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!

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Snake Eyes

Future archaeologists may use this image of a cowboy to speculate that the 1800s USA was a nomadic, pastoral culture

The assassin led his worn-out mule into Old Akkolade and the sheriff watched him come. He was perched up on the jailhouse roof, hanging his elbow over the crumbling brick parapet and mincing a cigar butt between his tobacco-stained teeth. The deputies lounging around him winced in the fierce sunlight and swatted blood-fattened flies from their sweating brows.

‘First thing y’all should know ’bout Kid Bonn,’ the sheriff said, keeping his eyes on the dust-whipped high street and growling to catch their attention, ‘He’s the sorta fella who don’t look much. He’s a puss to look at, but this tomcat got fangs. Y’all best remember that.’

His deputies gave a chorus of thirsty croaks to show they heard. Every one of them was too caught up in his own discomfort of dread to offer any more coherent response. They were in a collective state of corpse-like repose, hoping to put off the moment when their cracked and blistered hands would reach for the baking metal of their rifles, brought to a skillet-hot temperature by the midday sun.

‘Y’all hear me? He ain’t no puss.’

Now they bobbed their heads in unison as his cool green eyes fixed them one by one. The sheriff couldn’t see their eyes, only hat brims, bristle chins and Winchesters, but he knew they wouldn’t dare meet his gaze anyway. Snake Eyes was a viper. Look him in those almost-yellow lights and you’d be hypnotised, put down for the long sleep with a lead pillow to rest on. So folks said.

Continue reading “Snake Eyes”

Hermit Isle ~ 111 words ~

Island

He watched the tide recede, leaving streaks of green kelp exposed as the steel grey waves peeled back from the sand. Sadness and relief mingled in his mind, knowing the parting mist of dawn might bring pilgrims across the headland, dreading the interruption they would visit on his sanctuary. At least, he thought. The tide will return to leave me alone again, and the people will return when the waves part to bare the sands once more. As he could bear neither being utterly at peace nor suffering interruptions without intermission.

While he chose solitude to be his burden, it was a blessing he could only shift off with reluctance.

A Yard of Steel

Knight

Brenn watched the enemy fill the fields across the brook. Their numbers seemed vast, impossibly numerous even from such a distance. He knew, with a familiar chill of fear, that their numbers would only swell the closer they came. To be trapped amongst the oncoming horde, fending off blows on all sides… It was enough to turn his stomach and cause him to doubt the noble purpose which brought him there.

Am I really about to stake my whole life on nothing more than a promise? he wondered. And whose promise? A bishop, a man who never touched iron nor spilled blood in his life. 

Further doubt was forestalled by a ripple passing through the ranks of armoured men around him. Men shuffled around under the weight of plate and mail to look over Brenn’s shoulder. He turned and saw the king nudging his horse between the disorderly ranks of his vanguard.

Continue reading “A Yard of Steel”

Hilda of the Salt Marsh

tree-and-storm-2

‘Can you hear it, girl? Or are your senses dulled by that shiny trinket?’

The whispered words of the spirit weren’t hissing with venomous threat as they had been before. There was a pitiful, keening note to their song. Hilda strained her ears and listened closer. It was a mournful howl. Spinning around her on the wind. Where was it coming from?

Whatever the sound was, it died in a series of sorrowful yelps. She notched an arrow to the string of her bow and carried on through the morass. Ears and eyes straining through the screen of long grass.

‘Are you deaf, child?’

There it was again. A bark of fright and a rustle in the thick shrubs to her right. Hilda turned and dashed towards the noise. Drew the string back to her ear and loosed an arrow into the shadows. A wet thud and a heavy splash. One last howling moan.

Got you!

The seal was only a pup. It still hadn’t lost some of its soft white down. Hilda straddled the plump grey mound and sawed through its belly with her knife. Blood stained her hands crimson as she worked them into the wound. Feeling through layers of hot flesh. Fingers probing for the prize within.

Hilda almost shrieked in surprise as her hands grasped the seal pup’s heart. It was still beating. A faint tremor. Her shock subsided to joy and a smug pout played on her lips. One hand retrieved the knife and worked it through the cut, feeling for and slicing away the tubes which fed blood into the trembling muscle.

It came free in her hands. Hot, wet, blood dripping from its bulbous sides. She bit into it and savoured the thick, iron taste. Felt juices wash down her chin. Savoured the smell of it and the contented feeling in her gut.

Thank you, spirits. Praise you, Allfather.

Follow the links to find my books on Kindle: VikingrServants of InfamyFirequeen

Byrnsword Prologue

tree-and-storm-2

And now it has a prologue!

Prologue

The toll of the monastery bells rang out over sea and land. An harrowing clang which roused the people of the mainland from their beds. Nothing could be seen in the deep black of night. No fires burned on the Holy Island. All was dark and silent save for the ringing of the bells.

Six horsemen rode down onto the tidal flats, their horses’ hooves sending up showers of sand and spray. They were tall men, fierce men. Bundled in thick furs against the evening chill with broad shields on their backs, spears in hand and swords at their waists. Men ready to confront whatever demons had brought death to the island that night.

There was only one thing the bells could mean. Their noise rolled on and on without pause. Each booming clang was a word. The same word repeated over and over. With it came a command.

‘Death. Warriors of Christ, come to the aid of the faithful. Death stands at the doors of God’s house. Death.’

Their leader swung down from his mount and lifted his shield. Glanced back at the men behind and saw the fear in their eyes. He couldn’t blame them. Ahead stretched an endless rolling expanse of black before the grey hump of the Holy Island. They were God-fearing and Christ-loving men. But even a fanatic would shudder to cross the causeway by night. Sea and sand became one beneath the moonless sky.

‘It’s not safe,’ one of the men said, sounding for all the world like a coward. His leader knew better. He had seen each of them earn their scars. They were loyal men and brave. But even brave men feared to walk out into the unknown. ‘Whatever ails them can wait ’til morning.’

Continue reading “Byrnsword Prologue”

Byrnsword

tree-and-storm-2

I came up with this first chapter for historical fiction set during the Viking invasion of Anglo-Saxon England.

What I want to know is would you like to read more of Hilda’s story? If so, let me know your thoughts and I’ll keep writing it!

Chapter 1

Hammer on anvil. The crash of heavy iron striking immobile stone. One blow after another, each one followed by the roar of sparks showering the air. Howling wind from the blacksmith’s bellows. A deafening, pounding rhythm of crash, roar and howl.

Hilda sat up and threw the sealskin cloak from her face as the thundering beat throbbed in her ears. ‘Curse you, Woden Allfather,’ she spat. ‘Can’t you let me sleep?’

She stood in the entrance to her perch and lifted her face to the sky. A dark mass of clouds had gathered, stretching to every horizon. They consumed the sun, tearing its light from the heavens. Only a trickle of dawn’s warmth reached the narrow crevice in the high granite bluffs where Hilda made her hunting den.

If it weren’t for the din of the waves striking the rocks and sending walls of salt spray into the air around her, she might have slept for hours. The gods responded to her hissed profanities with the booming impact of a tidal surge against the broken cliffs below. She felt the tremor in her feet.

I won’t lodge here again. This cave might not be here when I return, if I hear the spirits rightly.

They spoke to her through vibrations in the rock, the sweep of foaming waves and the swirling clouds above. She called it the Otherworld, but it had many names. What did names matter? Spirits had no use for them, so why should she?

It was a whisper which could always be heard by those who chose to listen. Now its voice was loud, shouting an insistent warning in her ears.

‘We’re coming. We’re coming to drag down your walls of rock. We’re coming to drown your houses of stone. Your bones will be crushed to bloody meal beneath our might.’

Continue reading “Byrnsword”

The Forgotten Kingdom #1

Prester_John

‘Pero da Covilha, I demand satisfaction!’

Pero felt his gut clench. There was only one man he had offended gravely enough to demand a fight. Such a man as no one but a feral dog would agree to duel him.

But what choice did he have?

Already mutters spread through the market square as people turned from the stalls, searching for the source of the challenge. He was hard enough to miss, a great tower of muscle with flowing auburn hair. The challenge’s recipient proved more difficult to locate.

‘Who did he say?’ they whispered. ‘Pero da where?’

Did nobody recognise his name? Pero had thought a squire of the king himself might deserve some fame, but no…

‘That’s him, I’m sure of it. Alvaro Cavalero, the Lance of Lisbon.’

‘What’s he doing, calling out some nobody?’

‘Rip him apart, Alvaro! He’s here!’

Continue reading “The Forgotten Kingdom #1”

A New Historical Fiction Release!

SOI3

At long last, it’s here! Servants of Infamy is now available for purchase on Amazon Kindle. I realise I’ve been yammering on about this ex-work-in-progress for a while now, so you may have forgotten what all the fuss is about!

You can find the introduction, premise and blurb in this post. Extracts are available here and here. There’s also a pre-prologue which I wrote exclusively for readers of this blog, Darkness Approaches.

Download the free sample on Kindle and let me know what you think. If you enjoy it or think someone else might, recommend it to a friend, family member, colleague or arch-nemesis.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

You can find it here on Amazon US: 

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01BKWKCUE?

And here on Amazon UK: 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B01BKWKCUE?

Darkness Approaches…

Oswald had tilled the fields around his home for almost five decades. Over those long years of honest toil he saw his home grow from a pitiful hamlet to a prosperous village. There was always a flock of newborns each year, their squalling cries disturbing his sleep.

But Oswald did not mind. His family was old Saxon stock, they had been warriors in their time. As far as he was concerned, his ancestors tilled the fields for their descendants to enjoy the bounty they produced. He was an honest man and a strong man.

Even so, his blood chilled in fear when he heard the garbled cries of the lad running through the village. It was the depth of night when even the wolves retreated to their dens. The cries rose again, carrying swift and far on the silent, still air.

‘Murderers! Villains! Help!’

He raced out of the cottage, leaving his ageing wife with a swift kiss on her pale cheek. The village had emptied onto the small common of green pasture, grey in the midnight darkness. Every man among them was armed with hoe, scythe, hammer and axe. They were many, but each showed terror on his face.

There had been foul rumours touching the fringes of their small village these past days. Rumours of wickedness, the Devil’s minions at large in the country.

‘What is it, boy?’ Oswald asked, cornering the babbling youth who they had set to watch the fields by night. ‘Is it thieves, bandits, Frenchmen?’

The lad gasped for breath and snuffled, wiping away loose tears with the grimy sleeve of his tunic. ‘Yes, mister Oswald.’

‘Yes to which?’ He slapped the boy and the youth wailed in shocked pain.

‘All of those, mister, and worse. It’s them!’

‘Who, you damned fool?’

But he knew before the boy even spoke the name. Oswald felt it in the chill which sapped the strength from his broad shoulders, saw it in the slithering arms of grey mist creeping through the village. Terror wrapped their homes in its bitterly cold embrace. The Devil’s work.

‘It’s the Black Two,’ the boy said, his voice falling to a hushed whimper.

Mutters of fear, shouts of anger. The crowd erupted around him and voiced their terrified rage. Oswald held up his muscular arm for calm and the villagers fell silent. Not one of them met his eye, every glistening orb fixed on the far end of the common.

Oswald turned and saw them. The Black Two. A pair of indistinct shapes stalking out of the mist and darkness. Their bodies wrapped in black leather, chainmail shining on the breast of a tall warrior. Cruel weapons held firm in their hands.

‘They’re coming,’ Oswald whispered as the last trace of trembling courage fled from his body. ‘God help us.’

SOI2
Coming very soon…