To keep from getting entirely lost when looking at Late Antiquity, it’s best to have some grasp of Roman history. Now, I’m not saying you need to know everything there is in great detail, but knowing about the Roman Empire and how it functions and what life was like is a good backdrop for knowing Late Antiquity.
When Augustine discusses minor Roman deities, it’s notably helpful to know a thing or two about Roman religion. When everyone references Virgil, it’s good to know about the Aeneid. When disaster strikes and late antique Romans read their Livy, it’s good to know about the history they reference. Many things changed in Late Antiquity, but the Empire was still Roman: it operated in the technical, legal Latin of earlier centuries, people went to the baths, people watched chariot races, emperors built monuments, they wore togas when required, and so on and so forth.
To facilitate navigation, I am giving a list of a few resources to help people navigate Roman history. I thought about giving a one-post run-through of Roman history, and then I realised it was impossible. Nevertheless, these resources, both online and offline, should help the reader interested in ancient Rome navigate the world of Roman history so as not to get lost by any back-references from Late Antiquity.
If you know of better resources, especially online ones, let me know in the comments!
3 books on history (not that I think you need to read all three to get the lay of the land; the first is probably the quickest read of them):
Greg Woolf, Rome: An Empire’s Story. Woolf gives the reader the big, sweeping story of Rome from the perspective of imperium, the power to command, from city-state to Mediterranean power and then loss of power. A lot of interesting facts in here I’d not known before, and it helps provide the backdrop for more narrow reading into Rome’s story.
Chris Scarre, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome. This was a required textbook for the Introduction to Roman Civilization class I took in my first year of undergrad at the University of Ottawa. It gives you a succinct overview of Roman history with the geography to make it all make sense.
Ward, Heichelheim, and Yeo, A History of the Roman People. This was my Roman history textbook in second-year undergrad and a great place to go to read the history of this great city from foundation to fall and legacy, from regal period to late antiquity. It is a bit textbooky, I admit, but its also fairly comprehensive.
Online history resources:
BBC History on the Romans. A brief overview of Roman history, with a special British focus.
Illustrated History of the Roman Empire. Another online runthrough of the history of Rome, with pictures!
Roman Emperors — The Imperial Index. A good reference listing every Roman Emperor from Augustus in 31 BC to Constantine XIII in AD 1453.
The Consular List. Like the above, this lists the consuls from L. Junius Brutus & L. Tarquinius Collatinus in 509 BC to Fl. Anicius Faustus Albinus Basilius Iunior in AD 541. Handy.
Here’s a map of the Roman Empire. History without geography is vague and almost meaningless.
A Timeline of the Roman Empire — This may be one of the more helpful reference tools, beginning in 753 BC and giving pretty good detail up to the 600s AD.
Meet the Romans with Mary Beard. Art historians tell me that some of Mary Beard’s interpretations of stuff are contested, and everyone who watched this three-part documentary on the BBC cringed when she kept manhandling ancient objects. Otherwise, quite good and a nice, three-hour entry into Roman culture.
Treasures of Ancient Rome by Alastair Sooke. Although I’m not an art historian and my study of material culture mostly involves books, I think it’s very important to know the art and precious objects of a culture if we are to know their history. In this fantastic three-part doc, Alastair Sooke blasts away the myth that Roman art is totally lame and derivative, showing us the splendours that await those who take a look.