The Last Days of Pompeii Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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.)

The Last Days of Pompeii Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Late one afternoon in the ancient city of Pompeii, the fashionable rich young men are congregating for the daily rite of the public baths. Among them are Clodius, a foppish Roman, and Glaucus, a popular young Greek. Together the two stroll toward the baths, mingling with slaves bearing bronze buckets and idlers gowned in purple robes. Along the way, they see the beautiful blind flower seller, Nydia. She, too, is from Greece, and for that reason Glaucus takes an interest in her. It is still too early for the baths, so the two friends walk along the seafront as Glaucus describes a Neapolitan woman of Greek birth with whom he has fallen in love. Unfortunately, he has lost contact with the woman and is now morose. While they talk, Arbaces, the evil-looking Egyptian priest of Isis, intercepts them. The two young men are barely able to conceal their dislike for the Egyptian.

Arbaces secretly defies the Romans and the Greeks and prays for the day when Egypt will once again be powerful. He reveals to a lesser priest his interest in the brother and sister Apaecides and Ione, his wards. He hopes to make a priest of Apaecides, and he plans to marry Ione. The siblings had been in Naples, but recently Arbaces has brought them to Pompeii, where he can influence them.

Glaucus meets Ione at a party. She is the young woman he had seen and lost in Naples. At the same time, Arbaces develops his hold over Apaecides, who is growing more and more confused after coming into contact with the sophistries of the corrupt priest of Isis. Meanwhile, Nydia, the flower seller, is falling hopelessly in love with Glaucus.

It happens that Glaucus and Clodius are loitering in the establishment of Burbo, the wine seller, when Burbo and his wife are beating Nydia, their slave. Glaucus, hearing the woman’s cries, buys her from her owners, planning to give her to Ione. Nydia realizes that Glaucus can never love her after he gives her a letter to deliver to Ione. In this letter, he accuses Arbaces of false imputations. On reading the letter, Ione decides to go at once to the palace of the priest and face him with Glaucus’s charges.

Knowing the danger to Ione at the palace, Nydia warns both Ione’s brother and Glaucus. Glaucus hurries to the palace to confront the priest. An earthquake interrupts the quarrel between the two men, and a statue of the goddess Isis falls from a pedestal, striking Arbaces. Glaucus and Ione run from the building to join the throng in the street. Alone and...

(The entire section is 1021 words.)