Pompeii: Robert Harris

★★★½

Attilius is an aquarius: a specialist engineer who constructs and maintains the great aqueducts that feed the Roman Empire. His first significant posting is to Misenum, the great naval base at the tip of the Bay of Naples and the terminus of the immense aqueduct, the Aqua Augusta, which waters the resorts and towns around the bay. Attilius’ predecessor, the aquarius Exomnius, has vanished in mysterious circumstances; but nobody admits to knowing where he’s gone. And anyway Attilius has more pressing matters on his hands: his gang of recalcitrant workmen don’t take him seriously; his foreman Corax does all he can to undermine his authority; and the waters of the Aqua Augusta have begun to fail.

The drought spreads along the aqueduct’s length from town to town around the bay, until the only city where the water remains flowing is Pompeii, the up-and-coming boom town south of Neapolis. Attilius realises that this allows him to pinpoint the location of the blockage: it must be somewhere in the tunnels that run beneath the foothills of Vesuvius, the verdant mountain that towers over Pompeii. Misenum has only two days’ worth of water left in her reservoirs and so, as Attilius and his workmen set off to clear the blockage, they are in a race against time. But time is their enemy in more ways than one. For it is 22 August 79 AD and two days later the Bay of Naples – and Pompeii – will have been changed forever.

Harris accomplishes the impressive feat of taking a story whose conclusion everyone knows and turning it into a breathless adventure. His characters think and speak in a very colloquial, modern way which can sometimes be a risk with historical fiction, but which works extremely well here because of the context. Pompeii in the first century AD is a town on the make: a wheeling, dealing sort of place riven with political squabbles, where powerful big men pull the strings from the shadows and everyone is out to make a quick buck. The language matches the spirit of the people. As the town rises from the ashes after the destructive earthquake of several years ago, the balance of power has shifted from the old families to the new men, with money and business sense, like the former slave Ampliatus who bought ruined houses cheaply after the disaster and has relet them at a profit. For him, the earthquake was a harbringer of freedom, giving him wealth, security and the chance to play at being equal with those who used to be his masters:

It came down from the mountain one morning in February like a wind beneath the earth. I watched it coming, the trees bowing as it passed, and by the time it had finished this town was rubble. It didn’t matter then who had been born a free man and who had been born a slave. The place was empty. You could walk the streets for an hour and meet no one except for the dead.

Ampliatus has done well out of the rebuilding of Pompeii, and even better out of his secret dealings with Exomnius; and the last thing he wants is to have someone like Attilius poking around and asking awkward questions. So the young aquarius might have to go. Harris paints an enthralling picture of Roman life: the web of deals, debts and liaisons which bind together the upper echelons of Pompeiian society; the jostling loyalties to family, local capo and Emperor; and the dizzying gulf between the rich, with their swimming pools, villas and private baths, and the poor, scratching a living in the seedy streets among the brothels and hucksters.

The one dud note, for me, was struck by the sibyl’s prophecy which Ampliatus has purchased as a means of further increasing his public profile. She foresees a bustling future for Pompeii, more than a thousand years in the future, thronged with visitors from every country in the world who come to stare in awe at Pompeii’s theatre and streets and villas. For Ampliatus, this is proof that his city’s star will continue to rise and rise, outlasting even the Empire itself. But we, the readers, know better: we know exactly why all those foreign tourists are swarming around Pompeii and it has nothing to do with the city’s success. And for me this struck too knowing a note: it’s as if Harris is reaching out from the page to nudge his readers, to distract them for a moment from the story, inviting them to share in this little in-joke between author and reader at the expense of the characters. It was clever, but it was clever in a way that drew too much attention to itself.

But that is the only negative comment I have about the story. Everything else was taut and convincing, and there were some very poignant moments: the lady Rectina, for example, stranded at the Villa Calpurnia in Herculaneum, who sends a message begging Pliny (as Admiral of the Fleet at Misenum) to send his ships to save her and her precious library, even as the pumice and ash starts falling from the skies. Pliny himself was a surprisingly moving character: pompous, arrogant and ridiculously fat, knowing only too well that his heart is beating on borrowed time, but still capable of regressing to schoolboy enthusiasm at the sight of this remarkable manifestation of Nature’s powers.

And it truly is remarkable. I’ve read Pompeii: The Living City (but not yet Mary Beard’s book on Pompeii, which I hear is very good) and I’ve seen a few TV programmes about the disaster, but Harris’s description of the various stages of the eruption is the clearest and most vivid I’ve come across so far. He is extremely good at building a sense of imminent disaster despite the fact that (almost) none of his characters have the faintest idea what all the evidence is pointing towards. It’s one of the few books where I’ve found myself raging at the characters: “Turn round! Go back to Misenum! Don’t climb that mountain! Get out while you can!”

Pompeii has found a storyteller worthy of its history in Harris, and at least this means that I no longer feel any compulsion to force myself through The Last Days of Pompeii (though I did wonder whether Harris created the blind slave Tiro as a nod to Bulwer Lytton’s Nydia). No doubt the novel will have a resurgence in popularity next year, in the wake of the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum. I’m certainly going to be first in line for tickets.

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4 thoughts on “Pompeii: Robert Harris

  1. Jean Gobel says:

    Thanks for a great review. Sounds like our modern society, rich with swimming pools, etc. I must add this book to my “to read” list.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you Jean – I'm glad you like the sound of it. I was impressed by Harris: I haven't read anything else by him, but perhaps it's time to experiment and try some of his other books. He's obviously an old pro…

  3. Helen Collier says:

    Hi Just read the book for the book club I attend and came across your blog as I was researlooking for pictures of some of the places mentioned. Thank you for refreshing my memory and pointing out the prediction which I'd missed

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