The Roman Mysteries: The Secrets of Vesuvius (TV adaptation)

The first two episodes of The Roman Mysteries TV series, 'The Secrets of Vesuvius', are an adaptation of the book of The Secrets of Vesuvius, presumably with some elements from The Thieves of Ostia. I haven't read these two, so everything I say here refers only to the TV series and I don't know what sort of changes they've made in adapting the books.

The series is beautifully filmed on location in Malta and for the most part, it looks amazing. The matte paintings of Vesuvius and the effects on the eruption aren't quite convincing, at times, but the final sequences, with ash raining down on everyone and fire rushing towards them over the sea, are more impressive. I have to confess, though, I have no idea whether Flavia's plan to save everyone by ducking under the water would really work. (Edited to add: Having now consulted a geologist, I can confirm that this might indeed happen and the ducking under water plan might also work!).

Ostia, where the children live.

The best thing about this adaptation is they were able to get Simon Callow to play the Elder Pliny, which is fantastic, perfect casting. Both Pliny and Pliny the Younger were exactly as I imagined them - the Elder friendly, curious and a bit eccentric, the Younger nice enough but ever so slightly supercilious. Simon Callow is brilliant as ever and I have to confess, I blubbed when he died. His death matches Pliny the Younger's description (Letters 6.16, unfortunately not available online, or at least not easily, except in Latin). I would ignore Wikipedia's suggestion that he couldn't have died from the fumes because the others around him survived; the Younger says in his letter that the Elder's throat was constitutionally weak, often narrow and inflamed (like Jonathan in the series, he may have had asthma), so he would have been more vulnerable to the sulphur in the air than the others.

The kids are well cast too, as are the adults (though I was a little confused by Eoin McCarthy's different voices for the identical twins he plays, it sounded almost like they had different accents). They even look quite like the illustrations on the older book covers!

The series has toned down some elements - for example, Lupus is mute for no obvious reason, rather than having had his tongue cut out. This seems a shame to me - I'm sure kids would cope and you wouldn't have to acutally show it, just have Dr Mordecai examine him. Still, the volcano sequences are pretty scary and exciting. There's also some artistic licence taken, as usual - no one of this period, not even a Christian, would be likely to be against slavery as a concept; Christians and Stoics taught that masters should treat their slaves well, but not that slavery was wrong. There's probably no harm in a modern children's story including characters who are not fans of slavery though. Also, I thought Gaius and Miriam fell in love awfully quickly, possibly as a result of condensing the book to fit into an hour's screen time.

There's an interesting mix of clues to what's happening that Flavia puts together as she realises that Vesuvius is a volcano (something Pliny had not realised before). A lot of the clues are geological events that modern volcanologists would recognise as signs of an imminent eruption - sulphur in the air and in the water, animals leaving the area, increasing tremors in the earth and smoke above the mountian. But Flavia is equally interested in an old story of a village being swallowed by Vulcan and in her own and Jonathan's bad dreams (which come up again a few times). This is not a simple case of her being from an earlier time; Pliny breezily dismisses such superstitions and must be convinced by geological arguments (and, eventually, only by the volcano actually erupting in front of his eyes, to which he rather comically says 'Ah. You may have a point'). Flavia and her friends, however, are more inclined to be religious, which makes the final scene, as they all pray to different gods for Jonathan (who is in a coma due to a combination of asthma and sulphur) very sweet and touching.

Computer-generated image of the eruption over Pompeii from the BBC.

I really enjoyed watching this. I don't watch a lot of children's television these days, and when I do, it's from the late 80s or early 90s (I have The Chronicles of Narnia and Maid Marian and her Merry Men on DVD) so I don't know how this series compares to other children's television, but I was pleasantly surprised by the high production values and by how slick it was. As I said, I don't know how closely this stuck to the book, but I did notice one of my favourite details from the books - Nubia's tentative Latin, which has her yell 'Behold! Unhappy man!' instead of 'Man overboard!' - and, like the books, the series includes references to things the kids can actually go away and read if they want to - in this case, both Plinys, Catullus and Strabo. I'm looking forward to the the next episode, which is based on a book I have read, so I'll see what the series is like as an adaptation when I watch that one.


  1. Pliny the Younger's letter to Tacitus about his uncle's death in English

  2. Genius! Thanks. I had got lost among different referencing systems... (After about 20 minutes I remembered that my housemate has a copy at home in this exciting paper-bound thing called a book! ;) )

  3. Nice! I've just found out that two seasons are available on DVD, so I shall hunt them out.

    I've read the books sporadically, and I've always enjoyed them. If it also helps usher some youngsters towards the thoroughly worthwhile pursuit of studying the classics then it's a bonus!

  4. cool series. very enjoyable to read. Pirates of Pompeii = simply the best book in the world. i met Caroline Lawrence and got books for £1 and SIGNED!! bargain!

  5. Hi,
    i am a teacher of children aged 9. We are learning about the Romans this term and i wondered if this would be worthwhile/ suitable to show them. Is there any content that might be frightening or inappropriate?


    1. It's a CBBC show so there shouldn't be anything inappropriate. There's some romance, but very chaste romance! The volcano might be frightening, and Pliny dies which is obviously quite sad, but I think most 9 year olds would be fine. I hope that helps!


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