on 12 January 2004
This book, although not complicated or amazingly original plotwise, is utterly enthralling and i challenge anyone to be able to put it down for too long.
You cant help but like Marcus Attilius or get involved with his struggle to prove himself to the might of the Roman Empire as the new Aquarius, overseer of the aqueduct providing Campania with its much needed water supply.
Through his obvious enthusiasm and research into the topic Harris gets across with ease the sense of self importance and indestructibility that the Romans felt at this period in their history, in the decades before the fall of the empire.
Some of the characters are fictional but others such as Pliny the Elder (author of 37 volumes entitled Natural History) were actually in the city at the time of its destruction and some of the events and dialogue described in the book are well documented by his nephew (also featured) who survived to tell the tale.
Harris fuses fact and fiction into a tale that remorselessly picks up pace from the idyllic surroundings of Pompeii at the height of Roman civilisation to the humbling and ruin of the city by one of natures greatest forces. I forsee a Hollywood blockbuster coming before long.
on 14 September 2003
Read this book if you wish to be transported back to the week of Vesuvius erupting and to witness it all from the eyes of the engineer responsible for the fresh water supply to the Bay of Naples. This is a very difficult book to put down, and can cause sleep deprivation in the suceptible. Harris captures the culture, customs and corruption of the time, and also shows just how advanced the Romans were as builders and engineers. The descriptions of people, places and events are excellent.He manages to build the tension in the plot in parallel to the pressure in the vulcano.
Probably the best novel I have read this year.
on 1 August 2004
An Aquarius (aqueduct engineer) mysteriously goes missing so a new one has to be appointed. The water stops flowing down the Aqua Augusta. The new Aquarius must find the source of the problem quickly because there's a drought and several towns along the bay of Naples are entirely dependent on the aqueduct for their water. He persuades the Admiral, Pliney (the elder), whose fleet is docked at Misenum, to provide him with a swift craft to take him to Pompeii where he can follow the aqueduct back from its source until he finds the damaged or blocked section. He should be able to spot it easily enough but speed is of the essence. Unfortunately, he has to contend with his hostile, resentful and unco-operative foreman who has reason to fear what the Aquarius might discover, other than the problem in the sluiceway. At the town of Pompeii he finds corruption is rife and when he refuses to be bought, he becomes the target of murderous intent. The most wicked player of the lot has a good and strong willed daughter however and she decides to risk all to help the engineer. Meanwhile, underfoot and all around are signs that none of this really matters. If they could only recognise the signs, they would know that the volcanic mountain, Vesuvius, is waking up and soon nothing else will matter. There have been plenty of indicators besides the fact that the water has ceased to flow: the dead fish, the bitter taste of the water, the stink of sulphur, the spring flowing backwards, the vibration Pliney noticed in his glass of wine, the earth tremors. These people don't seem to understand that the mountain is a volcano - not until it's too late ...
The book is abridged for the audiobook and I know that can sometimes make a story difficult to follow but this book seems to have come through the process quite well. I never felt the need to wind back to previous sections to search for missing threads. The reader is Alex Jennings and he did an excellent job. Now that I've listened to several audiobooks, I know that there are some very good readers who can create atmosphere and change their voices and accents to suit the personality of each character. Alex Jennings compares very favourably with the best of them.
I thoroughly enjoyed this audiobook and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys the luxury of listening to a storyteller.
I could have written a one sentence review of "Pompeii" such as "Nothing much happens and then a volcano goes off", but that would be cruel and ignore the many positive and absorbing aspects of this novel.Nearly everyone has heard the story of the destruction of Pompeii by Vesuvius from their schooldays or, more likely, from Frankie Howard films and how the decadent ,corrupt Roman town was wiped out by a volcanic eruption that dwarfed the Hiroshima explosion.
Harris conveys the Shock and Awe of the inhabitants of the Bay of Naples very well in this well researched piece of "faction" as Pompeii and its environs are bombarded by ash,rock and flame in the finale (and yes, there is no surprise twist in the tale -the volcano does go off) and this is one of the plus points of "Pompeii". But what I enjoyed most about the book was the description of and the detail surrounding the Roman aqueducts and in particular the failure of the Aqua Augusta which served the Bay of Naples area and the repair of which constitutes the main storyline of "Pompeii". Ah, the storyline. This is the main weakness of the novel in that it barely exists for three-quarters of it. The main character , the stoic Attilius, is the head aquarius who identifies,investigates and sorts out a water supply problem and this is essentially all that happens plot wise. Well apart from a rather unconvincing love story and a minor civic corruption sub-plot. "Pompeii" is ,in the main,an imaginative re-creation of life 1900 years ago; a detailed ,convincing description of Roman society in its imperial heyday. Harris's research is impressive and fact and fiction are interwoven expertly. But nothing much happens and you already know the ending before you even start the book. I fail to see why so many critics have raved about this book. It is certainly well written and well imagined , but the characters are a little one-dimensional and at times the "factual" overwhelms the "fictional" to the detriment of the novel. Definitely not in the same league as "Fatherland" or "Archangel" which were much more exciting.
on 10 October 2003
I am a great "fan" of the genre, especially when it involves Roman antiquity. So when Robert Harris, whose "Fatherland" most definitely features in my book top ten, wrote a novel situated in ancient Rome, I could hardly wait.
First, his plot is highly original yet also the variant of a proven theme. Just before the eruption of the Vesuvius, a young engineer is sent to Pompeii to repair the city's aquaduct. He encounters a young girl, the famous scholar Pliny the Elder and a lot of corruption and decadence. And when the vulcano erupts, he tries to save the girl. Problem, though, with Robert Harris is that you don't know beforehand how it will end.
His scholarship is also astounding. This story sets in a completely different era than all Harris' other books, so I have to admit, I was really curious about that. He certainly used Pliny the Younger's letters in the process. Which was great fun for me, since I had to translate them in high school.
But above all, this book has the Harris' touch. It grabs you and just does not let you go.
on 27 October 2009
Having read several of Robert Harris's earlier books, Pompeii is a disapointment. Whilst Fatherland and especially Enigma (his best book to date by far, I think) abounded with spiky, unusual characters, the ones here are tepid. The Aquarius, hero of the book, is a nice chap but lacking in any of the nuances and weaknesses that made his earlier protagonists Xavier March (an intelligent, humane SS officer) and Tom Jericho (a flawed mathematical genius) so lifelike. Other Pompeii characters are even more brittle, so one-dimensional that you care little for their fates.
As ever with Harris, the writing is competent, clean and straightforward, the research rings true and a couple of the scenes are riveting (a slave is fed to eels for an alleged mistake, and the initial eruption viewed from afar is particularly well captured). Some of the dissolute behaviour of the Roman Aristocracy is superbly coloured. It's a perfectly acceptable read. But there's no Enigma.
As a couple of other reviewers have noticed, the hint is in the suspiciously large font size and the wide margins! Actually, this is a pretty thin novel in more ways than one.
on 26 September 2006
I have read several of Robert Harris's books, and one thing that goes heavily in his credit in consistency. He always produces a good book, and 'Pompeii' is no exception.
Although this a 'Roman' book, whereas all his previous ones were 'WW2' books, his skill developed in his earlier works, most notably the lightning pace of 'Fatherland' and the splendid merger of fact and fiction in 'Enigma', is definitely present in 'Pompeii'.
The way he describes the Roman towns, the pomp, glory, corruption and cruelty, make you feel as if you are actually there. The central character, Marcus Attilius, is one that you can actually empathise with, and as Vesuvius erupts, you are glued to the page, your breath literally taken away by the force and quality of Harris's narrative.
One of the best books I have read in years. Again, Mr Harris, you deliver the goods!
on 18 May 2004
I haven't read any other books by Robert Harris but have every intention of doing so after reading this book.
There were many aspects of this book which I adored to see because they fit in perfectly with how I envisaged Roman culture to be and I should, hopefully, have a good impression of this being a student of Ancient History.
First - The corruption of various public figures in Pompeii is very accurate and was a huge problem during the Imperial age of Rome.
Second - The death of Pliny, this was lifted straight from the works of Pliny the Younger and so is as accurate a description of the death of Pliny as you will get. The tension and fear were so well described that there were moments when my breath was short because of all the ash.
Third - The instance of a slave being thrown to some eels is also a well known anecdote from the period, some masters were so cruel to their slaves that they would do this. Likewise some were very beneficient and even left large sums of money and freedom to their slaves in their wills.
Fourth - the sense of duty the hero felt to get the aquaduct working again. This idea of working for the public good is one that is not highlighted much when looking at the Romans but it is something that their Empire was pretty much founded on and so was a integral part of their culture. Of course no everyone was like this, probably a minority but it is by no means far fetched.
There was of course a feeling of inevitability to this story but it is a wonderfully written book and as historically accurate as historical fiction gets. I think it gives a very good impression of what life was like at the time, of the dangers and of the perks. I for one would not be dissapointed if Robert Harris explored more of the period.
on 28 July 2005
I once met a chap on holiday who told me of a not so bright workmate who upon hearing of his visit to see the film 'The Titanic' said "Dont tell me what happens in the end-I want to watch it for myself!"
My point? As is the case with James Cameron's cinematic opus Robert Harris' Fiction-written-around-fact novel about Pompeii is none the less entertaining for the reader being furnished with the knowledge that Vesuvius is doomed to erupt and claim thousands of lives in the Bay of Naples area.
Harris begins his book 4 days pre-eruption which takes place on 24th August AD 79. Each chapter begins with a scientific footnote of the tectonic and geochemical harbingers of an imminent volcanic eruption such as sulphur polluting local water supplies, and then these phenomena are delicately weaved into the narrative of the story of unsuspecting citizens of Pompeii.
The main character is Attlius an Aquarius in charge of the great aqueduct that serves the Bay of Naples area. He sees first hand the problems caused by the geological anomalies that herald the impending disaster, In this respect the book, in parts, reads like a detective novel as Attilius seeks to get to the root of the causes of collapsing pipes and contaminated water.
Attlius' nemesis is a slave turned emperor, Ampliatus whose nouveau-riche wealth and cruelty act as a counterpoint to the Aquarius' attempts to solve the local water crisis. Ampliatus' daughter adds to the heady mixture as a burgeoning love interest for Attilius.
Having recently visited the Bay of Naples and the archeological site of Pompeii this serves to highlight Harris' almost forensic attention to historical fact.
Refrences to the architecture, the lifestyle and the history are all precise. As an example, Pliny, the Roman scholar is known to have died at Pompeii but rather than from ash inhalation like virtually all other citizens he died as the result of a heart attack.
Pliny's character is introduced early in the book and references to his exacerbations of breathlessness and often drinking red wine for 'his weak heart' are weaved into the story right from the off-such is the author's attention to detail.
All facets of Roman life are celebrated the scientific brilliance, the military superiority and, of course the debauchery and opulence. One chapter thet describes in detail the gastronomic excesses of an ostentacious banquet hosted by Ampliatus is scripted so descriptively that I swear it brought on an attack of dyspepsia!
An absolutely spectacular work as educational as it is entertaining and knowledge of the denoument will not make you blow your top!
on 17 August 2011
As always, Robert Harris does his research well. This book gives one a feel of the wealth and decadence of Pompeii before it was devastated. He gives a good account too of the Aqua Augusta - that masterpiece of Roman engineering that conveyed fresh water to Pompeii and the surrounding towns. His research into volcanoes is impressive. Each chapter is preceded by a helpful note from a modern source explaining the dynamics of volcanic explosion. He comes up with some interesting figures - apparently the eruption of Vesuvius unleashed 100,000 times the energy released by the Atom bomb that fell on Hiroshima. All in all, there is plenty of scholarship to enjoy in this book. Unfortunately the four main characters are weak. Attilius the engineer is a good clean-living Roman boy who turns down bribes and falls in love with the adolescent Corelia. Corelia is memorable chiefly for keeping a goldfinch and pretending to be ill when she doesn't want to do something. Ampliatus, the villain is a slave turned millionaire. He is the epitome of the predictable pantomime villain. In the opening scenes he feeds one of his slaves to giant eels after blaming him falsely for something he hasn't done. Later on he serves his dinner guests with a meal so revolting it almost defies description and makes them all eat it. Pliny the fourth character is the historical Pliny who wrote extensively on natural sciences. To be fair, he is a good strong character but there isn't really enough of him - not for me anyway. In summary, this is well worth reading for the historical content but the plot itself is rather light-weight and forgettable. The real heroes of the book are Vesuvius and the Aqua Augusta.