Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pompeii and Imperium

Two books by Robert Harris

Robert Harris is an English gentleman, which, of course means that he is fascinated with ancient Rome. In preparation for reading his newest book Conspirata I checked out his first two Roman novels, Pompeii and Imperium. Harris has also written an alternate history novel, Fatherland, some thrillers and some books of real, non fiction, history.
Pompeii, not surprisingly, has to do with the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of the city of Pompeii. Harris peoples his book with both fictional and historical characters. His protagonist, Marcus Attilius Primus is a hydraulic engineer, or an "Aquarius" as he is titled. He has an adventure suitable for Indiana Jones in the process of repairing the Aqua Augusta, the aqueduct which waters Pompeii, Neapolis and other towns in the area. In the process he uncovers corruption in the local government, not to mention a murder, learns that Vesuvius is about to erupt,and finds a love interest in the daughter of the ex-slave who serves as the villain. Pliny the Elder who was Naval commander in the area at the time figures prominently in the book. His nephew, Pliny the Younger makes a cameo appearance, as a callow youth and the Emperor Vespasian plays a part off stage.

Imperium is the first volume in a proposed trilogy on the life of Cicero. (The new book Conspirata is the second) Imperium is a John Grisham like courtroom drama, featuring Cicero as the up and coming young lawyer who beats the more experienced and wily older man in an important case. It is also a historical novel that attempts to document the early career of this important Roman statesman. The story is narrated by Cicero's slave and secretary, Tiro, a real person, who is believed to have actually written a biography of the great man, which has been lost. Other real people, including Julius Caesar, and the famous generals Pompey and Crassus play roles in this novel.

I found subtle references to the controversy over climate change in Pompeii and even more subtle comments of the invasion of Iraq in Imperium. Harris uses the Roman Empire as a mirror to hold up against contemporary society. He does it in a way that the reader doesn't have to notice if one does not want to. For the record, Pliny the Elder is a climate change skeptic.


  1. I listened to Imperium in my car. I enjoyed it. I didn't know there were sequels. So, thanks!

  2. More to come! I hope that Harris will write as many ancient Rome books as Lindsey Davis, eventually.


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