Pompeii by Robert Harris

A rollicking, fictionalised account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD which, without effort, wiped the Roman town of Pompeii from the living map. I say fictionalised, but it is clear from this historical novel that Harris has done his homework. Just a brief scan of the acknowledgements page at the end of the novel testifies to Harris’s attention to historical accuracy.

It’s a great read, marred only perhaps by the decision to include a romantic interest. Still, the man has to make a living. The work is peppered with thoughtful philosophical flourishes alongside much Greco-Roman wisdom and the novel is all the richer for it. But for me, the highlight of the novel is the manner in which Harris interlaces his tale with the everyday reality of slavery the socio-economic bedrock of Rome and all other classical empires of antiquity.

Ask any high school student what the essence of the Roman empire is and they will inevitably prattle on about Roman aqueducts, Roman baths, Roman gladiators and Roman roads. Ask their history teachers and you will likely get a similar response. What both students and instructors invariably fail to appreciate is that behind all these mighty Roman achievements lay one crucial factor slavery. Slavery was the sole economic basis of the Roman Empire but it rarely gets elevated to its rightful place. If it is mentioned at all, it is as an aside to the cultural life of Rome. But without slaves, nothing would have been built and Rome would have likely remained a small provincial town, one amongst many. To his credit, Harris seems to fully appreciate this fact and accordingly, the role of slaves are ubiquitous throughout the story.

All the wealthy aristocrats of Rome had personal, domestic slaves but they might be considered pampered compared to those that physically built the empire, brick by brick. But even the pampered domestic slaves had zero rights. Early in the story, one such domestic slave was fed to a pool of flesh eating ells partly for a crime he evidently did not commit, partly as a timely warning to the other household slaves and partly for the amusement of the household guests. And if the life of the domestic slave was a precarious one, lived entirely at the whim of the slave owner, the life of the construction slaves was infinitely worse. Harris puts it plainly enough:

Work was ending for the day and the lines of exhausted, silent slaves, shackled together at the ankle, were shuffling beside the road in the twilight. The clank of their chains against the stones and the flick of the overseer’s whip across their backs were the only sounds. She (Corelia) had heard about such wretches, crammed into the prison blocks attached to the larger farms and worked to death within a year or two: she had never actually seen them close up. Occasionally a slave found the energy to raise his eyes from the dirt and meet her glance; it was like staring through a hole in hell. P195

Of course, slavery did not disappear with the demise of Rome. Far from it. the Islamic civilisations were more than happy to continue the practices. And in Europe, during the long, long epoch of feudal society the landless peasants and serfs were slaves in all but name. And when came the slow but steady demise of feudalism, the transatlantic slave trade played a crucial role in the primitive accumulation of capital. Even today, in the latter stages of the capitalist epoch, millions of global citizens find themselves trapped into a global network of domestic and sexual slavery. The developing world and the so called developed world are equally culpable.

And for the rest of us, it is a grim and stunted life of wage slavery with only minimal legal protections. Every pair of trainers, every piece of clothing, every piece of consumerist tat is likely to have been produced under virtual slave labour conditions somewhere is the so-called developing world. The giant sporting amphitheatres and related infrastructure currently being constructed by the Qataris in the deserts of the Middle East by guest labourers can only really be described as a modern form of slavery.

But none of this should obscure the fact that the prime economic base of the Roman Empire was first and foremost slavery. Furthermore, it is suggested by a number of scholars that a failure to maintain an endless supply of slaves led to the ultimate unravelling of that once mighty empire. As for the subsequent civilizations, both east and west, slavery played a significant role in their economic fortunes, but it was never central. Under feudal society, land ownership was the basis of wealth and social order. And under capitalism, the production of goods and services for sale as commodities was and still is the basis of capital’s rise to dominance. Pedantic differences maybe, but any work on the Roman Empire, fiction or otherwise, must put slavery at the very heart of things. By and large, Robert Harris in his well-researched and cleverly written Pompeii, does exactly that.

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