on 26 May 2005
On August 24, 79 CE, at about 1:00 PM, Mount Vesuvius erupted, spewing black clouds of magma, ash, pumice, and lethal gases over the surrounding Italian countryside and into the atmosphere, shaking the earth violently and blocking out the sun. In less than twenty-four hours thousands of people died, and the flourishing Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum had disappeared beneath tons of debris and solidified mud.
Inhabitants of the cities surrounding the Bay of Naples had long been accustomed to earth tremors and wisps of gas escaping from Vesuvius, but no one considered the possibility of a volcanic eruption. In 62 CE there had been a series of severe earthquakes which caused serious structural damage to many houses in Pompeii. These quakes were a forewarning. Another quake rocked Naples in 64 CE, which the Emperor Nero, who had just made his singing debut, took as a compliment; an ovation, of sorts. Although there had been several precursors of volcanic activity at Vesuvius, without modern technology, nor knowledge of previous eruptions, no one could understand their significance. The events which occurred on August 24, and their aftermath, are well documented, and we all know the inevitable conclusion - yet Robert Harrris' historical thriller, "Pompeii," lacks neither suspense nor mystery. His plot driven storyline, which takes place over a four day period, focuses on a terrible crisis which preceded the eruption, and would prove to be, potentially, almost as lethal.
Marcus Attilius Primus has just been awarded the command of the Aqua Augusta, under very suspicious circumstances. The previous aquarius, Exominius, had run the Augusta for almost twenty years, and then, two weeks ago, he had simply disappeared without a trace. Given the drought, the extreme heat, and strategic importance of the aqueduct, he was replaced immediately by Attilius, a fourth generation aqueduct engineer.
The Augusta is one of the world's greatest feats of engineering. The longest aqueduct in the world, it is even more complex than those of Rome. Beginning high in the Apenninus, the aqueduct captures snow melt from mountain springs and bears it down to the plains of Campania, then south to the coast at Neapolis, and finally to Misenum, the system's terminus. The Divine Augustus had decreed that the empire needed a port to control the Mediterranean. Misenum, the port city where the Roman fleet is anchored, is totally dependent on the Aqua Augusta, which quenches the thirst of 10,000 sailors, 10,000 more citizens, and almost a quarter of a million other people in the region. There is no other fresh water source available.
When the public fountains suddenly dry up, fresh water fish begin to die, and springs turn back into the earth, Aquarius Attilius puts all his skills and education to use to investigate and resolve the system crisis. He takes on the responsibility for closing the Misenum reservoir's sluice gates, halting the flow of water into the city for rationing. On his way to meet with Pliny the Elder, admiral of the fleet, Attilius learns that the town of Pompeii still has water, giving him a clue as to where the location of the obstruction might be. Pliny sends the engineer and his men by boat to find the problem and make necessary repairs. Although the water system has failed due to seismic activity, and the frequency and severity of the earth tremors have increased, no one has any idea that Vesuvius is about to blow, not even Pliny, with all his knowledge of natural history.
Along with fascinating historic and scientific detail, author Harris doesn't stint on the thrills or the storyline. His version of the last four days of Pompeii includes vivid characters who bring their own share of tension and suspense to the plot, as well as enough corruption, cruelty, intrigue and greed for two novels. The lives of the rich and famous along the Neapolitan coast are portrayed in all their sophistication, extravagance and debauchery. Wealthy, powerful real estate magnate Ampliatus, is a former slave who made a financial killing in the earthquake disaster of 62 CE, buying up all the ruins cheap and rebuilding. It is not to his advantage to see Attilius succeed. His daughter, the lovely Corelia, hates her brutish, controlling dad and looks to Attilius for assistance when a slave is murdered. Pliny the Elder, the Renaissance man of his time, is a fabulous character and his death is a poignant one. Our aquarius protagonist, is the consummate professional, focused on his work and responsibility. Yet, he is also a man of compassion and morality, who can only fathom the possibility of a future with Corelia as the city begins to die beneath their feet. And the mountain, Vesuvius, is a powerful entity to bring to life, which Robert Harris does superbly. The novel's last two days feature Vesuvius, and the details of her eruption are stunning and accurate. There are some flaws in the narrative, the pace slows two-thirds of the way through, but overall, the book makes for a terrific read.
Harris prefaces the novel with the following by author A. Trevor Hodge: "How can we withhold our respect from a water system that, in the first century A.D., supplied the city of Rome with substantially more water than was supplied in 1985 to New York City?"