Five Favourites: Books on Ancient Rome

The historical novelist's favourite picks from Republic to Empire and Cicero to Marcus Aurelius.
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Five Books on Ancient Rome.

5. The Roman Revolution, by Ronald Syme.

A powerful book, about power – and how Rome shifted from the Republic into the Empire. Syme is excellent on the detail, without ever being dull. His Augustus is as ruthless and ambitious as any modern statesman, if not more so. The Roman Revolution should be read by politics and history students alike. As charming, politic or lucky as we may consider Augustus, Syme justly highlights how he could not have risen to the summit without the help of a number of Sherpas, like Agrippa and Lucius Cornelius Balba.

4. Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, by Tom Holland.

Tom Holland’s entertaining account of the end of the Roman Republic is a modern classic, full of insight and wit. Holland portrays a Rome which is exotic yet, at other times, familiar. It is the story of Caesar and Cicero, monarchy and democracy. The book’s scope is wide, but Rubicon achieves all its ambitions. It’s rare that a work of such scholarship can be so much fun too.


3. Cicero: A Turbulent Life, by Anthony Everitt.

Everitt captures the humour and humanity of the great man, as well as his ego and ambition. Although Everitt writes admiringly and sympathetically, the biography doesn’t fall into hagiography. He quotes well from the wealth of letters Cicero left us and the secondary cast – containing the likes of Clodius Pulcher, Mark Anthony and Caesar – are as memorable as the book’s protagonist. Cicero’s story encompasses both triumph and tragedy – and Everitt does it justice.

2. Marcus Aurelius: Warrior, Philosopher, Emperor, by Frank McLynn.

This biography was a source of both information and inspiration when I decided to write the Sword of Empire series, set during the Emperor’s eventful reign. McLynn paints a picture of the era – with its wars, plague and imperial intrigues – as well as the man. The demi-God becomes all too human, given his failures as a husband and father. Yet Aurelius is still a figure to be admired rather than admonished. Hadrian, Antoninus, Galen and Commodus also feature. The writing is gripping and erudite. Narrative history at its best.

1. The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination, by Barry Strauss.

A thoroughly entertaining work of popular history, which puts Decimus Brutus at the heart of the conspiracy to topple Julius Caesar. A lifetime of academic study is successfully distilled into a page-turning narrative. For those readers unfamiliar with the Ides of March, I would recommend you read this book. Also, for those familiar with the event, you should still read The Death of Caesar as it will throw up something new. As enthralling as any political thriller.


Richard Foreman is the author of the Sword of Rome series.

Books on Ancient Rome