Roman History Books

Our best selling Roman History books with reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Author: Mary Beard
Publisher: Liveright / W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0871404230

We are familiar with Roman histories about the Fall of the Roman Empire but this best selling title is one about how Rome grew. SPQR is the most recent and popular of Mary Beard's books on the Romans. Mary Beard has long since been a familiar radio and more recently TV personality making her three part BBC television series, "Meet the Romans", in 2012. She is a classicist who lectured first at King's College London and then at Newham College, Cambridge. SPQR (which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, "The Senate and People of Rome") was written all over the city of Rome and was the main thing that stood out to Mary when she first visited Rome. One of the things that this work does well is to show how the elite and the urban poor classes related to each other.

As you would expect from Mary Beard this book is not just about the colourful characters that we are familiar with like the Emperors Nero and Caligulia or the politicians Cicero and Catiline but about interesting women and the common people who also left their record on the streets of Rome. This is a fun book because like many popular historians she writes about the Romans because of the interesting details that they have left us but it also deals with serious issues and is intended as a revisionist work.

She argues that what makes this a revisionist work is not just the inclusion of new scientific, historical and archeaological information available to us but more importantly because we live in an ever changing world and we want to ask different questions of the past which are relevant to our lives today. Of course one of her central themes is to look again at women, sexuality and gender. She questions the patriarchal interpretation of women and she says that she gives women a fairer deal and focuses less on the women who were given a bad wrap. She argues that the portrayal of the adulteress and party goer featured in the poems of Catullus and Propertius says more about patriarchal anxiety than about women’s liberty.

You can see how Mary Beard builds on her earlier scholarly work related to the ordinary people and their lives in the cities of Rome and Pompeii and her familiar topics such as humour and incorporates these earlier studies and thoughts into what will probably be considered her masterpiece. This book is an enthralling read and very engaging and thought provoking and as such it is worthwhile for any Romanist or even the casual reader of history.

Even where she is discussing topics that she as a classicist is perhaps less familiar with such as military matters she puts forward good common sense analysis but her arguments are not flawless and sometimes you might see her statements as a bit glib. Her central theme is: "How did a tiny and very unremarkable little village in central Italy became such a dominant power?" She argues: "What cries out for explanation is not the Romans’ militaristic character or psychic aggression, but why in a world that was universally violent the Romans were so consistently more successful than their enemies and rivals. The basic answer to that has little to do with superior tactics or even with better military hardware; it has much more to do with boots on the ground." Now in the next part of that paragraph she does explain with merit what she means in terms of their peacemaking efforts winning over converts to the Empire as being the crucial thing that set the Romans apart. Yes, that is undoubtably of vital importance in the longevity of the Empire. But re-read that last sentence in the quote. Just think of their encounter with Boudica's army who themselves had plenty of boots on the ground. I would argue that the professional Roman army was also of vital importance and even when vastly outnumbered it had the superior military stratagems and was such a well equipped and oiled military machine that it could triumph even when it was thinned across a vast Empire.

SPQR begins at around 63 BCE because this was the period when according to Mary Beard there was a wealth of written records unparalleled in the Ancient World. Mary was not trying to write a definitive book of the Roman Empire but whilst this impressive book does cover the early history of Rome and it's development very well it is worth mentioning that the latter 150 years of the Western Roman Empire are not a focus of this book.

In summary this is an entertaining and thought provoking read and thoroughly deserves it's popular acclaim and some of it's scholarly criticism.

SPQR was first published in October 2015 and has already been reprinted several times and has hundreds of reviews on Amazon alone. The latest hardback version is due for release on 25 Apr 2017 and is available for Pre-order Now

Listen to Mary Beard reading the opening of this book.

I recommend listening to this podcast of a lecture that she gave for the Free Library of Philadelphia related to why her revisionist work was needed together with lots of entertaining details of Roman history.

The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History

Author: Peter Heather
Publisher: Pan Books
ISBN: 0330491369

Peter Heather synthesises the advancements in academic knowledge surrounding the fall of the Roman Empire and presents those ideas in a way that is accessible to the general reader. In this voluminous book he presents the theories that he has formed over his academic career.

There are a flood of good reviews for this product on Amazon Uk. The BBC History Magazine called this 'The best, most up-to-date, and thought-provoking assessment available'.

The best classic book on this topic was Edward Gibbon's book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: v. 1 (Penguin Classics) and it was an incredibly scholarly work but it was first published over 250 years ago in 1776.

Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire

Author: Simon Baker
Publisher: BBC Books
ISBN: 1846072840

This is our best selling Roman book for students of history and the general reader. It provides a good introduction to the Roman Empire and is a lucid and entertaining read. It was produced to accompany the hit TV series Ancient Rome The Rise And Fall Of An Empire [DVD] [2006]. The DVD exceeds expectations and gives a great overview of key Emperors and Roman power struggles and conquests as well as reversals of the Romans. It has a large military focus and makes great entertainment but is backed by academic research and is produced by the BBC.

History book review: Nigel Cross

The Complete Roman Army

Author: Adrian Goldsworthy
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
ISBN: 0500051240

Review: As the title implies this book does cover all aspects of Roman Army life and it's campaigns. As well as documenting the history of the legionaries it also includes the auxiliary soldiers and the Roman Navy.

It is well illustrated on every page and is the best reference book for the Roman Army as a whole.

Comment added 10/03/07

The Conquest of Gaul

Author: Julius Caesar
Introduction by: Jane F. Gardner
Translator: S.A. Handford
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 0140444335

This is my personal favourite. Julius Caesar is one of the most intriguing characters of the Ancient world. By conquering Gaul he effectively destroyed the Celts main power base in Europe. This is his account of the wars and intrigues of which he was master. Despite his political bias he does provide perhaps the best account of the Gauls both in the battlefield but also of their life and customs. Fantastic source material.

Comment added 10/03/07

History book review: Nigel Cross

The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus (Classics)

Author: Cassius Dio
Introduction by: John Carter
Translator: Ian Scott-Kilvert
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 0140444483

Augustus Caesar was the first Roman Emperor. It was Julius Caesar who named him his successor and gave him legitimacy but he had to fight for his position. His reign was a stable period internally but it saw the disastrous loses of three Roman Legions in the Teutenburg Forest in 9AD.

The author Cassius Dio is one of the most eminent Roman Historians and this work provides the most complete account of his reign. If you want the source material and a good read then you won't be sorry that you bought this book.

The Agricola and The Germania

Author: Tacitus
Introduction by: H. Mattingly
Translator: H. Mattingly
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 0140442413

Review: Tacitus is the best classical source of information relating to the British tribes and the Roman invasion of Britain. Tacitus is at times sympathetic to the British heroism and he is also critical of some Roman vices and 'so-called' civilisation. As the nephew of the Roman commander Agricola he is also biased towards him. The Agricola provides interesting insight into early Roman Britain and the Celtic tribes there. At the same time it can be frustrating that certain passages are missing or when he skips over things (perhaps deliberately) which you would like to know the answer to. It is nevertheless an absolute gem as is the Germania.

Comment added 10/03/07

Roman Britain: A New History

Author: Guy de la Bédoyère
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
ISBN: 0500051402

Review: Guy de la Bédoyère is well known from his appearances on Time Team as a Roman expert. He is both a historian and an archaeologist. He has published widely about Roman Britain.

Roman Britain (Historical Map & Guide)

Author/Publisher: Ordnance Survey

ISBN: 0319290298

A useful historical map to find the multitude of Roman sites in Britain. The map is produced in conjunction with The Royal Commission of Ancient Monuments of Wales and Scotland and English Heritage. The map is now in its fifth edition.

Comment added 10/03/07

Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today

Author: Sally Grainger
Publisher: Prospect Books
ISBN: 1903018447

Review: Apicius wrote the only Roman cookbook of meals and recipes which has survived to this day. As there were no measures in the original the author Sally Grainger has provided the measures which work for her. Sally often performs cooking demonstrations at the Roman Legionary Museum where I used to work and she does cook using the authentic techniques of the time but the recipes in this book can be made in the modern kitchen. I'll be trying some of them out soon as I have just received my copy.

Review updated: 07/05/10

The Classical Cookbook

Author: Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger

Publisher: Getty Trust Publications
ISBN: 0892363940

Review: Author Sally Grainger often performs cooking demonstrations at the Roman Legionary Museum where I used to work. Many of the recipes in the book can be made today. Andrew Dalby is a historian who has published several historical books. He also contributed suggestions to my article on Roman Food in Britain.

Comment added 10/03/07

Rome Against Caratacus - The Roman Conquest of Britain

Author: Graham Webster Publisher: Routledge
ISBN: 0415239877

I often refer to this book when looking at the military tactics of the Romans on campaign in Britain. Graham Webster's work is for the specialist reader who has a detailed interest in Caratacus and the Roman invasion of Britain. It is a clever and insightful book.

This is a great book for the scholar who wants to know what evidence there is for the theories proposed so that you can discern fact from theory.

Review updated: 07/05/10

Roman Battle Tactics 109BC - AD313 (Elite)

Author: Ross Cowan

Illustrator:Adam Hook

Publisher: Osprey Publishing
ISBN: 1846031842

Roman Britain: Outpost of the Empire

Author: H.H. Scullard

Publisher: Thames & Hudson Ltd
ISBN: 0500274053

Review: Scullard's book begins with an account of the British Celts before providing commentary on the Roman invasions of Britain. It examines the struggle between the native British and the Romans and examines life in romanised Britain. The book is easy to navigate and provides a vivid portrait of Roman Britain.

Comment added 10/03/07

Rome's Saxon Shore: Coastal Defences of Roman Britain AD 250-500 (Fortress)

Author: Nic Fields

Illustrator: Donato Spedaliere

Publisher: Fortress

ISBN: 1846030943

Exploring Roman Britain

Author: Andrew McCloy

Publisher: New Holland Publishers (Uk) Ltd
ISBN: 1845372417

Review: This book provides an excellent travel guide for those wishing to explore Roman Britain. It is divided into four main sections-roads, towns, buildings, and military fortifications. Exploring Roman Britain offers fifteen day excursions throughout England, Scotland, and Wales. As well as providing interesting historical information about key Roman sites in Britain it provides all kinds of useful tourist information which brings the locale to life

Comment added 10/03/07

Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome

Author: Apicius

Editor: Joseph Dommers Vehling

Publisher: Dover Publications
ISBN: 0486235637

Review: Apicius is our main classical source of information on Roman food and dining. He wrote A Book on Cooking which is the oldest cookbook in existence. He also wrote A Book on Sauces. He describes lavish courses of food and how to prepare them. He doesn't use precise measurements but rather expects you to have some understanding of how to cook.

Comment added 10/03/07

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