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Pompeii the Novel

March 9, 2004

A public radio commentary

I've never come to you as any kind of literary critic. Yet today I'm going to play book reviewer and enthusiastically recommend to you a current bestseller.

I recommend to you a book, titled Pompeii, a historical novel by Robert Harris. Set in 79 A.D. this novel of the Roman city promises fireworks and drama because in that year Mount Vesuvius erupted catacysmically, although the author makes the main mystery in this thriller technological.

It's hero is one Marcus Attilus Primus, simply called by his middle name Attilus. It pleases me greatly to report that this hero is one of my own ilk: He's an engineer. Yet, I hesitate to tell you the main plot because you'll think this exciting novel dull, but here goes.

Robert Harris' novel Pompeii focuses on a great achievement: The hydraulic engineering of the Roman aqueducts. You see, this young engineer Attilus builds a great aqueduct to bring water from the slopes of Vesuvius sixty miles to Pompeii and other towns on the Bay of Naples. Now this Roman hero finds the sound of water rushing from the mountain to Pompeii to be "the music of civilization." The mystery begins when his beloved water stops flowing: public fountains mysteriously stop, and springs no longer spout, and crisis hits the cities without water. Attilus becomes a scientific sleuth, in the style of Sherlock Holmes, as he tries to make sense of the failure of his aqueduct. Unknown to him, the problems are caused by the seismic activity of Vesuvius' impending eruption.

The author has done an incredible job of learning about Roman Civil engineering and waterworks, although make no mistake, this always reads like a thriller. We learn about the design of the aqueduct: For every 100 yards Attilus makes the aqueduct drop two inches so the water will flow rapidly. We learn that the Roman named their aqueducts - in this story called Augusta - rather than used them as anonymous sources of water. They thought that the water of each aqueduct had special properties. And we learn about the Roman discovery of cement that hardens underwater, and also exactly what kind of fish by-product the Romans used for ketchup.

I assure you, though, that it's all interesting because as the story moves forward, you know that Vesuvius will cover Pompeii with lava, ash and eventually poisonous gases. But the real treat is following the trials and tribulations of the engineer hero as he investigates, escapes danger, stumbles on nefarious plots and corruption, risks his life, and even falls in love.

And, lastly, after you read the novel Pompeii, you'll never again look at the water from your own faucet in quite the same way.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises