CLIO FINAL - page 36

Robert Harris
Nowadays, Pompeii is probably the most
widely known city - apart from the glaringly obvious
one - from the ancient Roman Empire. But it wasn’t
always that way, and it was the fateful day in AD 79
that brought it so much lasting fame and became
the subject of Robert Harris’s thoroughly re-
searched historical novel, the imaginatively named
It tells the story of the eruption of Mount Vesuvi-
us, following the points of view of four main char-
acters, their stories intertwining with one another
and with that of the volcano. These build to an
earth-shattering (excuse the pun) climax in which
life is lost, the earth is rained upon with ash and
rock, and whole cities are reduced to nothing in one
fell swoop of Nature’s destructive power.
Most of us know the story well, so Harris had no
easy task in creating a novel that could hold the
attention of a reader despite the ending having
been spoilt years before it had been written.Yet he
pulls it off well – releasing a page-turner that forces
your attention in so many different directions that,
by the time you’ve got into it, it is easy to forget the
looming threat of the impending disaster.
The novel begins with an engineer named Marcus
Attilius, who was sent from Rome to take charge
of an aqueduct vital to the survival of 9 cities.Yet
a mere week after he arrives, alarm bells begin to
ring when the aqueduct starts to run dry. It is up to
him to restore the once-great aqueduct, solve the
mystery of his missing predecessor, and above all
navigate his way through a Roman city full of cor-
ruption, hidden agendas, questionable characters
and secrets, finding both adversaries and foes in
those he meets and enlists to help with his mission.
Aside from the obvious thrill of the subject
matter, one of the most captivating things about
the book is the stunning picture it paints of Roman
life. We are treated to glimpses of every facet of a
society so complex that none rivalled its modernity
until years after its fall. Through the eyes of Marcus
Attilius we are shown Roman technology, as the
young engineer presides over the great engineer-
ing marvel that was the aqueduct, which supplies
the whole of the Bay of Naples with its precious
water. Through Numerius Popidius Ampliatus, a
former slave turned rich entrepreneur, we see social
mobility and corruption, two sides of the same
coin, and their omnipresence in the ancient Ro-
man world. His daughter, Corelia Ampliata, shows
us what things were like as the highborn child of
a powerful father, and on top of this the role and
expectations of women in Roman society. Finally
through time spent with the Admiral of the Roman
Fleet Gaius Plinius Secundus, or Pliny the Elder as
he is known today, we see life at the height of the
Roman hierarchy, and what it meant to be a vener-
able commander in the military. We see much more
of Roman society on top of this, through dinner
parties, temples, Roman baths, festivals and public
It is through this total immersion in the historical
setting of the book that, at least in my opinion,
most of the joy is to be found. Harris’s writing plac-
es you alongside the characters, deploying a wide
range of cleverly utilised descriptive techniques to
help you see, hear, smell and feel exactly what the
people in his story are experiencing. As well as this,
Harris also achieves the creation of an empathetic
link between the reader and the characters, despite
the fact that we are aware from the start that it is
likely none of them will survive the disaster.
If I were to have one criticism of the novel, it
would be that some of the story and character-
isations seem a little on the unbelievable side,
however this did not detract frommy enjoyment
of the novel as a whole; quite apart from being an
engaging way to learn about that era of history and
the way of life it entailed, this is, to think of it is the
most simple way, a very good read.
Luca Ferraro 10D
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