Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1021
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 deserted, the blind slave weeps bitterly.
The earthquake causes little damage, and the people of Pompeii take up again the threads of their lives. Apaecides becomes a convert to Christianity, and Glaucus and Ione remain together.
Julia, daughter of a wealthy freedman named Diomed, is also in love with Glaucus and seeks to interfere between him and Ione. She goes to the house of Arbaces, where she and the priest plot together. Arbaces has a drug prepared to be administered to Glaucus; under its influence, Glaucus runs from his house into a cemetery in a demented stupor. Apaecides and Arbaces then arrive at the cemetery. They quarrel, and Arbaces stabs Apaecides, killing him. Then, hoping to kill Glaucus indirectly, the priest summons the crowd and declares that Glaucus in his drunken rage has killed Apaecides. Glaucus and a Christian who attempts to defend him are arrested. They are condemned to be given to wild beasts at the upcoming public games.
After the funeral of her brother, Ione resolves to declare her belief in the innocence of Glaucus. Before she can carry out her plan, however, Arbaces seizes her and carries her off to his palace. The only one who knows of Arbaces’ guilt is a priest who is also his prisoner, but Arbaces has not reckoned with Nydia, who as a dancing woman at his palace has learned most of his secrets. Nydia contacts the priest imprisoned by Arbaces and agrees to carry his story to the authorities. Unfortunately, she too is captured. She persuades a slave to carry the message to Sallust, a friend of Glaucus, but the message is delivered while Sallust is drunk, and he refuses to read it.
The day on which Glaucus is to die in the arena arrives. The games begin with gladiatorial combat, which the members of the crowd watch listlessly; they are bored because the deaths do not come fast enough or with enough suffering. After one combat, the crowd condemns an unpopular gladiator to death; his body is dragged across the arena and placed on the heap with those previously slain. A lion is turned loose in the arena with Glaucus, but, unfortunately for the crowd’s amusement, the lion creeps with a moan back into its cage. Before the animal can be prodded into action, Sallust appears and demands the arrest of Arbaces. A slave had called his attention to Nydia’s letter, which he had thrown aside the night before. After reading it, he had hurried to lay his information before the praetor. The mob, not to be cheated after Glaucus is set free, demands that Arbaces be thrown to the lion.
Then the famous volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius begins. The whole gladiatorial scene becomes chaos as terrified thousands pour out of the doomed amphitheater, crushing the weakest in their hurry to escape. Looting begins in the temples. Nydia reaches Glaucus, and together they hurry to the house of Arbaces to find and save Ione. Arbaces dies there in an earthquake that closely follows the eruption. Smoke and ash in the air make it too dark to see, but Nydia, accustomed to darkness, is able to lead Ione and Glaucus through the streets. At last Glaucus, Ione, and Nydia gain the safety of the seaside and put out to sea in a small ship. They fall asleep in the boat that night, and in the morning Glaucus and Ione discover that the heartbroken Nydia has cast herself into the sea.