Robert Harris must have done some serious research before writing this novel, set in AD 79 and covering the last two days before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
His hero is Attilius, a young engineer, who has been sent from Rome to Misenum to take over as“aquarius”, a post that has become vacant, as the old aquarius has mysteriously disappeared. His job is to maintain the “Aqua Augusta” aquaeduct, which supplies all the towns along the Bay of Neapolis with water, among them Pompeii. From the beginning, Attilius has to cope with corrupt coworkers, a diminishing water supply, and water poisoned by sulphurus gases, portents of the imminent eruption of Mount Vesuvius, although Attilius does not recognise them as such.
It is a stroke of genius, that Harris sees the build-up to the disastrous catastrophe from the view of a water engineer. And the author´s admiration for the brilliant Roman irrigation system takes centre stage. Old Pliny plays a role, too, naturally, and Attilius falls in love with Corelia, the daughter of a very rich and very corrupt citizen of Pompeii, a former slave. This gives Harris ample opportunity to reveal the decadent political system of the then seventies.
Well, this is also what we remember from Latin lessons, so it comes as no surprise; but I found it really gripping to read about the “Aqua Augusta” and Attilius´efforts to find the source of the problems with the water supply. Of course, there is a happy ending, at least for Attilius and Corelia, but all the bad guys bite the dust, literally.