Love Among the Ruins - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Love Among the Ruins November 25, 2003
by Brett Leslie Correa

Robert Harris takes on aqueducts, ancient Romans, and the ash-strewn town of Pompeii in his new disaster novel.

Unleashing an explosive energy 100,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, Mount Vesuvius erupted in the summer of A.D. 79, destroying Pompeii and other Roman towns of southern Italy in one of the worst volcanic disasters in human history. Best-selling author Robert Harris, whose novel Fatherland put him on the map with its premise of a victorious Third Reich, breathtakingly re-creates this ancient world and its cataclysmic demise in his latest page-turner, Pompeii (New York: Random House, 2003; $24.95)

There is a state of emergency when engineer Marcus Attilius Primus arrives from Rome to repair the immense aqueduct that supplies fresh water to the imperial naval base at Misenum and seaside towns of the Bay of Naples. The previous engineer has vanished without a trace, and it is up to Attilius to find the break in the aqueduct, which he believes is somewhere near Pompeii, the only town left with running water.


It's all work and no play for Attilius until his stoic, spartan lifestyle of "the camp-bed and the cloak" is suddenly disrupted when he falls for a voluptuous beauty named Corelia, soon to be married off by her father, the town's formidable mob-boss millionaire Ampliatus. But Corelia has a mind of her own, is deeply attracted to Attilius, and promptly warns him when her father becomes dangerously aware of Attilius' probing into the other engineer's mysterious disappearance. As Attilius' search for the rupture in the aqueduct brings him ever closer to the looming presence of Vesuvius, a volcano smoldering after centuries of dormancy, the tension steadily escalates with an hour-by-hour countdown to the impending catastrophe.

Harris quickly catapults the reader into a world of striking authenticity with an armchair tour of Pompeii as it looked almost 2,000 years ago, including an aristocrat's sumptuous townhouse (the House of the Citharist, named after its statue of a lyre-playing Apollo), a lavishly designed new public baths facility (the Central Baths, uncompleted at the time of the eruption), and a dank two-story lupanar (the largest of at least nine brothels in Pompeii). Even little details of daily life--a wooden toy doll from childhood, a lararium (household shrine) with its effigies of family ancestors, a phallic amulet worn as protection against evil--are based on Roman artifacts.

A colorful glimpse of the Forum with its bustling marketplace and scaffolded buildings shows a town slowly rebuilding itself after a calamitous earthquake in A.D. 62. Harris' mention of a public library refers to a Forum structure that bears architectural similarities to other ancient libraries. This has recently been dated to after the earthquake and counters the belief that Pompeii's center of civic life lay neglected.

Harris cleverly integrates characters gleaned from Pompeii's written legacy. The corrupt local magistrates, including the actual owner of the Citharist mansion, who deny Attilius' request for labor and supplies are drawn from the names of electoral candidates in campaign slogans painted on buildings along the town's main thoroughfares. Graffiti attests that the brothel where Attilius goes to search for the missing engineer was indeed operated by an Africanus, and the names of prostitutes match some of those advertised on Pompeii's walls.

The wealthy freed slave who controls Pompeii's politicians and purse strings is based on inscriptions at the temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis detailing how a certain Ampliatus paid for its entire restoration after the earthquake of A.D. 62 and in return, his son Celsinus (only six years old at the time) was given a place on the town council. Ampliatus also shares characteristics with Trimalchio, the vulgar nouveau riche of Petronius' classic The Satyricon, who brandishes his wealth by hosting an outrageously expensive dinner party consisting of such culinary extravagances as sow's udder and wild boar stuffed with live thrushes. Pompeii's obligatory Roman banquet scene pays homage to this, with the nauseating addition of man-eating eels fed on the flesh of one of Ampliatus' own slaves. There are other references as well: Harris' Ampliatus got his start working for Jucundus the banker, a real-life Pompeiian whose business dealings recorded in perfectly preserved wax tablets have shed light on financial activities of the day, and the mottos of "Hail Profit" and "Profit is Joy" that he so readily espouses are from actual floor mosaics found in some of the town's merchant homes.

It may be a touch of gallows humor that one of the major threads running through Pompeii is of the town preparing for the festival of Vulcan, held every August 23 in honor of the Roman god of fire, when it is the very next afternoon that Vesuvius erupts in a "boiling stem of rock and earth," enshrouding the town beneath a continuous downpour of pumice and ash that plunges it into near darkness and collapses the roofs of houses.

While the destruction of Pompeii has captured the popular imagination of readers ever since the nineteenth-century publication of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's romantic best-seller The Last Days of Pompeii, Harris distinguishes himself in this tradition with the last 80 pages of his novel. Using the latest volcanological research and the invaluable eyewitness account of Pliny the Younger, Harris crafts not only a scrupulously accurate reconstruction of the phases of the two-day eruption, but a realistic depiction of the ensuing pandemonium that grips the reader with a chilling immediacy.

Pliny's account also describes the exploits of his famous uncle, Pliny the Elder (we initially meet him at the beginning of the novel when he sends Attilius to Pompeii to fix the aqueduct). Harris vividly dramatizes the Elder's almost fanatical desire to observe and record the event firsthand (perhaps a not altogether unusual reaction for someone who authored the first encyclopedia, Natural History), and his heroic but ill-fated attempt as naval commander of the Misenum fleet to evacuate the terrified population from across the bay.

The initial impetus of Pliny's rescue mission was a plea for help from a friend's wife named Rectina who lived in the direct path of Vesuvius, but Harris elaborates on this by modeling her home on the huge and opulent "Villa of the Papyri " in the seaside resort town of Herculaneum that was also buried by the eruption. As slaves scramble to cart papyri scrolls out of the villa's library (many of them were actually discovered in boxes or strewn across the garden), Rectina beseeches Attilius to deliver Pliny a message to assist her in transporting them to safety, for "these great works are all that will be left of us." While the scrolls that have been found are mainly of epicurean philosophy, Rectina's urgent concern to save works by Aristotle and Sophocles represents the belief of many academics that other lost or unknown classics still await discovery in lower levels of the villa yet to be fully excavated.

Herculaneum would fall victim to Vesuvius only hours before Pompeii, where Attilius' love for Corelia propels him on a nightmarish trek, searching for her amidst the "stumpy shapes of houses, like a row of ground-down teeth, only a few feet of wall left visible above the ground" and "hundreds of people...milling around at roof-level in the semi-darkness, like ants whose nest had been kicked to pieces." He saw "people were digging frantically, some with planks of wood, a few with their bare hands. Others were calling out names, dragging out boxes, carpets, pieces of broken furniture. An old woman screaming hysterically. Two men fighting over something...another trying to run with a marble bust cradled in his arms."

Of course, one must read Pompeii to find out if our two protagonists share the same fate as the 2,000 other Pompeiians whom research has now determined were killed not by falling pumice but from a surging hot cloud of toxic gas and ash, the death throes of their bodies preserved, as Harris writes, "in a series of grotesque tableaux for posterity to gawp at." Pompeii would become a virtual ghost town, and the great aqueduct a fitting symbol of the technological supremacy of an empire that found itself powerless against the forces of Nature.

Pompeii is prefaced with two quotes from Pliny the Elder and the novelist Tom Wolfe describing the greatness of the Roman superpower, and its apparent latter-day successor, twenty first-century America. Perhaps I wouldn't bristle at the comparison as much if Pompeii didn't share company with the British author's previous novels focusing on the nefarious Nazi (Fatherland) and Stalinist (Archangel) empires.

Despite one-dimensional characterizations that suffer from the narrative's compressed time frame, and glaring modernisms (Ampliatus remembers how the ceremony "had given him the creeps") inevitably resulting from Harris' usage of a contemporary idiom, Pompeii is meticulously researched, cinematically vivid entertainment that has the epic backdrop, fast-paced action, and spectacular finale of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Brett Leslie Correa is assistant to the publisher of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America