More Ancient Rome, please.
January 27, 2006 4:27 PM   Subscribe

Thanks to this week's featured article on Wikipedia about the Roman emperor Claudius, I have become obsessed with Ancient Rome, specifically the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

What are some good books and movies about this period? I just ordered Robert Graves's translation of Suetonius. From excerpts I've read, he seems funny and gossipy. I am going to try to find a good translation of Tacitus, but any help on which translation is best would be great.

If there is a better translation of Suetonius than Graves, please let me know. Also, is "I, Claudius" worth reading?

I also own a copy of Dryden's translation of "Plutarch's Lives", but if there are better translations out there, I'd like to know.

I'd like to see films, too. I have never been interested in this subject before, outside of the Asterix comics, so I really don't know where to start. I've just been reading Wikipedia entry after Wikipedia entry, and I want more.
posted by interrobang to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Lots of goodies in the Loeb Classical Library.
posted by cribcage at 4:29 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: I, Claudius and Claudius the God are great, and the BBC miniseries of I, Claudius is highly regarded (I haven't seen it). I really enjoyed last Fall's Rome; it's available from Netflix. It'd make a good lead-in to the Claudian period.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:30 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: This would proabably be best after seeing the miniseries, but the I, Claudius Project has some cool stuff, including charts listing evidence for things that happen in the book and miniseries, and reality checks on how closely the characters in the miniseries correspond to the historical figures.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:46 PM on January 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: HBO's Rome (done with the BBC). The DVD apparently isn't out yet, but I hear the episodes are also available on something called the internets. This might not be just exactly the time period you're looking for yet, but a second season will start airing in 2007 -- and that should be perfect.

Rome is of the NSFW variety, so if you're not okay with that, this isn't the series for you. If, as I suspect, you are okay with that, it will add an entirely new level of interest.
posted by booksandlibretti at 4:48 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: I, Claudius is most definately worth reading, and very entertaining too. Funny, snarky, scandalous.

After you read it, rent the series. You'll fnd that there is a lot in the book that is referenced in modern entertainment. (The Sopranos, anyone?)
posted by Brittanie at 4:54 PM on January 27, 2006

make that *definitely*. Sorry. I got excited.
posted by Brittanie at 4:55 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: Seconding/thirding I, Claudius and Claudius the God -- great reads. The PBS series is quite enjoyable as well, despite being rather dated in certain ways. (For another pop culture reference to I, Claudius the TV series, check out the last few minutes of Derek Jacobi's performance in Dead Again.)
posted by scody at 4:58 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: Thumbs up to the BBC series... once I saw the first video I couldn't stop, and ended up watching all 13 episodes in 48 hours. The book is just as good as the video, if not better.
posted by hodyoaten at 4:58 PM on January 27, 2006

Another vote for reading and watching "I, Claudius". 9.4 on the IMDb. (And check out the cast!)
posted by Aknaton at 5:16 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: See this thread too.
posted by gsteff at 5:28 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: For historical fiction, you can roam around in Stefan Cramme's Historische Romane ├╝ber das alte Rom (yes, it's in German, but navigating the site is still easy enough), the somewhat outdated Fictional Rome at Richard Stockton College (includes reviews & reference), and The Detective and the Toga (all things related to Roman historical mysteries).

Oh, and ditto I, Claudius and Claudius the God--both outstanding.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:14 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: I got Rubicon based on the recommendation in this thread, and enjoyed it.

One approach would be to read Rubicon, watch Rome, read I, Claudius and Claudius the God, and watch the I, Claudius miniseries. That'd cover the transformation of Rome from republic to empire.

Gladiator is fun but not especially accurate. Caligula is super-NSFW and competely inaccurate.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:18 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: I, Claudius is the best production I've ever seen about the time period. HBO's series Rome isn't nearly as good.

If you can put up with "classics," there's a wide variety of movies to choose from. Ben Hur, Spartacus, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. Personally I could give them all a miss compared to I, Claudius (except maybe Spartacus, which was pretty bad-ass).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:21 PM on January 27, 2006

On (non) preview:

Caligula is a ludicrous waste of time. By all means, go have a watch and see for yourself. Prepare to be disappointed.

Interesting fact #19493: Caligula was written by American man of letters (and pseudo-intellectual fictionalized histories) Gore Vidal.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:26 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: Suetonius is marvelous and Graves stole most of it for the equally marvelous I Claudius. Read both, then watch the terrific miniseries. (I found it helped if I got all anal and made myself a family tree while reading. You could probably find one online easily.)

I am so jealous you have yet to meet Livia.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:39 PM on January 27, 2006

I became obsessed after watching Rome, and immediately went to Wikipedia to read up on all the history I could. From there, I've gone on to Gibbon's Rise and Fall (which is focused on events that happen hundreds of years after Ceaser and Augustus, but has lots of great stuff) and the Oxford Illustrated History of Rome.

For some reason I remember I Claudius as terribly boring stuff that my parents watched. Such are the impressions of a grade school mind. I'll definitely check out the book and the series as soon as I'm able.
posted by aladfar at 6:47 PM on January 27, 2006

Another vote for Suetonius, a surprisingly good read, and also a nod for Graves' work. The BCC miniseries is fantastic, not in production value necessarily but in dialog and acting.

And you get to see Captain Picard with real hair.

"Where are my eagles?!"
posted by beowulf573 at 7:13 PM on January 27, 2006

Another vote for Graves's stuff - I've taken a class or two in Roman history, and the two Claudius books really gave me a surprisingly good background on Julio-Claudian politics. I'll look up the translation of Tacitus we used - don't remember it offhand.
posted by ubersturm at 7:31 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: Also, JC's history of the war in Gaul is amazingly readable, though nowhere near as fun and bitchy as Suetonius, dealing as it does with battles and not palace intrigue.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:59 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: Careful, this stuff sneaks up on you. When you decide you need to learn Latin, I recommend Jenney's First Year Latin (and then the later years in the series.)

While Gladiator (2000) takes a lot of historical liberties, it's a wonderful period piece and the settings, costumes, and filmmaking are top notch. It's in serious contention for my favorite movie of all time.

Whoops, there goes CunningLinguist. I was about to cite De Bello Gallico. By Jupiter, it was divided into three parts when Caesar got there - but not when he left. One of the great enduring classics of military history - people will still be reading this 2000 years from now, I bet. His commentary on the Britannic wars is quite readable, too.

The study of Ancient Rome pays dividends that will delight and edify you for the rest of your life. Enjoy.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:21 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: Learn of the wars! The best I've seen (with maps and pictures of Osprey quality) is Warfare in the Classical World which you can find at many quality bookstores.

This book will help muchly when you read triumphal accounts of the battle as you'll know who is outflanking whom.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:11 PM on January 27, 2006

Interesting fact #19493: Caligula (the Bob Guccione movie) was written by American man of letters (and pseudo-intellectual fictionalized histories) Gore Vidal.

Shhhh. He did win a lawsuit to get his name taken off. Much more info here.

posted by Aknaton at 10:51 PM on January 27, 2006

Best answer: You could try reading some works by the emperors themselves - Caesar's Gallic Wars, or Augustus's Res Gestae. If you are interested in more detailed histories of the period then try:

- A World Full of Gods by Keith Hopkins. An experiment in trying to conjure up how alien the Roman world would be to you or I. Immensely scholarly, and readable even to someone with no previous background (the first chapter starts with 2 20-something time travellers, so it is not your average history book).

- Volume 11 of the Cambridge Ancient History, which deals with the "High Empire" - a great series of articles by a range of scholars.

- Between Republic and Empire by Raaflaub and Toher - weighty but set out by article so you could dip in.

If you want to find out more about society and culture in that period, you could try some poetry - how about Ovid's The Art of Love, which is funny and moving and everything else you'd expect something with that title to be.

When you move onto the later empire - as you will, I'm sure! - try and find a condensed version of Gibbon's Decline and Fall - enjoy the prose and the digs at provincial England and then for a corrective move onto Peter Brown's Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity (a mind-blowing book) and Cameron's The Later Roman Empire (as starters for ten - but there are lots of books arguing about whether the empire declined or just changed).

Also, I cannot let a question on Rome go by without pointing you to a picture of a Roman oxen-powered ship - no it's not a hoax, yes they were extremely ingenious....

posted by greycap at 2:03 AM on January 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great suggestions, everyone!
posted by interrobang at 7:10 AM on January 28, 2006

Best answer: Norman Davies' Europe is one of the best short form histories of Europe. There are several long chapters about the formation of Rome and its downfall. It features cultural, military, political and religious discussions of the Roman Republic and Empire written in an entertaining and informative style.
posted by rabbitsnake at 8:52 AM on January 28, 2006

Best answer: Some very nice recommendations in this thread. I would like to add:

Colleen McCullough's 'Masters of Rome' series. Really good historical fiction in the 'I, Claudius' vein. The series begins with "The First Man in Rome".

Caesar's Commentaries are well worth checking out too.
posted by mortisimo at 10:31 AM on January 28, 2006

Best answer: Ah, it looks like we used the Michael Grant translation of Tacitus' Annals. I thought it was pretty decent, and certainly readable, but I haven't read straight through anyone else's translations.
posted by ubersturm at 11:23 AM on January 28, 2006

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