Pompeii by Robert Harris
Book Review by Chris Heaton
79 AD, the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii simply ceased to exist. Mt. Vesuvius unleashed the wrath of the ancient gods, and over a period of 4 days, the blanket of ash preserved the ancient world exactly as it was 2,000 years ago.
In Pompeii, Robert Harris recreates that Roman world with seemingly flawless effort. The description of that ancient way of life is beautifully crafted, leaving the reader with a true sense of the time. While the story highlights the dark and corrupt side of the Empire it is contrasted by the honest and moral virtue of the novel's main character, Marcus Attilius.
A citizen born in a long line of the working masses, Attilius is an aquarius, or an engineer responsible for Rome's vaunted aqueducts. Attilius comes to the Bay of Naples after the disappearance of his predecessor, Exomnius to take charge of the Aqua Augusta, the vital water supply that feeds nine towns around the bay.
Set against the backdrop of the impending eruption of Vesuvius, Attilius is immediately embroiled in a suspenseful mystery and a desperate, although unknown to our protagonist, race against time. The Augusta has failed and the lifeline of water has been interrupted. Beginning with the danger of sulfurous vapors that threaten the local fisheries, Attilius also faces the unanswered question of the fate of Exomnius, the challenges of his own work crew, and local magistrates corrupt with greed and power.
Attilius is aided by one of the great literary names of the ancient world, Pliny the Elder. The writer of the 'Natural Histories' makes an important and well represented contribution in his efforts to both understand the volcanic activity and aid our heroic engineer in his efforts. Historically, Pliny perished near Vesuvius while researching its eruption and 'Pompeii' doesn't deviate from this fact. However, tracing his last days, along with several other believable, if somewhat underdeveloped characters, the reader can't help but think, 'Just get out of there!' Though we know the final outcome of Vesuvius, Pompeii and even Pliny, we don't know the fate of both the main hero and villains alike, and their journey through one of histories most legendary natural disasters is engrossing.
The novel is incredibly well researched, and though Harris modestly claims a limited knowledge, the list of reference material in the afterword is impressive. Throughout the novel, the vastness of Roman engineering is explained, without mind-numbing detail, but still with precision and accuracy. The ancient words of Rome's great Aqueduct historian, Vitruvius come through, along with those of modern contemporary scholars.
Each chapter begins with an excerpt from various works on volcano research, giving the reader a chilling reminder that eventually, all hell will break loose. These short excerpts, while some could be considered highly scientific, provide an excellent and clear understanding of what is happening beneath the ground, while the story rolls on without laborious descriptions of how volcanoes work. And despite reading the final page feeling as if you've not only been entertained, but learned something as well; it's a wonderfully light read that can be devoured quickly, much like the city of Pompeii itself.
All considered, Pompeii, by the usual master of WWII era fiction, is an excellent departure into a new historical theme. Weaving mystery, suspense, thrills and even a somewhat erroneous love interest over a period of 4 terribly tragic days, Harris captures the essence of the ancient city and the volcano that buried it. From beginning to end, small historical references that might largely go unnoticed by the average reader (such as correctly identifying the proper name of an ancient wine, or the actual inscription on a coin of the Emperor) are perfectly sprinkled in.
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Pompeii is recreated just in time to see, and more importantly, feel it crushed beneath rock, ash and toxic fumes. With Pompeii, Harris gives an outstanding combination of pure entertainment with a refreshing dose of historical authenticity.