Last updated Jan 22, 2023 | Listicle |

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The glory that was ancient Rome has been a perennial topic in historical fiction. Its millennium of history, encompassing a republic, an empire, and multiple religions, has provided a fertile ground for novelists. Rome’s legions form the backbone of Roman historical fiction books, and many writers plot their stories around a Roman soldier venturing into ‘barbarian’ territory. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a list of novels written in the English language, the province of Britannia features often as the backdrop for the action. Series of novels abound in this subgenre, and several historical figures, like Julius Caesar, Nero, Vespasian, and Boudica, appear in multiple books, sometimes as hero, sometimes as villain.

Here, we present 15 of the best Roman historical fiction books. While this list is not exhaustive, it highlights some of the most compelling books in this fascinating subgenre.

1) The Forgotten Legion (Forgotten Legion Chronicles series) by Ben Kane

The Forgotten Legion was Ben Kane’s first novel, which set him on the way to becoming one of the most well-known authors in historical fiction. Across several series of novels, he has chronicled many of the most famous events in Roman history, from the Spartacus slave revolt, to the clash of Rome and Greece, to Hannibal’s epic war against the Roman Republic. The Forgotten Legion tells the tale of twin slaves Romulus and Fabiola; a champion gladiator, Brennus the Gaul; and an Etruscan haruspex, Tarquinius, brought together on the doomed expedition by Marcus Licinius Crassus against the Parthian Empire – an act of hubris that results in disaster, and the impetus for the rest of the books in this series.

Author recommendation!

We asked Ben Kane, author of The Forgotten Legion, for his top Roman historical fiction recommendation. Here’s what he had to say…

The Boat of Fate by Keith Roberts is without doubt the finest novel I have read set in the Roman period. Related from the point of view of a tortured young Roman from Spain, it is set at the start of the fifth century AD and is mostly set in Britain. A story of tragedy and loss, danger and valour, it wears its historical detail lightly, yet weaves in a wonderfully intense portrayal of Rome and its fading empire.”

Find out more about Ben Kane on his website. 

2) The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator, released in the year 2000, is often seen as the catalyst for a resurgence in interest in Roman historical fiction that still shows no signs of abating. However, it’s worth noting that it is The Eagle of the Ninth, published in 1954, that many fans of the genre cite as the book that first got them hooked. For that reason, The Eagle of the Ninth, though a children’s book, deserves special mention here. The plot is built on a real historical mystery – what happened to the IX Legion, Hispana, which disappeared from historical record around the year AD 117, somewhere in North Britain. In Sutcliff’s tale, discharged Roman army officer Marcus Flavius Aquila, whose father disappeared with the Ninth, travels north of Hadrian’s Wall to discover what really happened.

3) I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Told as a fictional autobiography, I, Claudius is the bloody story of ancient Rome’s first imperial dynasty. Claudius, mocked for being a sickly child by his more illustrious relatives, is advised to pretend to be a fool (something he most certainly is not) in order to survive the deadly contest for power among the imperial family. Constantly underestimated and more interested in writing histories than gaining power, Claudius weaves his way through plots, machinations and murders during the reigns of some of ancient Rome’s most (in)famous emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and the young Nero.

4) Hero of Rome (Gaius Valerius Verrens series) by Douglas Jackson

Douglas Jackson began writing about Rome with novels about Emperors Caligula and Claudius. He then launched into a series that chronicled the adventures of Gaius Valerius Verrens. Hero of Rome tells the tale of a veteran of the legions who has settled down with other retired soldiers in the Roman settlement of Colonia, in the troublesome province of Britannia. Gaius thinks his fighting days are over, when Queen Boudicca [sic] stirs the native tribes in revolution against their Roman overlords. Gaius finds himself outnumbered and besieged and must lead his veterans into battle once more against overwhelming odds, in an increasingly hopeless battle for survival. Gaius has so far gone on to have eight more adventures in this thrilling series.

Author recommendation!

We asked Douglas Jackson, author of Hero of Rome, for his top Roman historical fiction recommendation. Here’s what he had to say…

There are any number of contenders, but my top recommendation would have to be Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem, a fantastic read set at the end of the Empire, which takes General Maximus and his soldiers from Hadrian’s Wall and throws them into a last ditch bid to halt the tidal wave of Germanic tribes that is about to pour across the frozen Rhine. An epic tale of service, sacrifice and, ultimately, betrayal.”

Find out more about Douglas Jackson on his website. 

5) Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle (Boudica series) by Manda Scott 

Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle is the first of a series of novels that deal with the clash of native British culture and ancient Rome, from the invasion ordered by Claudius until the almost successful revolt against Roman rule led by the illustrious Queen of the Eceni [sic]. This first book deals with the bloody conflict of the initial Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, when a young woman, Breaca, grows to become the leader of her tribe, only to end up facing off against Roman auxiliaries, including her half-brother Ban. Manda Scott’s Boudica books are truly epic in scale and are as much of a meditation on imagined lost Celtic mysticism and culture as they are adventure stories filled with battles and action.

6) The Emperor’s Spy (Rome series) by MC Scott

MC Scott is the alter-ego of the above-mentioned Manda Scott, and some of the survivors of her Boudica novels appear in this and the subsequent novels in the series that The Emperor’s Spy kicks off. One of these characters, Sebastos Pantera, a Roman army spy, is the central figure of this novel. While the Boudica books were sweeping epics, these novels are fast-moving spy thrillers set in the ancient world.  In AD 64, Pantera returns from Britannia to Rome and the employ of Emperor Nero. He negotiates plots and subplots amid the events surrounding the Great Fire of Rome. The story explores Roman society, such as its obsession with chariot racing, as well as taking an alternative look at early Christian history.

7) Eagles at War (Eagles of Rome series) by Ben Kane

Eagles at War is the first book in another trilogy by Ben Kane, which focuses on the disastrous defeat of Rome at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Arminius is a Germanic chieftain working to unite the rival tribes of his homeland to expel the Roman legions, while at the same time creating the pretence of being an ally of Rome and trusted advisor to the Roman governor, Publius Quinctilius Varus. As Arminius manipulates the Roman army to march into an ambush, centurion Lucius Tullus finds himself right in the centre of the storm. Whole legions are exterminated, losing their sacred eagle standards in the process. Tullus finds himself fighting for survival as he attempts to lead a small band of survivors now trapped in hostile territory back to safety.

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8) Pompeii by Robert Harris

Pompeii is set during the last days of the doomed Roman town. Marcus Attilius Primus, an engineer, arrives in the Roman playground of the rich and famous to investigate why the water supply to a key aqueduct has suddenly stopped. Not initially realising it is one of the many warning signs that Mount Vesuvius is about to erupt, Attilius is drawn into the machinations of the cruel, corrupt and fabulously rich Numerius Popidius Ampliatus. The plot heads to its climax during the eruption of the volcano and the subsequent destruction of the town. In contrast to most writers of Roman historical fiction books, who tend to go to great lengths to recreate a sense of authentic sounding dialogue, Harris deliberately has his characters use modern American slang to promote one of the themes of the book, which is the comparison between ancient Roman society and the modern United States.

9) Fire in the East (Warrior of Rome series) by Harry Sidebottom

Fire in the East is the first in another series of novels which follows the path of Marcus Clodius Ballista as he negotiates the dangerous times of the Crisis of the Third Century. Ballista is dispatched to a command post on Rome’s eastern frontier to defend a town from an expected attack from the invading Persians. Hopelessly under-resourced and outnumbered, Ballista must battle with the disdain of his own subordinate officers (who regard him, born an Angle, as a barbarian) and the competing interests of the town’s various religions, as well as the Persians. Unlike Robert Harris, Harry Sidebottom (as might be expected from an Oxford University ancient historian) strives for an enhanced sense of period authenticity, being particular to avoid the common trope of portraying ancient Roman legionaries like modern British Army squaddies.

Author recommendation!

We asked Harry Sidebottom, author of Fire in the East, for his top Roman historical fiction recommendation. Here’s what he had to say…

Family Favourites by Alfred Duggan (1960) first introduced me to the amazing Roman emperor Heliogabalus. In the novel, the Syrian religion of the young emperor is viewed through the traditional Roman eyes of a Praetorian. Although some of Duggan’s historical interpretations were outdated even when the book was published, this is more than redeemed by the two key strengths of all Duggan’s books: his close and intelligent reading of primary sources, and his skill at creating characters.”

Find out more about Harry Sidebottom on his website. 

10) Wounds of Honour (Empire series) by Anthony Riches

Perhaps in a nod towards the hero of Eagle of the Ninth, another Marcus Aquila finds himself in the province of Britannia, forced to go on the run from the unjust wrath of Emperor Commodus. Hoping to hide as part of an unimportant unit of the Roman army serving north of Hadrian’s Wall, Aquila instead finds himself in the midst of a bloody insurrection by the native tribes intent on driving out the Romans. Spoiler alert: Marcus returns for a further ten adventures in Anthony Riches’ Empire series, the latest one being due for release in August 2020.

11) Under the Eagle (Eagles of the Empire series) by Simon Scarrow

Told in two parts, Under the Eagle is the first novel to introduce Quintus Licinius Cato, a young optio in the Roman army, and Lucius Cornelius Macro, a centurion: a pair who have gone on to have many further adventures. The first part of the story is set on the Rhine frontier and follows them through the rigours of basic training and first engagement with enemy tribes. Part two moves to Gaul and the preparations for the invasion of Britain by Emperor Claudius and a dangerous mission ahead of the main task force to recover an abandoned Roman pay chest. Both parts are joined by an overarching political plot.

12) The Silver Pigs (Falco series) by Lindsey Davis

In a departure from the usual tales of legionaries, spies or emperors, The Silver Pigs introduces readers to Marcus Didius Falco, a detective. Like an ancient Philip Marlowe, Falco delves into the mystery of illegal trading in stolen British silver. Pursuing the trail to Britannia and back to Rome, Falco discovers that the conspiracy goes all the way to the top of Roman society. The Silver Pigs was the first of many subsequent mysteries investigated by Falco.

13) The Invasion of Gaul (Marius’ Mules series) by SJA Turney

Set in 58 BC, this novel follows the fortunes of Marcus Falerius Fronto, the commander of Rome’s Tenth Legion. The Tenth is famous as ‘Caesar’s Legion’, and Fronto, who is more at home on the battlefield than in the twisting world of politics, soon finds himself drawn into the web of intrigue that surrounds his general, Julius Caesar. Soon Fronto is in danger as he struggles to stand by his own principles, while Caesar engineers a cause to invade Gaul and launch a war that will enhance his own status and cost the lives (by Caesar’s own reckoning) of a million people. The Invasion of Gaul is the first in a series of Marius’ Mules novels that records the careers of Fronto and the Tenth Legion as they fight for Caesar from one end of the Empire to the other.

Author recommendation!

We asked SJA Turney, author of The Invasion of Gaul, for his top Roman historical fiction recommendation. Here’s what he had to say…

“To my mind, Roman historical fiction does not come better than MC Scott’s Rome series. From a strong start, the four-book series follows an agent of the emperor through the troubled time of Nero’s reign and into the year of the four emperors. The series culminates in The Art of War, which is quite simply the best in its genre, leaping from perspective to perspective as it tells of that dreadful year from every angle in a way I had never previously considered. Breathtaking.”

Find out more about SJA Turney on his website. 

14) The Gates of Rome (Emperor series) by Conn Iggulden

Iggulden’s Emperor series also follows the career of Julius Caesar, albeit a highly fictionalised version. Young Gaius Julius and his friend Brutus begin their journey under the tutorage of a retired gladiator and progress to the army as Rome descends into civil war and dictatorship.

15) The First Man in Rome (Masters of Rome series) by Colleen McCullough

Colleen McCullough is possibly better known as the author of The Thorn Birds; however, she also wrote a series of novels called Masters of Rome, set during the last days of the old Roman Republic and following some of the key figures of that period. The First Man in Rome is the first of these and concentrates on Gaius Marius, the general most famous for reforming the old army of the Roman Republic into the legions that conquered the known world, and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the (in)famous Roman dictator. The plot revolves around the relationship between the two men as they rise to power on the ever slippery cursus honorum.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this list of 15 of the best Roman historical fiction books, compiled by historical fiction author, Tim Hodkinson. Happy reading!

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For more historical fiction book suggestions, take a look at our list of 30 of the best historical fiction books here.

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