Recently I’ve been going from book to book and not finishing any of them, apart from Pompeii by Richard Harris. If you’ve read my recent posts you’ll maybe understand why I’ve been unable to concentrate on reading, but even if the words have not been making much sense as I read them I find the actual process of picking up a book, turning the pages and reading the words to be therapeutic.
Somehow Pompeii made more sense than any of the other books I looked at these last few weeks. For one thing it’s so easy to read and you know the broad outcome right from the start. Vesuvius erupts destroying the town of Pompeii and killing its inhabitants as they tried to flee the pumice, ash and searing heat and flames.
Part of the book’s appeal to me was because I visited Pompeii and had a trip up to the summit of Vesuvius some years ago and so I could picture the location. It was not only Pompeii that was affected – the whole area stretching from the town of Herculaneum in the north of the Bay down to Stabiae in the south suffered from the eruption.
The summit of Vesuvius, today looks flat from below and climbing to the top reveals the enormous crater as a result of the eruption.
The remains of luxurious villas with their frescoes can still be seen and most poignantly some of the inhabitants perserved by the ash that killed them.
The story begins just two days before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and builds up to a climax. Whilst most people are blissfully unaware of what is about to be unleashed upon them one man – the engineer Marius Attilius Primus realises the danger when the aqueduct Aqua Augusta fails to supply water to the people in the nine towns around the Bay of Naples. Attilius realise that the problem lies somewhere to the north of Pompeii, on the slopes of Vesuvius. The tension mounts as he tries to repair the aqueduct and persuade people of the danger, hindered by the disappearance of Exomnius, his predecessor and the disbelief of the town magistrates. The power behind the town officials is the former slave Ampliatus who made his fortune after the last earthquake had devasted Pompeii. Harris gives vivid descriptions of the luxury of the town – its villas and baths – the corruption of its leaders, the poor living conditions of the general population and savage cruelty shown to the slaves. Ampliatus helps Attilius but only under his own terms – to continue the financial arrangement he had with Exomnius.
Interspersed with the story are details of the ingenuity and skill of the Romans in engineering, and of the nature volcanoes. I’m not technically minded but I found this more than interesting and added to my enjoyment of the book. I particularly liked mixture of fictional and historical characters and the inclusion of Pliny, then the Admiral of the Fleet, as he watched and recorded the progress of the eruption and the account of his death. But my favourite character is the hero of the book, Attilius – incorruptible, resourceful, stubborn, determined and an expert at his job. All in all I found the book brought history to life and I could feel the danger and fear as Vesuvius inevitably destroyed Pompeii.
This is Harris’s description of the horror of the impact of the eruption:
Pompeii became a town of perfectly shaped hollow citizens – huddled together or lonely, their clothes blown off or lifted over their heads, hopelessly grasping for their favourite possession or clutching nothing – vacuums supspended in mid-air at the level of their roofs.
This is the only book I’ve read by Robert Harris, but I would like to read more of his, particularly Imperium, again set in Ancient Rome and following the career of Marcus Cicero. I’d also like to read The Last Days of Pompeii, although I suspect I may not like the melodramatic style of this book by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton written in 1834, but it would be an interesting comparison.