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by Robert Harris
Hutchinson, September 2003
342 pages
17.99 GBP
ISBN: 0091779251

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada


The great volcanic eruption that buried the cities of Pompeii  and Herculaneum took place over 2 days in August, AD 79. This book takes place over 4 days, encompassing the 2 days before as well as the 2 days of the explosion.

Marcus Attilus Primus, a 4th generation aqueduct engineer has been sent to Rome to take care of the Aqua Augusta, a 60 mile long construction that brought water to 9 towns in the south of Italy. It went from the Bay of Naples, curving behind Mt. Vesuvius, and ending up many miles inland. The old engineer had disappeared and since water was a great source of income for Rome, a new engineer had been sent out.

There has been a drought this summer. No rain for 78 days. And Attilus must keep the water running. The water smells of sulfur, and the Augusta seems to be drying up. Water pressure is dropping. Attilus, the aquarius, decided to travel along the line of the aqueduct to find water.

Water stops flowing along the line of the Augusta. No place except Pompeii has water, so Attilus goes to Pliny the elder, Admiral at Miscenium, and asks for a ship to take him to Pompeii so he can find what has caused the water to stop flowing everywhere except in Pompeii.

POMPEII is an old story. We all know what happened, but Harris has given the story another twist. He has made the aqueduct and the Roman skill in engineering, the focus of the story. We know that Vesuvius will destroy Pompeii and that Pliny, in his search for knowledge, will die in the eruption, and we know that hundreds of years later, the city and its people will be found and immortalized, as the sibyl predicted.

Harris has made the aqueduct one of the characters of this novel and by doing so has placed an element of mystery into the story. Attilus and his men have to find the blockage and by using one of the Roman's greatest discoveries, hydraulic concrete (concrete that hardens under water) repair the Aqua Augusta and make the water flow again. He also describes the 2 days of the eruption in such detail that you feel you are there.

Reviewed by Barbara Franchi, October 2003

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