Sandro asks:

Hello. I am working on a story right now and I need to study a historical background for it. Could you recommend me good books (in English, preferably, and yes, I am willing to actually buy them, and yes, I am willing to spend a lot of my free time studying this.) about Rome and the life of common citizen of the city of Rome? The time frame is around the year AD 20. I need information about culture and customs. What were the ways common families worshipped gods? What were the naming conventions? How strict were Romans in following traditions? Was it common for “middle class” Roman family to have a slave? There is a lot I need to know before I can write my story. I obviously started with reading Wikipedia, but while I consider that useful, I still do think that I should get a more detailed and more trustworthy source of information. Thanks for help.

Let me see… for a basic introduction you could do worse than The Romans: An Introduction by Antony Kamm and Abigail Graham, which is the textbook we use for our introductory Roman Civilisation class in my department. Everyday Life in Ancient Rome by Lionel Casson is a similar level; I haven’t read it myself, but it’s quite well thought of, and possibly better tailored to your particular needs. Themes in Roman Society and Culture by Matt Gibbs, Milorad Nikolic and Pauline Ripat is a bit pricey but covers similar sorts of things in more detail. If you really want to jump in the deep end, you could try some academic works (make sure you have some grounding before attempting these). The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus by Paul Zanker and Rome’s Cultural Revolution by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill both focus on the period immediately preceding yours, but are very important and well-regarded. Ways of Being Roman: Discourses of Identity in the Roman West by Louise Revell, Power and Privilege in Roman Society by Richard Duncan-Jones and Arguing with Silence: Writing the History of Roman Women by Amy Richlin are more recent and lack the established scholarly reputation but should be useful. The Blackwell Companions are really good; consider the Companion to Roman Italy edited by Alison Cooley, the Companion to Food in the Ancient World edited by John Wilkins and Robin Nadeau and the Companion to Roman Religion edited by Jörg Rüpke (physical copies of these are outrageously expensive, but there are more affordable e-books).

What you can also do is try to tackle the primary sources themselves. These are generally available in English online, but those will usually be very old translations that are out of copyright. That doesn’t mean they’re inaccurate as such, but they can be very difficult to read, so it might be worth it to invest in something more recent (with a commentary, if possible). The most important historical narrative for the reign of Tiberius (AD 14-37) comes from the first six books (well, book five is lost, but what survives of the first six, anyway) of Tacitus’ Annals. Tacitus covers political and military history nicely while giving some sense of the atmosphere and the feelings of the Roman people about the events of the period (or at least the politically active Roman upperclass); the Annals may be more detail than you actually need, though, and won’t necessarily answer your questions about Roman culture directly. Plutarch’s Quaestiones Romanae (or Roman Questions) is a little bit after your period (he starts writing in the last third of the 1st century AD) and written from a Greek perspective, but has a lot of interesting trivia about customs and daily life of the kind that you’re after. Ovid’s Fasti, conversely, is a little earlier (end of the 1st century BC); at its best, it’s rather given to poetic flights of fancy and at times it can be downright weird, but it is, in theory at least, the product of a fairly intimate knowledge of Italian religion in the time of Augustus. The books listed above should have further suggestions as well. If something catches your interest, follow the citations.

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