Robert Harris


Historical Fiction


Date Reviewed:

October 18, 2004

It is nice to read such a well researched book. Harris does a fine job of portraying the Roman civilization and its citizens (and slaves). Harris doesn't resort to info-dumps, overwhelming the reader with long expository paragraphs, but every page of the book contains a strong sense of believability (verisimilitude) because of the descriptions and characters. Ancient Rome might well have been just as it is describe herein. I especially liked all the discussion of the wonderous aqueducts. Maybe it is because I am an engineer that the Roman aqueducts are so interesting. But Harris also has a plenty of distinctive characters, starting with the "aquarius", Marcus Attilius - an uncorruptible Roman engineer.

Attilius has been sent to the sea port of Misenum to replace Exomnius, the engineer in charge of the aqueduct who has gone missing. Misenum is the last city on the Aqua Augusta, the aqueduct that supplies water to nine Roman cities, including Pompeii. From the very beginning, Harris informs the reader that the story opens just two days before the eruption. This certainly adds suspense to the proceedings, since the readers knows the doom that faces all the characters.

Strangely, the aqueduct stops flowing. No water arrives at Misenum, which has a large population (the Roman fleet is based in the fine harbor, which is why Misenum has been built there) and no other water supply. How could the water be disrupted? Sabotage? The aqueduct curls around the northern slopes of Vesuvius, so the reader has a good idea what might be the problem. But Attilius faces more problems than just mother nature. Corax is the foreman for the aqueduct crew, and he is unrelenting in his hostility for Attilius. Despite Corax's efforts to block him, Attilius manages to convince the admiral that he can repair the aqueduct in two days, and restore the Aqua Augusta. The admiral writes out an order that allows Attilius to requistion all the repair supplies he needs from Pompeii, and proceed with the repairs. Attilius sails for Pompeii the next morning.

In addition to the suspense created by Vesuvius looming over Pompeii, Harris also creates suspense from citizens who oppose Attilius. Water is precious and expensive, but many corrupt wealthy men tap the supply without paying the price, and they do not desire to have Attilius discover and stop their water. The book shows the worst of Roman excess and cruelty, of wealthy and corrupt leading men, but it also shows the tough Roman spirit and attitude that allow the creation of an empire that endured for hundreds of years. This is a terrific read, I should check out more of the books that Harris has written. I hope they make a movie out of this!