Best books about Ancient Rome

I have read over 70 books about ancient Roman history over the past five years. Most of the books I have read are in English, but I have also read books in Italian (notably those of Alberto Angela) and in Spanish (Santiago Posteguillo). Here are my recommendations sorted by category.

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Life in Ancient Rome

24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There, by Philip Matyszak. A great way to experience what daily life was like in Rome at the peak of its glory at the time of Trajan.
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A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome, by Alberto Angela (English version)
Una giornata nell'antica Roma. Vita quotidiana, segreti e curiosità, by Alberto Angela (original Italian version)
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The Reach of Rome: A Journey Through the Lands of the Ancient Empire, Following a Coin, by Alberto Angela
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General Roman History

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard is a very well written history of Rome from foundation to 212 CE.


The Dream of Rome, by Boris Johnson. Even though I dislike Boris Johnson as a politician, his book was quite enjoyable because it was very funny, while at the same time being well-written and erudite.
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Legionary: The Roman Soldier's (Unofficial) Manual, by Philip Matyszak. An insightful and entertaining book about the life of Roman legionaries. A must read for anyone interested in Roman military history.
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Gladiator: The Roman Fighter's (Unofficial) Manual, by Philip Matyszak. The author's wit and humorous prose makes reading about gladiators a gripping experience. You won't be able to put the book down.
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History of the Roman Republic

The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction, by David M. Gwynn. An Oxford reference to the Roman Republic. It is very well written and very easy to read.
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Cataclysm 90 BC: The forgotten war that almost destroyed Rome, by Philip Matyszak about the Social War in which Italian cities and tribes fought against the Roman Republic in order to lose their independence to become Roman (the only case in history of the opposite of an independence war!).
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Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain, by Philip Matyszak. This book is about one of the greatest Roman generals of his age, but also about romanisation of Iberia, and how both Pompey and Caesar both made their teeth as generals.
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Mithridates the Great: Rome's Indomitable Enemy, by Philip Matyszak. The life and deeds of the man who unified Anatolia and defied Rome. Ultimately his demise would bring the whole of Anatolia under Roman control.
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The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, by Mike Duncan. The book covers the period 146-78 BCE and notably the conflict between Sulla and Marius.
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History of the Roman Empire

Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World, by Adrian Goldsworthy. This book covers mostly the late Republic (first part) and early Empire (second part). It deals essentially with the military and administrative aspects of the Roman rule. It is great to learn about the Senate, magistrates, legions and how the whole system worked.
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Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine, by Barry Strauss. The book is very well written and provides a great overview of the life and achievements of 10 of the most important Roman emperors.
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The Roman Emperor Aurelian: Restorer of the World, by John F. White. The book isn't just about Aurelian, but also about Valerian, Gallienus, Claudius II, Tacitus, Probus, Carus, the Gallic emperors (Postumus, Tetricus) as well as Zenobia and Vaballathus of Palmyra. A very interesting period (253-284) that almost saw the collapse of the Roman empire. This period was not mentioned by Barry Strauss in Ten Caesars, so the two books complete each other.
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Roman Britain: A New History, by Guy de la Bédoyère. For anyone interested in how life was in that particular part of the empire.
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Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire, by Ian Hughes. I recommend reading the book after Stilicho and Aetius (listed above) by the same author to follow the chronology. This volume provides worthwhile insight into the numerous reasons why the Western Roman Empire eventually collapsed.


Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome, by Ian Hughes. A great book covering the late 4th and early 5th centuries in the Western Roman Empire, a period that doesn't get enough attention.
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Historical fiction

The following books are all based on real events and the authors have attempted to keep the story as historical and realistic as possible. It's only fiction in that these are written as novels with fictional heroes, but the historical context and main events are real.

The Gold of Tolosa, by Philip Matyszak. The story is based on old papyri dating from the 1st century CE found in Pompeii. It is not clear whether the story is (entirely) real or not, but it is certainly based on actual historical events. It might either be the true account of how the greatest robbery in history took place (gold and silver worth about $2 billions in today's money) or it might be the oldest novel in the world (antedating by 1000 years The Tale of Genji). In any case the story is exhilarating and mind-blowing. It was superbly translated from colloquial Latin by Philip Matyszak, an expert in that domain. The language is crude and hilarious. It's one of the most captivating books I have ever read!


The Servant of Aphrodite is the sequel of The Gold of Tolosa and is just as amazing.



Over the last year I read the 15 volumes of the Marius' Mules series by British author S.J.A. Turney. The series retraces the life of Julius Caesar from the beginning of the Gallic Wars until his assassination - a period of 15 years, with one book dedicated to each year. Although it is historical fiction, the story is thoroughly researched and as realistic as can possibly be based on all the historical evidence available. The books are extremely well written and captivating. It is far more entertaining than to read Julius Caesar's De Bello Gallico. Simon Turney actually intended to rewrite Caesar's work in a more modern and diverting style, which is succeeded masterfully.


Simon Turney has written many other novels about ancient Rome. I quite enjoyed the Praetorian series (6 volumes so far, with a 7th due to complete the series). The story starts at the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, lasts through the reign of Commodus, and ends with the civil war between Septimius Severus against Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus.
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If you read Spanish, I can only recommend the three books of the Africanus series by Santiago Posteguillo. Africanus: El hijo del cónsul is the first of three volumes (of about 1000 pages per volume) of a historical retelling of the Second Punic Wars following mainly Publius Cornelius Scipio (later nicknamed Africanus) and his friend Gaius Laelius, as well as inevitably also Hannibal Barca and Quintus Fabius Maximus. The book is only available in Spanish at the moment. I chose it to improve my Spanish and I was not disappointed. It's really great. It is the same kind of series as Marius' Mules above, but with less gory details of battles. The author also follows the life of Titus Maccius Plautus, one of the most famous Roman playwrights of the time and a protégé of Scipio Africanus (at least according to the book). Highly recommended if you can read Spanish! It's also availalable in Italian and Polish(!)

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I read the first book of Santiago Posteguillo's new series about the life of Julius Caesar : Roma soy yo. It was published in April 2022 and was the most sold book in Spain in 2022 with 180,000 copies sold in eight months. I agree that the book is a masterpiece. Santiago managed to write the story in a very compelling fashion, with very emotional moments and lots of suspense. This first volume deal with Caesar's youth during the civil war between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, which is the main focus of the book.

The book is described as "the true story of Julius Caesar" and it is mostly based on historical facts. However the author gave himself some narrative license to make the events sound more dramatic. For example, he placed the birth of Julius Caesar's daughter during the siege of Rome in 82 BCE (Battle of the Colline Gate), when she was actually born several years later (in 76 BCE). He also made Titus Labienus a childhood friend of Caesar's although Labienus was not even from Rome (but from Picenum) and the pair didn't meet until well into their adulthood. Nevertheless it is one of the best historical novels I have read and am looking forward to the next volumes in the series. It will surely be translated into English, but in the meantime, if you can read Spanish, don't hesitate! It's already available in Italian and Catalan.

 

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I'm a big fan of Alberto Angela. He's one of the great popularizers.

For those not that familiar with him he's all over youtube in both Italian and English. Quite good clips.
 
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I also watched many shows/documentaries hosted by his father, Piero Angela.
 
I'm a big fan of Alberto Angela. He's one of the great popularizers.

I have already started his next book Impero. Viaggio nell'Impero di Roma seguendo una moneta.

Reading is a great way to learn new words. I used to write down vocabulary on a piece of paper I kept in the book as a bookmark. But since I adopted Kindle I simply highlight words I want to remember in blue (yellow highlights is for noteworthy passages), then export the highlights to Google Drive and make a list on a spreadsheet with one column for the translation and another for the category of words, so that I can classify them easily in one click. I learned over 100 words with Una giornata nell'antica Roma.
 
I checked the documentaries hosted by Alberto Angela on YouTube, but unfortunately the video quality is not very good. I'd rather recommend to create a free account on the Rai website and watch the videos in HD there. I like his documentary series Ulisse: il piacere della scoperta, which has been running for four seasons now. There are episodes about ancient Rome (hidden secrets under Rome, Augustus, Trajan, the Colosseum, the sexual life of ancient Romans...), but also about other historical periods (in all the world, not only Italy), about natural regions and even about DNA and about Neanderthal.
 
I checked the documentaries hosted by Alberto Angela on YouTube, but unfortunately the video quality is not very good. I'd rather recommend to create a free account on the Rai website and watch the videos in HD there. I like his documentary series Ulisse: il piacere della scoperta, which has been running for four seasons now. There are episodes about ancient Rome (hidden secrets under Rome, Augustus, Trajan, the Colosseum, the sexual life of ancient Romans...), but also about other historical periods (in all the world, not only Italy), about natural regions and even about DNA and about Neanderthal.

Thanks, Maciamo.

I'll do that.
 
Two other great books about ancient Rome, this time about the lives of Roman emperors. The first covers all the emperors as well as the evolution of Roman society and religious beliefs. The second concentrates on 10 emperors, but mentions also other major emperors, and only skips the period from 251 to 284 and after Constantine.

David Potter's book is more complete and succinct, although Barry Strauss's book may be slightly more enjoyable to read. Both are American university professors of ancient history (Potter at the University of Michigan and Strauss at Cornell).

The Emperors of Rome: The Story of Imperial Rome from Julius Caesar to the Last Emperor, by David Potter

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Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine, by Barry Strauss

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I checked the documentaries hosted by Alberto Angela on YouTube, but unfortunately the video quality is not very good. I'd rather recommend to create a free account on the Rai website and watch the videos in HD there. I like his documentary series Ulisse: il piacere della scoperta, which has been running for four seasons now. There are episodes about ancient Rome (hidden secrets under Rome, Augustus, Trajan, the Colosseum, the sexual life of ancient Romans...), but also about other historical periods (in all the world, not only Italy), about natural regions and even about DNA and about Neanderthal.

Yes, he is following the steps of his father, Piero Angela. An incredible personality of Italian television.
 
For those of you interested in Roman history, the comic book series The Eagles of Rome, by Italian-Swiss author Enrico Marini, is really great. It is available in English and on Kindle. The story is set in the first decade CE during the end of the reign of Augustus. It follows the life of Arminius until the destruction of Varus' three legions in the Teutoburg Forest. The graphics are exceptionally good and very realistic. The plot is also well researched from a historical point of view. Rated 18+ (but I don't think we have a lot of younger members anyway).












For those who can read French I also recommend the Franco-Belgian comic series The Adventures of Alix (38 volumes so far - set at the time of Julius Caesar) and Alix Senator (10 volumes now, same hero but older, during the late reign of Augustus). Alix is one of the oldest Franco-Belgian comics alongside Tintin. The first volume was published in 1948. Each book is a completely different story. The quality is variable as the authors have changed over time. Alix Senator is one long story and the quality is more consistent.
 
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Another great comic book series is Murena, about the life of Emperor Nero. Like the Eagles of Rome it is definitely rated 18+ on all levels, but that's often the case for realistic works on ancient Rome.

The first four volumes (out of 11) are now available as a compilation (cheaper to buy). They deal with Nero's adolescence, starting shortly before Claudius's death until Agrippina's death in volume 4.



The quality of drawings increases over time, especially from volume 4.

Volume 5 showcases the rise of Poppaia Sabina and Nero trying his hand as a charioteer in the Circus Maximus.




 
The Emperor in the Roman World is one of my favorites about the Roman empire.
 
Why We're All Romans: The Roman Contribution to the Western World by Carl J. Richard.
The author analyzes the Roman impact and contribution to Western Civilization not only in the fields of administration, architecture, law and engineering, but also as assimilators and disseminators of Greek and Hebrew concepts and ideas.
 
I have reorganised my book recommendations about Roman history in a single post (OP).
 
Perhaps dated but this looks interesting. It explores early Greco-Roman religious institutions and the origins thereof.
 

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