Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America by Cullen Murphy
Despite its sensationalist title, Murphy's book provides a surprisingly level-headed look at the similarities and differences between the Roman Empire and the United States. More importantly, it is a highly accessible point of entry to those whose knowledge of said Empire is limited to Caligula, Hadrian's Wall, lead poisoning, vomitoriums (a myth!), and gladiators.
Sadly, I am one of those people. I blame my high school teachers, who started every school year with an obligatory week on Native Americans, followed by Jamestown, and petering out around World War II in mid-May. In 11th grade, we made it all the way to Vietnam, and that was pretty cool.
But as much as I enjoyed Are We Rome?, it's possible that I appreciated Murphy's extensive bibliography even more. I know what I'm reading next to fill in the shameful gaps in my education.
More knowledgeable reviews by people with a better classics background than I are available at Salon, The New York Times, and The Atlantic Monthly. Murphy was a managing editor of the Atlantic for many years, but almost more impressive is his 25-year stint as writer of Prince Valiant. How's that for a resume?