The Would-Be Bestsellers of Every Century AD: 1st to 5th

Books have existed for over 5000 years, but the Bestsellers List has been around for less than 100. These are the books that would have been bestsellers.

Fiction Historical Fiction Memoirs & Biographies Non-Fiction Recommendations

Writing was one of the pivotal inventions that jumpstarted civilization. Through history, words and books have played a critical role in our development. 

There are an abundance of new books being published in today’s day and age. The surge in literary content is due to inventions that have sped up the writing and copying processes and the commonality of literacy in the world; however, that’s not to say that the past lacked books.

It’s been less than 100 years since the New York Times Bestsellers List started. Many books through the ages have remained obscure to this day. Bookstr is here to change that. This ongoing list will brush the dust off some true masterpieces that have shaped our world. From histories and biographies to fiction and poetry, literature has evolved alongside civilization, and its power to move people has only grown ever since the first word was written roughly 5,500 years ago.

Bookstr presents the would-be bestsellers of every century starting at the year 1 AD all the way to 500 AD.

1st Century


The Metamorphoses – Ovid

Back in the day—the day when ancient Greece and Rome were not yet ancient—what we now consider fantasy was believed to be real. Called myths, such stories revolved around legendary humans both mortal and immortal. Metamorphosis, an epic poem written by Ovid, can be referred to as one of the earliest epic fantasies ever written. Like the MCU, it “interweaves some of the best-known myths and legends of ancient Greece and Rome,” according to Amazon.


The Satyricon – Gaius Petronius Arbiter

There’s a reason why shows like South Park are so widely popular. We all have a satirical bone, and the Satyricon is among the earliest humorously critical works to ever spite anyone. Going against the literary grain, Petronius wrote it in the perspective of Rome’s poor, giving it a more widespread appeal.


Letters from a Stoic – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

History is full of role models—people who have overcome the odds and their circumstances to create great works of art and literature. Seneca is no exception. Despite being plagued by sickness and chased out of his homeland among other horrors, he wrote on and pioneered one of Rome’s prevailing philosophies: Stoicism and did not hesitate to leave his mark on the tablet.


Natural History – Pliny the Elder

Humans have always been scientific; it’s just that we didn’t figure out a steady method until recently. People still practiced with the knowledge and resources they had available (we had to start somewhere, after all). One of those early scientific startups was Pliny the Elder, the author of Natural History, which encompasses more than just early biology. The book served as an encyclopedia of world knowledge during the first century AD. Though we’ve come a long way in all scientific disciplines, there is historic value in knowing what we thought we knew back then.

2nd Century


The Twelve Caesars – Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus

You’ve heard the saying no doubt: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Nor was it built by only one person. Suetonius presents the biographical accounts of the famous Julius Caesar and the emperors that took up the helm of the early Western World after his assassination. This book is great for those of you who appreciate the individual human perspective of history.


Meditations – Marcus Aurelius

How many can say they were a Roman emperor? How many can say they wrote a book that’s stayed prevalent for almost 2000 years? Well, Marcus Aurelius can say ‘yes’ to both. Being an icon of Stoic Philosophy, his autobiography contains ancient advice on how to live well, something we are still trying to figure out how to do.


Daphnis & Chloe – Longus

If you’re a fan of romance, this is likely where it all started. Long before Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts, Shakespeare and Jane Austin, Longus wrote this pivotal work. Though it’s over a thousand years old, you can see the roots of modern romance tropes in it, such as separation, scenic locales, and the supernatural.

3rd Century


Aethiopica – Heliodorus

We start this century off with another good romance. There’s something intriguing about a couple whose relationship brings fate against them. We know and love it today as forbidden love. Revolving around the prince and princess of two different countries, their love brings about a number of hazards that are quite unlikely today. Such gives the story an ancient flare.


Chaldean Oracles

There are many philosophies whose popularity has survived since ancient antiquity, such as Stoicism, which we covered earlier; however, some are no longer as popular. The Chaldean Oracles reveal insights regarding one such philosophical realm of thought: that of neoplatonism.


Historia Augusta

Inspired on the work of Suetonius and his biography of the twelve Post-Caesarian emperors of Rome, Historia Augusta continued the tradition of transcribing the history of the empire. Historia Augusta comprises the lives and reigns of the Roman Emperors that ruled between the early second century to the late third century AD.

4th Century


Life of Constantine – Eusebius

Constantine stands out among the many Roman emperors for making Christianity the official religion in the empire. The details of his life were captured by Eusebius, a historian of the time. The biography is one of his only surviving works, according to Amazon, and provides a window into the early rise of one of the world’s prevailing religions.


Poetics – Aristotle

Thousands of years before James Scott Bell, K. M. Weiland, and Blake Snyder wrote and published their masterpieces on the craft of storytelling, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle worked out the fundamental aspects of compelling structure. In his time, the scraggly peninsula that was then home to Alexander the Great had a tradition of theatre. Aristotle’s Poetics is the first guide on literary craft ever written and still has relevance today for aspiring writers.

5th Century


Saturnalia – Macrobius

As is probably notable by now, Rome dominated the west of Eurasia (both literally and literary) throughout the first 500 years AD. Saturnalia differs from the previous biographies and histories with its focus on the cultural aspects of the empire. Whereas Suetonius and the authors of the Historia Augusta focused on the rulers and their agendas, if you want to get to know the life of a Roman, Saturnalia is certain to enlighten.


Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons – Liu Hsieh

Ancient China had its own version of the Poetics and it covered a vast range on the topic of literature; however, unlike Aristotle’s work, Liu Hsieh went even deeper than the structures of story, delving into the nuts and bolts of writing and criticism. While Aristotle provides a blueprint of literature, Liu Hsieh gives you an encyclopedia.

Books have shaped the lives of readers for the millennia they have existed. These are just some of the masterpieces written by histories earliest novelists, historians, biographers, and literary critics. Stay tuned for Part 2 of Would-Be Bestsellers of Every Century AD: (6th to 10th).

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