Best Ancient Rome Books (fiction and nonfiction)

Pollice Verso *oil on canvas *97,4 x 146,6 cm *1872

Welcome to a list of the best books about Ancient Rome. This comprises two lists: fiction and nonfiction.

Best Ancient Rome Fiction

5. Under the Eagle (Eagles of the Empire #1)

Under the eagle

Under The Eagle (part of Simon Scarrow’s bestselling Eagles of the Empire series) is a double-time march in the footsteps of the Ancient Roman legions. What I like to categorise as sword-and-shield historical fiction, expect plenty of nail-biting fights and gritty detail as you watch the lives of Cato and Macro play out on the barbarian frontier of the Roman Empire.

The protagonists are written around each other in the best possible way: inexperienced intellectual Cato and toughened veteran centurion Macro. Easy reading which shouldn’t take you long to finish and is more than likely to get you hooked on the series. It did for me!

4. Dictator (Cicero Trilogy #3)

Dictator

Political thrillers and Ancient Rome go together like tea and biscuits, and Robert Harris proves himself to be a masterful composer of that ensemble in Dictator. In it he brings together two titans of the Late Roman Republic, Cicero and Caesar.

Ambition, corruption and uncertainty are three of the hallmarks of the book and the period. Set during one of the pivotal moments of Roman history, this novel certainly deserves its place in the top 5 historical novels set in Ancient Rome.

I misbehaved and skipped ahead to the third in the trilogy, but you can find Imperium (Vol 1) and Lustrum (Vol 2) by following the links.

3. Fire in the East (Warrior of Rome #1)

Fire in the East falls into the same sub-genre as #5, but Harry Sidebottom’s thrilling Ancient Rome fiction series is significantly more developed. I say developed to avoid calling it more sophisticated. That would be unfair to Simon Scarrow, whose legionary romps fill a slightly different niche.

The series follows Ballista, a barbarian who has become a leader in the later Roman army. What I loved most about this historical novel is the message of one man standing tall against seemingly impossible odds. He is a barbarian at the heart of an empire which views his kind as backwards and untrustworthy. His task is to hold a small fortress against the mightiest foe Rome ever faced. It’s impossible not to root for that kind of underdog!

If you do give it a go and enjoy it, I highly recommend reading on to #5 in the series, Wolves of the North; an absolutely fantastic read!

 2. First Man in Rome (Masters of Rome #1)

First man in rome

Politics, manipulation, deceit and ambition. Colleen McCullough’s gripping Masters of Rome series really does stand on the top rung of Roman Empire historical fiction. She takes us all the way through from Marius and Sulla to Pompey and Crassus and finally the great man himself, Caesar.

Masters of Rome is the first instalment and, as is so often the case in historical fiction series, the first outshines the rest. Absolutely a recommended read for any fans of the sordid politics of Ancient Rome.

1. I, Claudius

I claudius

This is a book which not only changed the way historical fiction about Ancient Rome is approached, but it has also influenced the way we think about the emperor Claudius. Many of the assumptions we make as students or observers of Claudius’ rule are grounded to some extent in this fantastic novel.

I, Claudius treats a man who rose unwittingly to the head of the Roman Empire in a very human way, portraying him as a simple man caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Robert Graves captures the essence of Roman politics and high society just as well as, if not better than, the above author. But he goes further in creating a compelling story which will immerse you in the imperial court of Ancient Rome.

Best Ancient Rome Nonfiction

5. Ancient Rome on Five Denarii A Day

Five denarii

I love the concept of this book. It tries to bring history out of the past and reconstruct it in a way which lets you really experience a lost age. A travel guide for a long dead civilisation with a good sense of humour, Ancient Rome on Five Denarii A Day is worth picking up if the drier, heavier history books aren’t really your thing.

4. Annals and Histories (Tacitus)

Tacitus

Unlike the above book, Annals and Histories isn’t going to be everyone’s idea of a good read. Tacitus lived in the period he is writing about, which makes his contribution to the historical record invaluable. With the painstaking care of a diligent chronicler, he takes the reader through the first century AD from the death of Augustus to the death of Domitian.

Undeniably, this should take a prominent place on the bookshelf of any would-be historian looking to gain a deeper knowledge of Ancient Rome and draw their own conclusions from a first-hand account.

3. The Twelve Caesars (Suetonius)

Suetonius

Another primary source, Suetonius differs from Tacitus in a significant way. The Twelve Caesars shows us much of the world explored by Robert Graves and Colleen McCullough in their novels, the public politics and courtly relations. But Suetonius has an advantage over them beyond having been present in the first century AD. He also lived at the imperial court.

This access and his willingness to lay all bare before the reader makes The Twelve Caesars more than just another stuffy contemporary account. The narrative is interspersed with anecdotes surrounding the Caesars’ private lives. These can range from who had an affair with whom to which poison was placed in whose cup.

2. SPQR (Mary Beard)

SPQR

Mary Beard is my favourite historian because she has a brilliant ability to hone in on the daily lives of ordinary people in Ancient Rome. You can see this in her documentary series, Meet the Romans, which I’ll embed the YouTube version of below.

As for SPQR, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I’ve noticed a trend in history publishing recently where it seems that all we’re getting are new books which tell the same tired story in a different way. This couldn’t be less true of Mary Beard’s history of Ancient Rome. She captures small details often glossed over by other writers which add real value to the reader’s experience. Her entire approach is based on the brilliant idea that, no matter how small or insignificant, the stories of every individual in history are worth taking time to discover, understand and describe.

1. Rubicon

Rubicon

Tom Holland’s Rubicon manages to achieve everything a history of Ancient Rome should rightly aim for. My only regret about this book is that it only covers the end of the Roman Republic, because it’s that good you won’t want it to end!

The author uses a narrative history approach to lead you in through the gates of Rome and along its streets. You meet the important people and the common man. You experience their world and witness the great triumphs and tragedies of their lives. What stands out most to me about Rubicon is how the author brings this distant era of history into the present and draws parallels between the world of the Caesars and our own. A five star history!

Helpful online resources

My Books

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Kappa: Japanese Fiction Review

I’ve recently been keeping up with Meg Sorick’s series on drinking adventurously (trying the alcoholic offerings of far-flung lands and describing them for your pleasure). Drawing inspiration from her, I thought I’d bring you a taste of something different which you might not have encountered before. Not having the stomach for exotic spirits, however, I bring you a sample of the unique flavour that is Japanese literature.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Ryunosuke Akutagawa

We can begin with the author, Ryunosuke Akutagawa. He wrote Kappa in 1927 as a social commentary, making clear his negative view of corruption in Japanese society. One feature which made him stand out as an author was his willingness to blend western and Japanese influences in his fiction.

Akutagawa committed suicide by overdose in the same year Kappa was published, believing he had inherited a mental illness from his mother and fearing he would lose his mind. This casts a shadow over the tale which makes its meaning more powerful.

Continue reading “Kappa: Japanese Fiction Review”

Best Viking Books (fiction & non-fiction)

Vikings

Welcome to a list of the best books about Vikings. This comprises two lists: fiction and non-fiction.

Best Viking Fiction

5. Oddin’s Child (Viking #1)

Oddin's child

Oddin’s Child is a fascinating tale which blends fantasy and historical fiction in one. Thorgils is intelligent, adaptable and possesses the gift of second sight. While being somewhat less believable than the other viking novels on this list, it is nonetheless a great read.

 

4. The Whale Road (Oathsworn #1)

The whale road

The Whale Road combines two of the best marauding groups in history, Huns and Vikings. A group of Norse explorers head out on the dangerous waters of the Whale Road in the search for Attila the Hun’s lost treasure. Who can argue with that?

 

3. Blood Eye (Raven #1)

Blood eye

Giles Kristian’s first novel in this gripping trilogy tells the story of Osric, a man with a sinister past and a crimson eye. He is soon thrown into the brutal and treacherous life of a viking seafarer. Is his best chance at survival to become one the feared vikingr?

Click here to find out!

2. The Long Ships: A Saga of the Viking Age

The long ships

Much like my own novel, Vikingr (sorry, I couldn’t resist), Bengtsson’s saga is a coming-of-age story which follows the exploits of a young Norseman who grows to become a proud viking warrior. This saga sits high on the list owing to its quality as a historical fiction epic.

 

1. The Last Kingdom (Saxon Stories #1)

The last kingdom

This is the first novel in Bernard Cornwell’s series set during the viking invasion of England. You can find The Last Kingdom on Amazon Kindle here.

 

 

Best Viking Non-fiction

Chronicles of the Vikings

Chronicles of the Vikings

This is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the Vikings or who wants to write about them. It’s the Viking story told from their own perspective, an inside scoop on the culture that terrified Europe for centuries.

Here on Amazon.

Vikings: A Dark History of the Norse People

Vikings a dark history of the norse people

I’ll recommend Vikings as a good general introduction to the Norse people. It’s particularly good for the photographs and illustrations contained within, which enable you to better visualise life among the Vikings.

Helpful online resources

  • You can find an extremely helpful list of the 45 best viking novels on Historical Novels Info
  • There is another ranked list of Viking novels on Goodreads
  • And a list of fiction relating to Vikings on Viking Answer Lady which is a very useful resource for anyone with an interest in the Viking Age.

My Books

Click the image to view my books on Amazon.com!

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First Impressions: The Winter King, Three Empty Frames, Dune

I’ve started reading a few novels in the past week or two:

  1. The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell;
  2. Three Empty Frames by Margaret Sorick; and
  3. The Great Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert (following a mention of it by the aforementioned M. Sorick and J. R. Peacock in the comments).

Here are my first impressions of them!

1. The Winter King

The winter king

Genre: fantasy.

Bernard Cornwell has been one of my favourite authors for a long while. His writing fits into a category of historical fiction shield-bashing and sword-slashing fun. He wrote the famous Sharpe series and his novel The Last Kingdom has now been adapted into an excellent TV series.

This novel, The Winter King, is a bit different and seems to be something of an anomaly in his writing. It’s a fantasy novel, a new take on the tale of King Arthur, and takes a different approach to his historical novels.

It’s more mystical and has less of an authorial tone. There’s nothing of a history lesson here (something I can’t stand in historical fiction), but a definite sense of whimsical musings on English mythology carried through by the gripping prose I’ve come to expect from Cornwell.

2. Three Empty Frames

Three empty frames

Genre: romantic suspense.

After buying this novel on Kindle I realised that I’ve never read a romance book before. I’ve encountered romantic elements in my other reading, but the closest I’ve come to dedicated romance is picking up a novel in the bookshop, reading the first page and having a snooty chuckle.

Don’t worry, the opening of Three Empty Frames has left me suitably chastised.

Chapter 1 gives the reader a brilliant taster of the author’s style. It’s a sort of anecdotal mini-episode which manages to be fast-paced and intriguing. You’re introduced to a pair of criminals, one serving a life sentence and the other newly released. Who are they and how do they fit into the rest of the novel? It’s a mystery at this point, but one you’re eager to solve.

3. The Great Dune Trilogy

The great dune trilogy

Genre: sci-fi.

Engrossing. Enthralling. Intriguing and intelligent in the most accessible way.

Science fiction can be distinguished from fantasy by, you guessed it, science. Tolkein doesn’t need to tell you why Gandalf’s magic works, the sci-fi reader expects to be handed a copy of the schematics. In that sense, Frank Herbert excels. He makes me feel cleverer without getting complicated.

I won’t go too far into his writing because many of you will have read his work. What I will say is you should get the trilogy, rather than individual novels. There’s nothing like the feeling of a weighty tome, and this book is big. Don’t waste it on your Kindle library.

More like this:

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Wars of the Roses: Stormbird Review

Stormbird

As promised, here is my review of Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses: StormbirdIt’s an important novel for me as it partly inspired my current work-in-progress, Servants of Infamy (previously White Rose).

Introduction

The genre is historical fiction. It’s set during the Wars of the Roses, 15th Century England. Conn Iggulden is a renowned author of historical novels set in Ancient Rome or Medieval Europe for the most part.

Click here for an article by me about why this book represents a dramatic change in Conn Iggulden’s writing style.

Is Stormbird any good?

This is some of the best historical fiction I’ve read recently. The author manages to get to grips with a complex tapestry of historical events without getting bogged down or letting his prose dry out.

It’s an immersive read. You can’t help but be drawn into the environment and empathise with the characters. I found a few characters particularly engaging: Margaret, Suffolk and Derry Brewer to name a few. Conn Iggulden avoids allowing his characters to be constrained by their historical personas. They are very human and that’s a good thing.

The plot also moves at a good speed and keeps the reader interested. There are twists and turns, moments of suspense to keep you hooked. You’re not always sure whether your favourite character will make it out of a situation alive.

Problems with Stormbird

In spite of all of this, there are a number of issues with this historical novel.

Perhaps I’m being fussy, but when I purchased a novel with Wars of the Roses in the title I expected, well… maybe a little bit of war between the roses. In reality, this novel concerns the build-up to the civil war, with the future opposing sides merely snarling at each other and firing warning shots. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I was led to expect more.

There’s also the issue of where in society Conn Iggulden draws his characters from. It seems that Derry Brewer is most people’s favourite character and he’s certainly mine. That’s because he’s interesting, but more importantly he stands out from the rest of the protagonists as a man of humble birth.

After a while I lose all sympathy for someone who gets their head lopped off because owning a mere dukedom just didn’t cut it.

Should you read the next instalment?

You should definitely read Stormbird if you’re a fan of historical fiction. That said, I wouldn’t bother continuing with the series. The reason ties in with a few things I’ve mentioned above.

This novel is set before the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses and the characters don’t fit their historical personas. Sadly, when the conflict does begin later in the series, it seems to have a severe effect on Conn Iggulden’s characters. I lost much of my sympathy for those I liked in the first novel, much of my respect for those I despised.

The second instalment falls flat in many ways. I’d rather have read the first and treated it as something which stands alone, rather than as part of a series. If I wanted to read about Margaret of Anjou as the severe, ruthless queen rather than desperate heroine of Stormbird, I would have read a history and not a novel.

Find Stormbird here on Amazon.

Breaking Free Of The Boys Club (What I’m Reading)

Breaking Free Of The Boys Club (What I’m Reading)

Stormbird

Warning! May contain emotions!

I just started reading War of the Roses: Stormbird (WotR #1) by Conn Iggulden. Don’t worry, I’m still reading The Falcon Throne (give me time!).

Conn Iggulden is an author that I read a lot of in my childhood. His historical novels always struck me as being what I affectionately call “boys club historical fiction”. They’re books about brave chaps with big swords laying waste to their foes. Bernard Cornwell is another author I’d put in that category. Of course, women read their novels as well. But I always got the impression that this type of historical fiction was targeted at a stereotypical male readership.

So far, I’ve read the prologue and found myself very surprised.

“What’s this? Why am I reading from a female character’s perspective? She’s kissing a man now. I’m having feelings! Emotion feelings! What’s happening?”

It looks like Conn Iggulden has broken free from the boys club! I’m eager to read more of Stormbird and the War of the Roses series. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still expecting there to be plenty of gore, bravery and battle. But I can sense something new coming through this historical fiction, the female perspective and more subtle elements in the narrative. Perhaps there will be conspiracy afoot, political scheming and, heaven forbid, feelings.

Find Stormbird on Amazon here.