From gladiators to martyrs, lark-throated orators to fiddling despots, ancient Rome has given us enough colorful characters to populate an entire slate of HBO dramas. But the history of the Roman Empire, and the Republic it supplanted, is more than just a toga-clad version of Game of Thrones — though the accounts of backstabbing and incest put even the Lannisters to shame.
Roman history goes beyond the stories of swordsmen and Caesars. It’s also the story of freedmen hawking vegetables in the Forum Holitorium, and of patrician wives taking vengeance for their murdered kinsmen in the place of their absent husbands. For the writers and historians unearthing these tales — and coaxing them back to life through the power of their prose — Roman antiquity reflects the truths we still live out today. It shows the courage of families standing together, the dangers of despotism, and the quiet horrors of navigating a world that often falls short of justice.
Smart but never stuffy, the Romanists on this list represent the pinnacle of nonfiction storytelling, making the distant past feel fresh and vivid without sanding down its specificities. Under their guidance, you’ll discover not only the ancient Rome, but many Romes, as their works together illuminate an ancient culture in all its complexities.
Here are 12 of the best books on Roman history — one for each of the Caesars profiled in our first pick. Dive into one now, and cross the Rubicon into true history buff status!
One of the wittiest historians to work in any language, the legendary Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was anything but tranquil when he turned his gimlet eye and acid tongue to the Roman Empire’s earliest rulers. Best known as just “Suetonius,” he made his way from a moderately prosperous North African household to the inner circles of power in Rome itself — directing the imperial archives under the emperor Trajan and then serving as Hadrian’s own secretary. He seems to have lost this plum post for dallying with the empress Sabina, but Suetonius had the last laugh: his lively biographies of Julius Caesar and the first eleven emperors leave nothing to the imagination, from Nero’s colorful sex life to Vespasian’s ignoble death by diarrhea.
The Twelve Caesars’ droll storytelling, which carries the scandalous savor of a gossip rag, has delighted classics students for millennia, a spice-laden reward for mastering the intricacies of Latin grammar. But thanks to this readable translation by Robert Graves — the learned, silver-tongued author of the historical novel I, Claudius — you can experience them without learning the fifth declension. Read More.
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More casual readers might be dismayed to see The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire recommended so highly — the Penguin Classics edition, after all, runs to three volumes, weighing in at more than a thousand pages apiece. But there’s a reason this English classic has had more staying power than Elizabeth II: it’s a monumental work of scholarship — and also a lot more entertaining than even the wittiest of dictionaries.
Gibbon’s first volume might be the same age as the United States, but his style still stands at the pinnacle of genteel, white-gloved irony. He excels at modulating scale — moving from the grand sweep of imperial politics to the petty impulses that animated individual lives. Gibbon doesn’t squander all 3,000 pages on the crises of the third century, or even stop in 1453, when Constantinope fell to the Ottoman Empire: his history stretches all the way to the 16th century, providing plenty of gentle snickers along the way. Read More.
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Written on the eve of World War II, The Roman Revolution takes a look at the Roman Republic’s last gasps and the formation of the Principate under the autocratic Augustus. Needless to say, the troubling subtext of Nazi Germany’s rise looms behind Ronald Syme’s lucid language and forceful argumentation. The result is an extraordinary work that remains fresh and all too relevant even today.
Syme, a noted expert on Tacitus, wears his tremendous erudition lightly. Though his text is weighed down with Greek and Latin footnotes aplenty, all this scholarly apparatus doesn’t prevent his sentences from ringing out like a clarion call. His lively style, liberally sprinkled with sardonic wit, helps bring Augustus to life, producing as complex and dynamic a portrait as the Hollywood biopic at its best. Read More.
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This elegant, readable biography of Cicero shows us all the scandal and turmoil of late Republican Rome through the eyes of its greatest orator. Within its pages, he emerges as a lovable antihero forced to navigate the snarled plot of a Shakespearean tragedy: brilliant, pompous, and moved by ideals at odds with a political system he once manipulated so dexterously.
Anthony Everitt, who’s written extensively on the movers and shakers of the ancient Mediterranean, trained as an all-purpose litterateur rather than a historian: his Cambridge degree was in English literature, and his unpretentious voice was a mainstay of popular outlets like The Guardian. Still, Cicero is deeply researched, nailing down the intricacies of late Republican powerbrokering even as it dramatizes them with a storyteller’s skill. Fittingly, for a biography of a voluble and eloquent writer, the book leans heavily on Cicero’s own words, among them his touching and keenly observed letters to his good friend Titus. Read More.
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