The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Last Days of Pompeii (1834)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Last Days of Pompeii was written by Edward Bulwer Lytton. Edward George Earle Bulwer Lytton, 1st Baron of Knebworth (1803-1873) was a popular, productive, and influential writer for over forty years. His reputation has unjustly suffered for many decades.
The Last Days of Pompeii is about the lives of several characters in Pompeii in the final days before Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Two friends, Clodius, an effete Roman, and Glaucus, a popular Greek, are walking to the public baths when they see a beautiful, blind flower girl. She is obviously Greek, and this reminds Glaucus of another Greek woman he knew, who he had fallen in love with but had lost contact with. As Glaucus and Clodius speak they run into Arbaces, the Egyptian priest of Isis, a figure of power in Pompeii but one who is unlikable, and both Glaucus and Clodius detest him. Arbaces thinks little of either of them, for he hates the Romans and the Greeks and secretly prays for the return of Egypt to power. Until that time, however, he plots and schemes to accumulate personal power and indulge his own depraved tastes. Arbaces is the guardian of two young Romans, a brother and sister, Apaecides and Ione. Arbaces had them brought from Naples to Pompeii where he could more directly influence them. Arbaces plans to make Apaecides a priest of Isis and to marry Ione, who he has known since she was a child but who he has only recently fallen in love with. Glaucus, for his part, meets Ione at a party and realizes that she is the Greek woman he had known and fallen in love with. They renew their friendship and fall in love. Meanwhile Apaecides becomes increasingly confused by the wily Arbaces’ corrupt sophistries, and the blind flower girl, Nydia, falls in love with the noble Glaucus, even though the gap in their social positions is so great–she is a slave–that there is no chance that she can ever be with him.
One day Glaucus sees Nydia’s owner beating her. He is offended by this and buys Nydia, planning to give her to Ione. Nydia realizes that Glaucus will never love her but is happy to deliver a letter from Glaucus to Ione. The letter is a declaration of love, but in it Glaucus also warns Ione about Arbaces. Ione goes to Arbaces to confront him about Glaucus’ warning, but Nydia, knowing what Arbaces is capable of, warns Apaecides and Glaucus, who rushes with Nydia to Arbaces’ palace. Arbaces and Glaucus quarrel, but during their argument an earthquake strikes Pompeii, and in the confusion Glaucus and Ione flee from the palace, leaving behind the weeping Nydia. Apaecides, now aware of Arbaces’ wickedness, converts to Christianity, and Glaucus and Ione become a couple. Another woman in love with Glaucus, Julia, tries to split Glaucus and Ione and gets from Arbaces a drug which, when given to Glaucus by Julia, drives him temporarily mad, and he runs, raving, into the streets of Pompeii. Wanting to know whether the drug had taken effect, Arbaces goes looking for Glaucus, but runs into Apaecides instead. They quarrel, and Arbaces stabs Apaecides in the back, instantly killing him. Glaucus stumbles upon the body, and Arbaces knocks him on top of it, tosses the knife next to the pair, and cries out that a murder has been committed, summoning a crowd. Glaucus is arrested and condemned to fight wild animals in a gladiatorial show. Arbaces has Ione kidnaped and brought to his palace, but Nydia, who is aware of Arbaces’ actions, tries to contact the authorities. Arbaces prevents this and imprisons Nydia, but she manages to persuade a slave to carry a message to Sallust, a friend of Glaucus. Unfortunately, Sallust is drunk when the slave arrives and does not read the message.
The next day the games move at a lackluster pace and Glaucus is thrown to a lion, who retreats to his cage rather than attack Glaucus. The keeper is about to goad the lion to attack Glaucus when Sallust arrives, having read Nydia’s note when he sobered up, and demands Arbaces’ arrest. The mob, convinced by Sallust’s words, call for him to be given to the lions. At this point Vesuvius begins to erupt. All of Vesuvius begins to riot and flee. Nydia gets to Glaucus and the pair go to Arbaces’ palace, where they rescue Ione. They flee the city for the coast and go out to sea in a small boat. Arbaces is killed in the earthquake. Glaucus, Ione, and Nydia spend the night in the boat, but before Glaucus and Ione awaken, Nydia, heartbroken over Glaucus, drowns herself.
The Last Days of Pompeii was enormously popular when it first appeared. It was aided in this by a historical coincidence: only a month before the novel’s debut in 1834, Mount Vesuvius erupted with more violence than had been seen in centuries. This piqued the interest and sympathy of the British reading public, and when Bulwer Lytton’s book appeared it was eagerly devoured. (This is one of a number of examples of Bulwer Lytton’s talent, supreme among nineteenth century novelists, for publishing a novel at the precise time at which it was guaranteed to be most popular). From the 1820s to the 1840s the “school of catastrophe,” paintings, poems, plays and novels depicting enormous disasters, was a popular one with the British reading public, and The Last Days of Pompeii was the most successful of the “catastrophe” novels.1 The Last Days of Pompeii was largely responsible for the genre of novels about late Rome, including Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean (1885) and Lewis Wallace’s Ben-Hur. The Last Days of Pompeii was one of the most prominent historical novels (see: The Historical Romance) of the 1830s and led to Bulwer Lytton being seen as the best of the post-Walter Scott (see: Rob Roy, Waverley) historical novelists.
But influence does not equal enjoyability, and like much of Bulwer Lytton’s work The Last Days of Pompeii is dated and often unenjoyable. Bulwer Lytton tells the story in an inflated style which makes much of the book slow reading. Bulwer Lytton does not stint at bombast, straining after effects, fustian, naked melodrama, and loquaciousness taken to the point of excess. The first three quarters of the book have a tediousness in the unfolding of the plots. The concerns of the characters, such as Arbaces’ obsession with Ione’s chastity and the repulsion the Romans feel toward pagan ceremonies, are those of Bulwer Lytton rather than historically accurate. With a few exceptions his characterization is flat and it is his only villains—Arbaces, Julia, and Arbaces’ corrupt ally Calenus—who show vigor and life. The heroes of Bulwer Lytton’s fiction are often insipid, stiff, and unlikeable, and with the exception of the sweet, noble, and sad Nydia none of the nominal “good guys” of Pompeii particularly endear themselves to the reader. Pompeii is in some ways a recasting of Pelham in Roman times, but the likable characteristics of Glanville and Pelham are missing from Glaucus, Clodius, and Apaecides.
But the modern reader of Pompeii will still derive some pleasure from it. Arbaces’ neo-Rosicrucian philosophy is an interesting forecast of the themes Bulwer Lytton would later return to in A Strange Story and Zanoni. Bulwer Lytton spent nearly a year in Pompeii doing research for the novel, and the result of his efforts is a painstaking (and roughly accurate) recreation of daily life in Pompeii, down to the eating utensils and construction methods of the buildings. Pompeii comes colorfully alive, much more so than Glaucus and Ione do, even if the recurring comparisons between Pompeii and the Regency London of Bulwer Lytton’s time can come off as strained. Nydia’s bitterness at her blindness and her futile love for Glaucus lend her dimensions the other characters lack, and Arbaces is entertaining in his wickedness. Bulwer Lytton is also good at heightening the tension of the tale. The reader knows from the novel’s title that Pompeii is soon to be destroyed, and the momentum and pressure do not falter before the end. The best section of the novel is the final one, with Vesuvius’ eruption and the reaction of the Pompeiians, and Bulwer Lytton almost achieves eloquence in his description of the fire and ash raining down on the city and the resulting hysteria and terror of the Romans.
And Pompeii has in Arbaces a villain who holds the reader’s attention, far more than Glaucus and Ione do. Arbaces is not in the upper rank of fictional Victorian villains; he is not Anthony Skene’s Zenith the Albino (see: The Sexton Blake Mysteries), Frederic van Rensselaer Dey’s Doctor Quartz (see: The Doctor Quartz Mysteries), or even Matthew Lewis’ Ambrosio (see: The Monk), but Arbaces is entertaining enough in his own right. Arbaces is an Egyptian living in Pompeii. He is a magician, the “Lord of the Burning Girdle” and “he...from whom all cultivators of magic, from north to south, from east to west, from the Ganges and the Nile to the vales of Thessaly and the shores of the yellow Tiber, have stooped to learn.”2 In Pompeii he is a figure of fear and respect, in large part because he is rumored to wield the Evil Eye. He has contacts everywhere, especially among the Priests of Isis, whose chief Calenus is his servant and into whose company Arbaces personally inducts a number of priests. Arbaces is far more intelligent than everyone else around him, and even though his magic is humbug he is cunning enough to fool everyone with it. He does not believe in Isis, but rather in Nature, and sees Isis and all gods as metaphors for the glory of Nature. (When Christianity rears its head in Pompeii Arbaces takes none too kindly to it). He is too intelligent for his surroundings, in fact, and is deeply bored, finding pleasure only in the contemplation of Nature, in his hatred of Rome (Arbaces is a strident Egyptian patriot) and in his orgies, which involve lovely young innocents (“I love to rear the votaries of my pleasure. I love to train, to ripen their minds,–to unfold the sweet blossom of their hidden passions, in order to prepare the fruit to my taste”3). Arbaces falls in love with Ione, who he has known since she was a child, and schemes his way toward her wedding bed, but fails despite his best efforts.
In other words, Arbaces is a post-Gothic version of the Hero-Villain, the character who has great passions and abilities but cannot resist his weaknesses and impulses and gives in to evil–the Byronic anti-hero, “a model Bulwer Lytton had adopted for himself.”4 Arbaces would not be out of place in many Gothic novels, and the reader sees enough of him to know that he could, had he chosen, been a good person, but he is mostly evil. Arbaces is not a classic Hero-Villain, but rather one written after the demise of the Gothic genre. He stands at the juncture of the Gothic and the historical novel proper, hearkening back to the classic Hero-Villain and anticipating the antagonist of later historical romances.
One can’t say that The Last Days of Pompeii is an enjoyable read, exactly, but it has enjoyable features.
Print: Edward Bulwer Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii. London: Forgotten Books, 2017.
1 Curtis Dahl, “Bulwer Lytton and the School of Catastrophe,” Philological Quarterly 32 (Jan. 1, 1953): 428-442.
2 Edward Bulwer Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii (Boston: Little, Brown, 1898), 291.
3 Bulwer Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii, 48-49.
4 David Huckvale, A Dark and Stormy Oeuvre: Crime, Magic and Power in the Novels of Edward Bulwer Lytton (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), 80.