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Historical Analysis of Robert Harris’ Pompeii

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Robert Harris’ Pompeii follows the story of an engineer named Marcus Attilius Primus rebuilding the aqueduct that stretches across the bay of Naples after sulfur is discovered in the water, taking place in the two days leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius. Because this piece is historical fiction, Harris uses current information of what historians today know about Pompeii, rather than the true factual events of the eruption. Two things that Harris focuses heavily on the relationship between freedmen and freemen, as well as how the Roman’s perceived the gods. Harris’ examination of the social relationship between freedmen and freemen seeks to commentate on the hierarchy in Rome, and how coming into the freed status becomes a struggle to come into power in any way possible, and how those who have power react to it, as seen through the interactions of Numerius Popidius Ampliatus and Lucius Popidius; Harris’ focus on the perception of the gods shows differing stances on how the Roman religion is understood, placing a seemingly modern understanding of religion, rather than an ancient one, through the attitudes of Attilius, who believes in science first, and the gods second, and Pliny the Elder, who believes in the gods, but still seeks to find other solutions before looking to them.

The relationship between freedmen and freemen is portrayed pretty negatively through the interactions of the freedman Numerius Popidius Numerii libertus Ampliatus, and his old master Lucius Popidius, and the other magistrates of the city. Freedman refers to a man who was once a slave and then freed by their masters, giving them a higher status, and allowing their children to be freeborn citizens, but they could not vote nor run for political office. While freeborn refers to mainly male citizens who were able to vote and hold office. This story focuses mainly on Ampliatus, a freedman who is obsessed with power, and boasts about single-handedly rebuilding Pompeii after the earthquakes in 62 AD. Ampliatus is shown to be very powerful throughout the story, despite him serving a more antagonistic role in this story. He is first seen executing a slave of his own, despite the slave pointing out something wrong with the water. “And when one of his slaves also destroyed something of rare value, the precedent naturally came back into his mind…this was how he thought an aristocrat ought to behave… Ampliatus had pronounced sentence immediately: ‘Throw him to the eels!’”. He is immediately trying to raise himself up to the level of freemen, trying to show his power in every way he can. Due to his freed status and wealth, he holds a dinner party in the celebration of Vulcanalia, in which he invites Popidius and other freemen citizens, nodding to, if a little on the nose in similarity, to the dinner party of the freedman Trimalchio. “Popidius almost burst out laughing. Trimalchio! Very Good! The freed slave of monstrous wealth in the satire by Titus Petronius, who subjects his guests to exactly such a meal and cannot see how vulgar and ridiculous is showing himself.” The fact that it is referenced outright, shows how the freemen, and specifically Popidius, feels about Ampliatus. They treat him like a joke and don’t take his power, nor the fact that he rebuilt the town, seriously. Later in the book, the city is holding a public slaughtering in the spirit of the Vulcanalia festival and goes specifically into the structure and hierarchy of public events. This commentary about the hierarchy in Rome is later commented on by Ampliatus, where he acknowledges his own statues, but rejects it to show his belief in the status and the power he proclaimed on himself. “He was not in a good position. The rulers of the town, as tradition demanded, were gathered on the steps of the Temple of Jupiter-the magistrates and the priests at the front, the members of the Ordo, including his own son, grouped behind, whereas Ampliatus, as a freed slave, with no official recognition, was invariably banished by protocol to the back. Not that he minded. On the contrary. He relished the fact that power, real power, should be kept hidden: an invisible force that permitted the people these civic ceremonials…” (Harris p.162). This shows how freemen citizens get more rights, by getting to be at the front, due to their status and wealth, while women, slaves, freedmen, and all others are forced to the back. Harris aims to subvert this, by having Ampliatus reinforce his own power as a way to show the mindset of freedmen, even having Ampliatus go far enough to state that Popidius and the other magistrates, knew he was responsible for the reconstructions that took place, and that he would have to be acknowledged. This reigns true to the actions of other known freedmen in history, specifically that of the owners of the Pompeian House of the Vetti, which was owned by two freed slaves, and plastered their home with the God of wealth and prosperity Priapus, displaying phallic imagery in a statement of their own power with no other way to portray it (Beard. p102). Harris’ portrayal of freedmen and their relationship with freemen seems to be based on factual portrayals of freedmen through the Trimalchio story, as well as the House of the Vetti show the struggle of power in the Roman world.

Harris’ displays two main understandings of religion, the characters who are more focused on science and logic hold a different attitude towards the gods than common folk’s attitudes. Attilius the engineer and Pliny the naturalist both share similar attitudes towards the gods in that they are not the only answer to their problems, though they do differ on how they vocalize it. Attilius shows that, while he believes in the gods, he doesn’t think that they are the answer to every problem, believing that the stories are for children. “The old man had maintained that the spirit of Neptune, god of water, lived within it. Attilius had no time for gods. Boys with wings on their feet, women riding dolphins, greybeards hurling bolts of lighting off the tops of mountains in fits of temper-these were stories for children, not men.”  By stating outright, that he doesn’t have time for the gods, shows that he is more focused on solving problems through his own means. His thoughts are based heavily in logic and uses his knowledge as an engineer to try to fix things for others, therefore his sort of ‘contempt’ towards the gods makes sense. He later references the laws of engineering being employed by his father during a ceremony with the aqueduct, where the priests thought it to be the gods’ work, while he knew his father had opened the ducts at a specific time. This is significant because again he is rejecting the gods in lieu of cold hard facts. Perhaps Harris is trying to display a more modern thought process towards religion through Attilius attitude, in that he believes he should solve things himself because the gods won’t help him. However, later this is later contradicted when Attilius compares himself to the mythical character of Theseus but does so in a way that makes him seem greater than the hero, or more lost. “I am like Theseus in the labyrinth, he thought, but without the ball of thread from Ariadne to guide me back to safety.” (Harris p.120) The note of the lack of the ball of thread to guide him could either mean that he is trying to create his own path, or that he is lost trying to figure out what to do. This may also be a way to display that despite his contempt towards the gods, he still believes in them. Pliny’s attitude, on the other hand, while he believes strongly in science and logic, also believes in the gods. He shows that the gods may not be the immediate solution to their problems, which seems to be, much like Attilius, very uncharacteristic in Rome. When Attilius first visits Pliny to ask for help, he mentions the sulfur in the water, one of Pliny’s friends Pomponianus starts exclaiming about how sulfur is found in thunderbolts and believes they should sacrifice to Jupiter, Pliny states that while it’s an excellent idea, they need a more practical solution. Pliny’s attitude is sort of in contrast to Attilius, in that he believes, but still wants to try to do things himself. When the tremors from the upcoming eruption hit Misenum, Pliny shuts down the sacrifice to Vulcan, due to the danger, but believes that Vulcan will forgive them for not participating in the festival. He does this for the sake and safety of the town, despite it going against the gods, showing that it is more important to keep people safe in the wake of a disaster than it is to worship. However, these are both very uncharacteristic attitudes and understanding of the gods, due to the fact that Roman religion is rooted strongly in the fact that in order to gain protection from the gods, they must be worshipped, in a sort of reciprocal relationship between gods and mortals, while Harris seeks to show that the gods aren’t the only answers, and that sort of modern notion of the gods help he who helps himself.

In short, Harris’ use of modern historical knowledge of Pompeii and the eruption of Vesuvius, shows that he has a strong understanding of the hierarchy of Roman masculinity, by portraying an exaggerated freedman, who is obsessed with power, and drawing influence from several ancient sources in doing so. Ampliatus as a freedman is consistently trying to higher himself to the standards of the freeborn citizens around him, while they do not take him seriously, but states that the must acknowledge him because of his accomplishments nonetheless. Harris’ understanding of religion, on the other hand, doesn’t quite meet the ancient perspective of religion, as he is showing to characters, one who holds the gods in contempt, and believes that science is the answer, and the other, who believes the gods will help, but won’t be quicker than his own solutions to problems, rather than the reciprocity of the ancient Roman religion. 

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Historical Analysis Of Robert Harris’ Pompeii. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 3, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/historical-analysis-of-robert-harris-pompeii/
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