The book: Pompeii, by Robert Harris
The edition: Arrow Books paperback, 397 pages
The story: Attilius is the newly-appointed chief engineer of the Aqua Augusta (the aqueduct serving the Naples Bay area) after the previous chief has mysteriously disappeared. He has to confront uncooperative workers and the general corruption, and a few days after his arrival also a sudden failure of the aqueduct, which would result in disaster if not immediately solved (read: riots because people would have no drinking water in the middle of a scorching hot summer). He sets to the task, but this only brings him to the very top of Mt. Vesuvius exactly when it is ready to start the 79 AD eruption.
My experience with the book & my thoughts: I visited the ruins at Pompeii when I was young and I thought I knew quite well how things went. Maybe I was wrong, or maybe the author took a few liberties with historical facts. I kept thinking “that’s not possible”. That said, it is not a bad book: when you don’t expect historical precision from it, it’s a light adventure with a touch of social satire and just a sprinkle of romanticism. Quite good to a point, then a bit overstretched.
The part with spoilers: throughout the book I thought all the main characters would die in the eruption. Then… Attilius is on the crater when the eruption starts, but he escapes with barely a very temporal deafness. Straining my belief, from that moment on he turns into the real one-man-hero, he moves faster than the volcano, saves everyone, rides in a few hours the distance he said would take two days… It was so unbelievable I ended up expecting the perfect happy ending to this story. The final turn, keeping the ending a mystery (or a myth), took me unawares, but I appreciated it.
What I liked: a well-constructed narrative.
What I didn’t like: characters: they’re either black or white, no shades, and you never really root for any of them, you only root against them (I know, you don’t say “root against someone”, but still).
Language & writing: nothing much to say, except that the use of the word “caldarium” instead of “calidarium” got on my nerves. I know the Internet gives them as equivalent, and dictionaries seem to accept “caldarium” as the best form in English, but the author inserts the odd Latin word here and there, and this is one of them. As far as I know, in Latin “caldarium” would be a later form, they would still use the longer form in 79 AD. (I may be wrong, but it still got on my nerves.)
In the author’s own words: sounding very Roman:
Baths were not a luxury. Baths were the foundation of civilization. Baths were what raised even the meanest citizen of Rome above the level of the wealthiest hairy-assed barbarian. Baths instilled the triple disciplines of cleanliness, healthfulness, and strict routine. Was it not to feed the baths that the aqueducts had been invented in the first place? Had not the baths spread the Roman ethos across Europe, Africa, and Asia as effectively as the legions, so that in whatever town in this far-flung empire a man might find himself, he could at least be sure of finding this one precious piece of home?
Links to better understand this book:
- Geology of Mt. Vesuvius
- Extracts from Pliny’s descriptions of the eruption
- Virtual tour of Pompeii (commented)
Random thought: 79 AD was mentioned in one of the last books I read before this, and I struggled to understand.
Read this if: if you like movies such as Armageddon, this is the book for you
Counts as: Italy in Books Challenge #5; One! Two! Theme! Challenge – Geology/Vulcanology #1