Pompeii is a work of historical fiction, which I really enjoyed. It is about the Roman town of Pompeii, the surrounding towns, and some of the people who lived there. Those familiar with history will go into the book knowing that Mt. Vesuvius is about to blow up and cover Pompeii with ashes, killing everyone who is there.
The book takes place in four days: two days before the volcanic eruption, and the two days during the eruption.
Harris does a really good job of setting the scene. He describes every part of the towns. The huge mansions, and all of their rooms and swimming pools. The slave quarters, the baths and especially the aqueduct systems, which play a huge part in this book.
Marcus Attilius Primus (who mostly goes by Attillius) is the main character. He is the engineer recently put in charge of the aqueduct system after the previous guy disappeared. No one is saying just what happened to the previous guy, and it becomes a mystery that Attilius tries to solve. He does come to an answer by the time the book ends.
Attilius is young, but is not a kid anymore. He has been married, and lost his wife and child when she tried to give birth. He sends his money back home to his mother, and is focused almost entirely on the water system of Rome. His father, and his grandfather, each had the same job that Attilius now has.
One main conflict in the book is between Attilius and and Corax, a worker he is now in charge of. Corax is older than Attillius and does not like him at all. Corax seems to know something about what happened to the previous engineer, but is not talking about that. Other clues pop up as Atillius tries to figure out just what happened to the previous engineer. It becomes a study in corruption.
The other main conflict in the book involves a problem with the aqueduct system. The water has become sulfuric and foul in places, and its up to Attillius to not only find out why but also to solve the problem. He has to work with lots of people, (some of whom are slaves) who do not like him. Attilius must shut down the water supply while the work is being done and generally… be unpopular.
As a reader, we know that the problem with the aqueduct system is that Mt. Vesuvius is about to erupt, and the shifting and shaking earth is poisoning the water. Harris makes it really interesting to watch his characters try and figure this out.
Harris does a great job of describing what it would be like to live in Rome at the time the book is taking place. He describes what the slaves go through, what they have to do, and how they live. He also describes the richest people, their huge homes, their power, and how they keep both.
Harris provides readers with detailed descriptions of what the town looks like from the street, what the shops are like, where they are located, and even what they smell like. He describes festivals, and discusses what it was like to be in the Roman military. Harris makes the reader feel as though he or she has been transported to Ancient Rome.
Another character, Ampiliatus, started his life as a slave. Now, he has become part of the richest group of people. Ampiliatus can’t hold office, due to his once being a slave. He is able to hang out with the rich people and even has some influence on them.
Ampiliatus is constantly missing the point. He is exceptionally cruel to his slaves, despite having been a slave himself. He is crude and vulgar, throwing lavish dinner parties to impress his friends. He doesn’t realize that they are not impressed at all, but come over to see how ridiculous he is being.
Ampiliatus gained his money by buying up property that was really cheap some years ago when Pompeii was destroyed by an earthquake. One of his friends is his former owner, and Ampilatus not only hangs out with him but also is trying to get the man to marry his daughter. This is much to Ampiliatus’s daughter’s dismay! In every way, it is clear that Ampilatus is very corrupt and is the picture of power in the wrong hands causing evil.
Pliny is another character in the book. Pliny was once an Admiral in the Roman Navy, and is still respected for all he has done. Now, Pliny is old, and fat, and in poor health. He is really smart and has become a historian. Pliny’s slaves write down all his dictation.
When the volcano finally blows, Pliny is most interested in recording his observations, in each detail of the eruption, in real time (if he can manage it). It is through Pliny that Harris gives the reader a graphic view of what it would have been like to have been in Pompeii when the volcano erupted and ash covered the town.