Read an Excerpt
22 August Two days before the eruption
CONTICINIUM [04:21 hours]
A strong correlation has been found between the magnitude of eruptions and the length of the preceding interval of repose. Almost all very large, historic eruptions have come from volcanoes that have been dormant for centuries. —JACQUES-MARIE BARDINTZEFF, ALEXANDER R. McBIRNEY, VOLCANOLOGY (SECOND EDITION)
They left the aqueduct two hours before dawn, climbing by moonlight into the hills overlooking the port—six men in single file, the engineer leading. He had turfed them out of their beds himself—all stiff limbs and sullen, bleary faces—and now he could hear them complaining about him behind his back, their voices carrying louder than they realized in the warm, still air.
“A fool’s errand,” somebody muttered.
“Boys should stick to their books,” said another.
He lengthened his stride.
Let them prattle, he thought.
Already he could feel the heat of the morning beginning to build, the promise of another day without rain. He was younger than most of his work gang, and shorter than any of them: a compact, muscled figure with cropped brown hair. The shafts of the tools he carried slung across his shoulder—a heavy, bronze-headed axe and a wooden shovel—chafed against his sunburned neck. Still, he forced himself to stretch his bare legs as far as they would reach, mounting swiftly from foothold to foothold, and only when he was high above Misenum, at a place where the track forked, did he set down his burdens and wait for the others to catch up.
He wiped the sweat from his eyes on the sleeve of his tunic. Such shimmering, feverish heavens they had here in the south! Even this close to daybreak, a great hemisphere of stars swept down to the horizon. He could see the horns of Taurus, and the belt and sword of the Hunter; there was Saturn, and also the Bear, and the constellation they called the Vintager, which always rose for Caesar on the twenty-second day of August, following the Festival of Vinalia, and signaled that it was time to harvest the wine. Tomorrow night the moon would be full. He raised his hand to the sky, his blunt-tipped fingers black and sharp against the glittering constellations—spread them, clenched them, spread them again—and for a moment it seemed to him that he was the shadow, the nothing; the light was the substance.
From down in the harbor came the splash of oars as the night watch rowed between the moored triremes. The yellow lanterns of a couple of fishing boats winked across the bay. A dog barked and another answered. And then the voices of the laborers slowly climbing the path beneath him: the harsh local accent of Corax, the overseer—“Look, our new aquarius is waving at the stars!”—and the slaves and the free men, equals, for once, in their resentment if nothing else, panting for breath and sniggering.
The engineer dropped his hand. “At least,” he said, “with such a sky, we have no need of torches.” Suddenly he was vigorous again, stooping to collect his tools, hoisting them back onto his shoulder. “We must keep moving.” He frowned into the darkness. One path would take them westward, skirting the edge of the naval base. The other led north, toward the seaside resort of Baiae. “I think this is where we turn.”
“He thinks,” sneered Corax.
The engineer had decided the previous day that the best way to treat the overseer was to ignore him. Without a word he put his back to the sea and the stars, and began ascending the black mass of the hillside. What was leadership, after all, but the blind choice of one route over another and the confident pretense that the decision was based on reason?
The path here was steeper. He had to scramble up it sideways, sometimes using his free hand to pull himself along, his feet skidding, sending showers of loose stones rattling away in the darkness. People stared at these brown hills, scorched by summer brushfires, and thought they were as dry as deserts, but the engineer knew different. Even so, he felt his earlier assurance beginning to weaken, and he tried to remember how the path had appeared in the glare of yesterday afternoon, when he had first reconnoitered it. The twisting track, barely wide enough for a mule. The swaths of scorched grass. And then, at a place where the ground leveled out, flecks of pale green in the blackness—signs of life that turned out to be shoots of ivy reaching toward a boulder.
After going halfway up an incline and then coming down again, he stopped and turned slowly in a full circle. Either his eyes were getting used to it, or dawn was close now, in which case they were almost out of time. The others had halted behind him. He could hear their heavy breathing. Here was another story for them to take back to Misenum—how their new young aquarius had dragged them from their beds and marched them into the hills in the middle of the night, and all on a fool’s errand. There was a taste of ash in his mouth.
“Are we lost, pretty boy?”
Corax’s mocking voice again.
He made the mistake of rising to the bait: “I’m looking for a rock.”
This time they did not even try to hide their laughter.
“He’s running around like a mouse in a pisspot!”
“I know it’s here somewhere. I marked it with chalk.”
More laughter—and at that he wheeled on them: the squat and broad-shouldered Corax; Becco, the long-nose, who was a plasterer; the chubby one, Musa, whose skill was laying bricks; and the two slaves, Polites and Corvinus. Even their indistinct shapes seemed to mock him. “Laugh. Good. But I promise you this: either we find it before dawn or we shall all be back here tomorrow night. Including you, Gavius Corax. Only next time make sure you’re sober.”
Silence. Then Corax spat and took a half step forward and the engineer braced himself for a fight. They had been building up to this for three days now, ever since he had arrived in Misenum. Not an hour had passed without Corax trying to undermine him in front of the men.
And if we fight, thought the engineer, he will win—it’s five against one—and they will throw my body over the cliff and say I slipped in the darkness. But how will that go down in Rome—if a second aquarius of the Aqua Augusta is lost in less than a fortnight?
For a long instant they faced each other, no more than a pace between them, so close that the engineer could smell the stale wine on the older man’s breath. But then one of the others—it was Becco—gave an excited shout and pointed.
Just visible behind Corax’s shoulder was a rock, marked neatly in its center by a thick white cross.
Attilius was the engineer’s name—Marcus Attilius Primus, to lay it out in full, but plain Attilius would have satisfied him. A practical man, he had never had much time for all these fancy handles his fellow countrymen went in for. (“Lupus,” “Panthera,” “Pulcher”—“Wolf,” “Leopard,” “Beauty”—who in hell did they think they were kidding?) Besides, what name was more honorable in the history of his profession than that of the gens Attilia, aqueduct engineers for four generations? His great-grandfather had been recruited by Marcus Agrippa from the ballista section of Legion XII “Fulminata” and set to work building Rome’s Aqua Julia. His grandfather had planned the Anio Novus. His father had completed the Aqua Claudia, bringing her into the Esquiline Hill over seven miles of arches, and laying her, on the day of her dedication, like a silver carpet at the feet of the emperor. Now he, at twenty-seven, had been sent south to Campania and given command of the Aqua Augusta.
A dynasty built on water!
He squinted into the darkness. Oh, but she was a mighty piece of work, the Augusta—one of the greatest feats of engineering ever accomplished. It was going to be an honor to command her. Somewhere far out there, on the opposite side of the bay, high in the pine-forested mountains of the Apenninus, the aqueduct captured the springs of Serinus and bore the water westward—channeled it along sinuous underground passages, carried it over ravines on top of tiered arcades, forced it across valleys through massive siphons—all the way down to the plains of Campania, then around the far side of Mount Vesuvius, then south to the coast at Neapolis, and finally along the spine of the Misenum peninsula to the dusty naval town, a distance of some sixty miles, with a mean drop along her entire length of just two inches every one hundred yards. She was the longest aqueduct in the world, longer even than the great aqueducts of Rome and far more complex, for whereas her sisters in the north fed one city only, the Augusta’s serpentine conduit—the matrix, as they called it: the motherline—suckled no fewer than nine towns around the Bay of Neapolis: Pompeii first, at the end of a long spur, then Nola, Acerrae, Atella, Neapolis, Puteoli, Cumae, Baiae, and finally Misenum.
And this was the problem, in the engineer’s opinion. She had to do too much. Rome, after all, had more than half a dozen aqueducts: if one failed the others could make up the deficit. But there was no reserve supply down here, especially not in this drought, now dragging into its third month. Wells that had provided water for generations had turned into tubes of dust. Streams had dried up. Riverbeds had become tracks for farmers to drive their beasts along to market. Even the Augusta was showing signs of exhaustion, the level of her enormous reservoir dropping hourly, and it was this that had brought him out onto the hillside in the time before dawn when he ought to have been in bed.
From the leather pouch on his belt Attilius withdrew a small block of polished cedar with a chin rest carved into one side of it. The grain of the wood had been rubbed smooth and bright by the skin of his ancestors. His great-grandfather was said to have been given it as a talisman by Vitruvius, architect to the Divine Augustus, and the old man had maintained that the spirit of Neptune, god of water, lived within it. Attilius had no time for gods. Boys with wings on their feet, women riding dolphins, greybeards hurling bolts of lightning off the tops of mountains in fits of temper—these were stories for children, not men. He placed his faith instead in stones and water, and in the daily miracle that came from mixing two parts of slaked lime to five parts of puteolanum—the local red sand— conjuring up a substance that would set underwater with a consistency harder than rock.
But still—it was a fool who denied the existence of luck, and if this family heirloom could bring him that . . . He ran his finger around its edge. He would try anything once.
He had left his rolls of Vitruvius behind in Rome. Not that it mattered. They had been hammered into him since childhood, as other boys learned their Virgil. He could still recite entire passages by heart.
“These are the growing things to be found which are signs of water: slender rushes, wild willow, alder, chaste berry, ivy, and other things of this sort, which cannot occur on their own without moisture . . .”
“Corax over there,” ordered Attilius. “Corvinus there. Becco, take the pole and mark the place I tell you. You two: keep your eyes open.”
Corax gave him a look as he passed.
“Later,” said Attilius. The overseer stank of resentment almost as strongly as he reeked of wine, but there would be time enough to settle their quarrel when they got back to Misenum. For now they would have to hurry.
A gray gauze had filtered out the stars. The moon had dipped. Fifteen miles to the east, at the midpoint of the bay, the forested pyramid of Mount Vesuvius was becoming visible. The sun would rise behind it.
“This is how to test for water: lie face down, before sunrise, in the places where the search is to be made, and with your chin set on the ground and propped, survey these regions. In this way the line of sight will not wander higher than it should, because the chin will be motionless . . .”