Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Pompeii: A Novel by Robert Harris

Pompeii (2003) is not the latest novel by British novelist Robert Harris, and I can't say how it compares to his many others. It is, in fact, the first Harris novel I've read. I can say, however, that it was easily good enough to make me want to read more of his work. The novel's attractions for me were fourfold:
  1. It's about ancient Rome - one of my main areas of historical interest
  2. It's not about legions and wars and emperors. That's very unusual and refreshing. Of course, natural disasters are not exactly unexplored territory in fiction, but I haven't found any other novels about the great volcanic eruption of A.D. 79.
  3. It's secondary setting is the great Roman aqueduct, the Aqua Augusta, that brought fresh water from inland springs to the coastal towns around the bay of Naples. The main character is the engineer in charge of maintaining it. As a building designer, the marvels of Roman engineering fascinate me.
  4. It was in my local library - always important to the reader on a budget.
Pompeii has a few shortcomings. The biggest one, for me, is historical. Either Harris was unaware of the pre-Roman history of the volcanic area west of Vesuvius, or else he didn't want to put too many irons in the fire. But any person living in that place, at that time, could not have failed to be aware of the Cumaen sibyl. The Aeneid, written about 100 years previous, was almost certainly one of the best known pieces of Roman literature to an educated citizen such as the engineer Attilius. In the epic poem by Virgil, Aeneas visits the Cumae area to consult the oracle, and is conducted on a visit to the Underworld.

Indeed, the novel mentions that the sibyl lived in the area, but fails to mention the continuing existence of the mystic cult in the area. Judging from archaeological evidence, the story was not a forgotten legend - there are several elaborate underground sites in the area that were probably connected with the sibyl - probably maintained by competing charlatans claiming to be the descendent of the original sibyl. One of the sites even contains a heated, sulferous underground river that could have been easily passed off as the river Styx. Here's a link to a good article in Smithsonian about the archaeological studies conducted there. I can think of many fascinating ways the underground complex could have been incorporated into Pompeii.

To be fair, the central place in the novel is Pompeii, not Cumae or Baiae. Attilius visits the underground reservoir at the terminus of the aqueduct above Misenum (Miseno) and a nearby fish farm, not far from Baiae, but the story gives him no reason to visit the home of the sibyl. Harris shows he's done his research by his description of the reservoir itself (which can be visited today) and the Misenum naval base. Another interesting detail is the mention that Misenum was supposedly named for a character in the Aeneid. The story later features detailed descriptions of the streets and buildings of Pompeii, drawn from archaeological researches that have excavated and studied much of the Roman town buried by that disastrous eruption of Vesuvius.

My second quibble is minor, but is one that's common to most historical fiction: the juvenile style of the writing about relations between the sexes. Yes, the history is the main thing, but real people just don't act the way historical novel characters act toward each other. The scenes between men and women in Pompeii would be more at home in Dickens than in the 21st century (or in ancient Rome). Okay, that's too harsh - not Dickens - a John Ford 50s western movie, perhaps. Of course, 1st-century Romans didn't act like 21st-century Americans, either (or John Ford characters). We do know that upper-class Romans were pretty conservative and tended to be rather prudish, so maybe Harris was not far off in his characterizations.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. The whole Bay of Naples area is full of interesting historical and geological sites, rarely visited in other ancient-Rome novels.  
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. The novel lacks a bibliography or "Historical Notes" that are so helpful to readers interested in the history, but there's plenty of historical detail.  Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
It seems to be - I haven't done any follow-up research to see how much of the description of events during the eruption is drawn from historical sources. Again, some historical notes by the author would have been enlightening.  
Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
The only indisdutably historical character in Pompeii, and the only one extensively involved in the story, is the man known to us as Pliny the Elder. At the end of a long career, Pliny served as admiral of the fleet at Misenum, and died during an attempted naval rescue operation of victims of the volcanic eruption. The fictional Attilius is familiar with the writings of Pliny, and enlists the admirals' help in the crisis situation. A few other characters may be historical, but their roles in the story are minor.  
Score = 3
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Definitely - especially his trilogy of biographical novels about the Roman orator and politician Cicero; Imperium, Lustrum and Conspirata.  
Score = 5.

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