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Robert Harris


I have prefaced these volumes with the names of my authorities.
I have done so because it is, in my opinion, a pleasant thing and
one that shows an honourable modesty, to own up to those
who were the means of one’s achievements . . .


I’m afraid I cannot claim, as Pliny did, to have consulted two thousand volumes in the course of my researches. Nevertheless, this novel could not have been written without the scholarship of many others and, like Pliny, I believe it would be “a pleasant thing”—for me, at least, if not necessarily for them—to list some of my sources.

In addition to those works on volcanology cited in the text, I would like to acknowledge my debt to Jean-Pierre Adam (Roman Building), Carlin A. Barton (Roman Honor), Mary Beagon (Roman Nature), Marcel Brion (Pompeii and Herculaneum), Lionel Casson (The Ancient Mariners), John D’Arms (Romans on the Bay of Naples), Joseph Jay Deiss (Herculaneum), George Hauck (The Aqueduct of Nemausus), John F. Healy (Pliny the Elder on Science and Technology), James Higginbotham (Piscinae), A. Trevor Hodge (Roman Aqueducts and Water Supply), Wilhelmina Feemster Jashemski (The Gardens of Pompeii), Willem Jongman (The Economy and Society of Pompeii), Ray Laurence (Roman Pompeii), Amedeo Maiuri (Pompeii), August Mau (Pompeii: Its Life and Art), David Moore (The Roman Pantheon), Salvatore Nappo (Pompeii: Guide to the Lost City), L. Richardson, Jr. (Pompeii: An Architectural History), Chester G. Starr (The Roman Imperial Navy), Antonio Varone (Pompei, imisteri di una cittá sepolta), Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum), and Paul Zanker (Pompeii: Public and Private Life).

The translations of Pliny, Seneca, and Strabo are mostly drawn from the editions of their work published by the Loeb Classical Library. I made much use of the edition of Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture, edited by Ingrid D. Rowland and Thomas Noble Howe. The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, edited by Richard J. A. Talbert, helped bring Campania to life. The volcanological analysis of the eruption by Haraldur Sigurdsson, Stanford Cashdollar, and Stephen R. J. Sparks in The American Journal of Archaeology (86: 39–51) was invaluable.

I had the great pleasure of discussing the Romans on the Bay of Naples with John D’Arms, over dinner with his family in a suitably sweltering English garden, just before his death; I shall always remember his kindness and encouragement. Professor A. Trevor Hodge, whose pioneering work on Roman aqueducts was crucial in visualizing the Aqua Augusta, helpfully answered my inquiries. Professor Jasper Griffin’s support enabled me to use the library of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Dr. Mary Beard, Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, read the manuscript before publication and made many invaluable suggestions.

To all these scholars, I offer my thanks, and also the protection offered by that familiar rubric: the errors, misinterpretations, and sheer liberties with the facts contained in the text are solely the responsibility of the author.

Robert Harris
Kintbury, June 2003


The Romans divided the day into twelve hours. The first, hora prima, began at sunrise. The last, hora duodecima, ended at sunset.

The night was divided into eight watches—Vespera, Prima fax, Concubia, and Intempesta before midnight; Inclinatio, Gallicinium, Conticinium, and Diluculum after it.

The days of the week were Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and Sun.

Pompeii takes place over four days.

Sunrise on the Bay of Naples in the fourth week of August A.D. 79 was at approximately 06:20 hours.


22 August

Two days before the eruption


[04:21 hours]

A strong correlation has been found between the
magnitude of eruptions and the length of the preceding
interval of repose. Almost all very large, historic eruptions have
come from volcanoes that have been dormant for centuries.



They left the aqueduct two hours before dawn, climbing by moonlight into the hills overlooking the port—six men in single file, the engineer leading. He had turfed them out of their beds himself—all stiff limbs and sullen, bleary faces—and now he could hear them complaining about him behind his back, their voices carrying louder than they realized in the warm, still air.

“A fool’s errand,” somebody muttered.

“Boys should stick to their books,” said another.

He lengthened his stride.

Let them prattle, he thought.

Already he could feel the heat of the morning beginning to build, the promise of another day without rain. He was younger than most of his work gang, and shorter than any of them: a compact, muscled figure with cropped brown hair. The shafts of the tools he carried slung across his shoulder—a heavy, bronze-headed axe and a wooden shovel—chafed against his sunburned neck. Still, he forced himself to stretch his bare legs as far as they would reach, mounting swiftly from foothold to foothold, and only when he was high above Misenum, at a place where the track forked, did he set down his burdens and wait for the others to catch up.

He wiped the sweat from his eyes on the sleeve of his tunic. Such shimmering, feverish heavens they had here in the south! Even this close to daybreak, a great hemisphere of stars swept down to the horizon. He could see the horns of Taurus, and the belt and sword of the Hunter; there was Saturn, and also the Bear, and the constellation they called the Vintager, which always rose for Caesar on the twenty-second day of August, following the Festival of Vinalia, and signaled that it was time to harvest the wine. Tomorrow night the moon would be full. He raised his hand to the sky, his blunt-tipped fingers black and sharp against the glittering constellations—spread them, clenched them, spread them again—and for a moment it seemed to him that he was the shadow, the nothing; the light was the substance.

From down in the harbor came the splash of oars as the night watch rowed between the moored triremes. The yellow lanterns of a couple of fishing boats winked across the bay. A dog barked and another answered. And then the voices of the laborers slowly climbing the path beneath him: the harsh local accent of Corax, the overseer—“Look, our new aquarius is waving at the stars!”—and the slaves and the free men, equals, for once, in their resentment if nothing else, panting for breath and sniggering.

The engineer dropped his hand. “At least,” he said, “with such a sky, we have no need of torches.” Suddenly he was vigorous again, stooping to collect his tools, hoisting them back onto his shoulder. “We must keep moving.” He frowned into the darkness. One path would take them westward, skirting the edge of the naval base. The other led north, toward the seaside resort of Baiae. “I think this is where we turn.”

“He thinks,” sneered Corax.

The engineer had decided the previous day that the best way to treat the overseer was to ignore him. Without a word he put his back to the sea and the stars, and began ascending the black mass of the hillside. What was leadership, after all, but the blind choice of one route over another and the confident pretense that the decision was based on reason?

The path here was steeper. He had to scramble up it sideways, sometimes using his free hand to pull himself along, his feet skidding, sending showers of loose stones rattling away in the darkness. People stared at these brown hills, scorched by summer brushfires, and thought they were as dry as deserts, but the engineer knew different. Even so, he felt his earlier assurance beginning to weaken, and he tried to remember how the path had appeared in the glare of yesterday afternoon, when he had first reconnoitered it. The twisting track, barely wide enough for a mule. The swaths of scorched grass. And then, at a place where the ground leveled out, flecks of pale green in the blackness—signs of life that turned out to be shoots of ivy reaching toward a boulder.

After going halfway up an incline and then coming down again, he stopped and turned slowly in a full circle. Either his eyes were getting used to it, or dawn was close now, in which case they were almost out of time. The others had halted behind him. He could hear their heavy breathing. Here was another story for them to take back to Misenum—how their new young aquarius had dragged them from their beds and marched them into the hills in the middle of the night, and all on a fool’s errand. There was a taste of ash in his mouth.

“Are we lost, pretty boy?”

Corax’s mocking voice again.

He made the mistake of rising to the bait: “I’m looking for a rock.”

This time they did not even try to hide their laughter.

“He’s running around like a mouse in a pisspot!”

“I know it’s here somewhere. I marked it with chalk.”

More laughter—and at that he wheeled on them: the squat and broad-shouldered Corax; Becco, the long-nose, who was a plasterer; the chubby one, Musa, whose skill was laying bricks; and the two slaves, Polites and Corvinus. Even their indistinct shapes seemed to mock him. “Laugh. Good. But I promise you this: either we find it before dawn or we shall all be back here tomorrow night. Including you, Gavius Corax. Only next time make sure you’re sober.”

Silence. Then Corax spat and took a half step forward and the engineer braced himself for a fight. They had been building up to this for three days now, ever since he had arrived in Misenum. Not an hour had passed without Corax trying to undermine him in front of the men.

And if we fight, thought the engineer, he will win—it’s five against one—and they will throw my body over the cliff and say I slipped in the darkness. But how will that go down in Rome—if a second aquarius of the Aqua Augusta is lost in less than a fortnight?

For a long instant they faced each other, no more than a pace between them, so close that the engineer could smell the stale wine on the older man’s breath. But then one of the others—it was Becco—gave an excited shout and pointed.

Just visible behind Corax’s shoulder was a rock, marked neatly in its center by a thick white cross.

Attilius was the engineer’s name—Marcus Attilius Primus, to lay it out in full, but plain Attilius would have satisfied him. A practical man, he had never had much time for all these fancy handles his fellow countrymen went in for. (“Lupus,” “Panthera,” “Pulcher”—“Wolf,” “Leopard,” “Beauty”—who in hell did they think they were kidding?) Besides, what name was more honorable in the history of his profession than that of the gens Attilia, aqueduct engineers for four generations? His great-grandfather had been recruited by Marcus Agrippa from the ballista section of Legion XII “Fulminata” and set to work building Rome’s Aqua Julia. His grandfather had planned the Anio Novus. His father had completed the Aqua Claudia, bringing her into the Esquiline Hill over seven miles of arches, and laying her, on the day of her dedication, like a silver carpet at the feet of the emperor. Now he, at twenty-seven, had been sent south to Campania and given command of the Aqua Augusta.

A dynasty built on water!

He squinted into the darkness. Oh, but she was a mighty piece of work, the Augusta—one of the greatest feats of engineering ever accomplished. It was going to be an honor to command her. Somewhere far out there, on the opposite side of the bay, high in the pine-forested mountains of the Apenninus, the aqueduct captured the springs of Serinus and bore the water westward—channeled it along sinuous underground passages, carried it over ravines on top of tiered arcades, forced it across valleys through massive siphons—all the way down to the plains of Campania, then around the far side of Mount Vesuvius, then south to the coast at Neapolis, and finally along the spine of the Misenum peninsula to the dusty naval town, a distance of some sixty miles, with a mean drop along her entire length of just two inches every one hundred yards. She was the longest aqueduct in the world, longer even than the great aqueducts of Rome and far more complex, for whereas her sisters in the north fed one city only, the Augusta’s serpentine conduit—the matrix, as they called it: the motherline—suckled no fewer than nine towns around the Bay of Neapolis: Pompeii first, at the end of a long spur, then Nola, Acerrae, Atella, Neapolis, Puteoli, Cumae, Baiae, and finally Misenum.

And this was the problem, in the engineer’s opinion. She had to do too much. Rome, after all, had more than half a dozen aqueducts: if one failed the others could make up the deficit. But there was no reserve supply down here, especially not in this drought, now dragging into its third month. Wells that had provided water for generations had turned into tubes of dust. Streams had dried up. Riverbeds had become tracks for farmers to drive their beasts along to market. Even the Augusta was showing signs of exhaustion, the level of her enormous reservoir dropping hourly, and it was this that had brought him out onto the hillside in the time before dawn when he ought to have been in bed.

From the leather pouch on his belt Attilius withdrew a small block of polished cedar with a chin rest carved into one side of it. The grain of the wood had been rubbed smooth and bright by the skin of his ancestors. His great-grandfather was said to have been given it as a talisman by Vitruvius, architect to the Divine Augustus, and the old man had maintained that the spirit of Neptune, god of water, lived within it. Attilius had no time for gods. Boys with wings on their feet, women riding dolphins, greybeards hurling bolts of lightning off the tops of mountains in fits of temper—these were stories for children, not men. He placed his faith instead in stones and water, and in the daily miracle that came from mixing two parts of slaked lime to five parts of puteolanum—the local red sand—conjuring up a substance that would set underwater with a consistency harder than rock.

But still—it was a fool who denied the existence of luck, and if this family heirloom could bring him that . . . He ran his finger around its edge. He would try anything once.

He had left his rolls of Vitruvius behind in Rome. Not that it mattered. They had been hammered into him since childhood, as other boys learned their Virgil. He could still recite entire passages by heart.

These are the growing things to be found which are signs of water: slender rushes, wild willow, alder, chaste berry, ivy, and other things of this sort, which cannot occur on their own without moisture . . .”

“Corax over there,” ordered Attilius. “Corvinus there. Becco, take the pole and mark the place I tell you. You two: keep your eyes open.”

Corax gave him a look as he passed.

“Later,” said Attilius. The overseer stank of resentment almost as strongly as he reeked of wine, but there would be time enough to settle their quarrel when they got back to Misenum. For now they would have to hurry.

A gray gauze had filtered out the stars. The moon had dipped. Fifteen miles to the east, at the midpoint of the bay, the forested pyramid of Mount Vesuvius was becoming visible. The sun would rise behind it.

This is how to test for water: lie face down, before sunrise, in the places where the search is to be made, and with your chin set on the ground and propped, survey these regions. In this way the line of sight will not wander higher than it should, because the chin will be motionless . . .”

Attilius knelt on the singed grass, leaned forward, and arranged the block in line with the chalk cross, fifty paces distant. Then he set his chin on the rest and spread his arms. The ground was still warm from yesterday. Particles of ash wafted into his face as he stretched out. No dew. Seventy-eight days without rain. The world was burning up. At the fringe of his eye line he saw Corax make an obscene gesture, thrusting out his groin—“Our aquarius has no wife, so he tries to fuck Mother Earth instead!”—and then, away to his right, Vesuvius darkened and light shot from the edge of it. A shaft of heat struck Attilius’s cheek. He had to bring up his hand to shield his face from the dazzle as he squinted across the hillside.

In those places where moisture can be seen curling and rising into the air, dig on the spot, because this sign cannot occur in a dry location . . .”

You saw it quickly, his father used to tell him, or you did not see it at all. He tried to scan the ground rapidly and methodically, shifting his gaze from one section of the land to the next. But it all seemed to run together—parched browns and grays and streaks of reddish earth, already beginning to waver in the sun. His vision blurred. He raised himself on his elbows and wiped each eye with a forefinger and settled his chin again.


As thin as a fishing line it was—not “curling” or “rising” as Vitruvius promised, but snagging, close to the ground, as if a hook were caught on a rock and someone were jerking it. It zigzagged toward him. And vanished. He yelled and pointed—“There, Becco, there!”—and the plasterer lumbered toward the spot. “Back. Yes. There. Mark it.”

He scrambled to his feet and hurried toward them, brushing the red dirt and black ash from the front of his tunic, smiling, holding the magical block of cedar aloft. The three had gathered around the place and Becco was trying to jam the pole into the earth, but the ground was too hard to sink it far enough.

Attilius was triumphant. “You saw it? You must have seen it. You were closer than I.”

They stared at him blankly.

“It was curious, did you notice? It rose like this.” He made a series of horizontal chops at the air with the flat of his hand. “Like steam coming off a cauldron that’s being shaken.”

He looked from one to another, his smile fixed at first, then shrinking.

Corax shook his head. “Your eyes are playing tricks on you, pretty boy. There’s no spring up here. I told you. I’ve known these hills for twenty years.”

“And I’m telling you I saw it.”

“Smoke.” Corax stamped his foot on the dry earth, raising a cloud of dust. “A brushfire can burn underground for days.”

“I know smoke. I know vapor. This was vapor.”

They were shamming blindness. They had to be. Attilius dropped to his knees and patted the dry red earth. Then he started digging with his bare hands, working his fingers under the rocks and tossing them aside, tugging at a long, charred tuber which refused to come away. Something had emerged from here. He was sure of it. Why had the ivy come back to life so quickly if there was no spring?

He said, without turning round, “Fetch the tools.”


Fetch the tools!”

They dug all morning, as the sun climbed slowly above the blue furnace of the bay, melting from yellow disk to gaseous white star. The ground creaked and tautened in the heat, like the bowstring of one of his great-grandfather’s giant siege engines.

Once, a boy passed them, dragging an emaciated goat by a rope halter toward the town. He was the only person they saw. Misenum itself lay hidden from view just beyond the cliff edge. Occasionally its sounds floated up to them—shouts of command from the military school, hammering and sawing from the shipyards.

Attilius, an old straw hat pulled low over his face, worked hardest of all. Even when the others crept off occasionally to sprawl in whatever patches of shade they could find, he continued to swing his ax. The shaft was slippery with his sweat and hard to grip. His palms blistered. His tunic stuck to him like a second skin. But he would not show weakness in front of the men. Even Corax shut up after a while.

The crater they eventually excavated was twice as deep as a man’s height, and broad enough for two of them to work in. And there was a spring there, right enough, but it retreated whenever they came close. They would dig. The rusty soil at the bottom of the hole would turn damp. And then it would bake dry again in the sunlight. They would excavate another layer and the same process would recur.

Only at the tenth hour, when the sun had passed its zenith, did Attilius at last acknowledge defeat. He watched a final stain of water dwindle and evaporate, then flung his ax over the lip of the pit and hauled himself after it. He pulled off his hat and fanned his burning cheeks. Corax sat on a rock and watched him. For the first time Attilius noticed he was bareheaded.

He said, “You’ll boil your brains in this heat.” He uncorked his waterskin and tipped a little into his hand, splashed it onto his face and the back of his neck, then drank. It was hot—as unrefreshing as swallowing blood.

“I was born here. Heat doesn’t bother me. In Campania we call this cool.” Corax hawked and spat. He tilted his broad chin toward the hole. “What do we do with this?”

Attilius glanced at it—an ugly gash in the hillside, great mounds of earth heaped all around it. His monument. His folly. “We’ll leave it as it is,” he said. “Have it covered with planks. When it rains, the spring will rise. You’ll see.”

“When it rains, we won’t need a spring.”

A fair point, Attilius had to concede.

“We could run a pipe from it,” he said thoughtfully. He was a romantic when it came to water. In his imagination, a whole pastoral idyll suddenly began to take shape. “We could irrigate this entire hillside. There could be lemon groves up here. Olives. It could be terraced. Vines—”

“Vines!” Corax shook his head. “So now we’re farmers! Listen to me, young expert from Rome. Let me tell you something. The Aqua Augusta hasn’t failed in more than a century. And she isn’t going to fail now. Not even with you in charge.”

“We hope.” The engineer finished the last of his water. He could feel himself blushing scarlet with humiliation, but the heat hid his shame. He planted his straw hat firmly on his head and pulled down the brim to protect his face. “All right, Corax, get the men together. We’ve done here for the day.”

He collected his tools and set off without waiting for the others. They could find their own way back.

He had to watch where he put his feet. Each step sent a scattering of lizards rustling away into the dry undergrowth. It’s more Africa than Italy, he thought, and when he reached the coastal path, Misenum appeared beneath him, shimmering in the haze of heat like an oasis town, pulsing—or so it seemed to him—in time with the cicadas.

The headquarters of the western imperial fleet was a triumph of man over nature, for by rights no town should exist here. There was no river to support her, few wells or springs. Yet the Divine Augustus had decreed that the empire needed a port from which to control the Mediterranean, and here she was, the embodiment of Roman power: the glittering silver disks of her inner and outer harbors, the golden beaks and fantail sterns of fifty warships glinting in the late-afternoon sun, the dusty brown parade ground of the military school, the red-tiled roofs and the whitewashed walls of the civilian town rising above the spiky forest of masts in the shipyard.

Ten thousand sailors and another ten thousand citizens were crammed into a narrow strip of land with no fresh water to speak of. Only the aqueduct had made Misenum possible.

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