Hail Caesar! Fiction Set in Ancient Rome
Join Me on a Stroll Through the Seven Hills ...
I admit it.
Behind my contemporary exterior - the one that loves clean lines and simplicity, that revels in new technology, that can't live without a modern bathroom - beats a heart passionate about ancient Rome. From the birth of the republic to the demise of the empire, I find everything about it just endlessly fascinating. In particular, the political machinations from about 200 B.C. on.
While I did go back to class at one point to study Roman history, much of what I have learned has been gleaned from the treasure trove of fiction set in various times and places within the Roman empire. Not the most perfect way to learn but certainly one of the most fun.
What follows here is a collection of recommendations for you should you want to travel back in time for some entertainment. These are books I've actually read, so I'll continue to add as I discover new books and authors. Enjoy!!
While Rome started as a monarchy, it's revered through history as a republic, quite the rarity during the B.C. age. For me, it's a time of raucous rabble-rousing from the Gracchi brothers, fights between aristocrats and plebs and expansion on all fronts. I'll include books here that take us up to the time when Caesar moves into power, unless they're specifically about him.
(Hmm. I seem to be light on this period. Need to read more!)
Imperium by Robert Harris - The life of Cicero
I just finished reading this and enjoyed at least the middle. Actually, it was interesting to read more about Cicero as he's often a side character in other stories. He's portrayed much more sympathetically (obviously) in this book than in ones focused on Caesar. I wouldn't recommend this as a first dive into Rome, though.
Books with The Great Man
This is actually a period of revolution for Rome, one that didn't necessarily start with Caesar, but which he took advantage of. By the time the "patriots" and artistocrats brought him down in 44 B.C., it was too late for the beloved republic. Octavian (Caesar Augustus) finished off what Caesar had started and the empire was born.
Caesar has been a fascinating figure throughout history and so I've given him his own section as a bridge between the republic and the empire. Included here are books where he is the focus of the story.
Masters of Rome
Colleen McCullough's epic series on Caesar begins before he's even born with the story of Gaius Marius. The entire series is noted for its attention to detail and her character development is phenomenal.
I've got the first book here to get you started, but the series has six total.
What is Your Favorite Period to Read About?
After Caesar's death, there were struggles for power and attempts to return Rome to a republic. Emerging from the chaos was Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus. He strong-armed the city from a triumvarate to single emperor and so was born the Roman Empire.
(Again, I'm light on books here. I'll work on it!!)
Under the Eagle by Simon Scarrow
Totally loved this one!! Set in 42 A.D., it chronicles the Second Legion as they participate in the invasion of Briton. Great characters, great action, great setting. Military in nature and Vespasian (the eventual emperor) is the legate of the Second. Interesting seeing him in a different role.
Throne of Isis by Judith Tarr - Looking at the republic through Cleopatra's eyes
Not my favorite book, but it's always interesting to get a different perspective on the events of the time. This one includes a bit of Julius Caesar, but is mostly set after his death.
Pompeii by Robert Harris
We're in 79 AD, and strange things are happening in Campania. There's sulfur in the Aqua Augusta, the wine is vibrating and there are waves, but no wind. Thought this was a pretty well done tale, in part because there weren't a whole lot of the "famous" people involved.
By far my life-long favorite type of book in any time period, mysteries set in ancient Rome are far from the CSI type crime scenes you see today. That's part of the fascination, I think. To solve any crime without any of the science we use today seems downright impossible. And yet, these clever men manage to do it. (Need to find me some clever women!)
Gordianus the Finder by Steven Saylor
These overlap the time of the late republic and our early private detective Gordianus finds himself picking his way through the politics as much as through the evidence. One of my favorite series and a must if you love mysteries. They're being re-issued in trade paperback format.
Marcus Didius Falco by Lindsey Davis
Coming on the scene around 70 AC, Falco serves a private investigator during the time of the Empire with his primary client being the Emperor Vespasian. Which basically means he's really a spy. His search for the truth takes him all over the Empire, from Germany to Judea. I've only made it through the first four or five of these, but they're worth the read, so I have the entire series here.
Libertus by Rosemary Rowe
Mosaic maker and former slave Libertus finds himself in the role of mystery solver thanks to his ability to see patterns where others see chaos. (Sherlock Holmes, anyone?) We've moved into the second century here and the location is the outskirts of the Empire - Britain.
I started in the tail end of the series with this book and need to get back to the beginning. But enjoyable and a slightly different take thanks to the setting.
While I've listed a bunch of my favorites here, I've just barely touched the surface of all the books out there available to read. No matter how many more I add, I'll never be able to make a dent. So here are some other places to look for books set in Ancient Rome.
- Fictional Rome
Hands down the best resource out there. You can look for a book by the period it covers, main character or genre.