Pompeii was one of the most famous cities of the ancient Roman Empire that was completely decimated by the eruption of Vesuvius, in 79 A.D. The novel is about a water engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, who is sent to the city of Misenum where the aqueducts have stopped. Misenum primarily acts as a naval base and now it is totally bereft of water. The previous water engineer of 20 years has mysteriously disappeared and the new engineer, although highly reputed for his intelligence, is inexperienced for this particular region.
The water engineer has to either figure out what has caused the main aqueduct to stop, or find a new, even if temporary, source of water so that there is no unrest in the city. He finds the signs of water up the hill shadowing the city, but defying all logic and his knowledge, he doesn’t find the water. When he comes back he straightaway goes to check the underground city reservoir to find exactly how much water is left. The extreme smell of sulphur almost drives him mad. While he’s totally bewildered by the smell, his supervisor and other accompanying slaves accuse him of inexperience. Exomnius, the previous aquarius, they complain, would know exactly what was wrong. Attilius often wonders where the previous aquarius has gone and he suspects that he has been killed and his body has been disposed of somewhere. Who has done that, and why, no one seems to know. Corax, his supervisor, seems suspicious and unnaturally hostile to him.
Totally clueless, while he readies himself to rest in his chamber, the daughter of a freed slave, Numerius Popidius Ampliatus, who has now become a millionaire by rebuilding Pompeii after an earthquake had devastated the city 17 years ago, seeks his help because her father is about to put to death the son of her slave nanny due to no fault of his. A romance blossoms.
The son of the slave nanny is being fed to the killer fish because a very precious bunch of fish belonging to Ampliatus have died due to poisoning under the son’s watch. While being put to death the son of the nanny slave screams “call the aquarius, he knows why the fish has died!”
Although Attilius is unable to save the hapless slave, he finds that sulphur in the water has killed the fish. Again, he has no idea why there is so much sulphur in the water.
What he knows is, where the aqueduct must be broken, where he has to go, how many men and how much material he needs and in how much time he can mend the aqueduct.
Thence begins his journey, on a warship as well as on the shaky terrain of the city of Pompeii where sin and splendour go on concomitantly while the restless earth rumbles beneath. Every incident is a step towards that fateful day when Vesuvius will erupt and hundreds of thousands of people will perish in the burning ash riding on the shockwaves. This is a story of not just devastation of monumental proportions, it is also a story of extreme greed, extraordinary courage, and a conviction to go on even when death awaits you.
This is an out and out adventure story interspersed with scientific facts about what precedes before a major eruption, referenced from books on volcanology, seismology and geography. It’s written by Robert Harris.