well-informed about the empire
Davis is the author of the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries, set in the Roman Empire in the days of Emperor Vespasian (circa AD 70). Falco is a Roman citizen; he's also a member of the lowest class, and a paid informer to boot, all of which should make him socially untouchable. He investigates stolen art, straying spouses, missing persons, and the occasional job for his occasional patron, the emperor himself. His missions take him all over Rome, and to the farthest corners of the Empire: Britain, Germany, North Africa, and the Middle East.
Falco is surrounded by an excellent cast of continuing characters: his old army buddy, Petronius Longus, now an officer of the "vigiles", a sort of combined police and fire department; Helena Justina, daughter of Senator Camillus Verus, Falco's beloved; Falco's extended family, beginning with his bossy mother and his absent father; spiteful Anacrites, the chief spy; Thalia the snake dancer; and a host of others.
The series is written in chronological order, each book picking up the thread of the previous, and would likely be best read that way. I did the opposite, starting with a book right in the middle and picking up the other volumes as I could find them. It worked out all right; Davis is a dab hand at conveying the important background material from the previous books without being obvious about it, and without giving anything important away.
I've enjoyed all of the Falco novels to date; my least favorite is Last Act In Palmyra, which is coincidentally the first one I read. If a reader hadn't written to encourage me to continue with the series I might not have bothered, and that would have been my loss.
If you enjoy Falco, you may also enjoy's tales of Gordianus the Finder, set in the late Roman Republic (about a century earlier). Saylor's goals are different; where Davis wants to tell engaging mysteries against the background of the Roman Empire, Saylor's emphasis is on "hidden history"--what really went on between the lines of the history books. Thus, while most of Davis' characters are fictional, most of Saylor's are familiar historical figures: Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cicero, Catiline, Clodius Pulcher, Pompey the Great, Crassus, and so on and so forth. In addition, to tell the hidden history of the events leading to the end of the Republic, Saylor's tales must hew very closely to the published record. Gordianus is thus often required to dance some very strange dances.
What both Davis and Saylor share is a familiarity with their period and the ability to bring it to life. The Rome of Falco is a much-changed place from the Rome of Gordianus, but both are finely drawn, and the one is clearly the descendant of the other.
The following list is in order of publication, and also in order of the internal chronology.