The Last Days of Pompeii

by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Start Free Trial

Places Discussed

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631


*Pompeii. Ancient southern Italian city populated by Greeks and Italians until it was occupied by Rome during the wars that united Italy under Roman rule. In the first century b.c.e., the Roman general Sulla established a colony for his veterans on land near Pompeii that he and his army had taken from his enemies during the last days of the Roman Republic. The long-term effect of the Roman conquest of the Italian peninsula was the progressive decline of local cultures as Roman customs and culture became dominant. Although remnants of Greek and other cultures are seen in the characters of this novel, the romanization of Pompeii and the peninsula was virtually complete by the first century c.e., the period in which the novel is set.

Before Pompeii’s destruction in the volcanic eruption of 79 c.e., the city was a jewel of the Roman world, featuring luxurious houses and seaside villas that were the fashionable dwellings and summer resorts of wealthy Romans. The houses, baths, streets, and temples described by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and peopled by his characters are those that had been excavated and restored when he wrote the book. For example, Glaucus’s house, the House of the Tragic Poet, is a small gem of a house that is built in the typical Roman style but adorned by artworks that reveal his Greek heritage.

The Greek temple pictured with the Triangular Forum may have been the temple in which Glaucus, a wealthy Athenian, worshiped the gods of his ancestors. Glaucus meets his friends Lepidus and Sallust in the street near the Temple of Fortune, considered one of the most graceful examples of Roman architecture. The street’s raised footpath allows passersby to view the interior artwork and frescoes through the open doors of the painted houses along the street. It is in the portico of the Temple of Fortune that Glaucus and his beloved Ione take refuge from the raining ash after Vesuvius begins to erupt.


*Vesuvius. Volcano on the east shore of Italy’s Bay of Naples whose eruption in 79 c.e. provides the novel’s climax. Even before its eruption, the volcano’s dark presence is suggested throughout the novel by a strange dark cloud that hovers over it and becomes more ominous with each mention. The growing cloud appears to be a prophetic omen of both the disaster to come and the dark deeds being plotted against the wealthy Greek Glaucus, his Neapolitan lover Ione, her brother Apaecides, and the blind flower girl of Thessalian origins. The primary evildoer is the Egyptian priest Arbaces, who performs evil rites and manipulations against them in the Temple of Isis. Adding to the evil foreboding is the wicked witch in her cavern on the deadly mountain, who curses Glaucus for attacking the snake that is her familiar creature.

Bulwer-Lytton’s settings for his plot provide a cross section of the restored city and its romanized culture. Glaucus entertains his friends at an intimate dinner party at his house. A fashionable house party allows the guests of a wealthy Roman to meet and judge the gladiators and place their wagers before the scheduled games. Readers glimpse the private dressing room of a Pompeian beauty who wants the attention of Glaucus.

In the gates, marketplace, baths and forum of Pompeii, Bulwer-Lytton moves his plot along through encounters that presage doom for the lovers and doom for the city. The blind flower girl serves to personify the eternal darkness of the city soon to be buried by the mountain’s rain of volcanic ash. Thus, in street scenes and descriptions of revelers in the amphitheater, forum, and marketplace,...

(This entire section contains 631 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

alongside mourners at Apaecides’ funeral, the novelist weaves a tapestry of the doomed city’s cultural life and religious practices.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

Sources for Further Study

Campbell, James L., Sr. Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Surveys Bulwer-Lytton’s career, the influences on his work, and his fictional output. Analyzes the elements that contributed to the writing of the novel, judging it to be a sensationalistic costume romance rather than a serious exploration of Roman history.

Cooper, Lettice. Introduction to The Last Days of Pompeii. London: Collins, 1953. The most relevant of numerous introductions written for various editions of the novel; others of note include one by Bulwer’s son, the earl of Lytton (preserved into the late twentieth century in the Everyman edition), Curtis Dahl’s introduction to the 1946 Dodd Mead edition, and Edgar Johnson’s introduction to the 1956 Limited Editions Club edition.

Fleishman, Avrom. The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971. A study of the English tradition of historical fiction from its beginnings to the start of World War II, when, Fleishman contends, the tradition ended. Praises the novel’s depiction of Roman society and the novel’s use of Roman history in terms of nineteenth century political controversy.

Ford, George H., ed. Victorian Fiction: A Second Guide to Research. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1978. One essay on Bulwer-Lytton discusses bibliography and criticism for each of the novels, and observes that the success of The Last Days of Pompeii is explained in part because its publication coincided with an eruption of Vesuvius.

Mathieu, Joachim. “’At Home’ with the Romans: Domestic Archaeology in The Last Days of Pompeii.” In The Subverting Vision of Bulwer Lytton: Bicentenary Reflections, edited by Allan Conrad Christensen. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004. The most extensive of the essays in the commemorative bicentenary essay collection. The novel is briefly mentioned in other essays, although little attention is paid to its Christian content.

Stableford, Brian. Yesterday’s Bestsellers. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1998. Part 2 includes a discussion of The Last Days of Pompeii, setting the novel in the context of the author’s work and era, and comparing it with other novels relevant to the relationship between Christianity and occult mysticism: the works of Marie Corelli and Robert Hichens’s The Garden of Allah (1904).

Sutherland, J. A. Victorian Novelists and Publishers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Examines how business relationships between novelists and publishers affected novels. It describes the negotiations between Bulwer-Lytton and his publishers that preceded the novel’s writing, and explains how the finished product differed from the author’s expectations.


Critical Essays