Eric Jager Goes Back to Pompeii
Two years ago, during a trip to Italy, my wife and I spent a few days at Pompeii.
One day we took a bus to the top of Mount Vesuvius and hiked around the crater
of the volcano that erupted in 79 A.D., burying Pompeii. From the volcano's rim,
high above the humid plain surrounding the Bay of Naples, it took a while to pick
out the partly excavated city, nearly six miles away. And it was hard to believe
that the shattered cone on which we stood had spewed out enough debris to bury
Pompeii under a thick layer of rock and ash where it lay almost forgotten for
more than fifteen centuries.
A year and a half after our visit, I felt that I had returned to the volcano,
and the streets of the city far below it, when I opened Robert Harris's wonderful
In a book that is by turns beautiful and earthy, haunting and violent, Harris
masterfully combines history with human drama, archaeology with intrigue, to
recreate the ancient Roman world at large and, within the vast and flourishing
empire, the daily life of a sleepy Mediterranean resort town whose life came
to a sudden, calamitous end on an August afternoon nearly two thousand years
Harris vividly sets the scene, evoking the passions and the politics of Pompeii,
as well as its all-important hydraulic infrastructure especially the
sixty-mile aqueduct, the Aqua Augusta that furnished the city's villas
and baths and brothels with its life's blood, like the scores of aqueducts that
Roman engineers built up and down Italy and around the Mediterranean world to
slake the empire's thirst.
As the novel opens, Pompeii is still recovering from a devastating earthquake
that toppled buildings and buckled streets seventeen years earlier, and now, two days
before the terrible explosion that (only the reader knows) is gathering deep
in the earth below the city's unsuspecting inhabitants, strange signs are seen.
The aqueduct has suddenly gone dry, whiffs of sulphur fill the air, and the
engineer in charge of Aqua Augusta has mysteriously disappeared.
To investigate and fix the water problem, a hydraulic specialist by the name
of Marcus Attilius Primus is dispatched to the scene. As Marcus tries to locate
and repair the breach in the aqueduct, part of which lies underground, he finds
his job complicated by corrupt businessmen, scheming politicians, obstinate
workmen, and even a new romantic interest. Harris vividly describes the teeming
Mediterranean resort town and brings to life its varied inhabitants aristocrats
and shopkeepers, retired soldiers and slaves.
In one of the novel's most brilliant touches-reminiscent of Robert Graves's
classic historical novel, I,
Claudius Harris brings on stage Pliny the Elder, perhaps the most
famous historical person who actually saw Vesuvius explode, who took field notes
on the unfolding disaster, and who ordered a ship's crew to row him from his
villa across the pumice-strewn Bay of Naples in order to investigate firsthand.
Harris so adroitly combines history and fiction, making real and imagined Romans
mingle in the story's action-filled climax, that you feel that you, too, are
witnessing the disaster firsthand.
Water is everywhere in this story, from the artificial ponds that keep live
eels fresh for the tables of the wealthy (and also provide sadistic sport for
Roman masters holding the power of life and death over their slaves), to the
lavish public baths where citizens of all ranks cleanse themselves as they socialize
and relax, to the marvelous and yet vulnerable aqueduct that keeps life and
commerce flowing through Pompeii and its neighbors around the bay.
But if the story begins with water, it ends with fire the cataclysmic
accident of nature on August 24, 79 A.D., that only seems inevitable, because
it is now history, and because it froze forever Pompeii's streets and buildings
as they were on that day, and turned the people of Pompeii almost instantly
into stone. Harris's beautiful, haunting novel turns the people of ancient Pompeii
back into flesh and blood. And whether you see the lost city through the misty
air from the edge of the volcano, or in your mind's eye from your armchair,
you will feel as though you, too, were there.
About Eric Jager
Eric Jager holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan
and has also taught at Columbia University. An award-winning professor of English
at UCLA, he is the author of two previous books, including The
Book of the Heart (a study of heart imagery in medieval literature) and
numerous articles for acclaimed academic journals. His latest book, The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France, is due for release in October. He currently lives in Los Angeles.