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Review of Pompeii by Robert Harris

Robert Harris's harrowing novel Pompeii illustrates why historical fiction can often inspire readers with more wonder than a nonfiction work does. The novel by the U.K.-based author is eloquent, compelling and well researched. I learned more about ancient Rome from it than I would have from any nonfiction work.

Pompeii tells the story of Marcus Attilius Primus, the aquarius -- the name in first century A.D. Rome for a hydraulic engineer -- of the Aqua Augusta, an aqueduct that serves about a dozen towns in the Bay of Naples region of southeastern Italy, including the doomed Pompeii. Attilius is efficient, incorruptible and stoic, but he risks his life to save a woman he has unexpectedly fallen in love with.

Already concerned about the water, Attilius is summoned by the young, wealthy Corelia. The water has apparently killed her father's prized fish. Corelia's father, a former slave and land speculator Numerius Popidius Ampliatus, came to his fortune after he rebuilt Pompeii from an earthquake decades prior. A cruel, decadent man, Ampliatus feeds the slave he deems responsible for the prized fish's death to eels for his own amusement.

Attilius realizes that sulfur has poisoned the water. And then the flow of water stops entirely, sending Attilius on a mission to find out what's happening. He suspects something more is an play that an engineering problem. And it all points to Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano looming over Pompeii.

Though readers learn about the disaster that engulfed the famed Roman town in 79 AD, the compelling book has more to offer than lessons on history and ancient technology. Pompeii is a pointed critique of stoicism. It's a timely concern for 2023, as stoicism is experiencing an unexpected bit of popularity in the years following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The work evokes the sweaty corruption of Roman Pompeii. Attilius becomes embroiled in a plot by Ampliatus to offer a cheap water to Pompeii. Along the way, the engineer meets Pliny the Elder, the famed philosopher. Harris paints him as eccentric yet brilliant and dedicated to his natural philosophy. Indeed, Pliny acts as the counterpoint to Attilius, who overthrows philosophy for the love of Corelia.

I read the work as part of a recent visit to the ruins of Pompeii. The novel put flesh on the bones of the ancient city. Harris depicts the famed seaside town as the ancient equivalent of Las Vegas, Amsterdam and Chicago with its popular entertainment, brothels and brutal materialism.

Harris researched Pompeii generously, including ancient technology and volcanoes. In the acknowledgements section, he cites at least 40 works for inspiration. Rather than turning out a didactic work, the research produced a great story.

Pompeii is among the best novels I have read over the last couple years. Indeed, Harris is a great discovery. I have also read Imperium, the first novel in a trilogy about the famed Roman orator Cicero.

And I hope to visit Pompeii again, keeping a wary eye on the volcano looming over the town. Though the Romans have long departed Pompeii, the swirl of humanity keeps going in Pompeii and beyond.

Posted by
939 posts

I am always on the lookout for good historical fiction. It's now on my "List" on Amazon and ThirftBooks if I can add another to get free shipping.

Can you recommend an equally good historical fiction about Napoleon?

Posted by
512 posts

Lindy: Thank you for your reply.

Unfortunately, I do not know a good work of historical fiction on Napoleon, but you've piqued my interest. He would be a great focus for a novel. Maybe someone else will suggest something.

Posted by
3334 posts

I just finished reading Pompeii on Kindle, and enjoyed it very much. I know that Allan is also a fan of this excellent novel.

I have recommended Yale's free online Roman Architecture course many times on this forum. And I will do so again. I think you would really enjoy the sessions about Pompeii and other Vesuvius sites.