Thursday, 29 December 2011

matrix - a mother of a word

Matrix. What a word. It has so many meanings these days that I won't even try to cover them all. However, I will mention the fact that matrix comes from Latin and has a sense of 'pregnant animal', 'womb', or 'mother'.

I've just finished reading the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris. Unputdownable! It's quite a feat to keep the reader's interest to the last word when a story is set in Pompeii in AD 79, because we all know it must end with the eruption of Vesuvius.

The story opens when 'the engineer' is climbing by moonlight up a hill overlooking the port of Misenum. He's the new 'aquarius' - water engineer - sent from Rome to replace the mysteriously missing Exomnium.

I think I fell in love with the book on page 10 when, in the engineer's point of view, we read;
Oh, but she was a mighty piece of work, the Augusta - one of the greatest feats of engineering ever accomplished. It was going to be an honor to command her. Somewhere far out there, on the opposite side of the bay, high in the pine-forested mountains of the Apenninus, the aqueduct captured the springs of Serinus and bore the water westward - channeled it over ravines on top of tiered arcades, forced it across valleys through massive siphons - all the way down to the plains of Campania, then around the far side of Mount Vesuvius, then south to the coast at Neapolis, and finally along the spine of the Misenum peninsula to the dusty naval town, a distance of some sixty miles, with a mean drop along her entire length of just two inches every one hundred yards. She was the longest aqueduct in the world, longer even than the great aqueducts of Rome and far more complex, for whereas her sisters in the north fed one city only, the Augusta's serpentine conduit - the matrix, as they called it: the mother-line - suckled no fewer than nine towns around the Bay of Neapolis; Pompeii first, at the end of a long spur, then Nola, Acerrae, Atella, Neapolis, Puteoli, Cumae, Baiae, and finally Misenum.
There's a mild romantic interest in the story, but the true love in this book is the engineer's passion for the 'mother-line'. I think I'll never use the word 'matrix' again without thinking of the complex engineering that brought water to this section of Italy in the first century.

I've walked parts of the O'Shannassy Aqueduct Trail above Warburton - not the whole thirty kilometres! - and always had a sense of walking on the flat, so I think that aqueduct may have a gentle drop similar to the Augusta. There's a history of the O'Shannassy here.

Although the two books are quite different genres, Pompeii reminds me of Robert Drewe's novel, The Drowner, because each has a protagonist who comes from a family that lives by a deep, almost spiritual, understanding of water.

The complex engineering of The Augusta is an integral part of the plot of 'Pompeii', so I was fascinated to see a photo of the castellum aquae of Pompeii - the little chamber where the water entered the town and divided into three conduits - as part of the Wikipedia entry about the novel.

Photo by RHaworth (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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