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
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.
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.
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.”
“[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
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 . . .”
From the Hardcover edition.