The Pirates of Pompeii
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First edition, 2002
|Cover artist||Peter Sutton
Fred van Deelan (mosaic)
|Series||The Roman Mysteries|
|1 April 2002|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||208 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|Preceded by||The Secrets of Vesuvius|
|Followed by||The Assassins of Rome|
Flavia and Nubia look over the devastation of Mount Vesuvius. Their friend Jonathan ben Mordecai is in a coma, and Nubia and Flavia search for a type of flowering plant that his father (who is a doctor) needs for medicine. Flavia's dog, Scuto, finds the precious flower, as well as a little girl, Julia, who says that her big brother Rufus had been kidnapped by some “scary men.” He'd told her to hide in the cave while he drew them off, but had not returned.
Returning to the refugee camp, Flavia and Nubia help to medicate Jonathan, who awakens from his coma. While he is recovering, Nubia meets a runaway slave named Kuanto, from the same region of Africa as she. He asks her to run away and be free with him, but she hesitates.
The four friends learn that children are disappearing everywhere in the area of the camp, and Flavia guesses that some kind of organized kidnapping racket is operating. Hearing one of the refugees mutter “Felix just got luckier” with news of another disappearance, Flavia suspects the powerful local landowner Publius Pollius Felix, who happens to be her uncle Gaius’s patron. Felix visits the refugee camp, ostensibly helping the Emperor organize supplies for the refugees. By playing up Jonathan’s infirmity, Flavia contrives to have herself and her three friends invited to Felix’s villa to recover while the refugees are being sorted out. There they meet Felix's beautiful but spoiled daughter Pulchra, his wife Polla, and his two younger daughters. Pulchra takes an instant liking to Jonathan.
The four friends reside at Felix’s house for a while, slowly being taken in by its luxuries and Felix’s charisma. Flavia is initially appalled at seeing how Pulchra treats her own slave girl, Leda (including flogging her with a birch stick and making her stay huddled in a locked chest as punishment), but before long, she begins treating Nubia almost as poorly; Flavia does not abuse Nubia, but, in an effort to fit in with the way things are done at the house, begins ordering her around like a servant and then ignoring her like a piece of furniture.
Spying on various parts of the house, they notice suspicious signs; shortly after one of Felix’s clients comes begging the patron to help find his missing daughter, Lupus sees two men near the villa conferring on how to return her.
On the night of a sumptuous dinner party, Flavia tries to be a good guest by ordering Nubia to play her flute. The next day, she sees that Nubia has run away, after Pulchra beat her, stole her puppy, and broke her lotuswood flute. Flavia goes running to Felix to ask for his help, but Felix refuses, saying that, if Nubia were caught, the law would require her to be crucified as a runaway.
Sickened at how she and the others have been taken in by the house and its seductive ways, Flavia is determined to find Nubia herself. She, Jonathan, and Lupus retrace her steps to a small shrine on a hilltop where the children had had a picnic, and find signs that Nubia had run away with Kuanto, who had followed her to the villa. Flavia then catches Pulchra and Leda, who had followed them, and the two girls begin fighting. Just then, all the children are seized by the kidnapping gang, who call themselves “The Pirates of Pompeii.” Lupus manages to get away without being seen.
Flavia, Jonathan, Pulchra, and Leda are taken to a seaside grotto, where they join a band of almost fifty kidnapped children. All of them are subjected to a severe beating to keep them subdued, but Jonathan and Flavia tell the children jokes to keep their spirits up.
Lupus runs back to the house, but Felix is nowhere to be found. His wife, Polla, does not seem to comprehend Lupus’s urgent appeals for help. Polla tells Lupus that Felix is away at Rome, and Lupus runs back to the grotto to free the children himself. When he communicates this, Pulchra confides shamefully that her mother has spells of mental illness, and her father rarely leaves the house for that reason. Lupus cuts the children free, but just as they are about to escape, the pirates find them and seize Flavia, threatening to kill her if they don’t stand still. Lupus manages to get away again, and runs back to the villa, praying that Felix will be there.
The pirates pour cold sea water all over Flavia as punishment for trying to escape. Flavia and Jonathan are then forced to lie on their backs on the floor of the grotto, bound so that they cannot sit up.
Meanwhile, Nubia has joined Kuanto and several other runaway slaves, all of whom are fleeing abusive masters. Kuanto says he has hired a ship to take them to Alexandria. But as soon as they board the ship, the crew are revealed to be the kidnappers, in league with Kuanto. The runaway slaves are taken prisoner and put with the children, except for Nubia, whom Kuanto says is with him.
Acting as though she does not recognize Flavia (she and Jonathan have been untied so that they could be forced to walk to the ship, and are now bound upright to the mast) and the others, she talks with Kuanto, who explains that he is a freedman of Felix’s whose job for the patron had been leading posses to track down runaway slaves. Kuanto had the idea of selling the slaves instead of turning them into the law, and one of the other “pirates” suggested expanding into a kidnapping racket after the volcano erupted, knowing that there would be many runaway slaves and lost children in the chaos. Felix doesn’t know anything about it; the pirates had just used his name to intimidate the locals into doing what they wanted.
Playing along, Nubia serves the pirates cups of wine, drugged with a packet of sleeping powder that Jonathan had brought with him from his father's medical stores.
The next morning, when the ship is at sea on its way to meet a buyer for the slaves, the pirates begin sorting the children, picking out those with families who can pay ransom for them. But then Kuanto recognizes Pulchra and panics, knowing that Felix will hunt every last one of them down. Torn between selling the entire group of children as slaves, or throwing them overboard, the pirates suddenly begin to hallucinate. Seeing terrible visions, they lose control of the boat and the children manage to overpower them. Jonathan ruefully realizes that he took the wrong powder from his father’s stores. Two of the pirates are badly injured by their hallucinations – one of them jumps from the crow’s nest to the deck, believing he has wings – and two jump overboard and drown.
As the children try to gain control of the boat, they spot the slave ship Vespa coming, and on it the children's hated enemy, the slave-dealer Venalicius.
The children and runaway slaves hatch a plan, and the slaves pretend to be the pirates trading the children. When the slave traders board the ship, the children spill dried chickpeas onto the deck, causing them to slip and fall, while Jonathan and Nubia use gold coins as sling stones to knock them unconscious. When Venalicius tries to seize Nubia, Pulchra saves her by plowing her head into his belly. A short time later, Felix arrives in his racing yacht, accompanied by Lupus and a squad of bodyguards. They take the pirates and slave traders into custody, but Lupus shocks them all by trying to stab Venalicius to death with a knife. Felix stops him, and Lupus bursts into tears.
At the villa, Felix thanks Flavia and her friends for rescuing his daughter. He has arranged to return all the stolen children to their families, and has given the runaway slaves a place on his estate. To Nubia, Pulchra gives back her dog and a brand-new flute. Flavia decides to manumit Nubia, ending her status as a slave under Roman law. At first Nubia is afraid that being free means she will have to leave her friends; when she is assured otherwise, she accepts. Just then, the first rainstorm since the volcanic eruption begins, and the rain washes away the layer of ash covering everything.
- Nubia’s real name, Shepenwepet, is revealed.
- Lupus's hatred for Venalicius is explained in the subsequent novel The Dolphins of Laurentum.
- In The Slave-girl from Jerusalem, it is revealed that Nubia's manumission was not legally completed in this novel.
The Pirates of Pompeii was one of the books adapted into an episode of the television series.