Mefites, lend me your ears (and book recommendations)
August 30, 2007 3:32 AM   Subscribe

What are your favorite books on the Roman Empire?

I'm looking for a captivating, enjoyable-to-read book on ancient Rome.

Ideally, I'd like full coverage of the main highlights from start to finish, but a volume concentrating on a specific period (such as the end of the empire) is okay too.

I'm sure you'll jump in and recommend "I, Claudius," and that's the spirit of what I'm looking for, but perhaps not in the historical fiction vein.

What have you read, enjoyed, and profited from most in this area of historical writing?
posted by Gordion Knott to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I hate providing Wikipedia links, but this one is very convenient.

I'll also patronisingly point out that the Roman Empire wasn't just Rome. It was pretty much half the world at one point.
posted by deeper red at 3:36 AM on August 30, 2007

Reading translations of Juvenal and Horace are good ways to find out what was happening during Rome in the good times (ie during the Caesar/Augustus reigns). They can be pretty funny, so long as you let your mind relax into the mood and style of them.

Just get a good translation of either with good side notes. Can't remember details but we used to study the Penguin translations at school.
posted by deeper red at 3:43 AM on August 30, 2007

I like Livy's histories. You can find his stuff on
Here's a wikipedia entry:
posted by rsol44 at 4:17 AM on August 30, 2007

Rubicon by Matt Holland is exactly the book you are looking for. A tremendous and riveting read.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 4:23 AM on August 30, 2007

A couple of accessible texts by "people who were there" (focused on the early empire) include:

- Suetonius's Twelve Caesars is a nicely gossipy history of the first twelve emperors after the establishment of the empire.
- Tacitus's Annals and Histories cover a similar period and are very readable. A good thing to dip into - for instance the books of the Annals on Nero are wonderfully fun (like his description of the booby-trapped ship he tries to use to kill his mother).

Some modern authors whose works might be a good place to start are:

- Tom Holland's Rubicon is reasonable on the fall of the republic.
- Chris Kelly's short introduction to the Roman empire is a great starting point if you want something short but sweet.
- Peter Heather has recently published a very interesting, accessible book on the fall of the western empire.

Gibbon is a wonderful read but perhaps not the best place to start for a history of the period as we're used to it today. Read the condensed version if you're a bit put off by the length.
posted by greycap at 4:30 AM on August 30, 2007

The works of H.H. Scullard.
posted by The Straightener at 5:03 AM on August 30, 2007

I really enjoyed Rubicon.
posted by gomichild at 5:05 AM on August 30, 2007

I also enjoyed Rubicon, but it was about the Roman Republic as opposed to the Roman Empire. (sorry if I'm being pedantic here...)
posted by exit at 5:31 AM on August 30, 2007

Fifthing Rubicon - sensing a trend?
posted by Rallon at 5:40 AM on August 30, 2007

Seconding Tacitus. Complete works, $14. Annals and Histories together will cover a lot of time, and Tacitus is really surprisingly readable.

I found this Sallust comp with The Conspiracy of Cataline & The Jugurthine War quite enjoyable. Two specific instances here rather than broad histories.

Of course, these are both works from the Empire itself, and are sometimes more concerned with an argument than the straight facts, but, well, that's historians for you.
posted by fidelity at 5:56 AM on August 30, 2007

Rubicon is good.
A scandalous history of the Roman Emperors, too.
posted by boo_radley at 6:24 AM on August 30, 2007

Tacitus for some real roman stuff and "I, Claudius" for drama.
posted by homodigitalis at 6:41 AM on August 30, 2007

I Claudius is actually just thinly disguised Suetonious, so not as fictional as you might think. Both are highly recommended and marvelous salacious reading.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:24 AM on August 30, 2007

ClanvidHorse, Matt Holland plays for Charlton. No snark intended.
posted by gene_machine at 7:24 AM on August 30, 2007

I have to second Suetonius's Twelve Caesars. Its a primary source that's actually very interesting and readable.

Martial is another good primary source. His Empigrams won't teach you much about Roman history, but will teach you alot about Roman culture. And its really funny too.

Some secondary sources that are good:

Life in Ancient Rome by F. R. Cowell -- a little dry, but a very comprehensive view of what it was like to live in Rome, especially at the height of the Empire.

Daily Life in Ancient Rome : The People and the City at the Height of the Empire by Jerome Carcopino -- a more readable account than Life in Ancient Rome.
posted by Maastrictian at 7:25 AM on August 30, 2007

And where's the Livy love?
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:25 AM on August 30, 2007

Ah, I missed it, sorry.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:26 AM on August 30, 2007

This might be a minority opinion, but you don't really want a full coverage from the beginning to the fall. The first and last four hundred years are pretty boring (or, rather, lacking in quality source material). My sister got me a copy of Anthony Everitt's Augustus for my birthday, and it's really entertaining. I've read a lot of books on that period in Roman History, both contemporary and ancient, and it's easily the most readable. I heard mixed things about his Cicero, but I think I'll try that next.
posted by MarkAnd at 7:30 AM on August 30, 2007

Previously and before
posted by exogenous at 7:35 AM on August 30, 2007

I'm seconding the Peter Heather recommendation, and would also mention, if you're interested in what comes after, a history of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich. I read the one volume abridged version, and liked it so much that I got the three-volume set. I've read Rubicon as well, and thought it was okay, but both Heather and Norwich go a lot deeper and are really good story-tellers.
posted by hwickline at 7:44 AM on August 30, 2007

An interesting supplement to the books on the whole history of the Roman Empire is Constantinople, by Isaac Asimov, which is a great account of the split of the empire, to form the Roman Empire of the East (Byzantium) and the Roman Empire from the West (Rome).
posted by micayetoca at 7:54 AM on August 30, 2007

I found Gore Vidal's Julian to be a great read as well as informative. It is the [pseudo] memoir of Emperor Constantine's nephew Julian (known in Christian historical literature as Julian the Apostate). Julian was the last non-Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire.
posted by elmaddog at 8:57 AM on August 30, 2007

it struck me watching Rome and reading Rubicon that we've got TWO frickin' months named after people nobody (ie me) didn't know that much about.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 10:11 AM on August 30, 2007

I'm currently reading Robert Harris' Imperium, which is less empirical than republican, but goes down fairly easily on a summer's day. All about Cicero. (Here's a rude but funny review.)

More seriously, look for Ronald Syme's stuff. Writes like Tacitus, which is no bad thing.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:56 PM on August 30, 2007

N-thing Rubicon. Seconding Imperium.

Also recently enjoyed Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor by Anthony Everitt
posted by johnvaljohn at 9:55 AM on August 31, 2007

Also Count Belisarius, as much of a follow up to Claudius as Graves was ever going to write.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:51 PM on August 31, 2007

The Emperor series by Conn Iggulden was an amazing read. I devoured all 4 books on a two week vacation.
posted by wile e at 9:33 AM on September 1, 2007

I am a perverted trash reader, and I liked "Raptor" by Gary Jennings (although that's not really *ancient* Rome).
posted by h00py at 5:24 AM on September 2, 2007

Not exactly a book, but if you're open to the idea of audio lectures, I love the inimitable J Rufus Fears' lectures on Famous Romans (and all his other lectures) available through The Teaching Company.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:05 PM on September 2, 2007

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