Thanks for taking an interest in a behind-the-scenes look at City on Fire!
Originally published in 2011 as Pompeii: City on Fire, this repackaged version has a new title, new cover and some new editing. For those of you curious about the reason for the re-release, not long after its first publication I began working with a new publisher, and that house wanted to see what they could do to increase sales. Going with a different publisher means things have to change, but I love the new title and cover!
In some ways, we owe a debt of gratitude to the mountain called Vesuvius, and to those who perished under its flow. So much of what we know of life at the height of the Roman Empire has come to us through the frozen-in-time city unearthed in the region of Campania, near modern Naples. The discovery of these lost cities fueled the Neoclassicism of the 18th century, and had a direct influence on much of American architecture. One need only stroll through Washington, D.C., to get a feel for ancient Rome. Although, a trip to D.C. wouldn’t quite satisfy me, so I headed to Pompeii (twice, actually!) to walk the actual streets and dive into research.
The eruption buried Pompeii under more than twelve feet of ash and pumice, and preserved so much of the city, exactly as it was on that day, that archaeologists digging 1700 years later discovered entire loaves of bread still sitting on counters, fresh from the ovens!
The plaster casts familiar to most of us from history class were created when pockets were discovered in the hardened ash – vacuums created by the decayed bodies of the volcano’s victims. The plaster was poured into these cavities, then excavated, giving us a vivid depiction of real Romans in the death throes of the eruption.
I used some of these figures in Pompeii, especially as I imagined the final moments of the characters of Europa and Seneca, Taurus, Emeritus and Drusus. You can see more pictures of the plaster casts found in Pompeii at this link.
Much of the details given to us in Pompeii – its graffiti, its buildings, its artwork – formed the backdrop of this novel, though for the most part the characters are from my imagination.
The name and position of Gnaeus Nigidius Maius came to me from graffiti found in Pompeii, notices filled with electoral propaganda and announcements of the games to be sponsored by the candidate. Other than this bit of information about Maius, the remainder of his character, actions and dialogue are of my own making.
I also pulled a few of the names of the gladiators from notices and graffiti found in Pompeii listing their accomplishments.
The characters of Cato and Ariella are completely fictional, as are most of the other players in the story.
While the characters of the early church in Pompeii are of my making, I have tried to describe the function and reputation of these house churches throughout Rome with accuracy. I am indebted to Gerald Sittser, whose book, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries, aided my understanding of the first century church.
The arena in Pompeii is considered to be the oldest Roman amphitheater yet unearthed, built probably around 80 BC, and already nearly two hundred years old at the time of this story. The Flavian Amphitheater in Rome, later known as the Colosseum, was in its final stages at the time Pompeii was destroyed.
In outlining the events of Pompeii’s final day, I have attempted to stay as close to what the archaeological evidence tells us as possible. Historians and scientists have been able to ascertain the rate at which ash fell from the first eruption to the final pyroclastic surge which buried the city, and from this I built the ending of the book and the end of the city.
In the years since 79 AD, Vesuvius has erupted many times, though not with the devastation of that earlier eruption. Perched now over the populous city of Naples, it is considered dormant but not extinct, and is an ever-present threat to Naples and southern Italy.
The most recent eruption of Vesuvius in 1944 was caught on film because of the presence of American troops in Italy during World War II. You might enjoy watching the related newscast of the eruption of Vesuvius here. (This is a fun video to watch, just to see an old news broadcast!)
I had a wonderful time imagining the lives and adventures of the characters within City on Fire. If there are specific incidents or characters about which you are wondering, please let me know. I’m happy to answer questions about my research.
If you have read City on Fire, and are interested in discussion questions that can be used personally or with a book club, you’ll find a list of questions here.
Walking along the city streets of Pompeii, you can almost hear the echoes of an ancient world, a bustling seaside town at the height of its glory. Frozen in time by the massive amounts of ash and rock debris from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, this carefully unearthed Roman town gives us a glimpse into Roman life, as it once was.
It’s all here – restaurants, bakeries and theaters. Brothels, taverns and arenas. A marketplace for shopping and local government buildings where the rich and powerful wielded influence. Pompeii graffiti, scrawled on walls and painted along the streets, touts politicians and merchants, a society of people much like our own.
The Pompeii volcano, called Vesuvius, was simply a beautiful mountain to the people of this idyllic city, who had no idea that death loomed above them. As the ash fell, those unfortunate enough to be caught in the city and those who chose to remain became victims. The Pompeii bodies remained entombed inside the hardening ash and rock, to be discovered centuries later.
A list of Pompeii facts is too sterile to be our only look at this magnificent city. Explore the pictures, videos, and information below!
On Location with Tracy in Pompeii
A life of grief and hardship has hardened Ariella into a woman capable of handling herself and anything that comes at her, including the swords of her fellow gladiators. But when her hard-won independent spirit clashes with the evil forces of the city, it will take more than expertise in the arena to win the day.
Cato only wants to be left alone to grow his grapes and run his shop. Why does everyone insist on his entering the local election? The newest gladiator catches his attention, but it’s his sister’s plight in the clutches of the city’s corrupt leader that forces him out of the vineyard and into the fight.
Cato’s mother knows what it means to look after her children, but they don’t make it easy. Cato’s resistance to cleaning up the city corruption finally gives way, but only when Portia is in danger. She’d planned to live out her widowed retirement in luxury, but this seaside resort has a seemy underbelly, and her family’s its newest target.
Her brother Cato’s always been the strong one. But ever since he came to Pompeii, trouble has picked up. And where there’s trouble, Cato won’t long resist jumping in to save the day. Can Portia survive being Maius’s target until Cato is forced to help?
Action has never been Lucius’s forte. Now his wife is in serious danger, his brother-in-law is obsessed with a gladiator, and the greedy politician who controls the city has made their entire family a target. Wasn’t Pompeii supposed to be a vacation town?
The city was firmly in his grasp until the meddling family of the Catonii showed up. Gambling, brothels, the arena games – Maius had a piece of all of it. But no young Roman whelp is going to take him down. Cato has no idea what’s in store for him and his family.
The rabbi-turned-slave Jeremiah has spent too many years looking after the gladiators. Perhaps its time for this worn-out Jew to leave the fight to younger men. But when the newest gladiator’s secret becomes shockingly clear, it seems that Jeremiah has one more assignment, and it’s a dangerous one.
Europa and Seneca
They’ve traveled to Pompeii to raise their adopted daughter and join a secret sect who still meets behind closed doors. But their secret is about to be made public, and as the danger from the volcano boils above, an even more frightening enemy is at their door.
For the gladiators of Drusus’s troupe in Pompeii, freedom is a dream and death is a reality. When one young gladiator starts to steal the attention that is their only hope of survival, it won’t be long before she falls under their wrath.
August 9, 70 AD
Ariella shoved through the clogged street, defying the mob of frantic citizens. Men, women, and children crowded the alleys, senseless in their panic to flee the city. They carried all they could, packed into pouches slung across their chests and clutched in sweaty hands. Soldiers ran with them, as though they had all joined a macabre stadium footrace, with participants who clubbed and slashed at each other to get ahead. Beside her, one of the district’s tax collectors tripped and fumbled a latched wooden box. It cracked against the cobbled street and spilled its meager hoard of gold. The tax collector was dead before he hit the ground, and the Roman soldier pulled his sword from the man’s gut only to scrabble for the coins.
Ariella turned her head from the gore, but felt little pity for the tax man, cheated of life by the Romans for whom he had betrayed his people. Still, concern flickered in her chest at the sudden violence in the street.
Something has happened.
The city had been under siege for months. Three days ago her mother announced that the sacrifices in the Temple had ceased. But today, today was something new. Perhaps three days of sins not atoned for had brought the wrath of the Holy One down on them all.
Unlike those who ran the streets with her, Ariella’s destination was neither Temple nor countryside. She returned to her home—if the dim tenement could be called such—from another useless excursion to secure food.
At sixteen and as eldest child, it fell on her to search the famished city for a scrap of dried beef to feed her brother, perhaps a thimbleful of milk for the baby, crumbs for her father whose eyes had gone glassy and whose skin was now the color of the clay pots he once turned on the wheel.
But there was no food to be found. Titus, the emperor’s son, had arrived in the spring with his army of eighty thousand and his siege wall served well its double function—the people were trapped and they were starving.
Not even such a wall could prevent news from seeping through its cracks, however. From Caesarea, word escaped of twenty thousand Jews slaughtered in a day. Fifty thousand killed in Alexandria. Ten thousand met the sword in Gamla. Such numbers were incomprehensible.
Here in Jerusalem, the bodies thrown outside the city were too numerous to count, piled high in rotting mounds, as though the city itself were defiled and would forever be unclean.
Yet we are not all dead. Ariella’s hands curled into tense fists as she rounded the last corner. She would cling to life as long as she had strength, and like her untiring mother, she would hold tight to that elusive thread for each member of her family.
She pushed against the rough wood of the door and slipped out of the rush of the street. The home’s tomb-like interior had the peculiar smell of starvation. In the corner, her baby sister whimpered as if in response to Ariella’s entrance. Micah met her at the door, his sunken eyes fixed on her and his lips slightly open, as though anticipating the food she might have brought. Or perhaps he simply lacked the strength to close his jaw. She shook her head and Micah turned away, hiding his disappointment as all boys of eleven do when they are threatened by tears.
Her father did not speak from his mat on the floor. Ariella scooped the listless baby Hannah into her arms and gave her a finger to suck. Small consolation.
“Where is Mother?” She scanned the room, then looked to Micah. A low groan from her father set her heart pounding. “Where is she, Micah? Where has Mother gone?”
Micah sniffed and glanced at the door. “To the Temple. She has gone to the Temple.”
Ariella growled and pushed Hannah into her brother’s arms. “She is going to get herself killed, and then where will we be?”
She bent to her father’s side. The man had been strong once. Ariella could barely remember. She touched the cool skin of his arm. “I will bring her back, Father. I promise.” Her father’s eyes sought her own, searching for reassurance. The hunger seemed to have stolen his voice. How long until it took his mind?
She turned on Micah, grabbed his shoulder. “Do not let anyone inside. The streets–” She looked to the door. “The streets are full of madness.”
He nodded, still cradling Hannah.
She kissed the baby. “Take care of them, Micah.” And then she left to retrieve her mother, whose political fervor often outpaced her common sense.
The mid-summer sun had dropped in the sky, an orange disc hazy and indistinct behind rising smoke. The city burns. She smelled it, sensed it, felt it somehow on her skin as she joined the flow toward the temple – a heat of destruction that threatened to consume them all.
Her family enjoyed the privilege of living in the shadow of the Temple Mount. A privilege that today only put them closer to folly. She twisted through the crazed mob, darted around wagons and pushcarts laden with family treasures, swatted at those who shoved against her. Already, only halfway there, her heart struck against her chest and her breathing shallowed, the weakness of slow starvation.
She reached the steps to the south of the Temple platform and was swept upward with the masses. Why were so many running to the Temple? Why had her mother?
And then she heard it. A sound that was part shrieking anger, part mournful lament, a screaming funeral dirge for the city and its people. She reached the top of the steps, pushed through the Huldah Gate, dashed under the colonnade into the Court of the Gentiles, and drew up short. The crowd pressed against her back, flowed around her and surged onward, but Ariella could not move.
The Temple is on fire.
The next moments blurred. She felt herself running, running toward the Temple as if she alone could avert this monstrous evil. Joining others who must have shared her delusion. She saw Roman legionaries club women and children, voices raised in a war cry. The yells of zealot rebels and the shrieks of those impaled by swords returned like an echo. The dead began to accumulate. Soldiers climbed heaps of bodies to chase those who fled. She tasted ashes and blood in the air, breathed the stench of burning flesh, and still some pushed forward.
She fought the smoke and blood, climbed the steps and entered the Court of Women. All around her, peaceful citizens were butchered where they stood. Ahead, a current of blood ran down the curved steps before the brass Nicanor Gate. The bodies of those who had been murdered at the top slipped to the bottom.
Ariella swayed on her feet at the carnage. That her mother was one of these dead she had no doubt. Elana’s outspoken defiance of Rome had earned her a reputation among her people, one that matched the meaning of her given name, torch.
She could go no farther. The entire Temple structure flamed now, from the Court of Israel to the Holy of Holies, its beauty and riches and sanctity defiled, raped by the Romans who even now risked their own flesh to steal its treasures.
A groan at her feet drew her attention, and she saw as if from a great distance that indeed her mother lay there, a bloody slash against her chest and a vicious purpling around her eyes. She lifted a hand, claw-like, to Ariella, who bent to kneel beside her and clasp her fingers.
Ariella had no words. What use to say good-bye, when they would all be in the same place soon?
Strange, she was very cold. With the flames so near and so fierce, still her fingers felt numb as she wrapped them around her mother’s hand.
Elana whispered only “Never forget…” before she was gone, and Ariella nodded because it was the expected thing to do. She studied her mother’s face, the eyes open and unseeing, and felt nothing. Was that right? Should she feel something?
After awhile she thought perhaps she should go home. She tried to stand, slipped in some blood that had pooled on the marble beneath her, and tried again.
The noise seemed far off now, though she could see the faces of citizens, mouths gaping as though they screamed in agony, and soldiers, feral lips drawn back over their teeth. But the sounds had somehow receded.
She weaved through the upright who still lived, stepped over the prone who had already passed, and drifted back to her house. Behind her, the Temple Mount was enveloped in flames, boiling over from its base, though there seemed to be even more blood than flames.
The stupor that had fallen over her at the Temple seemed to slough away as she traveled the streets. From open doorways she heard an occasional wail, but largely it was quiet. Too quiet. As though a river of violence had washed down the street while she’d been gone and swept away all that lived.
Her own street was not so peaceful. From end to end it burned.
She searched the crowd for her father, Micah, the baby. Grabbed hollow-eyed friends and wailing neighbors. One old woman shook her head and pointed a withered hand to the end of the burning street. “Only Micah.” She coughed. “Only he escaped.”
Micah. She called his name, but the word choked in her throat. Where would he have fled?
They had whispered together, one unseasonably warm night a few months ago on their roof, of running away from Jerusalem. Child’s talk, but now… Would he have tried to leave the city, to make it two hours south to family in Bethlehem?
Minutes later, she stumbled toward the Lower City. The Dung Gate would lead her south, to the valley of Hinnom and onward to Bethlehem. If she could escape.
Too many joined her. They would never be allowed to pass. She climbed crumbling steps to the rim of the city wall. Would she see a thread of refugees weaving out of Jerusalem, beyond the gates?
There was a procession of Jews, yes. But not on foot, fleeing to safety. On crosses, writhing in death throes. An endless line of them, crucified in absurd positions for the Romans’ entertainment, until they had run out of crosses, no doubt. Ariella gripped the wall. She would have retched had there been anything in her stomach.
She considered throwing herself from the wall. Was it high enough to guarantee her death? She would not want to die slowly on the ground, listening to the crucified.
The decision was made for her. From behind, a Roman soldier grabbed both her arms, laughing. She waited for the air in her face, for the spin of a freefall in her belly, that feeling she loved when her father rode the donkey cart too fast over the crest of a hill.
Instead, the soldier spun her to face him, shoved her to the stone floor, and fumbled at her tunic.
No, she was not going to die like that.
She exploded into a flailing of arms and legs, kicks and screams. She used her fingernails, used her teeth, used her knees.
From behind her head another soldier called. “That one’s a fighter, eh, Marcus?”
The soldier on top of her grunted.
“Better save her for the general. He wants the strong ones to sell off, you know.”
Ariella realized in that moment that since the siege began months ago, she had believed she would meet her death in the City of God. But as Jerusalem died without her, something far worse loomed in her future.
Life in the slave market of Rome.
Nine years later
Night fell too soon, bringing its dark celebrations to the house of Valerius.
Ariella lingered at the fishpond in the center of the dusky atrium, slipping stale crusts to the hungry scorpion fish one tiny piece at a time. The brown and white striped creature snapped at its prey with precision, the venomous spines along its back bristling.
The fish food ran out. There was no delaying the inevitable.
Let the debauchery begin.
Nine years a slave in this household, nine annual tributes to Dionysius. The Greek god, embraced by the Romans and renamed Bacchus, apparently demanded every sort of drunken vice performed in his honor. And Valerius would not disappoint the god.
Indeed, Valerius flaunted his association with the mystery sect, though its practice was frowned upon by the government and disdained by most citizens.
Ariella inhaled, trying to draw strength from the deadly fish her master kept as a pet. For we are both kept as such, aren’t we? The scorpion fish’s body swayed like a piece of debris, its disguise needless in its solitary enclosure.
Within an hour Valerius’s guests poured into the town house, sloshed up most of the wine she’d placed on low tables in the triclinium, and progressed to partaking of the extract of opium poppies, tended in red-tinged fields beyond the city. The sweet, pungent smoke hung like a smothering wool toga above their heads.
A traveling guild of actors somersaulted into the room, their lewd songs and costumes an affront to decency and a delight to the guests. Ariella lowered her eyes, embarrassment still finding her even after all she had endured, and cleared the toppled cups and soiled plates. She passed Valerius, sprawled on a gold-cushioned couch, and he rubbed a hand over her calf. Her muscles twitched like the flank of a horse irritated by a fly.
Her master’s high-pitched laugh floated above the general noise of the intoxicated. Ariella winced. Valerius performed tonight for his honored guest, another politician from the south somewhere.
“Perhaps we shall make a man of you yet, Maius.” Valerius waved his slender fingers at the larger man. “I shall take you out into the city and declare to all that you are one of us.”
The politician, Maius, reddened. Ariella leaned over him to refill his cup. Clearly, he was here to humor Valerius but not align himself with the vile man.
When the actors had twirled their final dance and claimed applause, the herd of guests took their revelry to the streets. Valerius dragged Ariella through the door, always his special companion this night. Her breath caught in her throat. It was not the streets she feared. It was what would come after.
Mother, why could I not be strong like you?
The insanity built to a crescendo as they wound their torch-lit way toward the Via Appia, where the procession would climax. The Bacchanalians howled and pushed and tripped, their vacant eyes and laughing mouths like the painted frescoes of her nightmares. Hair disheveled, carrying blazing torches, they danced along the stones, uttered crazed predictions and contorted their bodies impossibly. Back in Jerusalem, her father would have said they had the demons in them. Here in Rome, Ariella rarely thought of such things.
It was enough to survive.
They passed a cluster of slaves, big men, most of them, herded into a circle amidst a few flaming torches. Strange time of day for a slave auction. Ariella met the eyes of a few, but their shared circumstance did not give them connection.
Snatches of speech reached her. A gladiator troupe. A lanista, the trainer for the troupe, called out numbers, making new purchases. A memory of home flashed, the day she had been sold to Valerius’s household manager. She had thought herself fortunate then, when so many others were sold off to entertain in the arena. Foolish child.
The unruly procession passed the men bound for death and Ariella’s gaze flitted through them. Did they feel the violent shortness of their lives press down on them? Before her stretched nothing but endless misery. Was their lot not preferable?
A muscled slave with the yellow hair of the west shifted and she glimpsed a face beyond him. Her blood turned to ice, then fire.
She yanked away from Valerius’s sweaty grip. Stood on her toes to peer into the men.
Valerius pulled away from the raucous group, wrapped a thin arm around her waist, and brought his too-red lips to her ear. “Not growing shy after all these years, are we?” His baby-sweet voice sickened her.
She leaned away. Caught another look at the boy.
Turn your head. Look this way!
Valerius tugged her toward the road, but her feet had grown roots. I must be sure.
But then he turned, the boy about to be a gladiator, and she saw that it could not be Micah. He was too young, older than she remembered her brother but not old enough to be him. Though the resemblance was so strong perhaps he was a distant cousin, she knew he was not her brother. In fact, the boy looked more like her than Micah. If she were to cut her hair, she could pass for his twin.
She let Valerius pull her back to the procession, but the moment had shaken her. Memories she had thought dead turned out to be only buried, and their resurrection was a knife-blade of pain.
She sleepwalked through the rest of the procession, until their drunken steps took them to the caves on the Via Appia, dark spots on the grassy mounds along the road where greater abuses could be carried out without reprisals.
Valerius and his guest, Maius, were arguing.
Ariella forced her attention to the men, leaving off thoughts of Micah and home. It did not pay to be ignorant of Valerius’s moods.
“And you would sully the position you’ve been given by your dissolution!” Maius’s upper lip beaded with sweat and he poked a finger into Valerius’s chest.
Valerius swiped at the meaty finger. “At least I am not a coward! Running home to pretend to be something I am not.”
“You think me a coward? Then you are a fool. I know how to hold on to power. Yours will wash away like so much spilled wine.”
Valerius cackled. “Power? Ah yes, you are a mighty man down there in your holiday town by the sea. I daresay you couldn’t put a sword to a thief if he threatened your family!”
Ariella took a step backward. Valerius misjudged Maius, she could see. The man’s eyes held a coldness that only came of cruelty.
Before Valerius could react, Maius had unsheathed a small dagger from his belt. He grabbed for a nearby slave, one of Valerius’s special boys, wrapped a meaty arm around his forehead, and in one quick move, sliced the slave’s neck. He let the boy fall. Valerius screeched.
“There.” Maius tossed the dagger at the smaller senator’s feet and glared. “I owe you for one slave. But perhaps now you will keep your pretty mouth shut!”
“What have you done?” Valerius bent to the boy and clutched at his bloody tunic. “Not Julius! Not this one!”
The moon had risen while they marched, and now it shone down on them all, most of the guests taken with their own lustful pursuits and senseless to the drama between the two men. Ariella traced the path of moonlight down to her feet, to the glint of iron in the dirt. Maius’s dagger.
She had not held a weapon for many years. Without thought she bent and retrieved it. Held it to her side, against the loose fabric of her robe.
She could not say when the idea first planted itself in her mind. Perhaps it had been back in the city when she had seen the boy who was not Micah. Perhaps it only sprang to life at this moment. Regardless, she knew what she would do.
She would not return to Valerius’s house. Not participate once more, behind closed doors, in the mystery rites that had stolen her soul. Her nine years of torture had come to an end.
No one called out, no one pursued. She simply slipped away, into the weedy fields along the Via Appia, back to the city, the dagger hidden under her robe. She unwrapped the fabric sash at her waist and wound it around her hair. A few quiet questions and she found the yard where the newly-purchased gladiators awaited their assignment. A little flirtation with the loutish guard at the gate, enough to convince him that she was one of the many Roman women obsessed with the fighters, and he let her in with a wicked grin.
She found the boy within moments. His eyes widened as though she were his first opponent. She pulled him to the shadows, to the catcalls of his fellow fighters.
The dagger was steady in her hand and sharp enough to slice through large hanks of hair. The boy watched, wide-eyed, as she disrobed in front of him, modesty ignored.
He was young enough to easily convince.
Within minutes she had donned his leathers and taken his place on the ground with the other fighters. The boy stumbled across the yard, awkward in his new robes and headscarf.
It was done.
Elana would be proud.
End of this excerpt.
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Walk the Streets of Pompeii,
before the city is buried alive…
As the volcano Vesuvius churns, a slave girl-turned-gladiator in Pompeii joins forces with an unlikely source to seek justice.
In the coastal town of Pompeii, a new gladiator prepares to fight. But this gladiator hides a deadly secret: she’s a runaway Jewish slave girl named Ariella, disguised as a young boy. A savvy fighter, Ariella determines to triumph in the arena, knowing her life will be forfeit should anyone uncover the truth.
Cato, a wealthy politician, moved to Pompeii after tiring of the corruption in Rome. But he soon learns that Pompeii is just as corrupt, and if he doesn’t play the game, his family could pay the price. Determined to bring about justice for the citizens of Pompeii, Cato searches for allies. But what he discovers instead is a confounding group of Christians . . . and a young female gladiator whose fame is growing daily.
Political unrest reaches a boiling point as Christians are jailed and executed, and the mountain in the distance threatens to destroy the city with its river of fire. Cato and Ariella must act quickly and courageously to save their loved ones before all is lost.
*PLEASE NOTE: This novel was formerly published under the title Pompeii: City on Fire.