February 26, 2005 3:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a good book on Roman history.

I'm fascinated by the period, but don't know it as well as I'd like to, so I'm looking for an engaging crash course. Something actually readable (i.e., not Gibbon), and covering at least pre-republic through Constantine is preferrable.
posted by gsteff to Law & Government (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds weird, but Senator Robert Byrd published a fantastic book called the Senate of the Roman Republic, which he delivered as a series of speeches to Congress about why they shouldn't allow a line item veto through a history of the Roman Republic (it would be like the Roman Senate giving their power to Caesar). It's very well researched and readable. There are a lot of facts which at times get boring, but it's a very interesting story. My favorite part is that it's concise (considering the amount of history) and that even though he was writing with a point in mind, it's a great overview of the Roman government. I think it's out of print but they have used ones here at Or look for it here on
posted by princelyfox at 3:24 PM on February 26, 2005

Very readable: The Roman Way (by Edith Hamilton) and History of Rome (by Michael Grant).

I also recommend: Everyday Life in Ancient Rome (by F.R. Cowell).

You'll likely enjoy these websites: BBC - Roman History and Channel 4 Roman History Links .
posted by ericb at 4:19 PM on February 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

The Cowell and Hamilton books illuminate the societal history - if you will - of ancient Rome, while the Grant is an "approachable" survey of the history of Rome and the Romans.

There's also the very comprehensive A History of the Roman People (by Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, Cedric A. Yeo).
posted by ericb at 4:50 PM on February 26, 2005

I was very daunted by Gibbon, til I actually read him. He's very readable, and often quite amusing.
posted by WolfDaddy at 5:32 PM on February 26, 2005

Defer to the classics. They've endured for a reason.

Rise and fall.

Those are the "lite" versions. If you're up to it, try the Loeb Classical Library version of Polybius, and the Everyman six-volume version of Gibbon.
posted by cribcage at 5:34 PM on February 26, 2005

ericb's suggestions are all good. I'd also suggest going right to the source material. Depending on what period you're interested in, the contemporary(-ish) histories can be really great and readable. I'd recommend reading Tacitus's Annals and Histories (any modern translation with notes -- avoid the Loeb translations) and Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars. Those books will take you roughly from Augustus through the end of the first century AD (which is the period that I, along with every 13 year old boy, find most interesting).

I think your instinct to avoid GIbbon are right on.
posted by MarkAnd at 5:49 PM on February 26, 2005

In the historical fiction category: I, Claudius and Claudius, the God by Robert Graves are excellent books.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 7:19 PM on February 26, 2005

Tying the previous two suggestions together, you could look for the entertaining translation of Suetonius' "The Twelve Caesars" Robert Graves.
posted by gimonca at 8:50 PM on February 26, 2005

why not gibbon? ... true, some details might be better researched now, but it's an excellent book ... and it's available for nothing on gutenberg ... will durant's caesar and christ is older, but worthy ...
posted by pyramid termite at 9:29 PM on February 26, 2005

eh ... i meant durant was older than comtemporary books, not gibbon
posted by pyramid termite at 9:29 PM on February 26, 2005

Highly recommend The Teaching Company.
posted by stbalbach at 9:16 PM on February 27, 2005

I read an abridged Gibbon in High School and loved it. As I recall his writing style is easy to read, addictiing and sometimes beautiful. Also sometimes funny.
posted by nightocean at 7:30 AM on February 28, 2005

I second the Teaching Company.
posted by turbodog at 2:17 PM on February 28, 2005

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