Books: Pompeii

I had no particular interest in the history of Pompeii when I picked up this novel, but I had enjoyed most of what I had read by Robert Harris. (I did not care for The Fear Index as well, though it was interesting to learn how a hedge fund operates.) Pompeii turned out to be fascinating, both for the characters and for the details about both aqueduct engineering and the progression of a volcanic eruption.

I had of course heard of Pompeii and how the massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius wiped out the entire city. I had wondered how so many people had let themselves be caught by a flow of lava, but apparently that is not what usually kills victims of volcanic eruptions.

I was also surprised to realize how much warning the inhabitants of Pompeii and the surrounding area had, if they had only recognized the signs. Even once the eruption started, many were able to escape while most of what was falling on them was still just pumice.

But they didn’t know what was going on, or what was coming. So they went on with their lives, lives that Harris brings wonderfully and imaginatively to life. A few are real people from history, such as Pliny the Elder, who I’m sure I learned about in some history course or other, but had little idea who he was or associated him in any way with the history of Pompeii.

I also knew little about the Roman aqueducts, though like any visitor to Segovia I had admired the aqueduct there. I had given little thought to how the water got from wherever it came from to Segovia, or realized that for much of its journey it traveled underground. Our history teacher talked about the excellence and  importance of Roman roads; I don’t remember that he mentioned the impressive engineering that went into their aqueducts.

As with much historical fiction, there is little surprise as to the ending, just a question of which fictional characters will survive the disaster. But the novel is a wonderful page-turner as you see the inevitable coming, viewed through the eyes of Attilius, the aqueduct engineer.


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