Skip to main content




Young engineer Marcus Attilius is sent from Rome to wealthy and
glamorous Pompeii to solve a pesky mystery: why has the aqueduct
failed? It's his big chance to prove himself with the powers that
be, and he's frustrated at every turn by heat, surly locals, and
bureaucratic bungling and corruption. He can't even ask the former
Aquarius of the Aqua Augusta for hints, because the man has simply
disappeared without a trace.

We meet his main adversary, the rich and powerful former slave
Ampliatus, just as he is throwing one of his own slaves to the
moray eels. This poor man was charged with the care of red mullet
in Ampliatus's fish farm, and the red mullets have all died. The
slave's distraught mother enlists the help of Ampliatus's lovely
daughter Corelia to spare the man. And Corelia, who hates her
dissolute and cruel father, tracks down the new Aquarius to support
the slave's charge that there is something wrong with the

Of course there is something wrong with the water: sulfur,
although this information comes too late to save the unfortunate
slave. And then there is no more water at all, at city after city
up the coast. Attilius convinces the elderly Pliny to help him with
ships and men, then get back to the spot where they have deduced
the blockage must be.

Along the way Robert Harris spins a fast-paced mystery, and we
learn much about life in Pompeii and the amazing engineering feat
of the aqueduct itself. The decadence of the rich with their
gorging and purging and young boyfriends is nicely counterbalanced
against the practical, smart Attilius, who increasingly suspects an
imminent disaster that is much bigger than a failure in the water
supply. The impetuous young Corelia (who reminds Attilius of his
beloved deceased wife) displays pluck and courage, spying on her
scheming father and providing Attilius with information he needs to
solve the puzzle. Human treachery and the forces of nature provide
a spectacular finish.

Mr. Harris couldn't have chosen a more compelling period in a more
compelling city than the four days leading up to the eruption of
Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Anyone who has visited the fascinating ruins
there will be intrigued by this very satisfying historical

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman-Nicol on January 22, 2011

by Robert Harris

  • Publication Date: November 18, 2003
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0679428895
  • ISBN-13: 9780679428893