Introductory books on Ancient Rome.
May 17, 2010 12:54 PM   Subscribe

Looking for good introductory books on Ancient Roman history.

I know next to nothing about the history of Ancient Rome and I'd like to change that. I'm not really sure where to start, though, because there's so much material out there and so much history to cover.

Can anyone offer a few good books that I start with to give me a basic knowledge base? I have no trouble reading 'real' history books - I read a lot on medieval and renaissance history in my spare time - but keep in mind I'm pretty clueless, so I don't want anything that assumes I know the big ideas already. Never even learned this stuff in high school, for some reason.

Any good documentaries/TV programs would be welcome, too.
posted by vanitas to Education (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Volume III of The Story of Civilization (Caesar and Christ) by Will and Ariel Durant would probably fit the bill. Very readable stuff. As a bonus, you can probably pick it up for next to nothing at a used bookstore or online.
posted by jquinby at 12:57 PM on May 17, 2010

If you don't mind podcasts, I recommend Mike Duncan's History of Rome.
posted by bentley at 1:04 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Anthony Everitt's biographies of Cicero and Caesar are well-written eminently readable. Together they're a great introduction to the late Republic and early Empire.
posted by Bromius at 1:09 PM on May 17, 2010

Here are some from a recent syllabus for a course about Rome that didn't presume prior knowledge on the subject.

Chester Starr, The Roman Empire 27 BC - 476AD, 1982
Norman Cantor et al, The Medieval World, 1963
Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, c. 120
Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, c. 120-130
Eusebius, The Life of Constantine, c. 340
H.P. L'Orange, Art Forms and Civic Life, 1965
A. Momigliano, Christianity and the Decline of Rome, 1963
James Shotwell, The Story of Ancient History, 1939
Ammianus Marcellinus, Histories, c. 385
posted by jardinier at 1:10 PM on May 17, 2010

I agree with bentley. The History of Rome podcast series is absolutely wonderful. I had read scores of books on Ancient Rome but hadn't really understood it until I listened to his series. It's wonderfully detailed and artfully told.
posted by bristolcat at 1:10 PM on May 17, 2010

Plutarch, Lives
Livy, History of Rome

These don't assume you know anything about Roman history, just that you want to piece it together. This is an arduous way to go about learning, but it'll certainly be the most rewarding and interesting. Any introductory history book you find will take these texts as introductory, so you might as well just give some Plutarch a chance.

It's not historical but give HBO's "Rome" a shot, because it'll give you some bare bones; you'll also gain something cursory from Robert Graves' I, Claudius.
posted by Outis at 1:16 PM on May 17, 2010

Thirding Duncan's podcast for a nice overview - and stick through the first few; the sound quality improves after a shaky start.
posted by Jorus at 1:20 PM on May 17, 2010

One of the best things I've read about Roman History is Juluis Caesar's book on the Gallic Wars. I'm looking for the translation I enjoyed so much to no avail. Not only was he an amazing general, which he was, he is very readable 2000 years later. The Battle for Gaul - Anne and Peter Wiseman

The History of Rome podcast is simply excellent.

Oh, and Rome the HBO series is also one of the few television things I recommend.

I didn't realize until now how much I like this subject. The aforementioned are three of my favorite anythings.

So I'll go on. 12 Byzantine Rulers is another good podcast on an empire I'd wager you know even less about. I sure did.

Adrien Goldsworthy is great. I don't even know what I've read but I know I liked The Fall of Carthage.
posted by mearls at 1:28 PM on May 17, 2010

I loved this biography of Caesar.
posted by something something at 1:31 PM on May 17, 2010

Roma is a book by Steven Saylor that novelizes the history of ancient Rome.
posted by garlic at 1:56 PM on May 17, 2010

Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars is an awesome gossipy view of an interesting chunk of Roman history.

And Mearls is spot on with a suggestion for Caesar's Gallic Wars

AND! A comment on HBO's Rome: My Latin Literature professor told us it was one of the best depictions of Rome's everyday life she had seen and that one of her colleagues was hired to do all the on-set graffiti. How's that for accurate settings? (They do play a little with the history, though.)
posted by chatongriffes at 2:30 PM on May 17, 2010

This is a pretty standard intro Roman history textbook. It's easy to read, up-to-date, and thorough. Maybe a little boring for a casual read, though.
posted by dd42 at 2:31 PM on May 17, 2010

I'd avoid contemporary writers, at least until you get a feel for the subject. They are fun, but should be introduced before you spend much time with them. In the meantime:

Cornell - The Beginnings of Rome
Scullard - A History of the Roman World 753-146 BC
also From the Gracchi to Nero
Syme - The Roman Revolution (Syme was a scholar of Tacitus and his own prose is highly influenced by that fact.)
Off hand, I can't think of a general later roman history. Once we head into Byzantines, there is:
Bury - History of the Later Roman Empire (Bury is also the editor of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and his footnotes are as much fun as the text. That said, not the first thing you want to read.)

For beach reading, try Robert Harris' trilogy on the life of Cicero as told by his secretary Tiro (a real person, by the way. Invented, or at least spread use of, short hand. We have him to thank for the &.) Graves is fun, but highly idiosyncratic. Treat with caution.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:03 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I second the Scullard recommendation - very solid, very easy to read. Syme's Roman Revolution was ground-breaking and all that, but I found it to be a bit of a slog to read; I would save it until you've already got the basics under your belt.

I would also suggest:
P.Garnsey & R.Saller, The Roman Empire
A. Wallace-Hadrill, Augustan Rome
M. Goodman, The Roman World 44 B.C. – A.D. 192
C. Wells, The Roman Empire

Also interesting, although more specific:
P. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus
P. Horden & N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea
M. Beard, J.A. North, S.R.F. Price, Religions of Rome

These suggestions are obviously more focused on the Empire, I'll see if I can come up with some recommendations for the Republic this evening.
posted by iona at 3:58 PM on May 17, 2010

A history teacher recommended Pompeii by Robert Harris to me as just this sort of introduction. It gives a nice overview of day-to-day life before the volcano erupts.
posted by TrarNoir at 4:05 PM on May 17, 2010

It's not a book, but you should try some lectures from the Teaching Company.

I really like their History of Ancient Rome by Garrett G. Fagan. These lectures usually come with course outline which give you suggested books where you can dig deeper into the subject.
These courses are not cheap, so try your library first.
posted by Carius at 7:07 PM on May 18, 2010

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