If historical epochs were pets, ancient Rome would probably be a dog; almost everyone likes it, some people are really in it, and it’s one of the first examples to follow whenever people talk about the subject. Ancient Rome has featured prominently in factual and fictional writing roughly since the end of the era – indeed some of the most influential and best books on Roman history were written while this was happening. was still going on – and the Roman world provided the setting for everything from movies and TV series to comics (long live the Asterix!)
With the wealth of information available on Roman history, it is sometimes difficult to know where to start as a new reader and researcher in the field. The Roman Empire lasted over a millennium and spanned much of the world; there are hundreds of different subfields to study and thousands of significant events and people that impacted this crucial period in human history. Whether a reader wants to learn more about the beginnings of Rome, when it was a small city in Italy instead of the massive global force it would become, or look back to the final years of the Roman era as it was becoming the Byzantine Empire, there’s a lot for budding historians to grapple with. These books are just a few of the great entry points into the field of ancient Roman history.
Although there are many interesting texts for scholars of ancient Rome to read and study, the field of Roman history is dominated by white authors and there are few texts by authors of color available. It’s part of a larger problem with a general underrepresentation of historians of color, both in academia and in historical publishing. However, new media is one area where historians of color have been able to share their research and insights, and there are several great podcasts on black history and history from the perspective of other people of color. , as Witness to Black History, The Black History Enthusiasts Podcast, historically blackand Asian American History 101.
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
The eminent classic Mary Beard presents a comprehensive overview of Roman history in SPQR. This book examines the rise and fall of Rome, from its beginnings as a small city to the height of the Roman Empire, and also delves deeper into Roman society and beliefs.
The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius
A contemporary text The Twelve Caesars was written by Emperor Hadrian’s personal secretary. The Twelve Caesars is a biography of 12 previous emperors, and is a fascinating read for what Suetonius decides to emphasize and what he chooses to omit – readers will be able to pick up on the politics of Hadrian’s era noting biases of Suetonius.
Pagans and Christians by Robin Lane Fox
The rise of Christianity was one of the greatest and most important historical events in ancient Rome, and Pagans and Christians is a well-researched and detailed overview of the massive changes that occurred during this time. Tracing the passage from Christianity’s origins as a small sect to its rise to become the official religion of the Roman Empire, this long but in-depth text covers historical details and the impact that has lasted to the present day.
The Corrupted Sea by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell
Focusing on the Mediterranean, The Corrupted Sea looks at the relationship between pre-industrial societies, particularly Rome, and the landscape in which these societies existed. Take an ecological and geographical angle on a fascinating sector of history, The Corrupted Sea gives a new perspective on the Roman era.
Rome: an archaeological guide by Amanda Claridge
Readers who wish to visit modern Rome to explore the artifacts of the ancient city should delve into Rome: an archaeological guide. Claridge’s book provides a detailed overview of surviving Roman buildings, providing historical context and information that will be indispensable to curious visitors.
The story of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
One of the most famous books on ancient Roman history, The story of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was first published in the 1700s, but is still used by classics and scholars today. Looking at the Byzantine Empire as well as Ancient Rome, this multi-volume text is a fascinating resource for anyone interested in a deep dive into this area of history.
Pompeii by Mary Beard
One of the most famous events in Roman history, the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii has captured the imagination of scholars and fiction writers. In this book, Mary Beard examines in detail life in the city leading up to the volcanic disaster that destroyed it, and debunks many of the myths that grew up around this much-studied event.
The Emperor in the Roman World by Fergus Millar
The figure of the Roman emperor is one that has held an important place in history, thanks to the legacy of larger than life figures like Julius Caesar, Nero and Caligula. In The Emperor in the Roman WorldFergus Millar takes a critical look at exactly what the Emperor’s role entailed, examining everything from the Emperor’s relationship to the economy to the personal suite the Emperor needed.
Shopping in Ancient Rome: Retail Trade at the End of the Republic and in the Principate by Claire Holleran
Many historical texts focus on wars, plagues, and the rise and fall of nobles, but social and economic history is equally crucial to understanding an era. Claire Holleran examines trade and commerce in ancient Rome, and how market forces and the consumption habits of Roman consumers influenced history.
The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey
Another look at the role of Christianity in ancient Rome, The Age of Darkening examines how the rapid rise of this new faith led to the dismantling of the knowledge and beliefs of the old pagan world. Nixey’s controversial work has had mixed reviews, but is useful reading for anyone interested in the religious politics of ancient Rome.
Perpetua’s Journey: Faith, Gender and Power in the Roman Empire by Jennifer A. Rea and Liz Clarke
For history buffs who also love comics and art, Perpetua’s Journey is a brilliant read. A graphical interpretation of The Passion of Saint Perpetuathe diary of an early Christian Roman woman who was martyred because of the public proclamation of her faith, Perpetua’s Journey brings this event to life with illustrations and focuses on the social context of Perpetua’s actions.
Agrippina: the most extraordinary woman in the Roman world by Emma Southon
While ancient Rome was a deeply patriarchal society, many powerful women impacted the world at the time, one of the most famous being Agrippina. Closely related to three emperors – she was Caligula’s sister, Claudius’ wife and Nero’s mother – Agrippina used her proximity to the imperial throne to develop and exercise her own power, and proved herself equally ruthless as the men around him.
Me, Claudius by Robert Graves
Another classic book on Roman history, I.Claude was written by World War I poet Robert Graves. Although a novel, the book is a useful historical resource, drawing on non-fiction texts to explore several crucial points in the history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Written from the perspective of the titular Claudius, Graves explores this emperor’s early life and his relationships with famous members of his family, including Caesar Augustus and Caligula.
Black and British: A Short and Essential History by David Olusoga
Olusoga’s text does not deal specifically with ancient Roman history; rather, it is an overview of black history in Britain. However, the section on the Roman history of Britain and the Black Romans who made their home in what would become the United Kingdom is crucial to understanding that Black British history did not begin with Windrush.
Cleopatra: a life by Stacy Schiff
Another biography of a famous woman whose life and actions had a massive impact on Roman history, Cleopatra: a life is a biography of Egypt’s most famous queen. In this well-researched book, Schiff dispels the many myths surrounding Cleopatra and examines her life, her political decisions, and the effect this fascinating woman had on the Roman world.
If you want to dive deeper into the history of the ancient world, try 100 Must-Know Ancient History Books. If you want to organize your reading around an important day in Roman history, check out 6 Books About Rome for the Ides of March.