Five Books offers a plethora of interviews on the best books covering Ancient Rome. It can be hard to know where to start learning about the Romans, but there are some highly accessible books that are good and popular introductions to various aspects of the ancient world. As a general history of Rome, Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is highly readable.
Our interviewees recommend a number of novels set in Ancient Rome as accessible introductions to aspects of the ancient world. Mary Beard herself recommends the Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. She feels the book has been unjustly traduced for its famous opening sentence, “It was a dark and stormy night.” The book, in her view, offers a “fantastic reconstruction of the ancient world”. Adrienne Mayor recommends Winter Quarters by Alfred Duggan, the book she credits with getting her hooked on ancient history. Another recently published novel that gets our vote and has been widely recommended is Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris.
Tom Holland, in one of the most popular interviews on the site, recommends his best books on Ancient Rome, but his own Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar is a highly readable and racy journey through early Roman imperial history. Oxford historian Harry Sidebottom on his best books on Ancient Rome recommends the Atlas of the Roman World by Tim Cornell and John Matthews as a book he wished had been published when he first started studying classics. He describes it as “incredibly accessible, very scholarly, very succinct” and with “beautiful maps and pictures”. Adrienne Mayor recommends The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss on the Roman slave revolt as a history with a narrative that leaves you “in suspense at the end of each chapter”.
If you’re looking for an introduction to classical literature, Twelve Voices from Greece and Rome: Ancient ideas for modern times is a good place to start. And if you’re looking for an introduction to the Latin language, Harry Mount offers some ideas here, or you could just buy his own introduction, Amo Amas Amat: How to be a Latin Lover.
The Confessions of St Augustine is one of the most recommended books on Five Books. If you want to understand more about St Augustine, you could start with Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown, which Robin Lane-Fox in his interview on the best books on Religious and Social History in Ancient Rome describes as “the outstanding biography of the 20th century”.
Virgil is one of the most influential poets in the history of Western literature. Here, another poet, Sarah Ruden, talks about the challenges of translating the Aeneid and why, although we know little about Virgil as a man, his great poem’s take on the violence and power struggles it depicts is deeply ambivalent.
Catiline’s War, The Jugurthine War, Histories
Sallust (trans. AJ Woodman)
Res Gestae Divi Augusti: Text, Translation, and Commentary
by Alison Cooley (editor) & Augustus
Rome's Cultural Revolution
by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome
by J. Bert Lott
by Karl Galinsky
Is it possible that Augustus was not the first Roman emperor, but the last of Rome’s great populist champions? That’s what classicist Peter Wiseman argues in his book, The House of Augustus: A Historical Detective Story. Drawing on a lifetime of research and writing on this period, the emeritus professor of classics and ancient history gives a brilliant overview of the Augustan age, and recommends what to read to better understand the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who found Rome in brick and left it in marble.
Caesar, Cicero, Achilles, Socrates, Plato: millennia later, we still talk about them. Olly Murphy, classics teacher at Wycombe Abbey, one of England’s top girls’ schools, recommends books and explains why classics remains one of the most exciting subjects for teenagers to study.
Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, talks us through the books that have had the deepest impact on her thinking about the ancient world and explains why studying Classics is absolutely relevant to modern life.