I have just finished another trip through classical Rome with via a 2010 historical novel by Steven Saylor titled Empire. It covers the Roman Emperors from Augustus to Hadrian and is connected to the history of a fictional family named Pinarius. The original father, Lucius, is an Augur (that’s a kind of prognosticator who tells the future through various signs from the natural world. This man has twin sons named Kaseo and Titus, one of whom becomes a Christian and is killed in the arena. The surviving twin has an illicit affair with a vestal virgin and that relationship produces a son who is a sculptor and architect. He has a son who becomes a personal friend of young Marcus Aurelius who will become emperor as the book ends.
I am no judge of the accuracy of the history portrayed, but Saylor has good scholarly credentials and fiction writing chops. He keeps you as involved in the Penarius family fortunes as he does with the Emperors—most of whom (like Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, and Domitian) are a pretty despicable lot. The machinations, the killings and the sexual deviations definitely keep the pages turning while the Pinarius family provides good lessons on survival while perched on the fringes of power.
Saylor also does a fine job of integrating major historical events into the narrative. As the years pass you get a nice sense of the destruction of Pompei, the great fire of Rome, the opening of the Colliseum, and of course the persecution of Christians.
Contemporary relevance can be found by considering conquest and the looting of foreign lands as the path to absolute power and noting how the casual acceptance of slavery eased the lives of the privileged and helped build the great monuments of the Empire. Slavery and conquest have certainly evolved in the modern era, but there is enough remaining of both to conclude that the world has changed all too little since the Romans ruled it.
Saylor has also written a novel titled Roma which deals with the Republican period in Rome.