also spread to the towns of the provinces. The implications for a fundamental change in urban life were immense. The book is full of archaeological data and painstaking study, which is concisely presented to the reader in an accessible manner.

See Delphi and Die: A Marcus Didius Falco Mystery

By Lindsey Davis,

Book cover of See Delphi and Die: A Marcus Didius Falco Mystery

Why this book?

This one's a bit of a cheat, but fun. It's one of the hugely successful Marcus Didius Falco series by Lindsay Davis, set in Flavian Rome (first century), in which she recounts the adventures of the disreputable private investigator Falco as he walks the mean streets of Rome in search of truth, a denarius or two and a loose woman (though not in this book, he's well and truly hitched by then). Raymond Chandler meets Robert Graves. The first in the series The Silver Pigs won the Author's Club First Novel Award in 1989 and it's easy to see why. It spawned twenty more. Delphi is the seventeenth and our heroes only get to the shrine in Part Four. Their passage up the Sacred Way, as they try to rid themselves of a limpet like freelance guide is one of the funniest descriptions I've read of arriving the Temple (and that includes the ancient ones). 'The time-honoured Sphinx showed no reaction, but assuming she was a woman of the world, I winked at her.' An indulgence.

Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History

By Sybille Haynes,

Book cover of Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History

Why this book?

The Etruscans were a fascinating people with a rich and varied material culture, as well as a reputation for mystery, partly due to their enigmatic and unique language. They were an influential people in Italy before the expansion of Rome and their culture which had a profound influence on that of Rome and other Italian peoples. As such, they are central to our understanding of early Italy. Haynes presents an approachable account of the origins and development of the Etruscans, integrating complex historical, archaeological, and art historical evidence into a readable account.

She weaves together a chronological survey of the Etruscans, their origins, expansion, and eventual decline, with an appreciation and explanation of their stunning visual and material culture to present a work that combines history, archaeology, and art history.

Such a Good Boy

By Marianna Coppo,

Book cover of Such a Good Boy

Why this book?

I love Marianna’s work. She has been one of my students and since she left school she’s doing great! Buz is a lucky dog. He lives in a luxury house, he got someone taking care of him and he got good and healthy food. Buz is a good dog, but sometimes, he would like to be free of running wild and rolling in the mud.

Courage, My Love

By Kristin Beck,

Book cover of Courage, My Love

Why this book?

I just recently read this wonderful debut novel, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since! Courage, My Love tells the story of two women living in Nazi-occupied Rome who become involved in the Italian resistance and its effort to rid their country of fascism. This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching, timely novel of ordinary people living in extraordinary times, and the courage they have in standing up to evil.

The Making of Late Antiquity

By Peter Brown,

Book cover of The Making of Late Antiquity

Why this book?

The historian Peter Brown is the great expert on the late Roman/early Christian era, and he writes like a scholarly poet. I don’t think anyone has done a better job of putting the lives and thoughts of Christian intellectuals and laypeople in the context of a Roman society experiencing convulsive, transformative change. This book will change your views of both Roman and Christian cultures. If you’re like me, it will lead you to read Brown’s other works, such as his epic 2012 study, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD.

Da Vinci's Cat

By Catherine Gilbert Murdock,

Book cover of Da Vinci's Cat

Why this book?

Da Vinci’s Cat is the right book for middle grade readers who like some magic and mystery along with their history. This book slips between present-day New Jersey, where Beatrice is having to spend the summer with her moms in boring suburbia instead of in Italy with her grandparents like she usually does, and 1511 Rome where Federico is held hostage in the Pope’s palace. It’s a wonderful melding of times and places. I really enjoyed the addition of the cat, Juno into the mix as well. Famous artists Michelangelo, Rafael, and Leonardo Da Vinci all make appearances in the book. A definite winner for the middle grade set.


By Sara Rosett,

Book cover of Suspicious

Why this book?

This is a cozy mystery that gives the reader a nice tour of Rome from a bargain tourist perspective. The story takes the reader north into Austria and Germany so you gain a feeling for the Alps. The couple that leads the story are suspects in a series of jewelry heists and work their way through Northern Italy and beyond to solve the thefts. It’s a light-hearted story with a little romance, no cuss words, and little violence.

Christina, Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of a European Eccentric

By Veronica Buckley,

Book cover of Christina, Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of a European Eccentric

Why this book?

Christina of Sweden, known today primarily through Greta Garbo’s portrayal of her in the 1933 film, became queen at age six when her father was killed in battle; she received the education of a prince, including the study of statecraft, for which she read the Latin biography of Elizabeth I. Initially deemed a boy at birth, Christina’s habit of crossdressing, her refusal to marry, and her romantic attachments to both women and men bespeak her ambiguous sexuality. Veronica Buckley’s biography does justice to this idiosyncratic and controversial figure who abdicated her throne, converted to Catholicism, and moved to Rome. Although she took Alexander the Great as her model and sought to rule Naples and Poland-Lithuania after her abdication, she revealingly recorded in her memoirs her thoughts concerning the predicament she faced as a female sovereign: “Women should never be rulers... Women who rule make themselves ridiculous one way or the other... I myself am no exception.” 

The Ides of April

By Lindsey Davis,

Book cover of The Ides of April

Why this book?

Reading a Lindsey Davis novel is a guilty pleasure. Why? She’s wickedly funny. She brings ancient Rome to vivid life, from the fancy fringe on a tunic hem to the steaming pile of donkey dung in the street. Her sleuth, a tough, no-nonsense woman named Flavia Albia, is assisted (whether she likes it or not) by an extended family of eccentric and sometimes meddlesome characters. I also appreciate how Davis adds just enough historical detail to bring the plot to life without bogging down the action. 

In this book, I particularly enjoyed the interplay between Albia and the officious aedile, Manlius Faustus, who turns out to be nicer (and more interesting) than he first appeared. While each novel is stand-alone, I recommend starting here to get the full backstory.

The Devil's Elixir

By E. T. A. Hoffmann,

Book cover of The Devil's Elixir

Why this book?

Once I started reading this I was unable to put it down. If you’re unfamiliar with the tales of Hoffmann you owe it to yourself to become acquainted. If you are intrigued by the sort of tale in which a young man meets a traveler in an inn who has seen the devil and he follows him into a dark and lonely wood, then this is the book for you.

The plot is an elaborately tangled labyrinth. The monk Medardus was brought up in a monastery to atone for his father’s wicked ways, but he knows only fragments of his family’s history. Forced to flee the monastery he sets out on a fantastical quest in which he encounters his lunatic doppelganger, becomes entangled in Vatican intrigues, commits a murder, is condemned to death, and much, much more. This is an early work of the German Romantic movement and had an influence on many who came later, such as Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and Poe.

C.B. Greenfield: The Tanglewood Murder

By Lucille Kallen,

Book cover of C.B. Greenfield: The Tanglewood Murder

Why this book?

Lucille Kallen was an amazing TV writer but only wrote five of her cozy mysteries starring small-town, middle-aged reporter Maggie Rome who served as an Archie Goodwin for her cerebral boss, editor C. B. Greenfield. They were all witty and fun, but this one centers around the very real Boston Symphony Orchestra and their summer rehearsal space, Tanglewood music center near the MA-NY border. Expansive hills, the petty rivalries of professionals, and a not-often-used method of murder make this book a must for any mystery lover. Plus, the author was clearly as adoring of Ravel as I am, which is why this slim volume still has a place on my bookshelf after 30-plus years. 

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

By Walt Whitman,

Book cover of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

Why this book?

This fifth pick isn’t fiction. But like the best fiction, poetry can pierce through to the very essence. Although shaggy poet Whitman was the furthest thing from a soldier imaginable, he was deeply involved in the war effort nonetheless. After the Battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman traveled to Virginia to find his wounded brother. He then chose to remain in Washington, DC, nursing wounded soldiers. Whitman’s war-time experiences gave rise to some of the finest poems in Leaves of Grass such as “The Wound-Dresser,” “Come Up from the Fields Father,” and “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim.”

The King Must Die

By Mary Renault,

Book cover of The King Must Die

Why this book?

I’ve been interested in Greek myths since I was tiny, and in Greece since my first holiday there. (I go back almost every year and try to speak Greek to the locals) Mary Renault brings the legend of the Minotaur to life and turns the legendary characters into very real people, with very human flaws. I first read this book long before I visited Crete and when I eventually got to the ruins of Knossos it all unspooled in my head like a private movie. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read The King Must Die now – I've even had to buy a new copy, because I’ve worn the first one out. 

Roman Britain

By Richard Hobbs, Ralph Jackson,

Book cover of Roman Britain

Why this book?

This is the British Museum’s take on Roman Britain and as you’d expect, there are gorgeous photos on every page. If you can drag your eyes away from the visual feast, the text is intelligent and informative and there are suggestions for further reading. Don’t just leave it adorning the coffee table – pick it up and discover a lost world!

69 A.D.: The Year of Four Emperors

By Gwyn Morgan,

Book cover of 69 A.D.: The Year of Four Emperors

Why this book?

The Civil War of 69 AD — aka “The Year of Four Emperors” — was a complex, pivotal moment in the history of the Roman Empire. Since it took place at a key moment in my trilogy’s timeline, and since so many of my characters were active participants, I had to understand it. Morgan expertly clarifies an interrelated series of historical threads that I needed to follow to make my three-part fictional story both historically accurate and novelistically intriguing.

The Pyramids of London

By Andrea K. Host,

Book cover of The Pyramids of London

Why this book?

The Pyramids of London has the most ornate, baroque alternative-history setting of any novel in the entire history of fantasy novels. Seriously. To start with, every kind of mythology is true in whatever region that mythology developed. Also, the pharaohs of Egypt have been vampires for thousands of years. Plus, when they die, vampires might become stars. Which are also gods. Plus France is ruled by the Fae. At night, when the Fae Court of the Moon arises in Paris, gravity suddenly drops dramatically.

Insert a murder mystery into this wildly ornate setting, plus fully realized characters you both believe in and root for, and off you go, on a fantastic journey through a world that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Medieval West

By Clarissa W. Atkinson,

Book cover of The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Medieval West

Why this book?

Another companion on my journey to becoming a medievalist, The Oldest Vocation is one of the earliest works of medieval scholarship to take the history of motherhood seriously. Atkinson showed us how mothering was a calling in the medieval world, whether it was a physical experience or a spiritual one. I think this was the first book I ever bought the moment it was available!

Leonardo Da Vinci: Under the Skin

By Michael Farthing, Stephen Farthing,

Book cover of Leonardo Da Vinci: Under the Skin

Why this book?

This is a slim volume, which stands out amidst the thousands of books on aspects of Leonardo, for its focus and unusual team of authors. Written by two brothers, one a professor of drawing, the other of medicine, it walks the reader through Leonardo’s anatomical drawings and their far-reaching influence on both science and art. The authors are particularly good at sorting out what Leonardo got from previous students of anatomy, from the Greeks onwards, and what was new that he brought to, or took away from the dissection table, where he claims to have examined over thirty corpses.

In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire

By Tom Holland,

Book cover of In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire

Why this book?

Tom Holland’s excellent series of contextual historical books bring a rare quality, seeking beyond boundaries to understand the sweep of civilisation across continents. This book focuses on the period we call The Dark Ages in the West, from the Fall of Rome to the rise of the Anglo Saxons. But in Asia and the Middle East literature, science and religion flourished, just as the Vikings raided and traded through Europe across to Arabia where eventually they encountered the great cultures of the East.

The Land of Angels

By Fay Sampson,

Book cover of The Land of Angels

Why this book?

Sensitively written with a solid basis in history, we meet – and in some cases come to love – Queen Bertha, Pope Gregory, Archbishop Augustine, and other key players. The hopes and fears that drive Augustine on his challenging mission to convert England and to bring the old-school Christian Britons in Wales back into the fold of the Roman Church, are vividly portrayed. We also encounter the harsh reality of life in the primitive, war-torn, pagan Land of Angels.

This book taught me a lot about a significant period in the history of Britain and inspired me to reflect on the prevailing incompatible Christian perspectives.

Nelson's Bible Encyclopedia for the Family: A Comprehensive Guide to the World of the Bible

By Arthur Cundall, Rosemary Mellor, Arthur Rowe, Frederick Fyvie Bruce

Book cover of Nelson's Bible Encyclopedia for the Family: A Comprehensive Guide to the World of the Bible

Why this book?

As its title implies, this book is accessible to the entire family and would be a great resource for Sunday school teachers who want to provide their students with a larger understanding of the life and times of peoples in ancient Palestine and Rome. The book is broken down into easy-to-find categories such as "The Home," "Warfare," and "Travel and Communication," to name a few. There are stunning photographs on every page with detailed and clear explanations. The back of the book has timelines of the Bible and a map of Palestine in New Testament times with highlights of key events in the New Testament. There is also an alphabetical index that makes it easy to find information on specific topics.

The Chef's Secret

By Crystal King,

Book cover of The Chef's Secret

Why this book?

The Italian Renaissance is my absolute favorite historical era, and Crystal King brings it bloody and scandalous life in The Chef’s Secret. The novel opens with the death of famous chef Bartolomeo Scappi who, it turns out, accumulated some juicy and even deadly secrets in his life working for the rich and powerful. The story is told through the point of view of his nephew and heir Giovanni, who begins piecing together the true story of his uncle’s past from the clues he left behind, even as Scappi’s rivals try to snatch a piece of his legacy for themselves. This book is full of period detail, twists and turns I never saw coming, and plenty of mouthwatering descriptions of grand Renaissance feasts!

From the Ashes

By Melissa Addey,

Book cover of From the Ashes

Why this book?

For as many fiction novels surrounding the Colosseum as I have read, this was the first one written from the stagehands, if you will, and I devoured it in a single sitting. I almost passed on it because the model on the cover is a stock photo that’s everywhere in the genre covers but I'm so glad I didn’t. Experience Pompeii’s destruction, and the building and inauguration of the Colosseum, like never before. Althea and Marcus will drag you through some of the most well-written world building and seamless research into these two events as you face calamity after calamity with them. This novel is both absolutely a romance, and barely a romance, which will make sense when you’re in the final pages of this unforgettable story.  

The Metamorphoses

By Ovid, Hendrik Goltzius (illustrator), A.S. Kline (translator)

Book cover of The Metamorphoses

Why this book?

There is no book as rich in tree imagery as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It is a book of fables many of which are about trees. Best known, I believe, is the story of Apollo and Daphne, in which a nymph is transformed into a laurel tree. The fable that I use in the book is the story of Pan and Syrinx, painted collaboratively by Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder. It explains the mythical origins of the sedges and reeds that fringe the riverbanks.

Destination Unknown: Adventures of a WWII American Red Cross Girl

By LeOna Cox, Kathleen Cox,

Book cover of Destination Unknown: Adventures of a WWII American Red Cross Girl

Why this book?

I absolutely love the layout of this book–the title, the photos, and the fonts. This irresistible chapter heading made me want to know more: “Training: Thrilled to Death with Everything.” At the start of the book, I knew nothing about World War II Red Cross volunteers and next to nothing about the war in Africa. LeOna’s letters are so exuberant with descriptions so vivid you feel like you are walking in her footsteps. I love the photos with her smiling face. I finished this book with a deep respect for the dedicated women who worked so hard to provide soldiers with comfort and a connection to home.