The ruins of the two cities that had been buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 c.e. were discovered in the late sixteenth century by tunnelers attempting to excavate a water-channel, but their excavation did not begin until 1709, when finds made in Herculaneum sparked off a series of treasure hunts. It was not until 1763 that an inscription was discovered confirming that the second city was Pompeii. By 1834 the extensive press coverage given to the haphazard excavations had created abundant interest in Edward Bulwer-Lytton to continue in his best-selling melodrama.
In the novel, the handsome and cultured Athenian Glaucus falls in love with the beautiful Ione, whose brother Apaecides has recently become a priest of the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis. The cult of Isis is very fashionable in Pompeii because of the miraculous pronouncements made by a stone image in her temple. The high priest Arbaces secretly admires Ione and is determined to possess her, but Ione does not suspect his motives, as the priests of Isis are supposedly celibate. Their asceticism is, however, merely a front, and in the privacy of the temple their inner circle holds orgies. When the ascetically inclined Apaecides is initiated into this inner circle, he is disgusted and is attracted instead to the authentic simplicity of Christianity.
One of the slaves hired to take part in Arbaces’ orgies is a blind girl named Nydia, who is bought by Glaucus to save her from ill-treatment at the hands of her former owners. Nydia falls deeply in love with Glaucus, and her unhappiness at serving as a go-between in his pursuit of Ione is compounded when she is also compelled to carry messages from Julia, who also has designs on Glaucus.
Arbaces tries to poison Ione’s mind against Glaucus, but his deception fails. Arbaces then discovers that Julia intends to try to seduce Glaucus by means of an aphrodisiac potion obtained from a witch who lives in a cave on the slopes of Vesuvius. He tries to persuade the witch to substitute a poison; the witch will not go that far but agrees to supply a drug that will make Glaucus mad....
(The entire section is 877 words.)