Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

Robert Harris (2003), Pompeii

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on May 21, 2010

I must have bought something in Waterstone’s around the time this book came out, because I remember seeing a pile of free pamphlets containing a sample chapter from it on the counter as I paid for my purchases. (The chapter in question was what I know now to be the book’s third, entitled ‘Hora duodecima‘.) Excited, I picked one up, took it home and read it… and was distinctly underwhelmed. There was nothing particularly stylish about it, the story didn’t grab or excite me, and, most of all, I was annoyed by the following paragraph (p. 56):

“A statue of Egeria, goddess of the water-spring, was set in a niche beside the door. At her feet lay a few stems of withered flowers and some mouldy lumps of bread and fruit – offerings left by pregnant women who believed that Egeria, consort of Numa, the Prince of Peace, would ease their delivery when their time came. Another worthless superstition. A waste of food.”

To me, there are two problems here: 1) anachronistic values and 2) intrusive explanations. On the first, I know that we can only ever see the past through the filter of the present, but if you end up writing fiction which entirely elides all the differences between the two, why bother looking at the past at all? Why not just write fiction set in the present? What Harris has done here is to make the main character of a novel set in an era when everyone worshipped the gods without thinking to question it into a religious cynic. For that to work, there needs to be some reason for it – something special or unusual about the character, such as him being a radical intellectual. I was pretty sure from the sample chapter that there wasn’t any such thing in this case – and now that I have read the rest of the book, I am certain.

Our main man, and the one whose views this paragraph is supposed to reflect, is no Cicero. Rather, he’s a fairly ordinary, practical fellow – an aqueduct engineer, in fact. Just not the sort of person in the ancient world likely to go around judging religious offerings ‘a waste of food’. Of course it makes him more accessible to a modern, secular reader. But wouldn’t it be far more interesting to set modern cynicism aside, and explore the very different mind-set of someone for whom the gods were real and active? We can be cynical as we read it if we want – but why write that into an ancient character? I clung to the vain hope that it might turn out to be the basis for some character development – that Attilius might be forced to change his perspective, or at least get into a confrontation with someone holding different views. But there was no such luck. It was just a modern mind, stuck clumsily into an ancient head.

As for the matter of intrusive explanations, I also now know that explanatory comments much along the lines of “Egeria, consort of Numa, the Prince of Peace” are rife throughout the whole book. Another example which particularly jarred was (p. 120):

“He saw them off from the pomoerium, the sacred boundary just beyond the Vesuvius Gate, kept clear of buildings in honour of the city’s guardian deities.”

This just made me think: well, if you feel you have to insert all that clumsy explanation to convey to your readers what the pomoerium is, why mention it at all in the first place? Why not just say ‘the city-limits’ or ‘the city walls’, which would be just as appropriate without needing an explanation? Or, alternatively, might it even be enjoyable for the reader to encounter terms like this without an explanation, as a signal that they are dealing with a strange and alien world? A clever writer could allow the reader to pick up the meaning of terms like this from context, without needing to ‘gloss’ them – and in fact I think that is part of what many people look for when they pick up a historical novel. Maybe I’m wrong about that, and only find such references annoying because I have the luxury of already knowing the territory. But I’m pretty sure explanations like that would put me right off even if I didn’t.

Anyway, with all that just in the sample chapter, I decided not to bother reading the rest of the book at the time when it originally came out. I’ve come back to it because the rumour-mill reports that Ridley Scott will soon be making it into a TV mini-series – and if I’m going to watch that (which I believe I am!) I’d like to have read the book first. It’s also likely that a lot of my ‘City in the Roman World’ students next year will be watching the TV series, so I’d like to be able to discuss the portrayal of Roman urbanism which it presents with them intelligently.

Reading the book with a close knowledge of Pompeii, I did appreciate the fact that Harris gives enough detail in terms of street directions and descriptions to identify the settings he is using – even when they aren’t actually named. With a map and a couple of books by my side, it didn’t take me long to work out that Popidius / Ampliatus’ house is, very suitably, the House of the Citharist / Lyre Player, which does indeed seem to have been associated with the family of the Popidii. The heart-stoppingly beautiful statue of Apollo after which it is named is actually mentioned in passing on p. 33. And I must admit that I scoffed at the idea of a Roman house having a swimming-pool that could be seen from its atrium (entrance-hall) when I read the description in the book – but to be fair this is actually entirely true for the House of the Citharist. Mind you, I can’t help but point out that the nearby set of baths, where Attilius encounters some of Pompeii’s chief magistrates, were no longer in use at the time of eruption.

Similarly, Africanus’ brothel is the famous lupanar which gives its name to the Vico del Lupanare in Regio VII, while Ampliatus’ baths are the Central Baths, indeed still under construction at the time of the eruption. I was baffled by the reference here to brass ‘handles to flush the latrines’ on p. 153, though. I presume what’s happened here is that Harris read some reference to ‘flush lavatories’ in these baths, but didn’t realise that in a Roman context, this means a row of seats continually flushed out by running water, rather than individual cisterns with release handles as we have today.

Other than that, though, the impressions I’d formed on reading the sample chapter were only confirmed by the rest of the book. I found the characters dull and one-dimensional, the pacing poor, the language unexceptional and the story surprisingly unexciting, given the potential of the setting. Even the details about the houses seemed to me like pedantry. It’s great that Harris has obviously done such extensive research, but it somehow doesn’t seem to have provided fertile ground for his ideas and characters to grow – only constrained him, really. Of course he’d read Pliny’s letters about the eruption, and other such worthy and relevant sources. But I would have liked to see him do something more than just replicating their details with a little extra description and dialogue. That may be ‘accurate’ (if anything about the ancient world ever really can be), but it is also dull.

Harris’s opening quotations from Tom Wolfe, Pliny the Elder and A. Trevor Hodge, and his closing account of the ancient sources which he used, suggest that he wants to present himself as a serious player in the grand tradition of Western literary responses to Pompeii. But for that to work, he not only needs to know his predecessors – he also needs to take us somewhere else; show us something new. For me, this book failed to do that.

14 Responses to “Robert Harris (2003), Pompeii”

  1. Mark said

    Hi Penny, just testing this out. Feel free to delete!

  2. Mark said

    This is much nicer than the other one — threaded comments! I’m not sure I like having to give an email address, but at least it remembers who I am. Well, so far it does; it may be different when I log out and back in again…

    It’s this one, not Blogger, that gives me the option of e-mail notification of follow-up comments and/or new posts. Though I probably wouldn’t use it, it’s nice to have the option.

    • Cheers. So it looks like this one wins out pretty definitively for commenting functionality. And I guess it has to ask for an email address if it is going to offer the option of email notifications, so that’s fair enough really.

  3. Liz W said


  4. blueporcupine said

    I read this about five years ago (when I still remembered unaided what a pomoerium was) and came to much the same conclusions as you. The constant breaking off for explanations ruins the pace utterly. You always know Harris is there, behind the writing, being smug about what a lot of research he’s done (although since it’s not enough for truly knowledgeable people anyway, it was probably a waste of his time past, say, the 75% mark).

    The puzzling thing is that none of this is true of his other books, which are largely exciting and pacy and don’t suffer from all the same leaden explaining. Ok, they’re less historically remote, but I can’t help feeling that it’s his own self-consciousness in writing about “ancient history” that really made the difference between this and, say, Fatherland. Or maybe, more mechanically, the problem with Pompeii is that we all know how it’s going to end, so the only thing left to care about is who will survive. Which means the characters have to be bang on. All his other books have unknown plots, which perhaps makes one more forgiving of the odd bit of dud characterisation in them.

    My other half has just read Imperium, and assures me that it gets good after a similarly slow and dull first section. It all makes me wonder if the Roman novels would have been published if Harris had been a first time author.

    • I haven’t read any of Harris’ non-Roman books (though I have read Imperium and am part-way through Lustrum), so I’ll have to take your word that they are less burdened down by a similar habit of explanation. I can well believe that he would become a much more enjoyable author without that, though, and with the benefit of an unknown plot.

      I’m not personally much bowled over by either Imperium or Lustrum. I’ll post full reviews soon, but in essence I don’t really feel they add anything of very much value beyond what is already in the ancient sources – in which case you might as well just read the ancient sources directly, rather than filtered through Harris. Even Cicero doesn’t seem to me to be very deeply characterised, which is a bit of a problem in a story all about him! It has its moments, but I would recommend Plutarch’s Life of Cicero much more highly.

  5. sr256 said

    I like books by Robert Harris- and I remember enjoying Pompeii when I read it a few years ago. I am hardly a scholar of Roman history and although I agree with you about the problem of inserting modern values in a character from a different era (without sufficient justification), I don’t think that inserting explanations for terms like pomoerium necessarily ruined the pace or the narrative of the book. In fact I thought they were pretty helpful for someone no quite so well versed with Roman history (but who are likely to take an interest in it).
    I have read Imperium also though I can’t remember anything remarkable about it.

    • Thanks – it’s nice to hear the perspective of someone who found Harris’ explanations useful. Actually, I’ve just finished his latest Roman-period novel, Lustrum, and he’s included a glossary at the back of that. It struck me as a good way to provide explanations for people who want them, without interrupting the narrative flow.

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