Pompeii by Robert Harris: A review

With the passage of time, history often gives way to legend and legend becomes myth. Thus it is with the story of what happened to Pompeii in 79 C.E. It is so far removed from us that it seems almost a myth. And yet it did happen. Vesuvius exploded and erupted and covered the prosperous cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and, in the process, preserved them so that we can actually see the incredible riches that existed there as well as the casts of the bodies of people and animals that died there during those horrible days of late August. Unlike Atlantis, we can actually walk the streets of Pompeii. It is no myth.

The story of Pompeii has long fascinated me. I well remember the first book I ever read about it, The Last Days of Pompeii by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of "It was a dark and stormy night" fame. I was sixteen years old at the time, a very impressionable time in my life and the book certainly made its mark on me for life. 

More recently, I have also read a couple of other books by Robert Harris, namely Imperium and Conspirata and I enjoyed them so I was eager to read Pompeii.

Harris tells the story of the cataclysm that engulfed Pompeii through the character of the young engineer Marcus Attilius Primus. He had recently been appointed the aquarius in charge of the Aqua Augusta, the enormous aqueduct that carried fresh water to over a million people living in the towns around the Bay of Naples. The former aquarius in charge had disappeared and Attilius arrived in late summer to take over his new responsibilities. Suddenly, those responsibilities began to seem overwhelming when something happened to the Augusta and the dependable supply of water stopped flowing to some of the cities. The problem was on the Augusta's main line somewhere on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and Attilius must organize an expedition to repair it before the reservoir ran dry and Pompeii and all the cities lost their fresh water.

Attilius travels to Pompeii to seek men and materials to help with the repairs and there he finds a corrupt and violent town and officials unconcerned with the fact that some neighboring towns have already lost their water. He does finally get what he needs to repair the aqueduct but he also makes an enemy who will try to destroy him.

Meanwhile, the world of Nature and the aqueduct itself are offering voluminous portents of danger. But only the young engineer and the old admiral Pliny the Elder seem at all concerned by the messages from the earth.

The Roman aqueduct system was one of the wonders of the ancient world and, indeed, it remains a wonder of today's world, and some of the most interesting parts of this book, for me, were descriptions of the aqueduct and its workings and of how Roman engineers went about assuring the integrity of aqueducts and repairing them when problems occurred. The aqueduct and the volcano are really the two main characters in this book. The engineer and Pliny and all the ancillary characters only serve the purpose of exposition. We're not too invested in the fate of most of the characters because we already know their fate. It was sealed by the eruption of Vesuvius nearly 2000 years ago. 

This book, like the other books of Harris' that I have read, was well researched, and he brought the world of the Mediterranean coast of the first century C.E. alive. It was a cruel world indeed if you were a slave and not much better if you were a poor freed man. As for women - well, there were no free women. They were all owned by the men of their families, whether they were rich or poor. 

But rich men? Ah, they had the best that the world had to offer. They lived lives of incredible luxury and privilege, but none of that saved them when the mountain exploded.  Very many of them lost everything right along with the common people on August 24 and 25, 79 C.E.


  1. Pompeii was an international sensation when it was first published in 2003 and the talent of Robert Harris has made him a highly successful albeit controversial writer. I recommend this book as a fine read.

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