Rome was able to expand its empire across vast distances because of one important aspect—their superior engineering skills. However it is interesting that a society so involved with the advancement of science still took great interest into portents, both good and bad. Therefore, it could be said that the learned individuals of Roman society had the means to decipher phenomena on both a scientific and supernatural level, but the tragedy at Vesuvius was a whole other story; the occupants of Campania were caught completely off guard by the eruption. The principle characters of Pompeii had multiple opportunities to recognize the evidence of their impending demise; however due to their unfamiliarity with volcanic disasters and preoccupiedness with the aqueduct and Vulcanalia, they were unable to identify the real problem before misfortune struck; yet, if Attilius had not been so focused on the aqueduct issue, he could’ve acted differently and yielded a more prosperous outcome for himself and the other doomed inhabitants of Campania. Today scientists have the ability to predict the eruptions of volcanoes; this, however, is only accomplished through the use of multiple tools: seismometers, seismographs, GPS, infrared cameras, among many others.
“In the past several decades, our short-term forecasting of large volcanic eruptions has improved by leaps and bounds…short-term usually means hours to days, and rarely a week or more.” This means that even today we can only predict eruptions, days to weeks before. However scientists can still narrow the eruption time longer periods in advance using data they have collected for decades. Now rewind to A.D. 79; indeed the Romans surpassed all other civilizations in technological advancement, but nothing could’ve helped them foresee the oncoming eruption. The fact of the matter was that nobody had ever needed to monitor volcanic activity. There wasn’t anybody in the land of Campania that had witnessed Vesuvius erupt to know to watch for signs. Yes there were other omens foreshadowing an oncoming eruption, but the ancient Romans had no clue about the relationship between seismic activity and volcanoes. Seventeen years prior to the eruption, a great earthquake ravaged Pompeii. Many people fled after the incident, but after a short period they came flocking back, assured that everything was safe. Other situations where signs were present include: Attilius seeing the steam, the high levels of sulfur content, and the spring’s tendency to soak back into the earth.
All of these are indications of an oncoming eruption, but none of the characters knew; even Pliny, the writer of many great books didn’t know his “harmonic tremors” were indeed warning signs. How could they know? With no base reason to be afraid of Vesuvius, everyone was ignorant of the warnings. In addition to their inexperience, most Romans believed in the gods and omens. To them, earthquakes were caused by Jupiter hurling lightning bolts from underground, or some inaccurate natural explanation of the phenomena. This resulted in the majority of the signs being mistaken for godly interference. “Sulfur…that’s the stuff from thunderbolts…and who throws thunderbolts…Jupiter!” many Romans were so superstitious that everything unexplainable was an omen or act of supernatural powers. Even the steam and minor tremors seen and heard in the mountains were labeled as giants. The interesting part about the giants is that the Romans could’ve used this omen to predict the upcoming eruption through their mythology.
The giants are said to have warred against the gods and upon their defeat were imprisoned beneath the mountains. Their movement is what is said to cause the earthquakes and eruptions. There are multiple references in the story of sightings of giants in the countryside. The portents were right in front of them, and they still failed to fully recognize what was happening. The reason for this is their occupancy with other issues. Attilius is so focused on fixing the aqueduct he doesn’t notice anything else. He was the witness of most of the signs of an impending eruption and couldn’t put two and two together. The citizens of Pompeii who have experienced the phenomena are all so caught up with the upcoming Vulcanalia celebration that they too turn a blind eye to what is going on around them. Even Pliny, who notices the tremors, is too focused on that one event to see the big picture. After more research it becomes obvious that the tremors should be handled with action, but at this point Pliny is so preoccupied with the water shortage and the new emperor’s concerns for him that he fails to recognize the true magnitude of his findings.
All of the important characters are so narrowly focused on their immediate tasks and endeavors that they fail to see the catastrophe that is unfolding before them. Attilius, most of all, had the opportunity to make an impact. Attilius is a man to be admired; he is devoted, hard-working, and will do whatever it takes to earn the respect of his men. This also causes him to miss important details that would’ve saved the lives of so many people. First look at what could’ve happened. It can reasonably be inferred that Attilius is a very educated man; he knows his job’s requirements inside and out and how to fulfill them. In the beginning of the book, he sees steam coming out of the ground, and once he starts digging for water he notices every time they get close it seeps back into the ground. He even recognizes both instances to be odd phenomena. Later when Pliny reveals to his guests the mysterious tremors using the wine glass, Attilius considers telling Pliny of the strange happenings from earlier. If Attilius had done that there is a much higher chance that Pliny, with all of his knowledge, could’ve realized something was wrong and started an emergency evacuation.
Fast forward to the future and Attilius and Pliny are heroes for their recognition of the omens and acting upon them to evacuate many people. Yes there were still causalities, but everyone knew it would’ve been much worse if they had stayed. With Attilius’ newfound fame he rises in class immensely. He works directly with the Admiral, researching scientific phenomena, such as the tremors, to determine their true meanings. He is happily married to Corelia. After his status leap he asked Ampliatus for her hand, and how could he refuse the savior of Campania. Attilius’ new legacy is one of adventure and danger, of heroics and action. His past is celebrated by all on the fourth week of August in a grand festival honoring his and Pliny’s heroic actions. How fortuitous this outcome would’ve been; too bad Attilius’ worst feature prevented it—his narrow focus. The man was so worried about the aqueduct and starting repairs as soon as possible that he did not mention the events to Pliny.
This resulted in a catastrophic disaster that took many lives. We infer that Attilius is not one of them, but his past must now remain untold to all. Later on in the story he comes upon another instance where he could’ve changed the course of history. As he is hiking up Vesuvius to find the break he notices the roughness of the water, but the odd part is there is no wind. Any engineer would know that this, accompanied with all the other strange occurrences, is more than enough to cause an evacuation of the area—an obvious portent to disaster. Attilius should’ve begun an evacuation right there, coordinating his men to begin spreading the word. He himself would have to go to Ampliatus and try to convince him to leave; however, I don’t think this would work unless Attilius could somehow appeal to his greed. Either way Attilius’ next move would be to find Corelia and then begin the exodus out of Pompeii. Hopefully they could use ships, and if not begin marching. This would not have yielded as many survivors as the previous situation because many would dismiss him as crazy.
He would still save many and become a hero. Again he would be celebrated in festivals and his past remembered through the ages for all he had done. The tragedy is this did not occur either; instead Attilius’ response is, “Another trick for the admiral to ponder.” Their fate is now sealed; Attilius’ future is set. Campania is going to suffer a disastrous event that will end the lives of many. Rome, arguably one of the greatest of the ancient empires, was hopeless against Mother Nature’s fury.
With all its technology and resources it didn’t stand a chance against the upcoming eruption. Indeed there were several opportunities for the characters of Pompeii to recognize an upcoming tragedy, but they failed to understand the full measure of things. The people lacked experience with volcanic disasters and couldn’t have built the required technology to foresee such eruptions. On top of that issue everyone was so narrowly focused on their own problems that they couldn’t see the unfolding of catastrophic events before their eyes. Attilius had the means to save the people; he had the information, but his focus was elsewhere. Though his actions could’ve resulted in a brighter future for all, he let the aqueduct consume all of his thought. He was an excellent Aquarius, but widening his focus could’ve saved so many.
laceymarie1987. (March 6, 2009). How do Volcanologists predict volcanic eruptions?. Retrieved from http://volcanoworld.wordpress.com/2009/03/06/how-do-volcanologists-predict-volcanic-eruptions/ [ 2 ]. Harris, Robert. (2003). Pompeii. (pages 63-63). New York, NY. Random House