What are some good, accessible books on Roman history?
July 18, 2016 12:41 AM   Subscribe

The Decline and Fall is obviously the first thing most people recommend, but I'm looking for something similarly comprehensive, but written more recently. Any recommendations?
posted by jtothes to Education (15 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't quite what you asked for (I'm sorry to misdirect!), but do you know about Dan Carlin's excellent fifteen-hour ancient Roman history podcast?
posted by tapir-whorf at 12:51 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think the most recent Big Popular Well-Regarded History of Rome is Mary Beard's SPQR.
posted by Polycarp at 1:27 AM on July 18, 2016 [11 favorites]

I would also highly recommend Mary Beard's Pompeii
posted by poxandplague at 1:36 AM on July 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

If someone is recommending Decline and Fall as accessible...

The Mary Beard book has gotten nearly unanimously good reviews.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:32 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Did you know that the (highly-recommended) History of Rome podcast is being made into a series of books? Volume 1 is out, covering the Republic. These are straight transcripts of the podcasts, with edits just to take out "last week, we..." and so on.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 4:52 AM on July 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

he's hardly a primary historian, or a scholar, or even much of a "real" historian, but I found Suetonius to be quite readable. He wrote a "Lives of the Caesars" that chronicles the biographies of the first 12 rulers in the early Empire period from Julius on down to Domitian. It's pretty colorful for a classical history, and can be equal parts lurid, sensational, effusive, obsequious, and boring. Since he wrote in Hadrian's time, he was about as far removed from Julius as we are from Lincoln, so it all smacks of familiarity and recency.

If you find that reading the ancients is pretty tolerable (and enjoyable), then you're in for a real treat. I'd go straight to Tacitus, Livy, and Plutarch after Suetonius. They start to get a bit more (ahem) involved, but it's worth it.
posted by rye bread at 5:22 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you are interested in the Republic, and its end in particular, you might like Rubicon by Tom Holland.
posted by the long dark teatime of the soul at 5:30 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Anthony Everitt wrote several books on Roman era. You might enjoy those.
posted by james33 at 5:36 AM on July 18, 2016

Thirding the recommendation for Mary Beard's SPQR. Beard retells the stories that the Romans told about their own past, and then looks behind them to see what things were really like. And when the evidence is simply insufficient to do the latter, she's not afraid to tell that to her readers.
posted by brianogilvie at 5:50 AM on July 18, 2016

Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire is a modern updating of Gibbon, highly readable and engaging. (Review here.) The sequel, Empires and Barbarians, is heavier going (at least I found it so), but The Fall of the Roman Empire is a real page-turner, and the narrative fairly zips along.
posted by verstegan at 6:15 AM on July 18, 2016

A note on Gibbon's Decline and Fall: It's only comprehensive for the last couple of hundred years of the Empire. It doesn't cover the first ~750 years of kingdom and republic, and only gives a few sentences here and there to the first couple of hundred years of empire. As the title says, it's not a "rise and fall" book; it's a "decline and fall" book. There's a lot more in it about Byzantium than there is about anything before the ascension of Commodus in 180 A.D.
posted by clawsoon at 7:14 AM on July 18, 2016

'Caeser and Christ' (from 'The Story of Civilization') by Will and Ariel Durant is kinda dated and not comprehensive, but it does have a nice style with that Gibbons-esque dry wit & irony.
posted by ovvl at 8:01 AM on July 18, 2016

To read Gibbon as an introduction to the subject in this day and age would be ridiculous; you might as well Copernicus to learn about astronomy. Besides the excellent recommendations above (Beard is superb!), I highly recommend Peter Brown’s work; I most recently read Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, but all his books are excellent. And Chris Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 is fantastic, the best up-to-date thing you're likely to find about the "decline and fall" period. (I wrote a bit about it here and here.)
posted by languagehat at 8:14 AM on July 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

I would actually recommend against the Mary Beard as an intro text -- while it's very very good and justly deserves all the praise, it's arranged thematically rather than chronologically, and presumes basic familiarity with the major figures and events. If you don't already know what the Cataline conspiracy was, or what Pompey's career arc looked like, it'll be kinda confusing.
posted by joyceanmachine at 5:06 PM on July 18, 2016

Sorry, hit post while on mobile too soon.

Beard's book also goes into a lot of detail about the early centuries/founding of Rome, including some fairly detailed almost inside baseball discussion about what we really know about the earliest years, which may be of less interest to someone looking for an accessible intro with lots of curb appeal.

Instead of the Beard, I'd look at a recommendation of a classicist/high school Latin teacher friend of mine for "About the Roman World". It's listed as being geared towards grades 6-10 but my friend uses it to teach high schoolers exclusively.

For a more adult work, I'd actually recommend Adrian Goldsworthy's Caesar. Yeah, it focuses on one dude, but there is actually a lot of good survey/intro material about the late Republic in each of the early chapters that provides a good overview of the Roman world at that time, including capsule biographies of other major players as well as descriptions of Roman social conditions, geography, military setup, etc. Plus, to me, it hits the other accessible requirements of being non-technical, both in style (because Goldsworthy is a fairly clear and fun writer) and in substance (in that it's about a big, fun period of time with lots of exciting events without getting into specialist fights).
posted by joyceanmachine at 5:18 PM on July 18, 2016

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