Ancient civilizations hold enough intrigue on their own, but when combined with a strong historical fiction narrative, the ancient worlds come to life. Here, we present 12 of the best historical novels with a focus on Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome that capture the true essence of these periods. While this list is not exhaustive, it highlights some of the most compelling books in this fascinating subgenre filled with scandals, violence, secret love affairs, and everything in between.
The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George
A unique fictional portrait that brings life and authenticity to the tale of the Egyptian queen who, after a lifetime of passion and power, chooses to end her existence rather than suffer humiliation at the hands of her Roman conquerors.
Cleopatra's Shadows by Emily Holleman
A novel that reimagines the beginnings of Cleopatra's epic saga follows her younger sister, Arsinoe, as she escapes the palace after her half-sister Berenice seizes the throne while their father, Ptolemy, marches on the city of Alexandria with a Roman army.
Nefertiti by Michelle Moran
Raised far from the Egyptian court with her sister, Mutnodjmet, the beautiful and ambitious Nefertiti becomes the wife of the radical new pharaoh, Amunhotep, encouraging his plans to overturn Egypt's state religion and making powerful enemies in the process, while her sister, recognizing her sister's dangerous position, does what she can to protect her family.
River God by Wilbur A. Smith
A recreation of the grandeur of ancient Egypt follows the fortunes of the clever and scheming eunuch Taita; the beautiful Lostris, a lord's daughter; and Tanus, an ambitious soldier.
Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin
A tale inspired by the voiceless character in The Aeneid finds young Lavinia coming of age in peaceful ancient Italy before the rise of Rome and taking her destiny into her own hands after hearing a prophecy that predicts she will marry a foreigner, cause a bitter war, and become a young widow.
Helen of Troy by Margaret George
Married at a tender age to the remote Spartan king Menelaus, the beautiful Helen bears him a daughter and anticipates a passionless marriage in spite of her divine origins before falling in love with the Trojan prince Paris, with whom she flees to Troy, with devastating consequences.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Achilles and Patroclus are two sons of kings who are brought together as boys. One of them, Patroclus, is an exile who is disowned by his father. The other is destined to become the greatest warrior of his time and possibly of all time. In this entrancing retelling of Homer's Iliad, Miller sweeps us into a love story set in the backdrop of the Trojan War.
Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault
The first volume of Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, Fire from Heaven chronicles the formative years of his life. His parents fight for their precocious son’s love: On one side, his volatile father, Philip, and on the other, his overbearing mother, Olympias. The story tells of the conqueror’s two great bonds – to his horse, Bucephalus, and to his dearest friend and eventual lover, Hephaistion – and of the army he commands when he is barely an adult. Renault’s telling of Alexander’s education brings to life not only the boy who went on to redefine western civilization, but the rest of those in his sphere, as well, from servant to military hero.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
Told as a fictional autobiography, Claudius's story begins in a dysfunctional family where he is seen as nothing more than an idiot because of his physical infirmities. Fighting a terrible stutter and constant scorn from those around him, he quietly documents the different reigns of Roman emperors. From the sensible Augustus to the callous Tiberius, and the terror of Caligula, Claudius experiences firsthand the corruption and insanity of Roman Empire society. As he fights to survive the bloody purges and intensifying violence, Claudius is destined to step in as the next emperor one day.
Imperium by Robert Harris
Imperium is the first of a trilogy of novels about the struggle for power in ancient Rome. Robert Harris lures readers back in time to the compelling life of Roman Senator Marcus Cicero. The re-creation of a vanished biography written by his household slave and righthand man, Tiro, Imperium follows Cicero’s extraordinary struggle to attain supreme power in Rome.
The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough
This is the first of seven novels in the Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough set during the last days of the old Roman Republic. It concentrates on Gaius Marius, the general most famous for reforming the old army of the Roman Republic into the legions that conquered the known world, and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the infamous Roman dictator. The plot revolves around the relationship between the two men as they rise to power.
Roma by Steven Saylor
Spanning a thousand years, and following the shifting fortunes of two families through the ages, this is the epic saga of Rome, the city and its people. Roma recounts the tragedy of the hero-traitor Coriolanus, the capture of the city by the Gauls, the invasion of Hannibal, the bitter political struggles of the patricians and plebeians, and the ultimate death of Rome's republic with the triumph, and assassination, of Julius Caesar.