|Publication date 1834||Originally published 1834|
Publisher Richard Bentley
|Adaptations The Last Days of Pompeii (1926)|
Similar Zanoni, Paul Clifford, The Last of the Barons, Eugene Aram, The disowned
The Last Days of Pompeii is a novel written by the baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1834. The novel was inspired by the painting The Last Day of Pompeii by the Russian painter Karl Briullov, which Bulwer-Lytton had seen in Milan. It culminates in the cataclysmic destruction of the city of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.
The novel uses its characters to contrast the decadent culture of 1st-century Rome with both older cultures and coming trends. The protagonist, Glaucus, represents the Greeks who have been subordinated by Rome, and his nemesis Arbaces the still older culture of Egypt. Olinthus is the chief representative of the nascent Christian religion, which is presented favourably but not uncritically. The Witch of Vesuvius, though she has no supernatural powers, shows Bulwer-Lytton's interest in the occult – a theme which would emerge in his later writing, particularly The Coming Race.
A popular sculpture by American sculptor Randolph Rogers, Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii (1856), was based on a character from the book.
Pompeii, A.D. 79. Athenian nobleman Glaucus arrives in the bustling and gaudy Roman town and quickly falls in love with the beautiful Greek Ione. Ione's former guardian, the malevolent Egyptian sorcerer Arbaces, has designs on Ione and sets out to destroy their budding happiness. Arbaces has already ruined Ione's sensitive brother Apaecides by luring him to join the vice-ridden priesthood of Isis.
The blind slave Nydia is rescued from her abusive owners by Glaucus, for whom she secretly pines. Arbaces horrifies Ione by declaring his love for her, and flying into a rage when she refuses him. Glaucus and Apaecides rescue her from his grip, but Arbaces is struck down by an earthquake, a sign of Vesuvius' coming eruption.
Glaucus and Ione exult in their love, much to Nydia's torment, while Apaecides finds a new religion in Christianity.
Nydia unwittingly helps Julia, a rich young woman who has eyes for Glaucus, obtain a love potion from Arbaces to win Glaucus's love. But the love potion is really a poison that will turn Glaucus mad. Nydia steals the potion and administers it; Glaucus drinks only a small amount and begins raving wildly.
Apaecides and Olinthus, an early Christian, determine to publicly reveal the deception of the cult of Isis. Arbaces, recovered from his wounds, overhears and stabs Apaecides to death; he then pins the crime on Glaucus, who has stumbled onto the scene.
Arbaces has himself declared the legal guardian of Ione, who is convinced that Arbaces is her brother's murderer, and imprisons her at his mansion. He also imprisons Nydia, who discovers that there is an eyewitness to the murder who can prove Glaucus's innocence – the priest Calenus, who is yet a third prisoner of Arbaces. She smuggles a letter to Glaucus's friend Sallust, begging him to rescue them.
Glaucus is convicted of eating human flesh, Olinthus of heresy, and their sentence is to be fed to wild cats in the amphitheater. All Pompeii gathers in the amphitheater for the bloody gladiatorial games made by Giann. Just as Glaucus is led into the arena with the lion – who, by a miracle, spares his life and returns to his cage – Sallust bursts into the arena and reveals Arbaces' plot. The crowd demands that Arbaces be thrown to the lion, but it is too late: Vesuvius begins to erupt. Ash and stone rain down, causing mass panic.
Arbaces grabs Ione in the chaos but is killed by a lightning strike. Nydia leads Glaucus, Sallust, and Ione to safety on a ship in the Bay of Naples (because of her blindness she used to going about in utter darkness while healthy people are made helpless in the cloud of volcanic dust). The next morning she commits suicide by quietly slipping into the sea; death is preferable to the agony of her unrequited love for Glaucus.
Ten years pass, and Glaucus writes to Sallust, now living in Rome, of his and Ione's happiness in Athens. They have built Nydia a tomb and adopted Christianity.