Picture a world where nature is seen in superstitious and conceited terms, where people put themselves at the centre of everything, so that natural disasters must be our fault. “The mountain is destroying us –we have not propitiated the gods! It rains too much, it rains too little –a comfort to think that these things are somehow connected to our behaviour, that if only we lived a little better, a little more frugally, our virtue would be rewarded.”
Picture this world led by men projecting a fantasy of wealth and power, all based on the shifting sands of corruption, intimidation and blind faith.
This recognisably contemporary scenario is reflected in Robert Harris’s Pompeii, describing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.
The story is told mainly through the eyes of a Roman water supply engineer, who in the tense days and hours before the eruption tries to repair the Augusta aqueduct. Damaged by ground displacement near Vesuvius, the Augusta supplies water to Roman towns around the Bay of Naples, a society of recognisably modern fragility where just a few hours interruption of supply brings rioting in the streets.
So if we are seeing our own world through the doomed town of Pompeii, does it show us any answers? To some extent you would have to say no. In the shadow of vast natural forces there is a sense of inevitability, as though there is not much an individual can do to change things. On the other hand this is a story championing practical competence and integrity. While nature has the power to swat away the most powerful society in the world, someone who understands and respects the truth, who sees that certain fundamentals apply in Rome, Gaul, Campania, or anywhere else, is able to work with nature to achieve an engineering miracle such as the Augusta aqueduct
Pompeii presents an age old struggle between two styles of leadership, the first based on competence, the second on the power of superstition and unquestioning belief. You can always challenge a water engineer with the fact that water is not coming out of the pipes. But if a Roman official comes along and suggests making an offering to Jupiter to solve the water supply problem – as a pompous town official does at one point – how do you prove this approach is incorrect? It is difficult to prove that Jupiter is not there to listen, or that the official does not have a special relationship with Jupiter, or that Jupiter does not direct the engineer in his work. You are in the slippery realm of spin and interpretation, where a priestess can make a prophecy about the glorious future of Pompeii, surviving long after others have fallen, thronged by visitors speaking in every tongue. It is possible to see this vision as accurate and hopelessly wrong.
In the end, however, the solid ground of faith based leadership slips from under people’s feet. No amount of sacrificing to Jupiter will stop Vesuvius erupting, or make water flow into busy towns full of thirsty people. And no amount of corruption and financial trickery will do this either. Pompeii is a gripping celebration of competence over delusional hot air, and in that sense this is historical fiction with contemporary relevance, even more so now in 2018 than when it was published in 2003.