SPQR by Mary Beard
Fascinating. Covers the first Roman millennium, from ~750 BCE to 212 CE, but with the specific goal of highlighting where our common conceptions of ancient Rome are wrong, and how many of our current political and cultural debates go back to the days of the Republic.
This means the chapters aren’t strictly chronological, and sometimes double-back on the same period to illuminate a different side of it. Each is written well, though, and offers interesting facts of its own.
Three of the many things I learned:
- Many of the things that make us squeamish about the Romans (gladiator fights, Caesar's brutality during the wars in Gaul) were criticized at the time by the Romans themselves
- Unlike most ancient empires, Rome was welcoming to immigrants and former slaves (in fact, their system of manumission was the first of its kind)
- Ancient Romans were clean-shaven, going back as far as 300 BCE