Monday, February 27, 2017

Pompeii, A Book Review


Robert Harris, Pompeii, (2003, New York: Random House Paperbacks, 2005), 279 pages, one map. 




Since I was a child, I have been fascinated with the story of Pompeii, but I was a bit reluctant about reading a historical fiction account of the events of 79 AD, when the town was covered by a volcanic eruption.   After all, I knew the ending.  Several towns east of Vesuvius was buried by the eruption.  However, my men's book club group decided that we needed a break from the serious history we'd been reading and decided on this book.  I'm glad that we did.  This is a fascinating story that centers on Attilius, the "aquarius" or engineer overseeing the "Aqua Augusta," an aqueduct providing water to the towns along the Bay of Neapolitan (now Naples). Attilius is a young man, but a fourth generation engineer, who has been assigned to this particular aqueduct following the disappearance of the previous aquarius. 



Strange things are happening around the Bay of Neapolitan in the days leading up to the eruption.  Almost all of the cities (except for Pompeii) have lost water, or have received water that was so rank with sulfur that it is unfit for drinking and bathing.  Attilius' job is to find out why and to correct the problem.  At the city of Misenum a fleet of the Roman navy is anchored.  Pliny, the Roman philosopher, has recently been made Admiral of the fleet, which is relaxed as the empire is at peace.  Attilius obtains Pliny's support, which is critical and carries the weight of the emperor.  The cities are also in the midst of a religious holiday.  No one is interested in helping until they learn of the power behind Attilius' task.  As he puts together a team of men, oxen and supplies for the journey up the mountain to the aqueduct, the reader is provided with a view of Roman world. Those with power and money enjoy the finest things such as 200 year old wine (which has to be mixed with more recent wine as it is not very tasty).  There are brothels, of which Pompeii is especially known.  And then there are slaves.  One of the slaves, responsible for his master's tanks of eels, is sentenced to die for letting the eels die (which happened because of the sulfur in the water).  He is sliced so that blood is flowing and thrown in another tank where he's eaten by eels.  His mother, also a slave, naturally goes berserk.  Attilius who is presented as an honest and compassionate man, finds such behavior offensive and tries to care for the mother, but doesn't get too involved.  He stays focused on his task of fixing the aqueduct.



As a reader, we know that Vesuvius is a ticking time bomb.  The story starts two days before the eruption and ends the day afterwards.  But those living in the pleasant towns along the coastline have no idea of their fate.  The mountain has always been dormant.  Twenty years earlier there was a great earthquake (which destroyed and created a real estate opportunity in Pompeii, but no one had connected the earthquake to the volcano.  Pliny and Attilius are both men interested in observing nature.  As the story unfolds, they both began to have their suspicions as to what's happening.  To help the reader understand what is occurring inside the volcano, Harris begins each chapter with a quote from scientific studies of volcanoes. 



There is a surprise ending to the book and I won't spoil it.  As I got more into the story, I couldn’t put the book down, but had to keep reading.  The author was able to hold my attention with a compelling story while providing information about the Roman world, the geology of the volcano, and the engineering of the water systems (which survived the eruption (they were on the opposite side of the mountain and were in use for another 400 years).  And he's also able to weave a love story into the pages of the book.  I highly recommend this book. 

24 comments:

  1. Being fed alive to eels is the stuff of nightmares! I have been tempted a couple times to try out historical fiction but haven't just yet. If I get tired of one particular subject in the non-fiction world, I tend to move on to another area.

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  2. I've also had a long fascination with Pompeii having visited the site as a teenager. I read this book years ago and remember loving it (and the perspective from which it was written), but I don't remember the twist at the end! Unfortunately my copy is miles away at my daughter's house, so I don't have access to refresh myself.

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  3. Like you, I've always found Pompeii fascinating. I've spent several days exploring the city and I discover something new every time.

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  4. Sounds amazing! I was fascinated with Pompeii too and read all about it!
    I have to look for this book!

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  5. I've read some about the eruption and have a fascination about volcanoes. It's sad but sounds like a really interesting book.

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  6. Goodness a surprise really makes me want to get this book! Sounds like a perfect read in many ways.

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  7. This sounds like an interesting perspective of historical events with a fictional spin. All that and a love story too? That's a winner for sure.

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  8. This one sounds really good! I just wrote a book in my series, The Ghosts of Pompeii. I find it a fascinating place, and I'm so glad I had the opportunity to visit it.

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  9. The Romans were an intriguing culture/people - good for countless stories. Glad you enjoyed this one and shared it with us.

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  10. I love when we think we know what will happen and then we are surprised. Looking forward to checking this one out. I have always been intrigued about Pompeii. Thanks for sharing. :)
    ~Jess

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  11. I actually read this a few years back. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

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  12. The Augusta was the longest aqueduct and had it's source in the Terminio-Tuoro mountains near the modern town of Serino. It skirted Vesuvius from 3 to 11 on a clock.
    I've always believed historical fiction is a very good thing. A position that 80% of historians would profoundly disagree. They would see such fripperies as a distraction.
    They actually lost the Augusta for 1300 years. It was quenched in a subsequent eruption.

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  13. Ooh, fascinating. It's true, I always think of Pompeii as something frozen in time, and don't really consider what everyone might have been doing in the days and weeks leading up to the explosion...
    Now I'm interested to hear about what other books you've read in your club.

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  14. I'm marking this one because it has everything I love in a book: history and a particularly exciting place as the setting. Thanks for posting it today.

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  15. Thanks for the review. I read so much Greek and Roman history when I was little that I must have majored in the classics unintentionally. :-)

    Great post.

    Greetings from London.

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  16. About a year ago, the Beaux Arts museum in Montreal had a wonderful exhibition about Pompeii. Both fascinating and terrifying.

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  17. I love surprises. I guess it's worth giving this a go.

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  18. Is this the same author that wrote Silence of the Lambs? He is amazing! I shall read this.

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  19. A friend of mine, who has traveled the world, hated Pompeii. I could never understand that, until my son visited it last summer and said it was like being in hell.

    Apparently, you do not want to go there in the summer.

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  20. Interesting to read your review Robert Harris has written some very good books ...

    All the best Jan

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  21. I like historical fiction, and think I'll give this book a go.
    Thanks for the review!

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  22. Haha ~ The joys of catching up backwards! You've reviewed "Pompeii." And an excellent review it is! I thoroughly enjoyed reading and rereading this book. Okay, we do know that Vesuvius erupts, but the geology, history, and firsthand accounts woven in, plus the reconstruction of Roman life is fascinating. I have never been able to forget the execution of the slave via eels. Thanks for your fine review, Sage!

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