Making Sense of Roman History: A Reading List

Inspired by Tanner Greer, I’ve decided to put together a list of books that I think will useful to understanding the Romans from the perspective of a non-specialist without a background in Latin, or Classics more broadly (I am in this category obviously).

First, I’m a big fan of Michael Grant’s History of Rome. Grant was a historian who wrote a great many books for the popular audience, and his History of Rome is a comprehensive survey. I’ve read it multiple times. Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is a more contemporary take which covers a similar period. But I’m not sure it’s as useful if you have less background than Grant’s more traditional sequence.

Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World: From Homer to Hadrian covers a lot more than Rome, but what it does cover that is Greek is essential to understanding Rome.

Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146 BC is a good read on a classic topic. Goldsworthy is a military historian, and it shows. To be frank I haven’t read many treatments of the republican period since so much of it is back-loaded to the decades before the principate. But Goldsworthy’s Caesar: Life of a Colossus illuminates this critical juncture in Roman history well enough.

There are so many nearly novel-like treatments of figures from the Second Triumvirate and the Julio-Claudians that I’m not going with anything conventional: try Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire. Colin Wells’ The Roman Empire focuses on the imperial apogee and the early years of the 3rd-century troubles. It’s a bit pedestrian but has interesting quantitative data like the decline in the proportion of soldiers of Italian origin over the centuries. If you’ve read the survey above then you know why Gwyn Morgan’s 69 A.D.: Year of Four Emperors is important to read.

I think biography is a pretty good way to get a sense of particular periods. With that in mind, Frank McLynn’s Marcus Aurelius: A Life and David Potter’s Constantine the Emperor are useful if a bit plodding and overmuch for the casual student.

The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, and The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians are all critical contemporary analyses of the end the Roman polity. Written from an archaeological, environmental scientific, and narrative historical angles, they give different viewpoints on the same questions. These are all more or less responses to the sort of work written by Peter Brown a generation earlier, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, which argues against the idea of the fall. From a different perspective (the barbarian), The End of Empire: Attila the Hun & the Fall of Rome, though to be frank this book is as much about Aetius as it is about Attila.

Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome is one of the many books on the topic of “daily life” during this period and place. You should read at least one of these.

I’m not a humanist in Tanner’s league, so you won’t get poetry recommendations from me, but Aupelius’ The Golden Ass is the only complete surviving Latin novel. It’s rather weird. You surely know the list of eminences of the Latin poets, but Ovid’s Metamorphoses induced less labor than Virgil’s Aeneid. I recall thinking Virgil was a bit too “try hard.” Unlike The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization and History of Rome, both of which I’ve read more than half a dozen times front to back, with literature I usually read once, and don’t retain too much. I’m a Philistine!

Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires and Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations are interesting comparative analyses. If you had to pick between the two, go with the first. But that’s because purely intellectual histories are not as interesting to me.

Historical fiction isn’t always accurate, but it really brings the dramatis personae alive. Colleen McCoullough’s First Man in Rome series is excellent, especially the first few novels. Everyone knows Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. But my teenage-self really enjoyed Allan Massie’s Let the Emperor Speak, about Augustus, and Tiberius: The Memoirs of the Emperor. Gore Vidal’s Julian: A Novel is well written and engaging, though a little light on history (not surprisingly there is a lot of editorializing by Vidal through Julian).

You have in some way read the works of Seutonius,Tacitus, and Livy because they are the foundation for so much of the narrative works written today. They are also the source material for fiction and dramatizations. If you want to “go back to the sources”, give Ammianus Marcellinus a try. He’s overlooked, and he’s excellent.

Rodney Stark wrote The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries back when he was a scholar and not a polemicist. I’m skeptical of some of his conclusions, but his thinking here is rigorous. It’s not the long scream that his last few books have been. Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians is complementary to The Rise of Christianity. Michelle Salzman’s The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire is worth a very deep read, as it synthesizes textual analysis with some quantitative work.

Some of the New Testament is interesting too. I especially think that the material attributed to St. Paul, a Roman citizen, is worth reading closely.

And finally, St. Augustine is worth a read. City of God is interminably long, but Confessions is more compact, and the beginning of a whole genre which eventually culminated in James Frey.

6 thoughts on “Making Sense of Roman History: A Reading List

  1. I will pump for Gibbon’s “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” I know that there has been a lot of scientific work done since the third most important publication of 1776, but the literary quality and scholarly comprehensiveness of the work are unchallenged. I would argue that it is the greatest prose work of the English language and should be read for that reason alone.

    You can download it in 12 volumes with the JH Bury Notes from:

    https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/gibbon-the-history-of-the-decline-and-fall-of-the-roman-empire-12-vols

    Note: that website has free and good editions of many classic works of history, politics, and economics. It is a valuable resource.

    An Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Decline-Fall-Roman-Empire-Everymans/dp/0679423087

    From a customer review there:

    “I will append a single proviso to my five-star rating: to enjoy this book, you will need a somewhat decent command of the English language and the capacity to unpack dense meaning. Gibbon’s prose, to my mind, is almost without par; however, it is very much written in the Enlightenment style, which was more complex than what we accustomed to from today’s workman-like scribblers.”

  2. While a mixture of ‘narrative story’ and historical fact viewing, ‘Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic’ was a informative journey.

    What is often at display in Roman literature recommendation threads is how these popular works are always about the downfall, they’re not about rise of the empire. It’s nearly always the downfall. Odd bias there (?).

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