It has been some time that I’ve been meaning to write up this page of useful references on Ancient Rome but I could never quite put my finger on how exactly it should be structured.
In the end I opted for this first step, focusing on good shortcuts for students, including just a couple of books which could be browsed and borrowed from in order to add that extra spice to any essay on Ancient Rome….
My favourite 3 – a must for anyone wanting a snappy result:
Pliny’s “Natural History” – A MUST! See why you might drown a lizard in urine or stick bread in your ears and many many other “useful” facts of ancient Roman life. Essential. Plenty of bits on technology, medicine and other aspects of Roman life. Read more, see some quotes….
Horace’s “Odes and Epodes” – Quotes to be had on all aspects of Roman life. I recon he liked Venus and wine rather a lot but touches on a good variety of stuff including current events, politics, religion and morality. Read more & quotes.
Suetonius’ “Lives of the 12 Caesars” – It contains essential info on a variety of aspects of ancient Rome, the emperors and bits and bobs like the Colosseum etc. Can be quite sordid in places. In my opinion it is not for the squeemish or to be read by under-age children. Read more & see quotes.
A couple more to complete the picture:
Caesar’s “De Bello Gallico”: JC’s own account of the wars in Gaul. Excellent material if you want to pluck out the fineries of military operations.
Ovid’s “Ars Amandi”: The Art of Love! Especially good if you are interested in peeping at the failing values of every-day life after the Republic: marriage and divorce, religion and immorality during the age of Emperor Augustus. Also gives a good glimpse at the condition of slaves, and women in society. This book got him banished from Rome.
If you really want to go to town then an EXCELLENT book is this collection of inscriptions and letters sorted by subject matter:
“Roman Civilization – Volume II – Selected Readings – The Empire” by Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold. 3rd Ed. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-07133-7.
More recently I have found great use in the following texts:
Apuleius – The Golden Ass also known as Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. It’s the only complete Roman novel which has made it down to us. Extraordinary reading. Gives a good feeling of everyday life, popular culture, religious belief mixed in with a good dose of witchcraft. Also important because of its inspiring tale about the love of Cupid and Psyche.
Ovid – “Metamorphoses”: The history and transformational nature of the world from its early beginnings by way of a fantastic collection of stories strung together and embedded in one another. Each of these describes the various deities and mythological tales which have formed the bed of renaissance art.
Horace – “Satires”: Great collection of letters and accounts (as we know, “satire” to the romans was a potpourri of accounts and acts), including great details of cuisine, feasting, remedies for hangovers and lots more. Extremely good insights into upper class life at the time of Emperor Augustus. I have made great use of this text particular for the account about Ancient Roman Wines.
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Pliny’s “Natural History”
Pliny’s Natural History is CRAZY! literally PACKED with a huge range of aspects of nature and Roman life in general. It is written in bite-sized chunks which are easily browsed (in fact once you start it’s almost impossible to stop). An encyclopedia written by someone who didn’t lack a sense of humour yet kept his descriptions lucid and (almost) to the point.
To modern readers it contains some rather ludicrous passages which will keep you smiling. A brilliant insight into a Roman citizen’s view of the weird Empire about him.
Here are a couple of examples…..
Interested in Roman Cosmetics? – Remedies for Spots Upon the Face
Book 30, Chapter 10
“Pimples are treated with poultry grease, beaten up and kneaded with onions. One very useful substance for the face is honey in which the bees have died; but a sovereign detergent for that part is swans’ grease, which has also the property of effacing wrinkles. Brand-marks are removed by using pigeons’ dung, diluted in vinegar.”
NB. The edition shown left is an abridged version to keep the cost down. It’s still very good and certainly sufficient to get all a student of ancient Rome could hope for.
A quote for lovers of Roman food…..
Food, Roman Law or mos maiorum?
Book 10 (Natural History of Birds) Chapter 71:
“The people of Delos were the first to cram poultry; and it is with them that originated that abominable mania for devouring fattened birds, larded with the grease of their own bodies. I find in the ancient sumptuary regulations as to banquets, that this was forbidden for the first time by a law of the consul Caius Fannius, eleven years before the Third Punic War; by which it was ordered that no bird should be served at the table beyond a single pullet, and that not fattened; an article which has since made its appearance in all the sumptuary laws.”
As Pliny himself said:
“Nullum esse librum tam malum, ut non in aliqua parte prodesset”
No book is so bad as to not have something of use in some part of it.
| Read more about Pliny and his Natural History |
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“Odes and Epodes” by Horace
This book touches a wide variety of subjects including witchcraft, religion, politics, current events, immorality and more…. If you’re looking for good references you’re sure to find them here!
There are various odes (poems) regarding the declining morality of the age…. one for example denouncing virgins who…
“from their very infancy meditate on unchaste amours”.
“…soon after marriage she seeks after younger men…..”.
| Read more about Horace and his Odes and Epodes | Horace’s Odes and Epodes in Amazon |
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Suetonius’ “Life of the Twelve Caesars”
His love for scandal and piquant gossip affected the reputation of the likes of Tiberius, Caligula and Nero for millennia to follow. Some parts, for example in his description of Emperor Tiberius, are so extreme as to require serious censorship to this day. It’s no joke. Others provide us with rather unique biographical information.
The Twelve Caesars wasn’t the only book he wrote. Some exist in part, others are lost. The titles we know of attest to a wide variety of interests, such as “Methods of Reckoning Time”, “Physical Defects of Mankind”, “An Essay on Nature” and most interestingly: “Lives of Famous Whores”; perhaps a fitting counterpart to lives of the Caesars!
Suetonius was born around 70AD into the Equestrian class, ie he was of the rich upper-middle class and hence had a degree of means, sufficient to bring him into contact with the likes of Pliny the Younger and hence with the high ranking aristocracy. He eventually became personal secretary to Emperor Hadrian. Towards the end of his career he fell into disfavour for alleged disrespect towards the Empress. There’s circumstantial evidence that he may have got his job back. He popped his socks in 153AD.
Read all about Suetonius and his Life of the Twelve Caesars | Life of the Twelve Caesars in Amazon |