The Guardian celebrates Lindsey Davis’ 19th book by asking her what she keeps on her bookshelves. (The 19th Falco novel, Alexandria, has just been published.)
I have nine shelves of Roman books. For this selection I’ve left out learning Latin, the classics and guidebooks to individual sites, and I have also had to leave out specialisms – glass, gardens, cookery, law … These are ten that are scholarly but user-friendly. They are all books I have enjoyed, all influenced my love of ancient Rome and most of them are in regular use for my work.
1 Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jérôme Carcopino
This dense depiction of the great, bustling, aromatic, highly superior city of Rome is now 90 years old but because it draws extensively on classical authors, it has never gone out of date, and remains an excellent introduction to how Rome worked and how its people thought of themselves. Every sentence is packed with examples. The first part is general background, the second takes us through a typical Roman day.
2 Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by Lesley Adkins and Roy A Adkins
I have always found this an excellent encyclopaedia of Roman facts, people, places and habits. It has good photos, drawings and maps. The gazetteer, which gives the modern equivalent of Roman provinces and towns, is particularly useful, and the book answers all those tricky questions about time, numbers, personal names. And whether the Romans wore underwear.
3 Rome and Her Empire by Barry Cunliffe
This chunky and beautifully photographed book begins with Rome itself, its roots and history, and its fabulous high point. It has a fold-out depiction of the famous Peutinger Table, then covers the major provinces of the Roman Empire. Finally it discusses how the empire that must have seemed so strong came to disintegrate.
4 Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide by Amanda Claridge
I have used the Time Out and Blue Guides, which cover all periods, but for ancient world purists nothing can beat this travel guide to more than 150 sites. Even the famous locations are sometimes a jumble of broken stone, but this book unravels the mysteries, with photographs or drawings of most features. There are also good introductory chapters so you can march about knowing your Second “Architectural” period of fresco design from your Fourth “Fantastic” – thus avoiding unseemly social gaffes.
5 The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard
Narrowing the focus, Rome’s most famous monument was built by the Emperor Vespasian to win the hearts of the people, who had no football but loved a good spectacle. This engagingly written account tells of its long history as a venue for bloodthirsty sports and other uses (cattle pasture, glue factory …) and how it has inspired artists, authors and even botanists. The Colosseum is a must for tourists; you will find here all you need about the complex archaeology – but first read the sound advice on making a visit.
6 Ancient Inventions by Peter James and Nick Thorpe
Not much is new; almost everything was invented a very long time ago. I fell in love with this book instantly. I trust it absolutely on everything from catapults to hodometers, though the gynaecological instrument found at Pompeii always gives me a bit of a turn. (I only balk at the alleged use of iron filings as a contraceptive which I suspect is an April Fool.) Arranged thematically, the book covers all periods, delighting in human ingenuity from Aztec chewing gum to 2,000-year-old snow goggles.
7 The Lost World of Pompeii by Colin Amery and Brian Curran Jr
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79, which destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum and surrounding areas, left us a unique snapshot of Roman life, as ash and mud preserved so much at that terrible moment. Ever since, this poignant event has had a huge impact on travellers, while the still-unfinished story of uncovering the scene is critical to the development of archaeology and heritage management. Pompeii books abound, but this is one of the best, with wonderful colour illustrations.
8 Roman Britain by Keith Branigan
This is another chunky volume, my favourite on “our” stuff. There is no doubt that the Romans viewed Britain as particularly exotic and mysterious. We have remained just as fascinated by them. They occupied for 400 years and though much disappeared quickly after they left, still our roads, towns and the fabric of our lives owe a very great deal to them.
9 The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
“Somewhere about the year 117AD, the Ninth Legion, which was stationed at Eboracum, where York now stands, marched north to deal with a rising among the Caledonian tribes, and was never heard of again.” Hooked? If not, there’s no hope for you. A wonderful novel, for children of all ages.
10 I, Claudius by Robert Graves
One for grown-ups, or two if you include Claudius the God. For the TV generation it’s now almost impossible to read this without thinking of Derek Jacobi et al, but that’s no hardship. There is no better way to get to grips with the complicated family tree of the early emperors, who are so vital to understanding how imperial Rome came about. And rarely has a male novelist created such a subtle female character as here in the devious Empress Livia. The modern chaps hardly do women at all – they could learn from Graves.