In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius in Italy suffered a colossal volcanic explosion that was 100,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The eruption buried Pompeii and a few other cities, killing thousands of Roman citizens and slaves.
If a Hollywood blockbuster was made of this historical event, there would be a scientist of some sort trying to convince everyone that the mountain was going to blow, and of course, everyone would ignore him. Except, perhaps, for our hero, struggling to overcome his own past failures, who realizes too late that the scientist is right, and then through heroic deeds and feats of strength, leads many to safety.
A few sympathetic souls would have to be sacrificed to dramatize just how horrible it all was. In the end, most people are saved and although they are humbled by nature, the human spirit has triumphed with self-congratulatory applause all around.
Thank goodness Robert Harris didn’t follow this tired old cliché. Instead, in his novel, Pompeii, he provides a mix of historical and fictional characters to tell a story laden with suspense and mystery in what reads as an accurate reconstruction of the Roman era. Lurking throughout the novel is the mountain itself, unknown to even be a volcano, ready to unleash an unimaginable horror on the unsuspecting populace that lived in its shadow.
The hero in Pompeii is a young engineer named Marcus Attilius Primus, newly assigned as the aquarius of the Aqua Augusta, the 60-mile aqueduct that brings water from the mountains to all the cities in the Bay of Naples. Attilius came from a family of aqueduct engineers, although at the age of 27, he’s a bit young to be placed in a role of such importance.
Throughout the story he gives the history and engineering details of the Roman aqueducts that allowed their modern civilization to flourish. It was water that allowed Rome and the other Italian cities to grow and prosper in their hot and arid climate. The end of the Aqua Augusta is the port city of Misenum, where the Roman fleet is anchored, commanded by Pliny the elder, the Roman statesman, scientist, author, and warrior. The fresh water provided by the aqueduct is not only necessary to sustain the local populace, but the 10,000 sailors in Misenum too.
Unfortunately for Attilius, his new assignment couldn’t have come at a worse time. Exomnius, the previous aquarius (which is the title for the engineer responsible for the aqueduct), had disappeared. Since Attilius was available on short notice, he was sent from Rome to replace him. The area around the Bay of Naples had been suffering a drought during that summer, causing concern about the water supply from the mountains.
Attilius is unable to generate much respect from the men who work for him, especially the overseer, Corax, who constantly belittles him and seeks to undermine his authority. He is on the job for only a few days before expensive fish kept by a wealthy landowner die suddenly. Attilius realizes that sulfur has killed the fish, but the landowner, a greedy and powerful ex-slave named Ampliatus who lacks all morals, feeds the slave responsible for the fish to his eels, just to enjoy the excitement of watching the man die. Trying to stop the slave’s death is Corelia, the lovely daughter of Ampliatus. She immediately reminds Attilius of his wife, whose death he still mourns.
The problems for Attilius are soon compounded. As he tries to determine the source of the sulfur, he realizes that the flow of water into Misenum is starting to fail. News soon reaches him that the other cities east along the aqueduct have run dry, and Attilius knows that it’s just a matter of time before the water also stops completely at Misenum.
The end of the aqueduct is a huge building, the Piscina Mirabilis, which acts as a reservoir for the city. Attilius closes the sluice gates that allow the water to flow from the reservoir and into the city so the water can be rationed, and then sets off to meet the admiral of the naval fleet, Pliny. He learns two important pieces of knowledge on the way to meet Pliny. The first was that the city of Pompeii still had plenty of water.
This gives Attilius a clue as to where a blockage in the aqueduct must have occurred, somewhere near Mt. Vesuvius. The second piece of information was that Corax had beaten him to the admiral, claiming that Attilius should be arrested for shutting off the water supply, which can only be done under orders from Rome. Pliny sends Attilius, along with Corax and his men, to Pompeii by boat, so that the obstruction can be found and the aqueduct repaired. Before they are sent off, Pliny begins to notice small vibrations in the earth. They are barely noticeable, but he decides to start timing their duration.
Arriving in Pompeii, Attilius sets out to find the aediles, the city’s magistrates who run everything, so that he can be provided with the necessary men and material to fix the aqueduct. He also hopes to learn more about the missing Exomnius, who reportedly had an apartment in the city. The aediles, however, don’t seem too helpful since they have plenty of water and it’s the holiday to make sacrifices to the god Vulcan. Attilius soon discovers that the aediles are controlled and beholden to Ampliatus. Nothing happens in Pompeii without Ampliatus’ approval, and what he wants, he gets by either bribe or coercion. This includes the engagement of Corelia to one of the aediles, a marriage neither of them wants.
None of them have a clue that Mt. Vesuvius will have a massive eruption the next day.
Robert Harris obviously did thorough research on the Roman era, Pompeii, the aqueducts, and volcanology. The research, however, never overshadows the story. Young Attilius explains all the details of the aqueduct and its history, but his own dedicated education and work with them provides the means to fit it within the storyline.
The author begins each chapter with an explanation of volcanic activity and the scientific details of Vesuvian eruption, providing the historical reminder that this novel revolves around a horrific event. In a story where the ending, for the most part, is known, Robert Harris has also constructed a suspenseful novel that moves quickly. He offers a few mysteries along the way. The lack of water is causing violence and near riots in Misenum.
The powers that be in Pompeii are more of a hindrance than a help. Why did the aqueduct become blocked, and can Attilius find and fix the problem in time? Is Ampliatus an ally or an enemy? There’s the question of what happened to Exomnius. Is his disappearance linked to the aqueduct’s problems? The more Attilius learns about Exomnius, the less his actions before his disappearance make sense.
Throw in the potential love interest between Attilius and Corelia, and there is plenty of story in Pompeii to keep you happily turning the pages, especially with the volcano looming in the background. At times my mind would yell at the characters, “Get the hell out of there! Forget the aqueduct! Run for your lives! It’s going to blow!” They never heard me. They stayed and the mountain exploded.
What an explosion it was. Cinematic portrayals of volcanic eruptions never surpass the believability factor to strike fear into the hearts of moviegoers. The Vesuvian eruption in Pompeii instills shock and awe, if you will, into each of the characters in this novel, and also into the minds of its readers. The descriptions of the explosions, magma, ash, pumice, and lethal gases provide a horrific scenario, where bravery is perhaps the least intelligent response and panic to get out of town and head away from the mountain the most apt.
Robert Harris provides a thrill ride as the characters all choose their path in response to the eruption, whether to run, stay and try to ride out the horror, or to rush toward it in hopes of providing rescue or gaining scientific knowledge. At one point, Attilius and Pliny are trapped below decks with the crew of the warship Minerva as rock from the volcano rains down on the boat and clogs the water around it.
In the stifling heat and the near darkness beneath the Minerva’s decks they crouched and listened to the drumming of the stones above them. The air was rank with the sweat and breath of two hundred sailors. Occasionally, a foreign voice would cry out in some unrecognizable tongue only to be silenced by a harsh shout from one of the officers.
A man near Attilius moaned repeatedly that it was the end of the world — and that, indeed, was what it felt like to the engineer. Nature had reversed herself so that they were drowning beneath rock in the middle of the sea, drifting in the depths of night during the bright hours of the day. The ship was rocking violently but none of the oars was moving. There was no purpose to any activity, since they had no idea of the direction in which they were pointing. There was nothing to do but endure, each man huddled in his own thoughts.
Pompeii succeeds as a piece of historical fiction, as a disaster novel, and as a story of good versus evil, man versus nature, and as an examination of human nature. Granted, the human story, while suspenseful, is slight. The world will long forget the fictional activities of Attilius, Ampliatus, and Corelia, while the spectacle of Vesuvius will hold fast. There are no deep hidden truths of humanity illuminated within this story. But if you want a book that’s fun, interesting, and thrilling, then visit Pompeii. Just keep looking over your shoulder at the mountain, because it’s going to blow.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.