Original Roman history books give an amazing account of a fascinating time period. Studying the incredible works by legendary writers, Emporers, and philosophers, we can take a trip back in time. Learning about the original books and writings allows us to get to the subject’s source without the risk of losing the meaning in translation.
On Obligations by Cicero
One of the most incredible Roman history books ever written was ‘On Obligations’ by Cicero. In just about 4 weeks, Cicero wrote three books making up “De Officiis,” translated as ‘On Duties or On Obligations.’ Cicero’s collection was to outline the best way to behave, live, and uphold moral duties.
He wrote the book in the last year of his life in 44 BC when he was 62 years old. Cicero was still actively involved in Roman politics at the time of the writing. While he attempted to stop a revolt, he was unsuccessful. Shortly after the writing of his book, ‘Obligations,’ a group of Roman Senators assassinated Caesar and then Cicero.
Cicero wrote the books as a letter to his son, Cicero the Younger, who would turn out to be one of the Roman Republic’s leading politicians. The first book in the series discusses honor, virtues, and fortitude. The second book references generosity and courtesy while gaining wealth, power, and influence. The third book details difficult choices to be made when striving for success and improvement in life.
“Is anyone unaware that Fortune plays a major role in both success and failure?‘On Obligations’ by Cicero
Cicero’s works are some of the most important Roman history books ever written, and the influence of ‘Obligations’ has reverberated through history since its creation. It became widely read by Church leaders such as St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Voltaire commented on Cicero’s writing, “No one will ever write anything more wise.”
Annals and Histories by Tacitus
One of the greatest Roman historians was Publius Cornelius Tacitus. Known simply as Tacitus, his life spanned from 56 AD to 120 AD, and he spent much of his time writing about Roman culture, history, and events.
Tacitus wrote numerous influential and memorable books, but perhaps his most important series was ‘Annales’ and ‘Histories.’ These were a collection of 30 books chronicling the Roman empire from the reign of Tiberius in 14 AD to the death of Domitian in 96 AD, and known as one of the best books on Roman history.
The series of 30 books were published separately, with the first release of ‘Histories’ and then followed up with the release of ‘Annals.’ The 30 volumes were meant for a continuous narrative on Roman history and the details of each emperor’s reign during the specific time periods.
What happened to the original ‘Annals’ and ‘Histories’ written by Tacitus? The first six books in the series survived through a manuscript written in Germany around the year 1000. Referred to as “MSM,” the original manuscript is kept in Florence at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.
The next 11-16 books in the series of ‘Annals’ were preserved in a manuscript written around the 1055 time period. The history of these two manuscripts is extensive, and some debate remains as to who wrote them and where they were moved and preserved over hundreds of years.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
If you are looking to discover great Roman history books, look no further than ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius. From 161 to 180 AD, Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor, and he wrote 12 books of personal writings compiled as ‘Meditations.’ Speculation is Marcus never planned to have the writings published. No title was ever officially given to the works by Aurelius himself. The common title ‘Meditations’ was assigned as one of several known labels for the works.
Meditations, as we know it today, were based on two manuscripts. The Codex Palatinus, published in 1558 but now lost, and the Codex Vaticanus published in the 14th century, kept in the Vatican Library.
The Ultimate Roman History Book
Some people might ponder, why was Rome so successful for so long? Meditations might offer important clues as to the strength of the Roman Empire during that time. Through the leadership of Marcus Aurelius, an emphasis was placed on the Stoic philosophy. He was known as the last of the “Five Good Emperors,” as Machiavelli famously coined the phrase in the 1500s.
There was no mention of the private journals from Marcus Aurelius until the 10th century, when a collector of manuscripts, Arethas of Caesarea, is quoted in a letter saying, “I have had for some time an old copy of the Emperor Marcus’ most profitable book, so old indeed that it is altogether falling to pieces…” What an amazing collector this guy must have been to own a first edition Marcus Aurelius Meditations book.
The copy from Caesarea has vanished, but it’s thought that in his possession was the source of the surviving manuscripts for what would be known as “Meditations.”
History of Rome by Livy
The History of Rome by Livy was one of the most important Roman history books ever created. The Roman historian lived from 64 BC to 17 AD and wrote amazing summaries of the Roman time period.
In his book titled, “Ab Urbe Condita,” otherwise known as “History of Rome,” Livy details a complete history of Rome’s city, from the very beginning through the death of Augustus. Since Livy was writing under Augustus’s reign, his accounts highlight the great accomplishments of the city, mostly to promote the newly formed government once Augustus became emperor.
In true Roman historian form, Livy hoped his works would help to “preserve the memory of the deeds of the world’s preeminent nation.” After the publication of ‘History of Rome,’ the book became popular, and Livy grew to well-known status, where its documented people traveled great distances to meet him.
Interest in Livy’s work declined during the Middle Ages, as the focus shifted on religious text. But the Renaissance brought new life to collecting some of the old passages of the Roman era. It’s documented that large amounts of money changed hands in the pursuit of works by Livy during this time period.
Sketches by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
While most Roman history books and roman novels feature amazing writings, others simply feature sketches. Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an archaeologist, architect, and artist known for his amazing etchings of Rome.
Some of his books feature incredible drawings of the city of Rome during the 18th century. Books with his works published in 1785 now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. You don’t have to be strictly an author to translate and preserve the history of the Roman empire. Much of it was also captured through artwork and drawings and then published in book form.
Collectors of Roman History Books
Over thousands of years, the importance of collectors cannot be understated. What’s now viewed as a hobby, such as rare book collecting, was once a critical part of preserving world history. If there were no collectors, much of history would have been lost over the years.
Not only have collectors preserved much of world history, keeping first edition books safe and secure, but they also document the preservation of manuscripts and translations made from those original works. Where much of the book collecting crowd focuses strickly on financial gain these days, it’s refreshing to remind ourselves that we are also playing a small part in preserving history.