I’ve become a little obsessed with the Ancient World. Though I’d always appreciated the era, it wasn’t until a few years' ago that my obsession began in earnest. In fact, I became so obsessed with it that the classical setting - both in aesthetics and structure - became a huge influence for my fantasy-crime novel Drakenfeld. I pretty much wanted to create a setting that sat just off the map of the ancient world.
Despite a couple of good fantasy series based in the Ancient World, I was surprised, while doing so much research, that there aren't even more fantasy authors and readers talking about Rome or Byzantium. Also, when fantasy worlds tend to be built, they more often than not used the materials from a much later time period. I found that particularly strange, given how sophisticated the classical world was, and how much of an influence on our culture it’s proven to be. Not only that, but the classical world more often than not manages to out-epic epic fantasy.
So with that in mind, I’m on a campaign to get more fantasy fans to read about the ancient world. However, I realize that not everyone is keen to jump straight into classical writers right off the bat. Instead, here are ten amazing books on the ancient world that I reckon every fantasy fan will get a kick out of.
1. Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland
Tom Holland is one of the most exciting history writers around and Rubicon is probably my favourite text of them all. Not only is the end of the Roman Republic one of the most dramatic and profound moments in civilisation, but written in an entertaining, witty and engaging way. The sense of drama is here, the sense of scholarly knowledge and research is vast, but it’s shared in a truly accessible manner.
2. Pompeii: The life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard
If Tom Holland is the king of modern historical writing, than Mary Beard is surely the queen. Pompeii isn’t just a book about a tragedy, it’s a proper resurrection of the ancient world – not just a town. What’s more, what could be a book of dry facts is presented in a fascinating way by another engaging writer, who perfectly dissects the Roman mindset.
3. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
One of the greatest narrative histories ever written, Gibbon’s many volumes on the fall of Rome contain more epic stories than you could shake a dodgy prophecy at. There’s almost no point trying to summarize it - it is several hundred years of history condensed into a thousand wonderful, witty and poignant images. It’s the classic on the classics, and one of my favourite books. If you’re a fantasy writer looking to pillage history, here’s your treasure.
4. The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars by Annelise Freisenbruch
Many books tend to gloss over the role of women in the ancient world. History is largely written by men about men, but of course women were part of the fabric of the ancient world too. In this book, Freisenbruch manages to bring to life the influential roles that women played, highlighting the inherent difficulties of the age, yet still showing how important they were - and most importantly that history shouldn’t ignore them.
5. Invisible Romans by Professor Robert C. Knapp
Most texts on the ancient world tend to focus on Emperors, Governors and Kings. But there are slaves, whores and a whole host of other people who weren’t rich and famous, but who tend to get looked over. Knapp does an amazing job of bringing to life what it was like for the real people on the street, the everyday figures that history ignores - warts and all.
6. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Though the ancient history section of a bookstore might suggest otherwise, it wasn’t just blokes who dominated, and it wasn’t just wars that changed the world. There were other means and Cleopatra must have exhausted them all. Such a beguiling leader of such a weird nation state - all of it brought to life admirably by Stacy Schiff.
7. Caesar: The life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy
Well, Caesar really is the big dude of the ancient world. I’d argue that more is written about Julius Caesar than any other ancient figure. You know what? He led a pretty fascinating life off the battlefield and when Goldsworthy spares us the intense detail of tactics and strategy, he reveals a complex, baffling and inspiring colossus.
8. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin
Byzantium tends to get overlooked by history when compared to the early Roman Empire. Partially this is due to a lack of sources of the age, I believe, but Herrin’s introduction is a great stepping stone for those who want to know more about a reclusive period and will do its best to get you excited about it.
9. The Byzantium trilogy by John Julius Norwich
Okay, so this is actually three books. But for those who want a truly meaty account of events from the 4th to the 15th Century, they could do no better than John Julius Norwich’s glittering and often witty account of the age. Breathtaking in scope, but not for the fainthearted. It’s almost like a modern day Gibbon, but on a period of history that doesn’t get much light shone on it.
10. A History of the World in 100 Objects by Dr Neil MacGregor
Though originally a series for BBC Radio 4 – the archives are still available online – this has since been made into a chunky tome. It looks at objects rather than people – and covers a huge timespan up to the modern day, so I’m kind of cheating – but by using material possessions it links perfectly with our material culture, and helps us understand life from a more familiar angle.