In 2003, Robert Harris published Pompeii: A Novel, which for vitality and entertainment and the atmosphere of the decadent Roman world around the Bay of Naples in the first century AD can hardly be beaten. The great eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 and the destruction of the playground city of Pompeii is made even more cataclysmic by Harris’s angle on it. Not until nearly the end of the book does he describe the mushroom cloud, the blood-red lightning, the choking ash four feet deep, the terrifying withdrawal of the sea, the darkness and the final silence.
Harris concentrates on the early warnings, the disappearance of the drinking water, the drying up of the sparkling fountains, the mysterious blockage of the Matrix, one of the wonders of the Roman world that carried the water of life across Italy. The mountain watches as it had watched Hercules in mythical times trying to drive back the giants who had wracked the place with fire.
Vesuvius is an old mountain. But it is the young scientist, a water-engineer, who comes out of the horrors better than the locals: the sleazy politicians, epicureans and con-men who mostly lose their heads, search for scapegoats, throw the innocents to be eaten alive in a tank of great eels. A few intellectuals — Pliny the Elder, who was dying of obesity anyway — some women and the odd slave die well and bravely. Some even survive. It is a full and first-rate yarn.
Harris, however, acknowledges on the jacket of a new Vesuvius book, Pompeii: The Living City, by an archaeologist and an art historian and dramatist, that here is a different thing. It is a very detailed narrative, mixture of historical fact and patches of italicised fiction, and Harris wishes that it had been available when he wrote his novel. Pompeii is seen not through the eyes of a foreign water- engineer engrossed in his profession but those of Decimus Lucretius Valens, an historical character, Prefect of the Camps in Egypt and destined for political power.
We first meet him sitting silent on the steps of the ruined, ancient statue of King Memnon, where he has just heard of the destruction of Pompeii, his home. The epigraph of this heavily researched but readable book, which is also splendidly illustrated, is a graffito found 1,700 years later in the 18th-century revelation of the shrouded city: ‘Nothing can last for ever.’
A slighter book — and three books so committed to Vesuvius published so near together is slightly unnerving, for the magma is building! — is Dr Jordan Lancaster’s In the Shadow of Vesuvius. This is a study not only of Pompeii but also of the whole Golfo di Napoli, which she feels to be her spiritual home. She describes a landscape and seascape that for centuries have been used to extinction and rebirth; a city of Naples that was once the intellectual capital of the classical world and then became a byword for vice and squalor. She is as interested in Naples as in Pompeii and its bare promontory that stood for centuries, mysteriously called ‘The City’.
She takes us through from Hercules and Odysseus (who stood firm against the Neapolitan Sirens), Poseidon, god of the sea who dwelt at Baiae, to Virgil who wrote The Aeneid in Naples and eventually to Spike Milligan, a young gunner in the second world war, about to make the push up Italy. ‘Cor! Naples, eh?… According to the brochure, venereal disease walks the streets of Naples and you can catch it by shaking the hand of a priest!’
Two million tourists now walk through the ruins of Pompeii each year. There are many complaints about its faded buildings and administration. It seems there is a mass of archaeological work not even started. ‘Pompeii contains probably the greatest density of data of any archaeological site in the world’ (Butterworth). It is 200 years since the city was first unveiled in ‘luminous colours’ and ‘dazzling pigments’ and Goethe and Mozart and Stendhal rushed to see them (20 years later Mozart wrote The Magic Flute). But then, as now and in the first century (according to the wall paintings), vines and flowers and fruit were planted far up the fickle slopes of the mountain. The hectic colours and the hedonism in the shadow of Vesuvius must have been rather like San Francisco today, standing on its similar time-bomb.
Of the three books, I’d take Lancaster as a handbook, Pompeii: The Living City for the plane and to finish at home. Harris I would gallop through on the Isle of Capri, saying, ‘Cor! Naples, eh?’