There are few cities that show off their history quite as much as Rome. It can sometimes feel more like a massive museum than the capital of modern-day Italy. The past and present are inextricable from each other, though, and a visitor to the city can easily be overwhelmed. One of the best ways to head this off is to do some research ahead of time. And there’s no better method for that than exploring books about Rome.
You have plenty of options if you want to read about the city. To give you a few ideas on where to start, we selected 10 of our favorite books, which span across different genres and time periods. Many of these books were originally written in Italian (plus one in Latin), and while we encourage you to read them in that language if you’re trying to learn, they’re all available in English.
Nonfiction Books About Rome
For The Ancient Historian: SPQR By Mary Beard
It’s rare for a 600-page book on ancient history to become a hit, but Mary Beard’s SPQR was a massive event when it came out in 2015. It may be a bit long, but Beard is covering a huge number of years, from the modest origins of the city to the end of the empire. While it’s only one of dozens if not hundreds of books on this topic, Beard’s tome is notable because its narrative extends beyond the rich and powerful to include the diverse groups that lived and died in Rome.
For The Ancient Reader: The Twelve Caesars By Suetonius
Over the millennia, countless histories of the Roman Empire have been written. The Twelve Caesars stands out because it was written during the empire. Suetonius lived during the first century CE and wrote this history of a dozen leaders of Rome using primary documents. Most fascinating for the modern reader is the way Suetonius treats these caesars as real human beings, rather than the mythological figures set in stone we might imagine today.
For The Cartographer: The Eternal City By Jessica Maier
We sometimes think of maps as purely functional, as though they fully and accurately shrink down the world around us onto a sheet of paper. And yet, a map can reveal so much about culture and history. That’s the premise of Jessica Maier’s The Eternal City, which takes a very visual approach to Rome’s past and present. Focusing on various visual interpretations of the capital, Maier shows how maps reveal not just streets and landmarks but also cultures.
For The Memoir Lover: Four Seasons In Rome By Anthony Doerr
Anthony Doerr is best known for novels, but Four Seasons in Rome is his first attempt at memoir. In it, he recounts the time lived in Rome after winning a prize that relocated him to the city for a year. Doerr explores the city’s literary history, but also chronicles the modern city and its people, breathing life into the city that is too often depicted as a place frozen in its past.
For The Foodie: Eating Rome By Elizabeth Minchilli
No trip is complete without trying the local food, but that goes double for a trip to Italy. The food culture of the country is rich and varied, and just having a generic idea of “Italian food” won’t cut it in Rome. With Eating Rome, Elizabeth Minchilli teaches you about culinary staples, open-air markets and the unspoken eating etiquette to enrich your experience. There are also recipes, which can be useful from home, but it won’t be the same.
Fiction Books About Rome
For The Short Story Fan: Rome Tales Edited By Helen Constantine
If you’re looking for a fiction sampler, Rome Tales is a great option for you. It collects 20 short stories written from the Middle Ages to today (or 2011, when the collection was published). The stories range in topic and genre, and are united only by their common setting. It provides a very broad review of fiction in the country, and presents the varied ways that Rome exists in the minds of authors.
For The Historical Fiction Lover: I, Claudius By Robert Graves
Robert Graves was an English poet, so it may seem strange that he would write one of the best pieces of historical fiction set in Rome. The 1934 novel I,Claudius is a fake autobiography of the real emperor Claudius, who ruled the Roman Empire during its early days from 41 to 54 CE. The faux Claudius details the course of Rome from the era slightly before his birth to a time late in his rule, providing fascinating accounts of incredible events (many of which are based on the things that really happened). If this book leaves you wanting more, you can read the sequel Claudius the God or watch the 1976 BBC series based on the books.
For The Person Who Reads Doorstoppers: M By Antonio Scurati
M is a book about Benito Mussolini, and it’s often described as a “documentary novel” because it closely incorporates the history of Italy into the narrative. While not exclusively set in the Italian capital, the culmination of Mussolini’s rise to power was the March on Rome, and its role as seat of power in the country means it’s an integral part of the story. It comes in at over 800 pages and is filled with primary source material, which all makes for unfortunately relevant reading on the dangers of fascism in both the 20th century and the 21st.
For The Family Fiction Reader: The City And The House By Natalia Ginzburg
A magisterial Italian writer, Natalia Ginzburg is a master of juxtaposing intimate family moments with major world events. The City and the House is set during World War II, but it focuses in on Lucrezia, a single mother, and Giuseppe, one of her lovers. The novel is told through letters, and combines both joy and sorrow in the lives of its characters. Most of all, though, it’s a novel about Rome — the city of the title — and what happens to people when they no longer feel a sense of belonging in their home.
For The Novella Devourer: Ties By Domenico Starnone
Domenico Starnone has written over a dozen books, but only a handful have thus far been translated into English. Each of the ones available now are short but mighty works of fiction. In Ties, Starnone fixes his gaze on a married couple and how their family fell apart after the husband was unfaithful. As the name implies, it’s a fascinating examination of our “ties,” or connections to people, places and things, all set in Rome and Naples.