Book: Pompeii by Robert Harris

Interesting historical novel about Roman life and engineering

Robert Harris
Random House, 2003
ISBN: 0-345-47567-4
346 pages

Pompeii is the story of Marcus Attilius Primus, a Roman aqueduct engineer, who has just been put in charge of the Augusta, the aqueduct which runs from the central Italian mountains, past Vesuvius, and ends in the town of Misenum. The timing of his appointment isn't great. Shortly after he arrives, the aqueduct's flow is interrupted and he and his crew must rush to fix it before the thousands of people in the towns that it serves start to go thirsty. Not surprisingly, the blockage is related to the coming eruption of Vesuvius.

There's a love-interest, a bit of a mystery (the previous engineer in charge is missing), and some corruption, but they're not really what the book is about. The book is really about engineering and science. Attilius has a troubleshooting and repair job to do and we're with him as he manages the project. Along the way, we meet Pliny (the elder) who's the admiral of the Roman fleet at Misenum and a keen observer of the natural world. Naturally, the eruption of a volcano is irresistibly fascinating to him.

The book's narration adds to the feeling that it's about engineering. Attillius isn't the narrator, but the narrator sounds like an engineer. It's in the plain style and even tone that a geek like me might use for an explanation. And that leads to another thing that the book does, which is to make the Roman Empire of 79 C.E. seem pretty normal. Mr Harris doesn't take that to an extreme. He makes the point early on in the book that some things then were very different when a rich man casually puts a slave to death. But mostly the characters come off as people you might run into anywhere.

There's not all that much excitement in the book even in the midst of the volcano's eruption. Or rather, the excitement in the book isn't quite of the conventional kind. Atillius's cleverness while he's planning and troubleshooting and Pliny's excitement at observing and recording a remarkable natural manifestation are splendidly exciting in a somewhat geeky way. If you think you might enjoy that, you'll probably like the book. I did.

Posted: Sun - February 13, 2005 at 07:01   Main   Category: