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Pompeii

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Overview

All along the Mediterranean coast, the Roman empire’s richest citizens are relaxing in their luxurious villas, enjoying the last days of summer. The world’s largest navy lies peacefully at anchor in Misenum. The tourists are spending their money in the seaside resorts of Baiae, Herculaneum, and Pompeii.

But the carefree lifestyle and gorgeous weather belie an impending cataclysm, and only one man is worried. The young engineer Marcus Attilius Primus has just taken charge of the ...

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Pompeii

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Overview

All along the Mediterranean coast, the Roman empire’s richest citizens are relaxing in their luxurious villas, enjoying the last days of summer. The world’s largest navy lies peacefully at anchor in Misenum. The tourists are spending their money in the seaside resorts of Baiae, Herculaneum, and Pompeii.

But the carefree lifestyle and gorgeous weather belie an impending cataclysm, and only one man is worried. The young engineer Marcus Attilius Primus has just taken charge of the Aqua Augusta, the enormous aqueduct that brings fresh water to a quarter of a million people in nine towns around the Bay of Naples. His predecessor has disappeared. Springs are failing for the first time in generations. And now there is a crisis on the Augusta’s sixty-mile main line—somewhere to the north of Pompeii, on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

Attilius—decent, practical, and incorruptible—promises Pliny, the famous scholar who commands the navy, that he can repair the aqueduct before the reservoir runs dry. His plan is to travel to Pompeii and put together an expedition, then head out to the place where he believes the fault lies. But Pompeii proves to be a corrupt and violent town, and Attilius soon discovers that there are powerful forces at work—both natural and man-made—threatening to destroy him.

With his trademark elegance and intelligence, Robert Harris, bestselling author of Archangel and Fatherland, re-creates a world on the brink of disaster.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
… Harris actually has done a nice job of creating a believable 1st-century atmosphere without losing the 21st-century reader along the way. Obviously he has done scads of research, but the results don't lie heavily on the page. If anything, one comes away from Pompeii with a heightened regard for the engineers of Rome, who devised, built and maintained a water system that most of today's engineers would -- or certainly should -- be proud to claim as their own. — Jonathan Yardley
The New Yorker
Harris’s historical novel begins in August, 79 B.C., two days before the eruption of Vesuvius. The hero is Marcus Attilius Primus, an aqueduct engineer who is investigating a mysterious blockage, apparently related to recent tremors, in the aqueduct that runs from Misenum to Pompeii. In addition to landing this prestigious job—it’s the Empire’s longest aqueduct—he has met a young woman who has the “same darkness of hair” and the “same voluptuousness of figure” as his dear departed first wife. The only problem is her father, a corrupt and powerful millionaire who is stealing from the water supply. Although the plot seems to owe more to “Chinatown” than to Pliny, Harris garnishes the action with seductive period detail, and the novel comes alive in the main event, a cataclysmic explosion with a thermal energy equal to a hundred thousand Hiroshimas.
The New York Times Book Review
...Harris's latest thriller is so cunningly devised that, however unsurprising its denouement is, it still manages to end with a bang. — Daniel Mendelsohn
Publishers Weekly
In this fine historical by British novelist Harris (Archangel; Enigma; Fatherland), an upstanding Roman engineer rushes to repair an aqueduct in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, which, in A.D. 79, is getting ready to blow its top. Young Marcus Attilius Primus becomes the aquarius of the great Aqua Augusta when its former chief engineer disappears after 20 years on the job. When water flow to the coastal town of Misenum is interrupted, Attilius convinces the admiral of the Roman fleet-the scholar Pliny the Elder-to give him a fast ship to Pompeii, where he finds the source of the problem in a burst sluiceway. Lively writing, convincing but economical period details and plenty of intrigue keep the pace quick, as Attilius meets Corelia, the defiant daughter of a vile real estate speculator, who supplies him with documents implicating her father and Attilius's predecessor in a water embezzlement scheme. Attilius has bigger worries, though: a climb up Vesuvius reveals that an eruption is imminent. Before he can warn anyone, he's ambushed by the double-crossing foreman of his team, Corvax, and a furious chase ensues. As the volcano spews hot ash, Attilius fights his way back to Pompeii in an attempt to rescue Corelia. Attilius, while possessed of certain modern attitudes and a respect for empirical observation, is no anachronism. He even sends Corelia back to her cruel father at one point, advising her to accept her fate as a woman. Harris's volcanology is well researched, and the plot, while decidedly secondary to the expertly rendered historic spectacle, keeps this impressive novel moving along toward its exciting finale. (Nov. 18) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In the year 79 C.E., the resort town of Pompeii is home to more than 20,000 people. Rumors of isolated tremors and vaporous gases on the mountain circulate, but the last serious earthquake had occurred some 15 years earlier, residents reason. To boot, rebuilding projects from that disaster are nearing completion. Only one man sees cause for concern: Attilus, newly arrived from Rome to take charge of the massive aqueduct that supplies water to all the towns along the Bay of Naples. Told from his point of view, this latest novel by Harris (Archangel) not only depicts the people of the region and their tragic loss of life but also the immensely powerful forces of nature that shaped their lives and deaths. In spite of the inherent drama in the eruption of Vesuvius, there is a detached and analytical feel to the novel, appropriate to the scientific nature of the protagonist. However, rather than detracting from the novel, Attilus's observations and calculations add to the air of impending and unstoppable disaster. Readers who like their historical fiction well grounded in fact won't be able to put this down. Recommended for larger public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 8/03.]-Jane Baird, Anchorage Municipal Libs., AK Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-With detailed examination of time, place, and circumstance, Harris brings to life first-century Pompeii and its surroundings. Vesuvius, a sleeping giant, towers over the Bay of Naples while the citizenry frets over a drought that is threatening the water supply. Marcus Attilius Primus, the new chief engineer for the huge aqueduct that supplies the area, is summoned by Corelia, beautiful daughter of the powerful and corrupt Ampliatus, to investigate a fish kill in their villa's pool, fed by the aqueduct. Attilius discovers that the bay's water supply is diminishing rapidly and is contaminated with sulfur. Youthful, upright Attilius vows to Pliny, famous scholar and admiral in charge of the huge fleet based there, to repair the damaged aqueduct in two days. Meanwhile, tremors are felt in Pompeii, and the populace fears that the god Vulcan is angry and may send another earthquake, such as occurred 17 years earlier. Attilius is successful, but the air, now filled with a fine gray dust, begins to rain pumice, and Vesuvius unleashes its fury. As the populace flees, he turns back to rescue Corelia, trapped in Pompeii, and the aqueduct he knows so well becomes their salvation. This story of a corrupt, violent society focused on its own pleasure, set against the fascinating history of a familiar catastrophe, makes for a compelling drama.-Molly Connally, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A straight-arrow Imperial Roman hydraulic engineer on assignment in Naples plumbs into the corruption of the waterworks as Vesuvius begins to rumble. How do you breathe life into a 2,000-year-old catastrophe? If you're the thoroughly capable British novelist-journalist-columnist Harris (Archangel, 1999, etc.), you conjure up an unassuming but utterly trustworthy civil engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, have the Emperor send him from Rome to the steamy south to fill the mysteriously vacated shoes of the longtime overseer of the Aqua Augusta, the local water supply, throw him up against embedded proto-Mafia corruption, bring in real-life polymath admiral Pliny the Elder, stir up a pen of man-eating eels, sketch a long-legged lass about to be wed to one of her criminal father's tame politicians, and steam everything in sulfurous vapors of the continent's great sleeping volcano. Although they may be in Imperial drag, Harris's slaves, masters, bureaucrats, and soldiers move through the streets of Pompeii, a pretty little city on the make, like . . . well . . . Italians. And who ever would have thought the ins and outs of an aqueduct would work to knit everything together? Engineering may be geeky to some, but you've got to respect a public work that works, bringing water over arches and through tunnels hundreds of miles from the mountains to greater Naples, where it plashes through fountains and baths. But the water has suddenly stopped west of the Pompeii junction. Did Attilius' predecessor skimp on the maintenance? Hard to say since nobody will talk about him. And just what did nouveau superrich ex-slave Numerius Popidius Ampliatus, proud owner of a garish villa next to Pliny's naval base,have to do with the water supply that feeds his fancy fish farm? And how did he make that fortune in little old Pompeii? And why is the ground steaming? And that wine glass-it's trembling. Fast, fact-filled, and quite fun. A blast, really.
From the Publisher
Acclaim for Robert Harris’s Pompeii, the #1 international bestseller

“Blazingly exciting...Pompeii palpitates with sultry tension....Harris provides an awe-inspiring tour of one of the monumental engineering triumphs on which the Roman empire was based....What makes this novel all but unputdownable...is the bravura fictional flair that crackles through it. Brilliantly evoking the doomed society pursuing its ambitions and schemes in the shadow of a mountain that nobody knew was a volcano, Harris, as Vesuvius explodes, gives full vent to his genius for thrilling narrative. Fast-paced twists and turns alternate with nightmarish slow-motion scenes (desperate figures struggling to wade thigh-deep through slurries of pumice towards what they hope will be safety). Harris’s unleashing of the furnace ferocities of the eruption’s terminal phase turns his book’s closing sequences into pulse-rate-speeding masterpieces of suffocating suspense and searing action. It is hard to imagine a more thoroughgoingly enjoyable thriller.”
London Sunday Times

“Breakneck pace, constant jeopardy and subtle twists of plot...a blazing blockbuster... The depth of the research in the book is staggering.”
Daily Mail

“[A] stirring and absorbing novel...The final 100 pages are terrific, as good as anything Harris has done; and the last, teasing paragraph, done with the lightest of touches, is masterly.”
The Sunday Telegraph

“The long-drawn-out death agony of [Pompeii and Herculaneum]—a full day of falling ash, pumice stone, and then, the final catastrophe, a cloud of poisonous gas—is brilliantly done. Explosive stuff, indeed.”
The Daily Telegraph

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812974614
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/8/2005
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 106,946
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 0.67 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Harris is the author of Enigma, Fatherland, and Archangel. He has been a television correspondent with the BBC and a newspaper columnist for the London Sunday Times. His novels have sold more than six million copies and been translated into thirty languages. He lives in Berkshire, England, with his wife and three children.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

MARS

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 . . .”

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First Chapter

MARS

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 ofhis 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 . . .”

Copyright© 2003 by Robert Harris
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Reading Group Guide

1. 'It struck me that Rome might be a way to write about America' —Robert Harris
Robert Harris had initially set out to write about a utopia gone wrong, set in the future and created by a giant American corporation, he even originally researched the Walt Disney 'empire'. Do you think the Roman Empire is an interesting way to write about a modern day superpower? What are the similarities with current global events?

2. There is a current vogue in film (Gladiator, Troy, Alexander the Great) as well as books for classical themes — why do you think this is? What are the parallels with our society?

3. Harris has referred to 'toga resistance' because so much about the Romans — their habits, assumptions, they way they speak, even their names — can be alienating to a contemporary audience. Do you feel he succeeds in being readable and authentic?

4. The ability to disguise the outcome is held to be a vital part of the thriller writer's art. Pompeii is a 'known-ending story' — how successful do you think the author has been in building tension despite this? Where does the suspense lie? Does he use the reader's foreknowledge to good effect?

5. 'I was interested in power and those who seek power' —Robert Harris
Discuss the theme of power, corruption and greed within the novel — particularly in light of the apocalyptic ending. Also, the forces of nature versus civilisation and town versus countryside.

6. The epigraphs to the chapters are extracts from volcanology texts — what purpose do you think these serve? Do they work, along with the four-day structure, as a narrative device? If so, how?

7. Harris has an accessible but informed style of writing. He spent three years researching Pompeii. Has he convincingly blurred fact with the pace of fiction for you? Are plot twists chosen over nuances of character and does this matter to you?

8. Attilius is an aquarius, the structure of the novel moves from water to fire — discuss the theme of water within the novel.

9. The story of Attilius and his unfulfilled love for Corelia adds a very human dimension to the novel. Do you feel this is an effective subplot?

From the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 106 )
Rating Distribution

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4 Star

(36)

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(22)

2 Star

(8)

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(3)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 107 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2009

    Surprisingly Good

    When I was first assigned this book for my Ancient Civilizations class I was not exactly excited to read it. I actually dreaded it. I am not the type of person to read historical fiction novels just for fun. But when I picked it up I realized about half way through that I was not able to put it down. Overall i loved the book. It did take me a while to get into because the beginning was pretty much just useless information that kept dragging on but when i got about half way into the book things really started to pick up. I even read over weekends which is very unusual for me. The book was filled with totally accurate and very interesting information but on the side it also had a little mystery, action, and even some romance. I really enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone and I'm not just saying that, I'm not a big reader especially a historical fiction reader but in all honesty this is now one of my

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2012

    Fast and enjoyable read!

    This story really kept me interested. I had read true accounts of the disaster and a recent show on volcanoes set me looking for fictional stories based on the story of the ruins. This was an excellent fast read and kept me enthralled until the end.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 17, 2011

    GREAT READ

    I was pleasantly surprised having not known the author or tried a sample. Good story, strong characters and interesting setting.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2005

    This Book Comes Close to Home

    I picked up this book because my family comes from Torre Del Greco, a suburb of Naples, in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. I was fascinated and excited to read, even fictionally, about the country where my family originated. The author's accounts of city structure and life are so wonderful, that for a moment I forgot it was fictional. I was greatly pleased to see that the architecture he describes matches my grandmother's house, down to the shapes of the houses, the cool tiles and the water fountains. Even though we know what happened, it is wonderful to see a new perspective, a more personal view of the events leading up to the disaster.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2004

    a true page turner

    Just recommended that our school library pick up a copy .Yes,the novel is very predictable but who cares we already know the mountain is going to blow. The beauty is that he gets into the culture of the times the food ,mice for lunch bunch,and the physics of a aqueduct and the water chemistry. There are enough villans and saviors to keep one happy . I liked it a lot.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2014

    different

    Recommended as I was going to Italy. I wasn't sure but was pleasantly surprised. The story held my attention and it was interesting to find how many characters actually were alive then. This is both informative and a great story.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2013

    Pompeii is an impressive historical fiction thriller written by

    Pompeii is an impressive historical fiction thriller written by British author Robert Harris. It is set during the Roman Empire in the year 79 A.D. along the Mediterranean coast. The protagonist of the story is Marcus Attilius Primus, the new aquarius (water engineer) for the Agua Augusta, the gigantic aqueduct that supplies fresh water to the many cities surrounding the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius. Drama unfolds as the springs that flow through the Agua begin to fail, affecting the water supply to the region. Attilius is called to assemble an expedition to Pompeii and nearby Mt. Vesuvius to repair the faculty section of the aqueduct. Meanwhile, tremors and rumblings from Vesuvius strike fear of impending disaster in the citizens, who have come to know the wrath of the god Vulcan. Pompeii is a city teeming with crime and corruption, and Attilius encounters a greedy landowner's scheme to divert the public water supply for his own profit. Mass chaos results as the volcano erupts, overwhelming citizens in different stages of evacuation from their homes. Attilius attempts a daring escape through the repaired aqueduct tunnel as Vesuvius unleashes its deadly fury upon Pompeii. Who ultimately survives the catastrophe, and who will perish? The exciting finale will keep readers in suspense until the end. Pompeii is definitely worth reading, because it is exciting as well as educational. Harris uses a combination of fact and fiction that results in a very entertaining novel for fans of both genres. I learned details about ancient Roman culture, and aqueduct engineering that allowed this civilization to prosper. I could also relate to the storyline of corruption and greed vs. good that I see in modern times.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2013

    Robert Harris Book on Pompeii is historical and a good book to r

    Robert Harris Book on Pompeii is historical and a good book to read.
    The book started off with a bang and encouraged me to keep reading on about the aqua Augusta.
    The aqua Augusta is the main source of water for all the eight villages are surviving
    on this water supply. As the engineer Marcus Attilius takes charge of the new aqua Augusta
    it becomes disaster. The aqua Augusta breaks and no one is able to fix it. As the Aqueduct has no water
    it cause the people to struggle due to never having this problem in generations. Now they relie on
    Pliny to fix the aqueduct and fix this crisis. He takes his daughter Corneila to help with recording
    the way through the tunnel.  During his expedition he goes through a lot of life and death 
    situations with drowning and lava.  This book shows bravery and determination to get the job done.
    I'm not  not of a reader but this book is interested me to keep reading on. I encouraging you to order this
    book and give it a try it offers history and knowledge of Pompeii. 

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 16, 2012

    Fun read

    Enjoyed the story line that personalized this event. Will be looking for other books by Harris.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 8, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    The action is fast paced and knowledge of the inevitable catastr

    The action is fast paced and knowledge of the inevitable catastrophe takes nothing away from the drama. However, the amazing scholarship that under lies the plot and characters is what makes this book unique. We are introduced into the Roman engineering marvel of the Aqua Augusta aqueduct, into Roman politics and corruption, and into the lives, homes and culture of those living in this area of wealth and tourism. Attilius, the water engineer or Aquarius, was almost too honest and dedicated to be believable, but was in obvious contract to Ampliatus, the greedy, ruthless power behind the local politicians. I enjoyed meeting Pliny, the former cavalry commander, now Admiral and scientist, and discovering why a high, narrow blast of gas from a volcanic eruption is or was called a “Plinian” You may think you know the story of Pompeii, but the detailed description of the catastrophe through all of its phases and the corresponding impact upon the people along this area of the Mediterranean coast may convince the reader otherwise.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2012

    Not quite enough substance

    I really wanted to like this novel and in certain ways I did but I was left feeling there should have been much more to it. It has a clever plot device in its approach to the subject matter, namely how the pre-eruption activity of Vesuvius affected the aqueducts that serviced the area of Pompeii. The details seem authentic and well-researched. There is even a nice intersection of real history in the person of Pliny the Elder and the major fictional character, the Roman official in charge of the aqueduct. There is nothing wrong with the book, I just wanted more; more depth, more detail and more substance. There was one curious statement at the conclusion about global warming, of all things. Apparently the author is doesn't believe human activity has much to do with it. That out-of-place commentary left a slightly odd aftertaste.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 8, 2012

    Loved it

    Well-written, easy read for someone who's been fascinated with Pompeii since 2nd grade. Compelling story with believable characters.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 21, 2011

    Really enjoyed this

    Was the first book I read on Pompeii after visiting the exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Natural History. This simple story made me want to learn more about Pompeii, Vesuvius, and that period of Roman history in general.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2011

    If you are interested in life in ancient Rome, then this is a must read!

    Harris weaves a wonderful tale while giving you a lasting glimpse into the daily lives of the people living in Rome. I am planning a trip to Italy this spring and cannot wait to see the places mentioned in the awesome easy- to-read book. Well worth the money!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    My 100 Club recommend at work

    As far as page turners go...you do not want to miss this!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 8, 2009

    Enjoyable

    I enjoyed this book overall. The story is very interesting and stimulating during the final chapters, though I thought it had a slow page in the beginning. The major themes - the power of fate, corruption of society, and awareness - were very good and well-developed. The historical accuracy and hint of romance were the parts I liked best. I didn't think I'd be interested in historical fiction until I read this.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 21, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    roman world comes alive

    One of histories greatest natural diasters is put to dramatic effect! Harris obviously did his research, but it never weighs down the story. Great story and attention to detail.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 29, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    good for entering the roman world of pompeii

    the historical accuracy is pretty good (if the final moments were a little far-fetched), and the story moves along at a cracking pace.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2008

    great book

    i read this bood a few years ago and i couldnt put it done. it had detailed historical facts that make the read believe they in pompeii the day the volcano erupted

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2007

    Expected more

    I thought I'd like Pompeii even more. It started in a rather promising way but ended up being a silly story. Not bad but could be a lot better.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 107 Customer Reviews

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