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Rebecca East (ps)

A.D. 62: Pompeii
iUniverse, 2003
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Reviews:

This novel involves time-travel and thus might be classed as fantasy or science fiction, but the time-travel is only a means to move a 21st century Harvard ABD in classics back to shortly before the first earthquake at Pompeii. She brings along her knowledge of the ancient world, including Latin and Greek (which she finds to be rather bookish for common conversation) as well as a knowledge of what would eventually happen, but she shares this knowledge with only 2 people, and only near the end of the novel. She brings, of course, her attitudes as a modern educated and liberated woman to an era when women were rarely educated and hardly ever liberated. This problem is compounded for our narrator, Miranda, when she is, right from the start, sold into slavery, where, for a while, she has even less chance to speak her mind or use her talents. East, who has a good background in classics and archeology but is currently a professor in a different field, has done solid research and used good sources for Roman daily life and Pompeian topography and architecture, which she discusses in her 4-page Appendix. She has also created interesting characters in Miranda and the members of the household where she serves. A running motif is the failure of her return button to work, so she is stranded in 62 AD, whatever is going wrong (and she suffers 2 beatings and a good bit of hard work). East keeps us guessing whether the device will finally work and bring her back her own time, and I won’t tell. There are scattered typographical mistakes, none of which should throw off the reader, and there are a number of places where the author repeats (as apparently new) something she said 30 or 70 pages before), but that’s a minor irritant and will mostly pass unnoticed. The major problem with the book is also, perhaps, its greatest virtue - the amount of detail about Roman life. If you want to know what food, social mores, architecture, medicine, dress, etc. were like in this period in a small wealthy town, you could not have a better start than this book. Of course, you could get the same thing from any of the more modern alternatives to Carcopino, any textbook on Roman life, where it will be arranged more conveniently for reference. And if you want a really fast moving novel, where the background data is accurate but less intense, then Davis, Roberts or Wishart, among contemporary novelists, will give you a faster paced introduction to Rome of this period. For the general reader, there may be too many instances of 3 or 4 page disquisitions on Roman background topics. On the other hand, for teachers of Latin or Roman history looking for a way to make this material palatable to those who would rather read novels than a textbook, this would be a good choice. There is some sex in it, but mostly discreet. You might not want to use it for junior high, but high school students are not likely to find anything they’ve not already met in much more graphic form. The one other motif of the novel that seems to get too much repeated play, in terms that some readers may find annoying, is the continued mournful reflections by Miranda about how much she longs for her master, Marcus Tullius (yes, of that family, some generations removed), and how impossible any true relationship can be, not only because she is a slave and he her master, but also because the attitudes of a modern woman and and an ancient Roman man would be so disparate. She could have expressed this a few times and in different ways, but she harps on it. Yes, it’s true she has it very much on her mind, but we don’t have to hear it so often to know it is bothering her. This is paralleled a little by the fact that Miranda keeps repeating, early in the book, that she can escape anytime she wants. This doesn’t happen, and her insistence that it can and will makes us guess that it won’t work when she calls on it -- or at least not when she particularly wants it to. East tells the reader in the appendix about the historical characters she has woven into the plot and the literary and artistic materials she has incorporated or used as inspirations. This firm historical basis helps to give the novel its feeling of real Romanness, contrasted, of course, with the 21st century attitudes and practices that Miranda brings along. Miranda finds an ally in Marcus’s friend Julia Felix, a wealthy widow with a willingness to stretch women’s roles a bit. She also has the help of two fellow slaves, the generally surly cook and Demetrius, the well-educated Greek that helped Miranda come to Marcus’ house in the first place and who conceals a sexual secret until Miranda finds it out near the end. There are villains, of course, principally Holconia, Marcus’ sharp-tongued and bitter wife, and Mamius Flaccus, who tries to keep Miranda as his slave, but they are all overcome. Miranda gets to experience being a slave, and brings to us a better perspective on what that might entail, good and bad, and a freedwoman, which allows her to experience a different life-style. Miranda’s modern knowledge is drawn upon mainly in two instances: when she correctly predicts the earthquake that destroys much of Pompeii (but not Marcus’ holdings, since he believed her) and when she treats correctly, with modern knowledge of how diseases spread, an illness that kills some of the household but spares most of the rest. These 2 efforts increase her stature with her master. It is interesting to watch how Miranda becomes an accomplished storyteller and musician by drawing on Shakespeare and Hans Christian Anderson for plots and her recorder repertory of Mozart et alii. By seeing Marcus’ relationship with his wife, with Miranda and with his slave mistress, Iris, we get a view of the kinds of attitudes a Roman paterfamilias considered good and relatively enlightened might have, and can draw from that (and from the few other masters we see) what less good masters could be like. We see the relationships among slaves in a household presented as well as any Roman novel I’ve read. Given the fact that East’s professional field is psychology, this is a reasonable area for her to develop. Overall, I liked the novel and felt it presented a probably accurate picture of what one household might have been like in Pompeii of 62 AD. I recommend it to any reader, but especially to those whose interest is strongly historical. If you demand a fast moving action plot (or a murder mystery) perhaps you should turn to other contemporary writers of Roman novels (the most recent of which that I recommend, with a few tie-ins to this novel, being Albert Bell’s All Roads Lead to Murder, though there the setting is Smyrna and involves non-Romans as well as Romans.) East is considering a sequel and should pursue that. Fred Mench Professor of Classics Richard Stockton College of NJ July 2003 There are numerous historical novels about ancient Greece or Rome, but only a few of them focus on women’s or slaves’ lives in these classical societies. The setting for A.D. 62: Pompeii is the resort town near Naples that was preserved and immortalized by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Seventeen years earlier much of the city was damaged by a serious earthquake. Miranda, a young woman who had studied classical archeology at Harvard, becomes the subject for an experiment in time travel. She is catapulted back to the first century A.D. and winds up near Pompeii, where she is enslaved, but where her knowledge of the past also allows her to “foretell” the earthquake. She is sold to a family as a domestic slave and becomes very close to the young daughter and eventually to her father, while at the same time attracting hostility from the mistress of the house. Miranda’s interactions with other slaves and with the master’s family provide the forum of action for the novel. Through this scenario the author is able to bring the reader into Roman family life and, along the way, present insights into women’s roles, the institution of slavery, and the legal system as well. Miranda’s observations of daily routines, objects, and customs are both instructive and entertaining. While she takes comfort in the knowledge that she can return to the present if things get too difficult or threatening, as time passes the reader begins to question whether or not she will be able or even want to activate this mechanism. The author’s periodic reference to modern cultural images provides both comparison and contrast and is useful, even if jarring at times. A.D. 62: Pompeii is an interesting novel that holds the reader’s interest. It is both an adventure and a love story wrapped into one. Editors should have proofed the manuscript more carefully for typos and the author seems to suffer from “hyphenophobia” because even words such as self-consciously, son-in-law, and forty-eight lack hyphens in this text. Historical information is generally accurate, although Campania is located east and south of Rome, not west and south (p. 8), the inclusion of the Olympic Games as a site for Atalanta’s foot race victories (p. 118) seems not to have an ancient source, and the statement that “women could not be legal witnesses” (p. 269) is misleading because the vestal virgins were an exception to this rule. In addition, it would have been interesting if the author could have had Miranda experience a few other Roman festivals besides the Saturnalia as the calendar rolled around. However, these are small deficiencies and any reader who finds the classical world exciting or who might be particularly attracted by this different perspective should find A.D. 62: Pompeii an enjoyable and interesting reading experience. -Reviewed by Richard Weigel, W.K.U. History Department.

- Richard Weigel, 11/27/2005

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