Pompeii is a novel by British author and previous journalist and BBC television reporter Robert Harris published by Random House in 2003. It is a historical fiction with a blend of fictional characters with the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24 August 79 AD that overwhelmed Pompeii and its surrounding towns. Pompeii is especially notable for the author's references to various aspects of volcanology and use of the Roman calendar. A film version of the book, to be directed by Roman Polanski with a budget of US$150M, was cancelled in 2007 due to the threat of the Screen Actors Guild strike.
Marcus Attilius Primus arrives in the Bay of Naples from Rome to take charge as aquarius (hydraulic engineer) of the Aqua Augusta, the aqueduct that supplies water to the many towns in a region encompassing the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius. The nine important towns are, in sequential order, Pompeii, Nola, Acerrae, Atella, Naples, Puteoli, Cumae, Baiae, and Misenum. Attilius' predecessor as aquarius, Exomnius, has mysteriously vanished as the springs that flow through the aqueduct begin to fail, lowering the supply of water available to the region's reservoir, the Piscina Mirabilis in Misenum.
Then, dramatically, the flow of water stops entirely. Attilius concludes that the aqueduct must be blocked somewhere close to Mount Vesuvius, since reports claim a shut down of the system just before Nola, meaning that towns from there through Naples and Misenum are without any water supply. With aid from Pliny the Elder, whose fleet is docked at Misenum, Attilius assembles an expedition to travel to Pompeii, the closest town still being supplied with water, and then on to the blocked section of the Aqua Augusta.
While Attilius' expedition is there, the aquarius himself becomes embroiled as part of a plot of the former slave and land speculator Numerius Popidius Ampliatus. Ampliatus is planning to offer a cheap water supply to Pompeii, which Exomnius, the previous aquarius, had helped him do while stealing from the imperial treasury.
Attilius' questions and studies make Ampliatus suspicious of what Pliny the Elder and his nephew later discover—thousands of Roman sesterces at the bottom of the reservoir that should have gone to Rome and which Attilius' predecessor had intended to retrieve once he'd emptied the reservoir. Ampliatus' daughter Corelia gets Attilius the proof he needs from her father's written records when he is performing repairs to a collapsed section of tunnel in the region around Mount Vesuvius.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24 August overwhelms Pompeii, Oplontis, and Herculaneum. Attilius risks his life and comes back to Pompeii to find Corelia. Attilius and Corelia dig their way through the aqueduct tunnel, which the springs are beginning to fill—which carries a high risk of drowning. Ampliatus is killed when he refuses to evacuate the city, and Pliny dies from the effects of fumes on a corpulent body when he tries to evacuate the citizens.
At the end of the book Attilius and Corelia enter the aqueduct just as the waters are coming back to full flow. The last sentence of the novel reports a local legend that a man and woman had emerged from the aqueduct after the eruption—implying that Attilius and Corelia likely survived the trip up the aqueduct.
The incident of Ampliatus feeding a slave to his eels is based on the actual historical case of Vedius Pollio.
The novel takes as its motto two parallel quotes, from Tom Wolfe's Hooking Up and from the Natural History of Pliny the Elder (who, as noted, is a central character in the book itself), with both writers speaking in nearly identical terms of the preeminence of, respectively, the present United States and the Roman Empire, over the rest of the world.
The theme of comparing ancient Rome to the contemporary United States is repeated in various ways throughout the book, for example in the deliberate use of typically American terminology, as when Attilius regards Pompeii as "a hustling boomtown" while Ampliatus boasts that "I am the man who runs this town."
Attilius himself is very much of a "modern" character, a typical proponent of the problem solving approach – a pragmatic engineer, who has little use for religion or gods but an unbounded confidence in the ability of sound Roman engineering and science to solve problems – given a thorough knowledge of natural laws, good planning and a firm leadership, all of which he is fully capable of providing.
Faced with the eruption, which threatens to utterly destroy his hard-built fortune and power, Ampliatus clings to the prophecy which he heard from Pompeii's resident sybil. After sacrificing a snake to an ancient god, the sybil had supposedly prophesied that even after the passage of millennia, when the Roman Empire and its emperors have long since gone into the dust, the name of Pompeii will be known throughout the world and people of every tongue will wander its streets and enter its amphitheaters. It is this prophecy which encourages Ampliatus to stay in the embattled city and keep his family and household there – to the death of all of them but Corelia.
The reader, of course, knows (though Ampliatus cannot) that the sybil spoke the truth, but that Pompeii's enduring fame would not result from its being spared the eruption. On the contrary, precisely by being engulfed and covered up for many centuries, only to be rediscovered and provide modern archaeologists with a uniquely preserved Roman city, gave Pompeii its enduring fame – far too late for its hapless first century citizens to have any benefit.
No such prophecy is mentioned in any actual Roman text. However, the device of a true prophecy which is disastrously misunderstood and leading to wrong action is well-attested in the Classical World, for example the case of Croesus who was told that if he goes to war with Persia he would destroy a great kingdom – which ended up turning out to refer to his own kingdom, conquered and annexed by Cyrus as a result of the war to which Croesus was encouraged by the prophecy.
In 2007, Harris wrote a screenplay based on Pompeii for director Roman Polanski. Harris acknowledged in many interviews that the plot of his novel was inspired by Polanski's film Chinatown, and Polanski said it was precisely that similarity that had attracted him to Pompeii. The film, to be produced by Summit Entertainment, was announced at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 as potentially the most expensive European film ever made, set to be shot in Spain. Media reports suggested Polanski wanted Orlando Bloom and Scarlett Johansson to play the two leads. The film was cancelled in September 2007 as a result of a looming actors' strike.
Polanski and Harris enjoyed working together so much that they re-teamed to adapt Harris's 2007 political thriller The Ghost, released in 2010 as The Ghost in the UK and Ireland, and as The Ghost Writer worldwide. Polanski and Harris won numerous awards for their adaptation, including "Best Screenwriter" at the 23rd European Film Awards, and "Best Writing-Adaption" at the 36th Annual César Awards.