Get an Inside Look at the Writing of City on Fire

City on Fire: A Novel of PompeiiThanks 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!

Pompeii pictures

Stepping stones across the streets of Pompeii

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.

Pompeii pictures

plaster cast from eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii

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.

Pompeii pictures - graffiti

Graffiti found on the walls at Pompeii

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.

Running down into the gladiator arena

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.

artist’s rendering of the Vesuvius eruption

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.

1944 broadcast of Vesuvius erupting


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!)

get discussion questions for City on Fire

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.


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© Copyright Tracy L. Higley