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Ancient Rome Book Recs

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Hi everyone. My son is going to be taking a rather heavy load next year so I decided to go very light for history. He is just going to be reading, watching some movies, and discussing with me. I know it’s an unusual choice, but it’s necessary or he would be completely overloaded. He’s always loved ancient Rome, so that’s his topic. I am looking for wonderful living books and a spine/ textbook. Some historical fiction would be great, but I really need nonfiction too. I really want his to enjoy the books. Please help. Thanks.

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The Robert Harris trilogy of novels on Cicero is quite good (Imperium; Conspirata; Dictator). The narrator is Cicero's personal secretary, Tiro — a highly literate slave who invented a system of shorthand so that he could record all of Cicero's speeches in real time. (That system, BTW, is the source of many devices we still use, like etc., e.g., i.e., and so on, all of which stand for Latin words/expressions.) The three novels together form a remarkably in-depth portrait of life in the late Roman Republic.

One word of warning: The content pulls no punches and, in places, is very R-rated.

Also recommended: Robert Harris's novel Pompeii takes place more than a hundred years later — it follows one of the young engineers charged with maintaining the aqueduct that passes by the foot of Vesuvius...

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A highly recommended primary source: Agricola, by the Roman historian Tacitus. It's a short book — a biography of the Roman general who would become governor of the Roman province Britannia. (Tacitus married Agricola's daughter Julia, so Agricola was the historian's father-in-law.)

It's a challenging read for a teenager, but read closely, Agricola yields many gems. Much of it concerns Agricola's time in Britain. I personally find really chilling the early passages in which Tacitus writes about the reign of Domitian — a time of censorship and terror. Speaking of that time, Tacitus writes:

... we witnessed the extreme of servitude, when the informer robbed us of the interchanges of speech, and hearing. We should have lost memory as well as voice, had it been as easy to forget as to keep silence...

What he's saying is that Domitian's tyranny and use of informers stole from us not only our freedom to speak, but our freedom to hear the thoughts of others — for how can we hear thoughts and ideas no one is brave enough to express? 

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An easy to read/listen popular history choice (non-fiction) would be SPQR by Mary Beard.  I really like the way she pulls in primary sources to make her arguments.   She has other books on the topic of Roman history as well, I just haven't read them so I can't recommend personally.

I'm currently really enjoying (but haven't yet finished) The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of A Dangerous Idea by Edward Watts.  It's a super interesting book about the narratives surrounding Rome's "decline" - which started much earlier than you might guess!

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