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.