An informative, vivid popular history of Rome?
March 15, 2023 6:16 AM   Subscribe

I’m just back from an amazing trip to Italy. I’d like to read a vivid, informative, popular history of Rome.

I’ve already read, and absolutely loved, Mary Beard’s SPQR, and I intend to read that book again. I’d like to supplement it, however, with something more chronological and less thematic. I’d love something that covers the entire period of both the Republic and the Empire. Particular emphasis on the late Republic and first few centuries of the Empire is welcome but something covering the whole sweep of Rome’s 1,000-ish years would be ideal. I’m looking for a readable, engaging, thought-provoking book (or books) geared for a knowledgeable lay reader. I’d (kind of warily) consider a recommendation for a great textbook but I’d really prefer something not too terribly academic or dry. No podcasts, documentaries, audiobooks, or films, please. Thanks in advance.
posted by cheapskatebay to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I like the trilogy of books by Tom Holland (not that one): Rubicon (last days of Republic), Dynasty (imperial period), Pax (the height of the pax Romana period). Very readable, but also pretty rigorous. It doesn't cover the move from Rome to the East, however.
posted by Hartster at 6:42 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]

Nobody really compares to Mary Beard in terms of writing vivid and engaging works on the ancients, but I did enjoy Ferdinand Addis's The Eternal City, which is focussed on the city itself, from suckin' on a she-wolf to the post-Mussolini period and is very narrative driven, rather than a dry piece of academic exposition. That amazon link is really expensive for some reason, but it's available in paperback for cheaper.
posted by dis_integration at 7:31 AM on March 15

Steven Saylor's Roma and Empire are an epic and very readable story of Rome from pre-founding to the end of Hadrian's reign. It's fictionalised, but it's easy to see which elements are the fiction, the research is very thorough, and the way he brings that world to life really is something else.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 8:12 AM on March 15

I think that Mike Duncan's The Storm Before The Storm meets your criteria and covers the Late Republic/Early Imperial eras. It's an interesting perspective from a non-professional historian.
posted by El_Marto at 9:35 AM on March 15

MeFite BWA has written a very lovely book called TIBER: ETERNAL RIVER OF ROME. I strongly recommend!
posted by mumimor at 10:10 AM on March 15

Secrets of Rome sounds like a travel book but it's not -- it's a wonderful collection of essays about different time periods and buildings and characters -- and in reading about all these different elements you get a real sense of the city in total.

I absolutely loved it.
posted by egeanin at 11:32 AM on March 15

Okay it's historical fiction not technical history, but the novels I Claudius/Claudius The God by Robert Graves are very good at background details as well as the politics around the transition to Empire. For example, he is good at describing the state religion and how it's entwined with the political system, in that politicians are expected to lead in public prayers, even though everyone is fairly cynical. (content warning about violent scenes and decadence in decadent Rome).

Ah, Edward Gibbon... modern historians may bludgeon you about how dated his interpretation is; they're right; so take their words into account... and read him anyway! He is an awesome writer with a fun dry wit, and the original really great popular history author of all time.

(Ironically, Robert Graves was one of the first ones to puncture some of Gibbon's received ideas, which he received from his primary source, Seneca, who was biased against Claudius. For this, Graves was harshly criticized by his contemporary historians, until they eventually changed their minds. Which is kinda funny.)
posted by ovvl at 5:08 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]

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