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14 March 2018

Book Review: Pompeii

PompeiiPompeii by Robert   Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I devoured this book. As someone said in the Goodreads thread, "To focus on the water systems of Pompeii and surrounding towns as effected by the imminent volcanic eruption is genius and I can't put this book down. Think it is a great way to add interest to an event we already know of the outcome."

The idea of aqueducts has always been fascinating, though I lack the specific engineering understanding to fully comprehend how amazing they actually were. I've seen the ruins of several (most impressively, Segovia in Spain and Pont du Gard in France) but knowing that before laser measuring and surveying, Roman engineers were able to build these massive, yet delicately-designed, structures. "The great Roman roads went crashing through Nature in a straight line, brooking no opposition. But the aqueducts, which had to drop the width of a finger every hundred yards--any more and the flow would rupture the walls; any less and the water would lie stagnant--they were obliged to follow the contours of the ground. Sometimes it was only the eagles, soaring in the hot air above some lonely mountainscape, who could appreciate the true majesty of what men had wrought."

Harris is a good writer in the sense that I was never given pause by his structure. Nor was I frequently blown away by his prose, save for a few dog ears like this one, where he is describing how smell and touch set off memory;

"But lately almost anything could set it off--a touch, a smell, a sound, a colour glimpsed--and immediately memories he did not know he still possessed came flooding back, as if there was nothing left of him any more but a breathless sack of remembered impressions."

I enjoyed every bit of it. Not once was I thrown off by the anachronistic coupling of language using modern terms cuddled up with Roman terms. Nor was I thrown off by the fictionalization of known Roman citizens.

Harris puts thoughts into Pliny the Elder's mind (and I'll leave it to the learned historians to determine how accurate his imaginings might be, although in the Acknowledgements, Harris says that Mary Beard read the manuscript and provided feedback; having just finished SPQR, I tend to trust that Beard knows what she's talking about) but one stream of consciousness Harris attributes to Pliny's thought process was particularly moving;

"Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us, he thought, for our greed and selfishness. We torture her at all hours by iron and wood, fire and stone. We dig her up and then dump her in the sea. We sink mineshafts into her and drag out her entrails--and all for a jewel to wear on a pretty finger. Who can blame her if she occasionally quivers with anger?"

Ampliatus, the villain of the piece, wants his work in Pompeii to be important through the ages. He also wants to use predictions of the future as a way to solidify his power, so he commissions a sibyl, a fortune-teller, to give him a prophecy. And it's this prophecy that causes him to stay in the town as it is being pelted by ash and pumice; his conviction that Pompeii will survive.

"She saw a town--our town--many years from now. A thousand years distant, maybe more. She saw a city famed throughout the world. Our temples, our ampitheatre, our streets--thronging with people of every tongue. That is what she saw in the guts of the snakes. Long after the Caesars are dust and the Empire has passed away, what we have built here will endure."

The moral? Interpreting prophecy can dangerous.

"It killed more than two thousand people in less than half a minute and it left their bodies arranged in a series of grotesque tableaux for posterity to gawp at. For although their hair and clothes burned briefly, these fires were quickly snuffed out by the lack of oxygen, and instead a muffling, six-foot tide of fine ash, traveling in the wake of the surge, flowed over the city, shrouding the landscape and moulding every detail of its fallen victims.The ash hardened. More pumice fell. In their snug cavities the bodies rotted, and with them, as the centuries passed, the memory that there had even ben a city on this spot. Pompeii became a town of perfectly shaped hollow citizens."


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