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Amber Paulen

Book List: Books Set in Rome

19 January 2012


This is an attempt to collate my readings on Rome that are progressive attempts at coming to an understanding of the city where I live, an overwhelming city when one tries to take grasp of it. It is the shape-shifting tendency, come from the great span of time and the great span of personalities that have either lived or visited here, that mesmerizes me and brings me back to more books where Rome has either a major or minor role. This is an expanding list.

Oh Rome! my country! city of the soul! —Lord Byron


Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous

Published in Italian in 2006, this book describes a great contemporary cross-section of the city set into a murder mystery.

Daisy Miller by Henry James

A great little novella about a young American flirt. Half of it is set in Rome.

Short stories by John Cheever “Boy in Rome,” “The World of Apples” and “The Bella Lingua”

John Cheever lived in Rome for about a year, in the Piazza Venezia. His experience served him in drawing the sometimes beguiling experience of the expat abroad.

Stories From the City of God: Sketches and Chronicles of Rome 1950-1966 by Pier Paolo Pasolini

This short collection contains rich stories and non-fiction that describe Pasolini’s Rome of the post-war years.

That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda

Published in Italian in 1957, That Awful Mess is another murder mystery, this time during the reign of Mussolini. Gadda paints a very different Rome in very sublime language.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Not a bad book considering it’s debatable whether or not this book is even set in Rome.

The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne

First published in 1860, The Marble Faun describes what happens when an innocent Roman meets a mysterious expat with a tainted history. I really thought this book would be much more boring than it actually was. The drama builds like all good books, and kept me flipping pages until I was done. Here are some thoughts on it.

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams

The Rome of Tennessee Williams is that of a bored and rich American widow who oscillates between the possibility of a bought affair with a much younger Italian man.

When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

An excellent read mostly set in contemporary Rome. Told from the perspective of a young child, the novel’s balance between what readers know and what they don’t builds until the end. This is a good book to read in Rome over a weekend trip.

Historical Fiction

Augustus by John Williams

The fictional life of Octavian Caesar as told through letters and journals of those who surrounded the first Emperor. A beautiful book.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Claudius tells the story of the Julio-Claudian family in all its ugly and mesmerizing details.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Yourcenar evokes Hadrian’s life with poetry. The most Greek of all the Emperors, his love of art, Antinous and his desire to create an Empire without war, makes me want to believe in the truth of this fictitious account.


A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela

An entertaining introduction to life in the Roman Empire at the height of power.

Classical Art: From Greece to Rome by Mary Beard and John Henderson

This book was essential for me in understanding all the ancient bits and revamped statues around the city. There are also useful timelines and maps at the back.

Italian Journey by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

An indispensable book for anyone wishing to journey into Italy. Goethe spent about a year in Rome living off the Corso. His observations are lively and complete a picture of Rome during the late eighteenth century.

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King

This book tells all you could want to know about the creation of the Sistine Chapel, not enough about the man who painted it and more about the pope who commissioned it. Also good for describing the time period in which Michelangelo painted one of his many masterpieces.

Mussolini’s Rome: Rebuilding the Eternal City by Borden Painter

This book wasn’t especially well-written, but it provides enough information to determine the Fascist landscape of Rome and how that was created under Mussolini. I can’t walk around Rome in the same way again.

Rome: The Biography of A City by Christopher Hibbert

This relatively thin book spans the thick history of Rome, from the myth of Romulus and Remus to the dictatorship of Mussolini. Unfortunately I don’t own it, but I enjoy dipping into it at the library whenever I can. It seems the best book available for the most information.

Rome: Profile of a City, 312-1308 by Richard Krautheimer

Currently reading. From Late Christianity through the Middle Ages, Rome forms and transforms under the political backdrop of Byzantine to… I’m still reading.

The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius

The translation by Robert Graves is lively and entertaining. The Caesars were often crazy.

And if you have any suggestions, please drop a note…



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