Skeletons in the prop closet
The last day
Rome's arena of death
P. G. Guzzo, editor
TALES FROM AN ERUPTION
Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis
Translated by J. Wallace-Hadrill
207pp. Electa. 25 euros.
88 370 2363 4
The chief attraction of the ruins of Pompeii has always been the bodies. There are other places in the Roman world where you can step back in time and walk through an ancient city. Rome's port of Ostia is almost as well preserved as the sites destroyed by Vesuvius; in Rome itself, the Markets of Trajan, next to his column, still give the visitor the authentic experience of stepping into an ancient multi-storey shopping-mall cum office-block. What Pompeii has to offer is corpses: more than a thousand of them - skeletons or, even better, the famous casts which (thanks to an ingenious technique of injecting plaster into the cavities left in the solid volcanic debris) can capture the bodily shape, the clothes, even the facial expressions of the long-decomposed victims of the eruption. These, far more powerfully
than the crumbling streets and peeling wall-painting, have inspired the novels, poetry, paintings, operas and movies of "the Last Days of Pompeii". Their death agonies, their brave and futile attempts at escape, their seemingly tender last embraces frozen in plaster, have launched countless stories. It is a thriving industry powered by ghoulish curiosity, occasionally dressed up with some wistful reflections on the transience of human existence.
So it has been since the city was first excavated. In the eighteenth century, skeletons were artfully posed around the excavations to impress visiting dignitaries and, according to Mrs Piozzi, light-fingered travellers helped themselves to smaller bones as a piquant souvenir. The nineteenth century saw not only the bestseller of Bulwer-Lytton (and there have been at least a dozen "Last Days" novels in English alone between him and Robert Harris), but also the obsessional novella of Théophile Gautier, Arria Marcella. This featured a young Frenchman transported to a love affair in AD 79, after becoming infatuated with the imprint of a woman's breast set in the lava, which had been discovered in the so-called Villa of Diomedes, then hacked out and put on display in the Naples Museum. "To think", sighed the young man as he gazed fixedly at the object in the museum cabinet, "that the form of a breast has survived the centuries when so many lost empires have left not a trace." He spoke too soon. When in the 1950s Amadeo Maiuri, then Director of Pompeian excavations, tried to search out this notorious imprint, he discovered that it too had vanished. The most charitable, if somewhat implausible, explanation was that it had been exposed to so many different and corrosive chemical tests that it had disintegrated.
When no bodies were discovered, they could always be invented. One of the favourite myths of Pompeii's destruction is the story of the sentry, whose remains were supposedly found in a guardbox outside one of the town gates, where he had died on duty without deserting his post; or "Faithful unto Death", as Edward Poynter's painting of this noble scene is dubbed. The unlikely tale tickled the imagination of Mark Twain, who wrote in The Innocents Abroad of the soldier who "stood to his post by the city gate, erect and unflinching, till the hell that raged around him burned out the dauntless spirit it could not conquer", before going on to reflect, characteristically, that if the soldier had been a policeman he would probably have been asleep anyway. In fact, as Eric M. Moorman explains in a fascinating essay in Tales from an Eruption (a collection published to accompany a major exhibition of Pompeian material recently transferred from Naples to the Musées Royaux in Brussels), the story is a complete touristic fantasy: the guardbox is nothing other than a semi-circular funeral monument, the shape of which may have caused the confusion; no bones were ever found there at all, and certainly no hand still clutching its spear.
The BBC documentary Pompeii: The last day is very much part of this tradition; a predictable combination of ancient history lesson, time travel and snuff movie. It focuses on a selection of the more memorable corpses (a man found crouching with his money bags, the thirteen people - including a pregnant girl - holed up in the House of Julius Polybius, the jewelled lady who died in the gladiators' barracks) and recreates their last hours in drama-doc style. The fictionalizing narrative interweaves their stories, with a good deal of creative imagination and some adultery thrown in. Inevitably, though his bones have never been found, the Elder Pliny - prolific Roman polymath, admiral of the fleet nearby and the most famous victim of the eruption - also takes a prominent role; he is played by a far too nimble but otherwise convincing Tim Piggott-Smith (Pliny, according to his nephew, was overweight and wheezy). The history lessons, about slaves, the Roman laundry industry and the finer points of ancient vulcanology, are delivered by a voice-over, who also gives a running commentary on the progress - or lack of it - of the unfortunate characters on screen. This is sometimes uncomfort-ably at odds with what we are witnessing. "The deepening crisis forces everyone to re-evaluate their position" is an observation more appropriate to a sudden run on the banks, than to a panicking population facing certain death under a rain of pumice, noxious fumes and pyroclastic flows.
The fictionalizing treatment works well up to a point. The combination of Ealing Studios and a film set Roman city near Hammamet in Tunisia has produced a plausible enough version of ancient Pompeii. And in the documentary itself - unlike in the lavishly produced book by Paul Wilkinson which accompanies it - there are almost no straightforward errors (though I was not convinced that, when the Younger Pliny wrote of his uncle "being carried to the bath", he meant the Victorian tub we see in this programme).
But is it history? The problem is that we know much less about Pompeii and the eruption than the usual narrative tends to suggest. Despite the carefully drawn parallels with modern volcanic activity and the minute analysis of the different layers of debris, there is almost no evidence whatsoever for the precision timing of events that we are offered here ("6.50 am" flashes up on the screen at one point, pinning down the moment of another disastrous development with entirely spurious accuracy). The skeletons themselves, many of which were carelessly excavated and some so dismembered that it is now impossible to tell which skull fits with which femur or ribcage, provide much less clear evidence for the population of the city than the programme implies. Recent attempts at DNA analysis have given no miracle answers.
Even the most basic information about the disaster is flimsier than we often care to remember. The main source, on which almost all reconstructions depend, is the eyewitness account of the eruption by the Younger Pliny, who made the wise decision to stay behind at the naval base and catch up with his homework, rather than join his uncle for a closer look at the eruption. Pliny's story is detailed and atmospheric. But it is written, in a couple of artfully composed letters to the historian Tacitus, some twenty-five years after the event, and the heroism of the whole Pliny family lost nothing in the telling ("I could boast that not a groan or a cry of fear escaped me in these perils . . ."). From these letters it is almost certain that the eruption started on August 24, but a few scholars have suspected a corrupt manuscript reading and suggested that November is a more plausible date. If so, the layers of woollies that many of the corpses are wearing would not be a defence against the falling pumice, but simply a protection against the chilly winter weather. Pliny does not, however, mention the year of the eruption. For the date of AD 79 we must turn to an eleventh-century epitome of the third-century historian Dio Cassius (plus some notoriously unreliable late chronographers). Dio may well be correct in his dating; but this single "fact" must be cherry-picked out of his long account of the eruption that is seriously wrong in many other respects. There is, for example, no evidence at all to suggest that Pompeii was overwhelmed, as he claims, "while its people were sitting in the theatre".
Similar uncertainties surround the individual houses in the city and their occupants. The documentary gives pride of place to the fate of Gaius Julius Polybius, supposedly an ambitious local bigwig of slave origin, and his family - including his wife, pregnant daughter and son-in-law (whom we see pre-empting death with a speedy draught of poison). Their skeletons were all found together in the "House of Julius Polybius", hence the identification of the remains of an elderly man as those of Julius Polybius himself. But where does that title come from? How do we know that the house was in fact owned by someone of that name? It is no more than a guess, based largely on the fact that the façade of the property still carries painted slogans urging the election to office of a "Gaius Julius Polybius". If that guess is correct, then we have to assume (as Wilkinson does in his book) that the signet ring marked "Gaius Julius Philippus", found in one of the clothes cabinets in the house, was left behind by some absent-minded visiting relative. Others, needless to say, have identified this Philippus as the proprietor. As for the skeletons themselves, there is almost nothing to indicate their family relationship beyond the fact that two of them, including the pregnant girl, suffered from a form of spina bifida (symptomless spina bifida occulta ). The idea of her husband's suicide stems solely from the fact that one of the young men carries a small glass in his hand. The fragility of all this evidence, the series of tenuous conjectures on which the whole reconstruction is based, is entirely concealed in the breezy style of Pompeii: The last day. A much clearer account of what we do and do not know, which still manages to be exciting, can be found in Tales from an Eruption.
The awkward line between fantasy, romance and fact is nowhere better seen than in the story of the rich woman's skeleton in the gladiators' barracks. This is another Pompeian myth. Even sober academic studies have relished the idea that this corpse offers vivid confirmation of all those Roman stories about senators' wives falling for the sexy anti-heroes of the arena, the ancient version of rough trade. Here was one caught in the act, trapped for eternity in every adulterer's nightmare - the wrong place, at the wrong time. Sadly perhaps, it is a more innocent story than that. It is true that a heavily jewelled female skeleton was found in a small room in the barracks; but she was there with at least eighteen others, some of them children, plus a variety of bric-à-brac, chests with fine cloth, and so forth. As Tales from an Eruption explains, this was no adulterous tryst; it is much more likely that a group of people fleeing with their prize possessions had taken shelter in the gladiators' quarters as a convenient refuge when the going got too rough.
Pompeii: The last day resists the romantic myth for some time. The woman is presented as the wife of a leading Pompeian laundry-man, who is forced to flee on her own when her husband (enjoying himself in a cheap hotel with a favourite slave girl) fails to return to rescue her. As she makes her way out of town, her strength runs out at the gladiatorial barracks.But here the programme-makers' resistance runs out, too. There is no sign on the screen of the other eighteen people: just a single gladiator, dying quietly from a nasty blow from a falling rock, and his colleague Celadus, "the heart-throb of the girls", as one (real) Pompeian graffito puts it. Well before the end of the programme, Celadus and the laundry-man's wife are locked in an amorous embrace. In the closing sequences, we flash between the lovers' clinch as the volcanic debris rains down and the gruesome picture of a pair of similarly entwined skeletons. The obvious assumption is that these skeletons are the very ones found in the barracks and brought to life by the actors on film. In fact, the barracks were excavated in the 1770s; the skeletons have long since been lost, boxed up or dismembered. Those we see are a complete mock-up. This is no different, better or worse than the skeletons arranged in touching poses to impress the visiting eighteenth- century milords - but it is not exactly the "history" that it claims to be.
Gladiators are the subject of the companion docum entary, Colosseum: Rome's arena of death. This follows the fortunes of a Roman slave from the province of Moesia (on the Danube) who escapes from a life of hell in the quarries by becoming a gladiator. After a series of bouts on the local circuit and a glimpse of the high life at Rome, where he provides murderous after-dinner entertainment at aristocratic parties, he ends up as one of the stars of the opening games at the Colosseum in AD 80. Here, in a scene directly derived from an epigram by the poet Martial celebrating that occasion, he scores an honourable draw with his oldest gladiatorial friend, and both are given their freedom by the presiding Emperor Titus. None of this quite succeeds in escaping the shadow of Ridley Scott, despite some desperate and occasionally irritating bids for authenticity. Most irritating of all, while the commentary itself is delivered in plain English, the actors on screen mumble away, half audibly, in Beginner's Latin. Besides, the programme-makers' desire for accuracy does not seem to have extended to the set. The Colosseum scenes themselves are good enough, with their now familiar panoply of computer graphics. But the gladiators' burial ground (where our hero lays a colleague to rest, to remind us that this really was a life and death business) bears an inappropriate resemblance to an English country churchyard. And, for some reason, the interior of the imperial palace in Rome, where Titus and Vespasian are to be found gloating over a large model of their proposed amphitheatre, is decorated with magnified images from the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii.
Colosseum : Rome's arena of death trades on the hypocrisy that underlies most modern fascination with the Roman arena. It prompts us to deplore ancient Roman enthusiasm for public violence, maiming and murder; but at the same time it encourages us to sit down and enjoy an evening in front of the television full of gory imitations of those piercing wounds, mutilations and fights to the death. The horror-movie aspect of these documentaries is even more striking in the case of Pompeii : The last day . For the early generation of film-makers, in the tradition of Bulwer-Lytton, there was at least a moral point to the carnage: the Christians escaped, while Vesuvius delivered a nasty but richly deserved punishment to the sinful pagans. Take that away and you are left with not much more than a lingering spectacle of terror and agonizing death, of human beings spluttering out their painful last gasps as their lungs "cemented up" with a mixture of gas, ash and bodily fluid. "Their soft tissues vaporized, their brains boiled and exploded", as the commentary sado-dispassionately describes it. We surely would not tolerate any such reconstruction of the last minutes of, say, the victims of the Potters Bar train crash. Why is it family viewing in the case of the victims of Pompeii? Presumably because it is, or is pretending to be, "history".
Virtual Tour – 41 m. vídeo
Pompeii – photos - thumbnails
Pompeii and Circumstance
'Pompeii' by Robert Harrish
By Jonathan Yardley,
Thursday, November 13, 2003; Page C03
By Robert Harris
Random House. 274 pp. $24.95
Our knowledge of daily life in the Roman Empire derives in substantial measure from one of the most famous natural disasters in history: the eruption of the volcanic Mount Vesuvius in August A.D. 79. This calamitous event took unknown thousands of lives, laid waste to much of the landscape around the Bay of Naples and completely obliterated two cities -- Pompeii and Herculaneum -- under an immense blanket of volcanic ash. For all intents and purposes, they simply vanished.
That was the bad news. The good news was that in burying these two cities, the eruption of Vesuvius preserved them in pristine condition -
except, of course, for damage done by falling rock, earth tremors and the ash itself -- for more than a millennium and a half. These incomparable ruins were first discovered in the 18th century, and serious archaeological digs got underway in the 19th. Scholars came upon Roman art, architecture and domestic chattels in astonishing abundance. Not merely did the discovery immensely increase our understanding of Roman life at the beginning of the first millennium A.D., it had significant influence upon 19th- and early-20th-century art, fashion and design.
The catastrophe that made all this possible is the inspiration for "Pompeii," Robert Harris's intelligent, engaging historical novel. If it does not have quite the dramatic power of "Enigma," "Fatherland" and "Archangel," the novels that established Harris's reputation as an accomplished writer of sophisticated popular historical fiction, this must be attributed in considerable measure to matters beyond Harris's control. We know how it's going to end: The cities will be destroyed and Pliny the Elder, the celebrated scholar, will die in the rubble.
But we don't know what's going to happen to Marcus Attilius Primus, the fictional character around whom Harris has fashioned his tale. He is 27 years old, heir to a long family history of aqueduct engineering. He has been sent to Campania to take charge of the Aqua Augusta because of the mysterious disappearance of the previous engineer -- the aquarius, as the person holding that position is known -- a man named Exomnius. As it turns out, he has arrived at a critical moment in the aqueduct's long history.
The aqueduct is "one of the greatest feats of engineering ever accomplished," then or now. Sixty miles in length -- "the longest aqueduct in the world, longer even than the great aqueducts of Rome and far more complex" -- it supplies fresh, potable water to "no fewer than nine towns around the Bay of Neapolis: Pompeii first, at the end of a long spur, then Nola, Acerrae, Atella, Neapolis, Puteoli, Cumae, Baiae, and finally Misenum."
Now, though, the aqueduct is in trouble. The level of its reservoir is falling at an alarming rate after a drought of 78 days, and at times the water smells and tastes odd, as though it had been dosed with sulfur. Then the flow of water suddenly stops completely in all the towns except Pompeii: More than 200,000 people are without water, and it is left to Attilius -- "bright, energetic, dedicated," but also relatively inexperienced -- to track down the problem and fix it.
It's a difficult task, one made no easier by some of the people with whom he must contend. The overseer of the aqueduct's small work force, Corax, has been on the job for 20 years, clearly thinks he rather than Attilius should have been made chief engineer, and ridicules Attilius ceaselessly. Various local and Roman officials are immobilized by bureaucratic inertia, political ambition and flat-out corruption. Once the action moves to Pompeii, Attilius must contend with an especially venal businessman named Ampliatus, characterized for Attilius by a member of the crew as having "gone from slave to master of the Villa Hortensia in the time it would take you or me to scrape together enough to buy some bug-infested apartment."
Fortunately for Attilius there is Pliny: elderly and obese, but the commander in chief of the Roman fleet anchored in the Bay of Naples, a man of integrity and immense intelligence. Over the complacent objections of others in the hierarchy, he authorizes Attilius to investigate the aqueduct and repair it as necessary, even though this means that many thousands of people must go without water so the work can be done. The sense of urgency that consumes Attilius is intensified by the discovery that the water in a pool of precious red mullet owned by Ampliatus has gone bad, killing all the fish and enraging their owner.
It gives away no real secrets to disclose at this point that the water has not been deliberately poisoned, as Ampliatus believes, but has been fouled by sulfur building up as Vesuvius slowly builds toward its deadly eruption. The air seems charged with "omens, portents, auspices," and as the explosion draws near, Attilius, working in the mountain's shadow, is "struck by the peculiar stillness of the day, as if nature were holding her breath." When the eruption at last comes, it feels as if the entire universe has been shattered.
Harris's depiction of the eruption and its aftermath is vivid, but he declines the temptation to go over the top. He does allow himself the luxury of a subplot involving Attilius and Corelia, the lovely daughter of Ampliatus. She has been betrothed, against her vehement objections, to the slimy, languid Lucius Popidus, one of Pompeii's four elected magistrates, who, like the other three, is safely in Ampliatus's pocket, but she and Attilius are drawn to each other, and she plays an important role before, during and after the volcanic eruption.
There are moments, as the above suggests, when you're likely to feel you're back in Latin 1, what with Attilius and Ampliatus and Cuspius and Brittius and all the others similarly named who pass through these pages, but Harris actually has done a nice job of creating a believable 1st-century atmosphere without losing the 21st-century reader along the way. Obviously he has done scads of research, but the results don't lie heavily on the page. If anything, one comes away from "Pompeii" with a heightened regard for the engineers of Rome, who devised, built and maintained a water system that most of today's engineers would -- or certainly should -- be proud to claim as their own.
Robert Harris's skilful and provocative evocation of Pompeii has chilling echoes of modern times, says Mark Lawson
Saturday September 6, 2003
Pompeii by Robert Harris 432pp, Hutchinson, £17.99
The ability to disguise the outcome is held to be a vital part of the thriller writer's art. Robert Harris, though, has built a major career in the form through open defiance of this rule.
Readers of Enigma (1995) knew that his hero would have to be successful in breaking the German codes or we would be living in the triumphant Nazi empire that he hypothesised in Fatherland (1992). Now, switching his fictional co-ordinates from 1939-45 to AD79, he attempts, in Pompeii, a suspense novel in which every reader knows the close before they open it. Rather than a whodunit, Pompeii is a whenwillit in which the killer looms in full view over the city, hissing magma.
Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal (1971) is generally held to be the model here, because history made it impossible that his assassin could succeed in killing De Gaulle. Forsyth triumphed by creating an alternative tension around the question of what was going to go wrong, and Harris is equally successful in making us flinch and fear for characters who are going to a doom which we know before them.
Harris always had an impressive weathervane as a journalist - buying into and then out of Blairism at precisely the right time - and he has cleverly sensed that Pompeii, though an ancient story, has a sudden new currency. A culture in which we routinely see CCTV footage of murder victims in their final minutes and read transcripts of the last things terrorism victims ever said is particularly open to the subject of people living their lives half an hour from disaster.
In the post-eruption sequences - chillingly, viscerally described - the novelist makes explicit this implied connection with September 11: "The further he went the more clogged the road became, and the more pitiful the state of the fleeing population. Most were coated in a thick grey dust, their hair frosted." Readers will be reminded here not of their school history books but of newspaper front pages just two years old.
More provocatively, given the importance of the US market to thriller sales, Harris also, through the use of a triumphalist epigraph from Tom Wolfe about American superiority, invites a comparison between the Roman empire's journey from smugness to destruction and imperial Washington DC. Gore Vidal has often made the same point, but he is not writing populist thrillers.
For British readers, there's another - and rather charming - code buried in the prose. Some aspects of the characterisation of Pliny the Elder seemed curiously familiar: a tubby, sweaty man given to elaborate courtesies which may contain a feline twist, someone who wipes his face with a napkin and then inspects the cloth "as if it might contain some vital clue". The model here was surely Harris's friend Roy Jenkins, a more recent example of a man who combined a brilliant literary output with high political office.
As the Roman novels of the crime writers Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor have shown, the principal difficulties in writing modern novels about the ancient world are nomenclature and dialogue. Once characters start having to address each other as "Glutinus Maximus" and so on, the ghostly sniggers of Frankie Howerd and Monty Python start echoing round the spa baths. Harris allows his Romans the occasional "By Jupiter!", but otherwise uses contemporary terms: "millionaire", "luxury cruiser", "apartment". This is both less distracting than attempted latinisms and encourages the intended parallels with modern America.
Readers who have followed Harris on the wide page as well as the narrow one may regret that some of the irony and humour of his columns is missing from the novels, but this is presumably because the latter are written for a broader, international audience. In Pompeii, however, as in the earlier books, Harris shows a great talent for the organisation of a story. The novel has a subtle underlying structure moving from water to fire - it is the discovery of sulphur in the aqueducts that first hints at the conflagration to come - and the story proceeds in short sections named after Roman days and hours, each starting with a teasing epigraph from a volume on volcanology.
Since The Usual Suspects , novels and movies have become obsessed with the trick ending: no carpet can avoid having something swept under it, all rugs must be pulled. Insolently resisting this trend, Harris has brought off a known-ending story. He should probably now write a detective novel called The Doctor Did It.
Going Out Live is published by Picador.
Robert Harris: Eve of destruction
Robert Harris, who as a New Labour confidant learnt all about the transience of power and glory, has turned in his new novel to the most spectacular disaster of the ancient world. He tells Boyd Tonkin why we all live under the volcano
30 August 2003
Earlier this summer, after he had finished Pompeii, Robert Harris returned to the Bay of Naples and the settings for his first - though possibly not last - fictional excursion into the ancient world. At Cumae, he pondered the longest extant stretch of the Aqua Augusta: the astonishing Roman aqueduct that served the towns around the Bay, and also makes the plot of Pompeii flow. The novelist of imploding empires felt "tears in my eyes". He was moved - as writers have been for centuries - by the sight of "futility and abandonment" overtaking such toil and skill: "Buses and lorries run underneath; no one pays it any attention at all."
"It will pass away," Harris muses, sounding for a second like the sibyl who plays a cameo role in Pompeii (Hutchinson, £17.99). "Everything will pass away. Entropy. Nature will simply claim it back. At some point - who knows when that will be? - it will happen to America, even." At the climax of a thriller that (for once) no spoiler can ruin, the scholar-admiral Pliny the Elder gazes at the scorching waves of ash and gas ripping down Vesuvius and sees in nature's fires "the futility of human pretension".
Sitting in the sun-strafed garden of a West Berkshire gastro-pub, the decline and fall of empires might seem an abstract theme. History, however, has a habit of turning up unbeckoned. Spotting the waitress's Polish accent, Harris finds out that she's a philosophy graduate with decided views about the economic wreckage left by the collapse of Stalin's Cold War imperium.
It was this tormented aftermath that, five years ago, supplied a New Russian backdrop to Harris's third novel, Archangel. After Fatherland (with its cunning variations on the old premise of a victorious Hitler), and Enigma (which sprinkled stardust over the code-breakers of Bletchley Park), that novel rounded off a trilogy of ingenious and eloquent mid-century thrillers. Harris also remains the - happily inactive - biographer of John Le Carré, "the key writer of a phase of world history, the Cold War", with a licence to publish after the subject's death.
Together, previous novels and non-fiction have exorcised the "obsessions" of a war-shadowed Midlands youth: "I had written out what I felt about 20th-century politics." The novels' success tugged Harris out of the milieu of the well-connected commentator, and into the select band of blockbuster authors who credit readers with brains and curiosity. Harris (who enjoys his top-of-the-range motors) had accelerated from 6,000 - the initial print-run of Fatherland - to sales of 6 million in under a decade. At the same time, friends and contacts in New Labour seized control first of their party, then their country.
Here was a mere scribe - son of a printer, Nottingham-bred, Cambridge-educated, Newsnight- and Fleet Street-trained - who had soared close to the sun (or rather, the Sunday Times, where he wrote a prescient political column). Cue a nasty outbreak of green-tinged damnation-with-faint-praise.
Hacks waxed venomously lyrical about Harris's canal-side Victorian vicarage, with brother-in-law Nick Hornby popping in for a cup of sugar from the cottage next door while chum Peter Mandelson lounged on the sofa and worked the phone. Boris Johnson even dubbed Harris "New Labour's answer to Jeffrey Archer", before that tag might land you in the libel courts. Pompeii features a self-made tycoon called Ampliatus, who feeds a slave to man-eating eels just for kicks. Anyone who took the media chatter about Harris half-seriously during New Labour's days of pomp might wonder if the Kennet & Avon near Newbury is stocked with hungry morays.
Those hints of hubris never rang true; and the writer I meet is much the same - expensive wheels apart - as the student journo I remember from too many years ago. Nemesis, however (that great theme of Pompeii), has struck elsewhere. One event catalysed Harris's disenchantment with New Labour: the second sacking of Mandelson after the Hinduja passport affair in early 2001. Enraged, he compared that expulsion to the Dreyfus case. Recently, government equivocation over the Iraq war has, he believes, "poisoned the wells" of British politics. He even speaks warmly of the Tory leader-in-waiting, Oliver Letwin.
A furious philippic against Alastair Campbell last month indicted the spin maestro's "febrile world of assassination-by-headline". So would the biographer of Bernard Ingham care to perform the same favour for Campbell? "That should be done by some 25-year-old with the energy," Harris replies. "God in heaven, there's plenty to go on. If one was young again, it's all there ..."
Now Rome, and fiction, appeal far more than Westminster, and fact: "If you've tasted the fruits of fiction, the pleasure is such that it's very hard to give it up." Neither does the modern corridors-of-power novel attract: "When Trollope wrote fiction, Britain was the centre of the world. The City of London was where the masters of the universe dwelt. I'm afraid we're very small beer now."
That imaginative road towards the heart of contemporary might would seem to lead to America. Instead, it led Harris to Rome - via a curious detour. After his wartime trilogy, he planned a novel about the Disney Corporation and its empire of the senseless. Aiming to swap grey Berlin and Moscow for Florida and California, he saw Disney as "a totalitarian state with its own architecture, a kind of ideology, and an expansionist philosophy". Alas, the idea "had the dead hand of satire about it from the start".
A chance encounter with new findings on the destruction by rock and ash of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD79 switched the site of his latest threatened empire; though not, perhaps, its soul. Harris had already spent a year researching Rome at its smug, can-do zenith when the calendar reached 11 September 2001. Within two days, he had published an essay hearing the unavoidable echoes and drawing the moral that "no civilisation is ever safe; history doesn't end".
Pompeii, it should be said, steers clear of sledgehammer ironies and glib analogies in its portrait of the profit-mad "boom town". Harris found in Rome "a wonderful parallel world", and thinks "we share 99 per cent of their intellectual DNA". But the reader, not the author, joins these dots. We follow a dedicated water engineer, Marcus Attilius, who arrives in the port of Misenum at the end of a sweltering August to discover why springs have dried and the aqueduct has ruptured. Never has a burst pipe, and the quest for a leak, prompted such suspense.
The monumental glories of Roman civil engineering cast their spell on Harris: "I thought that, if nothing else, in this book I'll get away from gladiators and emperors and write about what was in many ways the most remarkable thing about the Romans." He draws his hero as a no-nonsense technician, endorses Pliny's conviction that "God is man helping man", and insists that "the Roman empire was built on hydraulic cement". What entranced him was the Stoic interregnum that came between the decline of traditional piety and the rise of Christianity; that brave and naked age when - and here Harris quotes Flaubert - "the old gods had died and Christ was yet to come".
Roman aquatic artistry ensnares the reader of Pompeii much as the Ultra ciphers did in Enigma. Attilius unravels a water-supply scam that recalls Polanski's Chinatown. Meanwhile, the unflappable scholar Pliny, and the charismatic monster Ampliatus, embody the grave and grubby sides of empire. As the action rattles on towards catastrophe, the author opts - as his genre demands - for plot twists over nuances of character. "I stand by the supremacy of narrative and the novel of sensation," he says, but admits: "Ampliatus teeters on the brink of taking over the novel, but you can't really stop and explore that because the story compels you forward."
Pompeii must deliver calamity in place of closure. In spite of this destiny, the tension seldom slackens. The 80 virtuoso pages that follow the "double boom" heard at 1pm on 24 August offered Harris "a great liberation from plot". Besides, modern investigations overturn most of what we think we know about the volcanic eruption. Continuous showers of pumice over 18 hours drove the citizens of the bay towns from home before the deadly tides of ash and gas came. This day-long horror makes a nonsense of the Victorian notion epitomised in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii: of heedless sinners struck down on the spot.
"Suddenly, moral choices could be made," says Harris. "People could run away; they could come back; they could sit it out. Pliny himself decides to sail into it. It becomes a much more interesting natural disaster."
Harris now views it as "a story like the Titanic, of technological civilisation overwhelmed by the power of nature". Far away, the wounded American giant plunges blindly on. Near at hand, an ominously broiling summer sends a plague of wasps to dive-bomb our plates. And the fate of Pompeii whispers that triumphs and troubles, great and small, will pass: "I think that idea possibly has more resonance now than at any time in human history."
Robert Harris was born in 1957 in Nottingham, and grew up in the city and in Leicestershire. He studied English at Cambridge, worked as a BBC reporter on Panorama and Newsnight, and joined the Observer as political editor in 1987. He became a columnist for the Sunday Times and wrote non-fiction that included Selling Hitler, The Making of Neil Kinnock, Good and Faithful Servant and - with Jeremy Paxman - A Higher Form of Killing. In 1992, he published his first novel, Fatherland; followed by Enigma (1995) and Archangel (1998); his fiction has now been translated into more than 30 languages. Pompeii appears next week from Hutchinson, and will be the subject of an ITV South Bank Show on Sunday 7 September. Robert Harris lives with his wife, Gill Hornby, and their four children in West Berkshire.
The author of Fatherland steps back 2,000 years to Pompeii for his new novel. It could well be a tale about 9/11, says Robert McCrum
Sunday August 24, 2003
Robert Harris is being perfectly serious when he says he would rather have written The Thirty Nine Steps than The Rainbow. Harris is a novelist who comes from a supremely English tradition that begins with Defoe, surges pyrotechnically through parts of Dickens, animates Graham Greene, broadens with Orwell (one of Harris's literary heroes), rekindles with Ambler, Deighton and le Carré, and leads directly to his own political thrillers: Fatherland, Enigma and Archangel.
I have known him for more than 20 years, as a journalist (he was later political editor of The Observer) whose early work was a mixture of history, reportage and contemporary biography, and as a best-selling author. We have talked obsessively about books and writers over more lunches and dinners than it's wise to admit.
Today is the first time our conversation is on the record, but he is, as always, affable, unaffected, dry and surprisingly patrician, with a generous man's taste for good living and an ex-journalist's for a good story. His definition of hell, he says, nailing his literary colours to the mast, is to be marooned 'with nothing to read except magical realism'.
Storytelling, based on thorough factual research, is what interests Harris, and he sees his writing for what it is: a job with a long and honourable tradition. 'Imagine everyone trailing back to the camp after a day's work, wanting to be told a story, and the chap by the fireside says "Actually, I'm not going to tell you a story tonight, guys, I'm going to concentrate on my prose". He'd have been hit over the head with a club.'
In an odd kind of way, Harris himself is about to take exactly this kind of risk with his latest novel, Pompeii. His first for five years, Pompeii marks a sharp break with the thrillers set in the twentieth century Europe of the great dictators which made him the 'millionaire novelist' of tabloid headlines.
His publishers are supportive, but Harris is all too conscious of his mass audience, from whom, as his friend Jeremy Paxman jokingly remarks, he risks 'toga resistance'. Harris maintains he is glad to have broken away from plots 'set in a cold place in twentieth century Europe' but is understandably nervous about the reception of a story with Pliny the Elder as a central character.
Despite this, Harris seems as relaxed as it is possible to be on the eve of publication, with a print-run of more than 100,000 at stake. He says he's happy. Whatever his book's reception, the story of Pompeii, which no English writer has tackled since Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii in 1834, has turned out, in an oblique way, to answer his long-held desire to write a novel about America.
After Archangel, and the final days of Stalinism, Harris had been trying, and failing, to write a novel about America set in the near future, an idea he admits was 'a mistake'. When he stumbled across a newspaper cutting about some new research into the destruction of Pompeii, like any good reporter he decided to dig a bit deeper. It was then that he found the aqueduct.
The Aqua Augusta is one of the forgotten wonders of the ancient world, supplying the city of Rome with more water than New York. It was the failure of this water system, and the drying up of ancient springs, that gave the first terrifying clue, in 79AD, to the subterranean cataclysms that were about to erupt into the skies over Pompeii.
And it was this aqueduct that gave Harris his central character, Marcus Attilius, the engineer whose duty it is to maintain the water supply and whose story weaves in and out of the closely researched historical drama of what actually happened during those fateful August days before the lava began to rain down.
Harris was possibly born to report such an event. It was always his ambition to be a writer. His father was a Nottingham printer, an avid reader, and a member of 'the well-read, self-taught old working class' who imbued his son with a fascination for the printed word.
As soon as he could, Harris left the provinces, following an English tribal path, as well-worn as Eton and the Guards, of comprehensive school, Cambridge and the BBC. At Cambridge he edited Stop Press and dreamed of journalism, not fiction. He says he 'loves the business of writing and is not snooty about journalism... If it's good enough for Defoe or Dickens, it's good enough for me. I don't see where else, except by getting out and being engaged in things, one can discover what one wants to write about.'
The first page of fiction he ever wrote was the first page of Fatherland (1992). He has never had any grand literary theory and sees fiction, quite practically, as a means of communication, 'a means of bringing a world to life'. There's still the ex-journalist's scepticism towards the literary world. Writing novels, he says, is 'a very strange way for a grown man to spend his life... it's only you in the room [and] it's only you running against yourself'.
What appealed to him about the Roman age was that it offered a rich parallel world. It's the parallels between Roman and American globalisation that help to animate Pompeii. Harris says he likes to be grounded in reality, and one of the strengths of Pompeii is its assured description of a lost time in all its luxury and splendour. It's no surprise, then, to hear Harris say, apropos the imaginative effort of Pompeii, which is rooted in a close study of several Loeb editions of the classics, 'I don't like fantasy novels... or characters with furry feet and pointy ears.'
He goes on: 'Rome [is a] world that is true, psychologically credible, sufficiently exotic and strange to be interesting and at the same time so much of what they [the Romans] experienced relates directly to us... The Romans are a very good short route to getting at big questions. This is quite hard in modern fiction because everyone is so concerned with trivialities: the Romans were concerned with the essence of things.'
To Harris, then, the Roman world is as real as contemporary America. He compares the awe and envy of America with the mixed feelings of contemporaries looking at Rome, and he was already deep into the research for Pompeii when the horror of 9/11 brought the perfect allegorical dimension to his story. The ash that smothers the closing moments of the novel is as much the ash of Ground Zero as of Vesuvius.
Although Harris seems quite at home in territory already occupied by Robert Graves, Gore Vidal and Allan Massie, he is at pains to stress he is not about to embark on a third career as an historical novelist. 'I could not imagine writing one set in Tudor England, for example,' he protests.
Politics and journalism remain an integral part of his life. Harris was once quite close to Blair and New Labour, and he has been a loyal friend to Peter Mandelson. From his vicarage outside Newbury he follows the twists of British politics with a seasoned eye.
The former political editor watches the Kelly inquiry, New Labour's troubles and the rejuvenation of the Tories with interest. 'The bargain piece of real estate in the political world,' he remarks, rehearsing one of his better lines, 'is the British Conservative Party. It's like buying a house in the country in the 1980s. Get in there now.'
That, of course, was exactly what he did in 1993. He has lived in Kintbury with his wife Gill, sister of Nick Hornby, and his four children ever since. When I suggest it's surprising he's never been tempted to go into politics, he replies: 'I'm a natural observer. I'm not good at giving orders. I'm not a team or club player, a sort of loner, really. I could never have done it.'
But wasn't he president of the Cambridge Union, that nursery for future politicians? 'I did think about it when I was younger,' he admits. 'I like politicians. I'm interested in the process and I understand it, but I'm like a sports reporter who can write very well about football. I can write about politics better than a politician could but I couldn't actually get out on the pitch and do it. I don't have the stamina. I'm a complete sceptic about things. I don't believe in anything enough.'
Sunday Herald - 21 September 2003
Not a Roman holiday
Pompeii by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, £17.99)
Reviewed by Stephen Phelan
IN August 1985, Time Magazine put a photo of a broken pocket-watch on the cover. The watch had been found 40 years before, at the edge of the blast zone on the day after Hiroshima was annihilated. The metal was scorched, the face cracked, and the hands frozen at the city’s last second – 8.16am, Japan Standard Time. You could dwell on that watch forever.
Similar artefacts have been picked out of the ruins at the World Trade Centre. Clocks that can never go forward or back, permanent evidence that time can stand still. Try to imagine the moment when they stopped, and the force that stopped them. That’s what Robert Harris is doing with new novel Pompeii – winding backward much further than his previous icy-clear visions of Nazi triumph (Fatherland) and Stalinist reawakening (Archangel) to recreate the destruction of the Roman Empire’s busiest seaside resort, when the monumental eruption of Mount Vesuvius climaxed with a surge of doom at 7.57am on August 25, 79 AD. So you already know the ending, but the ending is what this novel is about, right from the beginning.
Nelson Mandela once compared Robert Harris’s suspense strategies to Alfred Hitchcock’s, and he was as right as ever. Hitchcock would electrify a scene by panning downward from a seemingly mundane conversation to show you a bomb ticking under the table. Harris has his characters – principally a young waterworks engineer called Marcus Attilus Primus – go about their business in the shadow of Vesuvius, starting two days before the eruption. The volcano menaces every sentence. The tension snaps tight across the 2000 years – between what we know and they don’t.
Marcus is a practical man, straight as a Roman road. He is the newly-appointed “aquarius” who monitors the flow through the Augusta aqueduct, a miracle of human ingenuity which carried fresh water to the dry towns of southern Italy. When the water stops running, it’s his job to fix the main line and avert the spread of thirst and panic. In the ugly, greedy boom-town of Pompeii, he finds the problem somehow connected to the disappearance of his predecessor, the schemes of a nouveau riche bath-house magnate who feeds errant slaves to moray eels, and that foreboding smell of sulphur rising out of the ground. Harris has harmonised fictive drama, historical research and natural calamity – this is a rigorously plotted, minutely detailed detective thriller building up to the geophysical explosion that blew a hole in the planet. It really cooks. Despite the greater distance from our own time and place, Pompeii is a more gripping synthesis of journalistic precision and sustained narrative pressure than his earlier bestsellers, which sometimes read like the fussy daydreams of a bored academic (or a dissatisfied journalist, which he was). Harris has that natural sense of storytelling as illumination, “a means of bringing a world to life”. He avoids the naffness of most bestselling prose by keeping it simple, and keeping it moving. Instead of using the sub-Shakespearean lingo of movies like Gladiator, the characters speak and think in plain English (they wonder “how will that go down in Rome?”, they tell each other to “f*** off”), which serves as a kind of historical subtitling. Harris throws light on the dead Empire by treating it as a matter of fact rather than an ancient world of wonders. And we can recognise it.
This story came to life as Harris tried and failed to write a book about near-future America, but found its backward mirror in the Roman superpower at the time of the eruption – a fat-grape society that can’t see past itself.
In describing the end of Pompeii, Harris’s craftsmanship approaches lyricism for the first time. Some of it is borrowed – Roman polymath Pliny the Elder appears to dictate his observations of the eruption to a terrified servant as rocks fall like rain on their ship. But most of it comes from that quickening sense that “everything that had ever lived or been built would be annihilated ... they would not even leave a memory”. You know that history will bury you, but nobody expects it to happen in the space of a second, to rush down their street and end their whole world.
28 September 2003
A certain degree of predictability is inevitable in a novel such as this. We know that sooner or later, Vesuvius is going to pop her top and an awful lot of people will get killed. Predictability as such needn't matter: an ancient Greek audience knew exactly what was going to happen when they sat down to watch the latest play from Sophocles. Predictability does not necessarily denote cliché. Robert Harris, unfortunately, is no Sophocles, and the clichés here abound like bunny rabbits.
His hero is one Marcus Attilius Primus, who is aquarius or water-engineer for the entire Bay of Naples conurbation in 79AD. Marcus is an oasis of square-jawed decency on this Roman Costa del Crime, a seething horde of pimps and prostitutes, felons and fraudsters, dubious merchants and bent politicians. Marcus's only concern, however, is the great aqueduct that supplies the entire region, and why it has suddenly run dry. For this is no ordinary leak or blockage. It is as if something seismic, catastrophic, has happened. Or is going to happen. But of course, the fools in authority won't listen...
Harris colourfully evokes the sights and sounds of the ancient world: the "golden beaks and fan-tail sterns" of the warships out in the bay; the "Egyptians with gold rings in their ears, great muscled Nubians as black as charcoal". He is also genuinely in awe of the great feats of Roman engineering, and his awe is infectious.
The problems arise with character and plot. There is the poor little rich girl whom Marcus loves - but only after his own beautiful young wife has died. A hero should always have a beautiful young wife who has died. It gives him the glamorous aura of tragedy, while freeing him to cop off with a still younger and more beautiful girl and still retain his unimpeachable morals. That girl is Corelia Ampliata, "eighteen, perhaps," and with breasts of a "milky plumpness" to boot. But she is the daughter of his deadliest enemy, a man who not only mistreats his slaves, but also wears "crocus oil, the most expensive unguent", the rotter.
The other oleaginous baddies can be identified, as so often in Classical-period film and fiction, by the fact that they are always in the baths, and usually receiving a rather too intimate massage from some handsome Greek catamite. But Marcus and his gal win out in the end, against all odds, skipping away over the mountains in their nighties, hand in hand. Well, almost.
Despite these irksome banalities, however, people who read historical fiction as an easy way to digest their history will get plenty out of this. I spotted only one outright howler, perhaps the result of carelessness rather than ignorance. At a banquet, guests are served "mice rolled in honey and poppy seeds". Not even the nutritionally promiscuous Romans would eat a mouse. Harris means the edible dormouse here, a quite different rodent. I ate one in Turkey, and it was delicious.
18 October 2003
Fire from heaven
By Robert Harris
Hutchinson, £17.99, pp.341, ISBN:0091779251
Of all the places that have from time to time been devastated by the powers of
nature, few can hope to compete, for historical interest, with the cities of
Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Greeks very early found their way right round
Sicily and the boot of Italy to the beautiful Bay of Naples. There they founded
Neapolis, later Napoli, English Naples. Other peoples from further north in
Italy soon joined them in appreciating that delicious coast. The Romans, from
the second century BC, swarmed there, and every Roman grandee wanted a villa, or
several villas, on that favoured bay; Cicero, inveterate buyer of country
houses, owned a number, though he found it very hard to pay for them. The
standard of luxury was very high. Naturally the emperors, when autocracy
replaced aristocracy, were not to be left out, and soon the dream island of
Capri was an imperial possession. Under the hated Tiberius rumour insisted,
smacking its lips, that the place was the scene of nameless orgies.
The area had always been subject to earthquakes. The inhabitants, as people do, tended to forget about them afterwards, once the walls and roofs had stopped collapsing and the houses had been rebuilt. Another peril was less familiar; that of the volcanic Mount Vesuvius. There had been no significant eruption for ages. If you go there now you will again see cultivated fields and farmhouses extending up the side of the volcano to a height which must astonish the observer. But in AD 79, on 24 August, there was an enormous eruption, estimated by sober modern scientists to have released thermal energy about 100,000 times greater than that of the atomic explosion that destroyed Hiroshima and to have ejected magma and pumice at about 1.5 million tonnes per second to a height of 33 kilometres.
The impact on the Bay of Naples was catastrophic. The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were completely overwhelmed, buried and abandoned for centuries, until excavation, at first amateur, later systematic, began to unearth them. Works of art were extracted, passed into the royal collection, and can be seen in the museum in Naples. This is the most important source of paintings from antiquity, preserved in the warm, dry ash and dust. Lost works of literature came to light, preserved on papyrus rolls: carbonised by the heat, hard to read, perilous to unroll. We are still unrolling them, using special machines. So far most of them have proved rather drily technical in subject matter, but there are hopes that Herculaneum may yet yield up treasures of high literature.
The cities themselves were uncovered, offering us a unique view into the life of the first century as it was really lived and abruptly cut off, complete with shops, public baths, advertisements, electioneering posters, graffiti, and houses of ill fame. Some of the people and their animals were coated in lava and preserved with disconcerting fidelity. We can sit at the counters of Roman snack bars, follow the tracks of wheeled vehicles in the streets, look at the indecent exhibits in the Secret Museum (ladies traditionally not admitted).
A visit is a moving experience. Far more than in most ancient sites, one is irresistibly led to imagining the lives of these people. We have, by great good fortune, a detailed account of the eruption by a Roman writer, the younger Pliny, whose uncle (you guessed it) the elder Pliny was a high official on duty in the area. He happened to be a man of insatiable curiosity, author of the huge and still extant Natural History in 37 books, which set out the state of knowledge on all aspects of the natural world. The old man could not resist exploring the eruption for his researches. He did too much, went too far, was overcome by his exertions and the choking air and died, a martyr to duty and scientific curiosity.
Historians have naturally been drawn to the site. Imaginative writers have not been far behind. Bulwer Lytton’s novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, put an edifying Victorian slant on the destruction of the city, and artists were not slow to follow. Robert Harris, author of Fatherland and Enigma, now gives us a full-blooded novel on Pompeii and its doom. In the 19th century it was inevitable that a novelist should handle the role in the Roman empire of the Christian religion. Nowadays, evidently, it is not.
Harris has no Christians. His hero is an engineer, newly appointed to the charge of the water supply, in succession to a predecessor who has mysteriously disappeared. Something is wrong; the water is not flowing. Other sinister signs abound. Is it because something is happening in the natural world, or is it caused by human skulduggery? The hero investigates, gets entangled with dangerous men, stumbles on plots and financial corruption, risks his life, falls in love. A slave is fed to the eels. We meet a gladiator. We meet the Plinys. We witness the eruption of Vesuvius.
Harris has done his homework. The knowledgeable will recognise passages from Petronius and Seneca and Pliny — both Plinys — deftly introduced and touchingly savoured. The picture of life as it was lived in a Roman town, not one of the very first importance but an interesting place, is vivid and convincing. The book’s ending is pleasingly unsatisfying. While we know all the time, of course, that the great eruption is on its way — I don’t think I am giving away a secret in revealing that — the events are handled with a skill that kept me turning the pages.
Atillius, the engineer hero, conforms to the classic Raymond Chandler recipe: through those mean streets a man must go who is not mean. The Chandler model is indeed one that recurs to the mind of the reader. The hero — Philippus Marlo, he might almost have been called — is a conscientious and decent man, trying to act well and uncorruptly in a society bristling with mafioso types. It is true that we do not meet the voluptuous molls and floozies who so abound, at least in fiction, in southern California. The young lady who wins Attilius’s love is a young lady indeed, and the cheek of the reader, as he follows the course of their story, is not mantled by the crimson blush of embarrassment.
The last days of Pompeii happen to be unusually accessible to us. The great eruption occurred in a period of history well illuminated both by physical remains and by literature. Harris is therefore handling a subject on which it would have been easy to slip up and incur the scorn of persons who have enjoyed, or endured, a classical education. He has handled it with skill and created a setting which carries conviction, avoiding the traps of stuffing in too much local colour, or of emptying out in front of us the contents of a well-filled card catalogue. In that setting he tells a story which commands the reader’s interest and which possesses an artistic shape. Those who have done time in the Classical Sixth, and those who are less committed to the ancient world but who enjoy a good read, will be alike pleased to find it in their stocking on Christmas morning.
The New Zealand Herald
Robert Harris: Pompeii
29.09.2003 Reviewed by MARGIE THOMSON
The title does not lie: this is indeed about the massive 79AD eruption, and yet Harris, a former political editor of Britain's Observer, builds into the historical drama a sensibility for the geo-politics of our own time, in particular the power of the United States and the American Dream.
Under his pen, the apocalypse of Pompeii becomes, if not quite a judgment on the corruption that was eating away at Roman society, at least a warning to mighty civilisations that they will not last forever. Nature is king. The gods, in this case Vulcan, will have the last laugh.
Marcus Attilius, a young engineer from Rome, has been ordered to the Bay of Naples to take charge of the Aqua Augusta, the magnificent aqueduct that supplies water to the nine towns in the area. His predecessor has disappeared and it's clear there is some sort of public scandal being covered up - a whiff of corruption that leads to the most powerful man in Pompeii, Ampliatus.
We meet this powermonger early on in the novel, and are left in no doubt that he epitomises the worst excesses of the Roman Empire. A former slave turned free-man who has exploited the system and other men for his own ends, he evilly has a slave thrown to the eels and plots the end of our hero Attilius.
The structure of the book is a countdown towards the eruption that we, of course, know is coming. A major fault develops in the Aqua Augusta, and Attilius must find and fix this before the population runs out of water - hopeless, given the impending doom, but they don't know that. Harris gives due tribute to Roman engineering, and fills his reader with a sense of awe at their great achievements.
Pompeii is part-thriller, part-historical novel, part-jolly good excuse for thrilling us yet again with stories of Roman greed and cruelty, part-thinly veiled exercise in framing research in an accessible manner. But it's strangely compelling all the same. Some literary types might say that books such as this are exactly why journalists should not write novels; others, less fussy about, say, the complexity of their characters, will say it's why they should.
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
This tale's a tragedy
'Pompeii' gets buried in flimsy plot
By Robert Harris
Random House, $24.95
When the title of the novel is "Pompeii," you pretty much know where it's going.
The challenge, then, for master thriller writer Robert Harris is to create a drama so suspenseful it stands as more than mere prelude to the most famous volcanic spew in history.
Unfortunately, the story of an aqueduct, and the man who services it, just doesn't do it.
It's A.D. August 79, and there is a new aquarius (water engineer) in town. Marcus Attilius Primus is posted to one of the coastal cities lining the Bay of Naples after his predecessor disappears. He is a dedicated young man charged with ensuring the delivery of water through the great Aqua Augusta to a region in drought.
A neighbor's beautiful young daughter accosts him, begging his help in averting a tragedy. Her tyrannical father has ordered that a slave be fed to monster eels after a valuable school of red mullets in his care floats to the surface. Too late to save the slave, Attilius determines the fish died in water contaminated by Augusta. His fear that there is a break in the aqueduct is confirmed when the flow of water dries up.
The action switches to Pompeii (as it must), where the beautiful daughter, the bad neighbor and Mount Vesuvius are assembled. The tale that follows is that of young love, corruption and an eruption. It's all fairly obvious.
Attilius does repair Augusta, though not in time to allow the condemned 20,000 a last visit to the baths before they meet their death.
Harris is certainly versed in both the technical prowess of the ancients and period details. (Another classical horror scene, aside from the eels' meal, has the city's aristocracy indulging in the delicacy "of mice rolled in honey and poppy seeds" to the crunch of tiny bones.) Yet he's far less successful in evoking Pompeii in the days before it was to be buried for 1,700 years than he was in re-creating Hitler's Germany in the best selling "Fatherland."
Originally published on November 23, 2003
By Robert Harris.
278 pp. New York: Random House. $24.95
The cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy on the morning of Aug. 24, A.D. 79, which obliterated the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and snuffed out the lives of thousands of people, most of them in the space of a 30-second thermal blast, is likely to bring many things to mind; but until the appearance of Robert Harris's terrific and prodigiously researched new thriller, ''Pompeii,'' set in the days leading up to the disaster, plumbing was unlikely to be one of them.
The literary musings inspired by the events of that long-ago day have, if anything, tended to be as lofty as Vesuvius itself. Even as the volcano was making its devastating debut -- raising a deadly cloud of stones, ash and fumes to a height of 20.5 miles, spewing molten rock and pulverized pumice at the rate of 1.5 million tons per second, ultimately releasing a hundred thousand times the thermal energy released by the Hiroshima bombing -- the eruption was simultaneously giving birth to texts. On the very day of the disaster, the distinguished Roman statesman, naturalist and author Gaius Plinius Secundus (whom we know as Pliny the Elder), who was then serving as admiral of the Roman fleet at Misenum, just a few miles from Pompeii on the Bay of Naples, ordered his men to row him into the bay so that he could get a better look at the fascinating phenomenon; there he was overcome by fumes and died.
These and other events of that harrowing day were described by his nephew and heir, Pliny the Younger, in a series of letters to the historian Tacitus that still make for gripping reading, not least because they paint a picture of stoic heroism in moments of crisis that is particularly resonant just now. (''He hurried to the place from which everyone else was fleeing,'' the younger Pliny writes of his uncle, ''steering his course directly for the danger zone.'')
Since the rediscovery of the buried cities in the 1700's -- an event that sparked a fad for all things classical throughout Europe, from clothes to music to furniture (much as the 1922 discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen triggered a wave of Egyptomania) -- popular writers have been unable to resist seeing, in the destruction of these two bustling cities at the very zenith of Roman civilization, a morality tale. About, say, the vanity of human achievement, the majesty of nature and, of course, about the emptiness of pagan culture in comparison with Christianity, which was just beginning to take root when Vesuvius blew its top. The most famous (or, given the deep aubergine hue of the author's prose, perhaps infamous) of all Pompeii novels is Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's ''Last Days of Pompeii,'' first published in 1834, a book whose villain is a devotee of the exotic cult of Isis (the New Age religion of its time), and whose two main characters convert to Christianity as their city falls to ruins around them. Some might argue that to invent a human-interest subplot in order to give the events of August 79 more pizazz is, so to speak, to gild the lilium; still, that Bulwer-Lytton's clanking morality play has provided a certain satisfaction is evident in the fact that his novel was adapted for the screen in every generation of the past century: in a 1913 Italian silent epic; a 1935 version, featuring Basil Rathbone; a 1960 remake with, inevitably, Steve Reeves as a gladiator; and finally as a 1984 ABC star-studded mini-series featuring, inter alios, as the Romans might say, the late-stage Laurence Olivier.
In ''Pompeii,'' the British author Robert Harris, whose earlier novels include other imaginative reconstructions of the past (or, rather, revisions: his best seller ''Fatherland'' takes as its premise a Nazi victory in World War II), has eschewed sentimental musings about religion and nature and the meaning of civilization for something far more concrete and, surprisingly, far more gripping: hydraulic engineering. In this novel of Pompeii, there is no Isis-worship or astrology to muddy the metaphysical waters; the only waters here are, in fact, honest-to-goodness H2O, and the only aquarius you encounter is the main character, Marcus Attilius Primus -- although here ''aquarius'' is merely the Latin word for a job title. For Attilius is the new aquarius, or engineer, of the Aqua Augusta, the enormous aqueduct that brought water from the inland heights to the coastal cities of the Bay of Naples; to this typically practical Roman, the sound of water crashing from the brilliantly constructed aqueduct into the reservoir, or ''Piscina Mirabilis,'' at Misenum, the terminus of the system, is ''the music of civilization.''
So when that music starts going wildly out of tune, during the final blistering weeks of August 79 -- public fountains mysteriously drying up, springs receding into the earth, the fish in people's ponds suddenly dying -- the hardheaded Attilius takes it personally, and tries to find out why. ''A man must make such sense of it as he could,'' he thinks to himself, in the best tradition of scientific sleuthing. Much of ''Pompeii'' follows, quite satisfyingly, the ''scientific'' plotline: Attilius' efforts to make sense of the systemic failure of the water system feeding all the cities of the Bay of Naples -- a failure, as Attilius realizes just as the eruption makes his insight moot, that is due to the seismic disturbances that are typically the harbingers of volcanic eruptions.
Attilius' scientific curiosity -- and knowledge -- places him squarely within the tradition of the best literary detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot: men who don't allow themselves to be distracted by sentiment and emotion. (Not so the other Romans in Harris's book: one nouveau riche, on seeing his fabulously expensive red mullet go belly up in his private fishery, has the overseer of the fishery fed to the moray eels; only later does it turn out that there's sulfur in the water, one of the warning signs of the impending eruption.) Like those sleuths, Attilius conveniently hasn't got much of an emotional life -- there are brief allusions to a young wife who died in childbirth -- and so is free to devote himself entirely to his highly specialized work. This is just as well, since the author has clearly done a herculean study of Roman civil engineering and waterworks, which ''Pompeii'' smoothly incorporates without ever feeling pedantic: information about the design of the Augusta (with a mean drop in elevation of just two inches for every hundred yards of length), about the construction of underwater structures (made possible by the discovery of a kind of cement that hardens underwater) and of fountains, baths, toilets and (yes) showers in Roman cities during the first century A.D. There are other scrumptious details, too -- not least, about the use of urine as a detergent in commercial laundries, or about garum, a ubiquitous sauce made of fermented fish offal that was Rome's answer to ketchup, and of which Pompeii was a big producer -- that lay readers will have to take on faith, but will warm the hearts of academic classicists.
To the scientific mystery Harris has added, for good measure, the stuff of more conventional thrillers. While Attilius dashes around Misenum and, later, Pompeii itself, frantically trying to persuade local officials that something serious is afoot (one of them is the corpulent Pliny the Elder -- his nephew refers tactfully to his ''amplitude of body'' -- who's wonderfully well drawn here in all his intellectual agility and physical ungainliness), he gets drawn further into the mystery of the disappearance of the previous aquarius, an unsavory character called Exomnius. Exomnius, it turns out, was taking bribes from a corrupt urban developer who was building an elaborate bathhouse and who, in return for a few thousand sesterces placed in the right palms, sought to avoid the tax on water. (Plus ca change.) The most unscrupulous of these real estate tycoons is, naturally, the fellow who enjoys feeding his household help to his pets: Numerius Popidius Ampliatus, a vulgarian whom Harris has carefully, deliciously modeled on the preposterous arriviste Trimalchio in Petronius' ''Satyricon,'' a wicked satire of Roman mores written not long before Pompeii was destroyed. Harris gets this type of filthy rich wannabe perfectly right, down to the preposterous food served at his overelaborate dinner parties. To his appalled upper-crusty guests, who know better than to serve hot dishes on August days, Ampliatus serves a meal featuring not only the eel that ate his servant but also ''sow's udder stuffed with kidneys, with the sow's vulva served as a side dish, grinning up toothlessly at the diners.'' (You suspect that mountaintops weren't the only things erupting that August.) From the ''Satyricon,'' too, Harris gets his characters' spiky vernacular; when one of them gloats about a villa that cost him ''a cool 10 million,'' it sounds straight out of Petronius.
The eruption of Vesuvius naturally brings all the threads of Harris's novel together for a literally shattering climax. When Attilius finally climbs to the top of Vesuvius on the morning of Aug. 24, he finds out all at once what happened to the hapless Exomnius and what the cause of the aqueduct's failure is: but by then, of course, it's too late. It's a testament to the tightly wound structure and entertaining detail that Harris has built into his idiosyncratic historical-volcanological mystery that, even though you know how his story ends, you still can't put it down as the inevitable comes closer. ''Pompeii'' isn't perfect: there's an unconvincing subplot about a burgeoning romance between Attilius and Ampliatus' feisty daughter, Corelia, and, perhaps inevitably, the business about the corrupt real estate machinations, however historically accurate, ultimately pales in comparison with the looming natural disaster. But whatever drawbacks it has, Harris's latest thriller is so cunningly devised that, however unsurprising its denouement is, it still manages to end with a bang.
Daniel Mendelsohn, a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, is the author of a memoir, ''The Elusive Embrace,'' and a study of Euripides.
Tremors, and then disaster
Reviewed by Alan Cheuse
Sunday, November 30, 2003
By Robert Harris
RANDOM HOUSE; 278 PAGES; $24.95
Some historical fiction strikes the reader as a meditation on the past, some of it attempts to help us reflect on the present, and some -- such as this well-researched and tautly written novel set on the Bay of Naples just a few hot August days before the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 --
are like a trip to an adult theme park. I don't know when I've read so intently and learned so much so quickly about some specialized subjects -- Roman hydraulic engineering and vulcanology, among other aspects of the classical world -- while having so much fun.
Harris' "Pompeii" is immediately engrossing. It begins with news of trouble in the system of tunnels and aqueducts that delivers mountain water to the Roman towns on the curving Bay of Naples. The flow has nearly come to a halt, and the engineer in charge has disappeared.
On a mission from Rome comes Marcus Attilius Primus, a young widower and thus far in his brief career an incorruptible engineer, who seeks an answer to the problem of the dwindling water supply. Within a few days he has stirred up the enmity of the slaves who work in his repair crew, invited the wrath of Numerius Popidus Ampliatus, a powerful Roman citizen of the coastal town of Misenum, and won the confidence of Pliny, the writer, who also happens to head the large Roman navy stationed on the bay.
He's also met a girl, Corelia Ampliata, daughter of Ampliatus, and she is quite a dish, wearing, when he first sees her, "a loose white tunica, open wide at the neck and sleeves, a dress to be worn in private, which showed a little more of the milky plumpness of her bare white arms and breasts than a respectable lady would have risked in public." And before too long he's fallen for her.
It's always a wise move to include a Corelia in a novel such as this, a historical thriller based on a large amount of research. Such matters can't really detract from the ultimate effect of a novel whose goal, admittedly, is to entertain as much as it instructs. The truth is, without the entertainment we wouldn't stay around long enough to be instructed, and Marcus Primus' affection for Corelia is an important part of the entertainment.
So is the effectively constructed movement of the plot. Over the course of this fateful week in the history of the Roman Empire, the novelist, by directing his young engineer's moves appropriately, manages to take us on a turn through a Roman seaside villa, a trip through the rough streets of Pompeii and on an inspection tour of the tunnels and aqueducts near the already troubling crater of bubbly, steaming Vesuvius. Up there is where the main trouble lies, and Marcus Primus and his team attempt to stop it, which leads to some last-minute engineering under the shadow of the threatening volcano and some last-minute lobbying in the ear of the Roman admiral as -- in vulcanological terms -- things begin to really heat up.
In fact, in novelistic terms, the heat has been building since the beginning. And it's a tribute to Robert Harris' powers as a narrator that he coolly paces his book and puts us through our paces as attentive readers, even as we know exactly what explosive and fiery final scenes we're moving toward. The old principle of delay -- that's what Harris employs as he strings out the time before the grand geological event. The wonderful way that Harris treats the ultimate eruption of Vesuvius, a delicious narrative confection cooked up with quotations from Pliny's eyewitness account combined with the results of broad research, makes all our expectations well worth the wait.
"From Pompeii," he writes, "it looked as if a sturdy brown arm had punched through the peak and was aiming to smash a hole in the roof of the sky. " On the road near Pompeii, "the sky was dark and whirling with tiny projectiles and in an instant the day passed from afternoon sun to twilight."
The view from the reader's chair nearly 2,000 years later remains, thanks to Robert Harris' skill as a narrator, both dark and light.
Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for National Public Radio.
The Christian Science Monitor
The day it rained fire
Something's foul in the waters of Pompeii
The Seattle Times
Spectacular fall of Pompeii in technicolor
Shadow of doom
Das leise Zittern des Weines im Glase
Ancient world: Pompeii by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence
Under the volcano again
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