A tale of fire and water

Recently finished, and hugely enjoyed, Pompeii by Robert Harris.

In a book set in Roman times, about Pompeii, you think you have a shrewd idea what’s going to happen. So it came as a pleasant surprise to find most of the novel is in fact about water. Marcus Attilius is engineer in charge of the aqueduct that feeds water to most of the Bay of Naples region. The water supply unaccountably fails one hot day in August 79AD and he has to find out why.

The reader already has a pretty shrewd idea why, and it’s no great surprise that, yes, the aqueduct has been blocked by earthquake activity near the base of Vesuvius. It’s easily dealt with. But in the process of his enquiries Attilius stumbles across intrigue, fraud and skullduggery that would make quite a decent novel on its own.

Yes, the reader is thinking, all very good but sooner or later that volcano’s gonna blow and press the reset button. Which it does, but in a way that still manages to continue the story so far quite logically. Each chapter starts with a paragraph or two from a modern text on volcanology, so we the readers understand what’s happening even if the Romans don’t, and it’s all quite seamless. One of Attilius’s niggles is what happened to his predecessor, who looms over the novel without ever actually appearing alive. Turns out the guy was a native of Siciliy, from near Etna, and was about the only person in the whole of Campania with an idea of what was about to happen.

And when the volcano does blow, it’s terrifying. You see how the Romans must have felt. First, they had no idea Vesuvius was a volcano at all (the Greek historian Strabo, who had obviously been up there, described the top as a flat plain – no crater like today. You could stand up there with no idea the mountain was hollow). When it blew, around midday, the clouds of ash blotted out the sun and brought a premature night to the land. When the final pyroclastic flows came, burying Herculaneum and Pompeii completely, that really was at night so it would have been twice as dark as before, with visibility through the ash just a few feet. All they would have seen were the faint glows of light tumbling down the sides of the mountain. The first couple of these, from the point of view of the Pompeiians, go from right to left, east to west, and take out Herculaneum. The next just seem to get bigger and bigger, coming right at the town …

You’re on the edge of your seat, I tell you. And what makes this vision of volcanic hell doubly powerful is that Harris has been so good at describing the contrasts. The pre-eruption paradise of hot sun, vineyards, crystal clear water from the aqueduct, and the well-ordered civilisation of the empire that collapses into local chaos.

Another point that struck me – and amused me – was that Attilius reports direct to a guy in Rome who reports direct to the Emperor. A couple of times he is able to play on this fact and bypass all local politics, vested interests etc. The aqueduct itself, the mighty Aqua Augusta, was built by direct order of Augustus. That well known bunch of commies the ancient Romans had absolutely no problem with the idea that a vital resource like water operates under centralised state control. Privatise it? Don’t be ridiculous! They would have laughed.

Okay, we don’t have slaves or gladiators and we know a thing or two about volcanoes now. But it’s just possible we may have lost something too …