27 Books set in the ancient world everyone must read

Whether you are looking for the perfect beach book to take on holiday or something to read while you snuggle up against winter’s chill, any one of these 27 books will fit the bill

27. The Cicero Trilogy by Robert Harris

Meet Cicero Marlow, hard boiled worldly politician slash detective. Robert Hughes Cicero Trilogy is perfect for the reader who enjoyed Harry Potter.

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26. Helena by Evelyn Waugh

A strange book by everyone’s favourite arch-Catholic reactionary. Evelyn Waugh struggles between writing a religious pamphlet, a piece of history and a novel. It has moments. Like all of his books, this one is eminently readable with a sour and shameful after taste.

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25. Hypatia by Charles Kingsley

Late antique North Africa as it was imagined by a muscular Christian of the Victorian Age. More interesting to read than fun. The prose is stilted and the characters speak a cod-Biblical English, but the story is plot driven and draws you in. It evokes a complex world of ambiguous morals.

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24. Battle of Frogs and Mice

A short text parodying Homer’s Illiad, which tells of the Battle between Frogs and Mice. A forerunner of Brian Jacques perhaps.

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23. Porius by John Cowper Powys

Considered by some to be John Cowper Powys’ masterpiece, Porius focuses on internal and external worlds of the Wales of Late Antiquity. The ebb and flows of power are depicted in a setting both historical and legendary. This book has had a chequered publication history with various editions published since 1951. John Cowper Powys is the great unread British author of the twentieth century and deserves rediscovery.

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22. A Body in the Bath House by Lindsey Davis

Marcus Didius Falco is on the hunt for two men he suspects of murder. He follows them to Britiain, where he becomes implicated in the building of Fishbourne Palace for the local warload Togidubnus.

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21. Ben Hur by Lew Wallace

The classic. Written by a Civil War General and Politician to encourage Christianity amongst young men. Like all good historical novels the basis of the story began not in the library (although Wallace did in fact undertake extensive research in the Library Congress), but in the frustrations and grievances of the author’s own life. There is a theory that the famous chariot race against the book’s baddie, Masala, was actually based on a race Wallace ran against General Grant.

20. A True History by Lucian

The first Science Fiction or something else? Lucian preempts almost every work of fiction from Cervantes to Ulysses, making culture in fact redundant. If you only have the patience to read one book in your life make it this one, but only in the original Greek.

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Spider battle by William Strang 

19. Pope Joan by Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell is now more famous as a stock character from popular ITV series the Durrels, starring Keeley Hawes. He actually wrote a few books of which Pope Joan is not the best. Durrell uses the legend of a female pope as the basis to explore religion, sexuality and gender politics.

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“Pope John VII” in the Nuremberg Chronicle

18. King Jesus by Robert Graves

This book has a very niche target audience- people who know the New Testament in great detail but are also sceptical about Christianity. For most people this is an incomprehensible book, but for a select few this is the book of a lifetime.

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17. Behold the Man by Michael Morcook

Karl Glogauer travels from sixties London to first century Palestine and has some deep adventures. More interested in the nature of religious truth than history, it is a fascinating read.

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16. Elephants and Castles by Alfred Duggan

In Elephants and Castles we follow the debauched life of Demetrius Poliorcetes, one of Alexander the Great’s many successors. A well researched novel with a good balance of psychological insight and action.

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15. Artorius by John Heath-Stubbs

A late twentieth century Arthurian epic viscerally describing Britain after the Romans leave and the Saxons take power. Cut through with lyricism and rich mysticism, it is a poem that deserves re-reading.

14. Alexander books by Mary Renault

Alexander the Great as gay icon. Fire from Heaven imagines Alexander as a sensitive and gifted young man in a rough world. He aspires to the perfection of Plato’s Philosopher King whilst contending with the intrigues of Macedonian court. A great introduction to the history of the period and also the long history of how Alexander has been reimagined throughout the centuries.

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13. Quo Vadis

A Historical novel, written by Poland’s first Nobel Prize Laureate and starring Petronius Arbitur, Quo Vadis is perhaps better known for the film starring Peter Ustinov as Nero. It is essentially a love story but looks at religion, freedom and slavery, nationalism and gender politics.

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12. The Satyricon by Petronius

Written by Petronius Arbitur (a character in Quo Vadis), most likely a courtier of Nero, the Satyricon survives only in fragments, but what fragments. It was probably originally an episodic novel, whose most famous episode is the Dinner of Trimalchio. A nouveau riche freed slave, Trimalchio’s party, is the height of bad taste. It’s considered a little gauche to laugh at Trimalchio these days.

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11. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

Not a novel, but very well written books which became the standard understanding of late antiquity for most people for centuries.

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Portrait of Edward Gibbon by Joshua Reynolds

10. Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe

Perhaps the first book set in the Roman Empire read by many readers. First published in 1954, it tells the story of Marcus Flavius Aquila and Esca, a freed slave, on the search for Marcus’ father who was killed in a heroic last stand with his comrades. A traditional narrative of imperial virtues which is subverted throughout.

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9. The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence

A gang of friends led by Flavia, take on the baddies of Roman Empire. One of the few books with a female protagonist, these books for young adults can be enjoyed by everyone. The first century is recreated in its complexity and excitement.

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8. Winter Quarters by Alfred Duggan

In Alfred Duggan’s Winter Quarters two Celtic nobles are hunted by a vengeful goddess across much of the world during the end game of the Roman Republic. Other books explore the reign of Elgabalus and the last days of Roman Britain. Duggan was proud to have visited every site he wrote about in his books, some of which are still on the tourist trail today.

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7. Julian by Gore Vidal

Gore Vidals’s gossipy Libanius and Priscus tell us the story of Julian the Apostate, the great fourth century philosopher-emperor who turned his back on Christianity and attempted to restore traditional paganism.

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6. Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo

Back alley firecracker, Zuleika, is a scruffy Nubian babe with tangled hair and bare feet from Londonium who catches the eye of the emperor. What could go wrong?

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5. Anathemata by David Jones

David Jones’ poetry is a high modernist mix of myth, history, Catholicism and welsh language. Not for everyone lying on a beach this summer, it rewards close rereading and focus.

4. The Golden Ass by Apuleius

Lucius, a happy go lucky lad, is turned into donkey whilst trying to perform a magic spell. He goes on adventures through the under belly of the Roman Empire before being turned back into a human by the goddess Isis.

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3. Asterix and Cleopatra

The classic comic book set in the Ancient World, the Gallic Warrior Asterix and his friends, are called upon to help Cleopatra in her intrigues with Julius Caesar. Influenced by Shakespeare, sword and sandal cinema and nineteenth century paintings, and drawn in Alberto Uderzo’s inimitable style. A true classic.

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2. Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yournecar

Marguerite Yournecar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is the fictional autobiography of the emperor Hadrian. Not so much interested in court intrigue, it tells of his inner life. Enthused with melancholy, it is perhaps better suited to an autumn-winter beach like Lansing.

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1. I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Robert Graves’ classic sword and scandal bonkbuster. Was there ever a family like the Julio-Claudians for extravagance, double crossing, and tyranny. The way we read about this period of Roman history mirrors our present conditions. Graves wrote in the thirties during the backdrop of economic depression and the rise of facism, which feels sadly familiar today.

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What’s your favourite book? Tell us in the comments below.

Photo references

All book covers used under Fair Use as part of a review.

“Pope John VII” in Hartmann Schedel’s religious Nuremberg Chronicle Public Domain

Spider battle by William Strang Public Domain

Quo Vadis Poster Public Domain

Portait of Edward Gibbon by Joshua Reynolds Public Domain