Ancient Egypt may be my first historical love, but Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome are close seconds. Something about the pantheon of gods and pre-Dark Ages elegance just spoke to my child self, and I’ve always been fond of it. As you might guess, today’s selections from the reading list are set in these civilizations—they’re linked in my head, as I imagine they are for a lot of other non-historians.
The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault
Set in fourth-century B.C. Greece, The Mask of Apollo is narrated by Nikeratos, a tragic actor who takes with him on all his travels a gold mask of Apollo, a relic of the theater’s golden age, which is now past. At first his mascot, the mask gradually becomes his conscience, and he refers to it his gravest decisions, when he finds himself at the center of a political crisis in which the philosopher Plato is also involved. Much of the action is set in Syracuse, where Plato’s friend Dion is trying to persuade the young tyrant Dionysios the Younger to accept the rule of law. Through Nikeratos’ eyes, the reader watches as the clash between the two looses all the pent-up violence in the city.
I loved Mary Renault as a preteen—during that period of my life when I was obsessing over representations of queer men in any and all media, I discovered Fire From Heaven, which I don’t recall much of, and The Persian Boy, which I just adored. But I haven’t read anything by her that’s not connected to Alexander the Great. This is one of her one-shots instead of an installment in one of her series.
Jenny at Jenny’s Books adored it—she loves Renault so much that she kept this one in reserve for quite some time, and it definitely held up, in her opinion. And Jo Walton, writing for Tor.com, absolutely loved it. Oh, I think this bodes well.
The Mask of Apollo was published in 1966.
Pompeii by Robert Harris
All along the Mediterranean coast, the Roman empire’s richest citizens are relaxing in their luxurious villas, enjoying the last days of summer. The world’s largest navy lies peacefully at anchor in Misenum. The tourists are spending their money in the seaside resorts of Baiae, Herculaneum, and Pompeii.
But the carefree lifestyle and gorgeous weather belie an impending cataclysm, and only one man is worried. The young engineer Marcus Attilius Primus has just taken charge of the Aqua Augusta, the enormous aqueduct that brings fresh water to a quarter of a million people in nine towns around the Bay of Naples. His predecessor has disappeared. Springs are failing for the ﬁrst time in generations. And now there is a crisis on the Augusta’s sixty-mile main line—somewhere to the north of Pompeii, on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.
Attilius—decent, practical, and incorruptible—promises Pliny, the famous scholar who commands the navy, that he can repair the aqueduct before the reservoir runs dry. His plan is to travel to Pompeii and put together an expedition, then head out to the place where he believes the fault lies. But Pompeii proves to be a corrupt and violent town, and Attilius soon discovers that there are powerful forces at work—both natural and man-made—threatening to destroy him.
With his trademark elegance and intelligence, Robert Harris, bestselling author of Archangel and Fatherland, re-creates a world on the brink of disaster.
I’m interested in this book almost solely because Pompeii goes boom in it. I think I picked up this recommendation from Nancy Pearl in Book Lust or More Book Lust, but I suppose I’ll never know.
Kay at Kay’s Bookshelf liked Attilus, but thought the main female character was underdeveloped and had difficulty empathizing with characters whose days were numbered. Margaret at BooksPlease enjoyed it, and especially pointed out out how Harris makes the technological elements approachable and interesting.
Pompeii was published on November 18, 2003.