QUAINT #27 Arbaces from “The Last Days of Pompeii” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

A depiction of the destruction of Pompeii from the documentary special Pompeii: The Last Day

Arbaces was created by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and appeared in The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron of Knebworth (1803-1873) was a popular, productive, and influential writer for over 40 years. His reputation has unjustly suffered for many decades. Bulwer-Lytton also created Monsieur Favart, Margrave, Mr. Richards, Vril, and Zanoni.

The Last Days of Pompeii is about the lives of several characters in Pompeii in the final days before Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Two friends, Clodius, an effete Roman, and Glaucus, a popular Greek, are walking to the public baths when they see a beautiful, blind flower girl. She is obviously Greek, and this reminds Glaucus of another Greek woman he knew, who he had fallen in love with but had lost contact with. As Glaucus and Clodius speak they run into Arbaces, the Egyptian priest of Isis, a figure of power in Pompeii but one who is unlikable, and both Glaucus and Clodius detest him. Arbaces thinks little of either of them, for he hates the Romans and the Greeks and secretly prays for the return of Egypt to power. Until that time, however, he plots and schemes to accumulate personal power and indulge his own depraved tastes.

Arbaces is an Egyptian living in Pompeii. He is a magician, the “Lord of the Burning Girdle” and “he…from whom all cultivators of magic, from north to south, from east to west, from the Ganges and the Nile to the vales of Thessaly and the shores of the yellow Tiber, have stooped to learn.” In Pompeii he is a figure of fear and respect, in large part because he is rumored to wield the Evil Eye. He has contacts everywhere, especially among the Priests of Isis, whose chief Calenus is his servant and into whose company Arbaces personally inducts a number of priests. Arbaces is far more intelligent than everyone else around him, and even though his magic is humbug he is cunning enough to fool everyone with it.

He does not believe in Isis, but rather in Nature, and sees Isis and all gods as metaphors for the glory of Nature. (When Christianity rears its head in Pompeii Arbaces takes none too kindly to it). He is too intelligent for his surroundings, in fact, and is deeply bored, finding pleasure only in the contemplation of Nature, in his hatred of Rome (Arbaces is a strident Egyptian patriot) and in his orgies, which involve lovely young innocents (“I love to rear the votaries of my pleasure. I love to train, to ripen their minds, to unfold the sweet blossom of their hidden passions, in order to prepare the fruit to my taste”). Arbaces falls in love with Ione, who he has known since she was a child, and schemes his way to her wedding bed, but fails despite his best efforts.

In other words, Arbaces is a post-Gothic version of the Hero-Villain, the character who has great passions and abilities but cannot resist his weaknesses and impulses and gives in to evil. Arbaces would not be out of place in many Gothic novels, and the reader sees enough of him to know that he could, had he chosen, been a good person, but he is mostly evil. Arbaces is not a classic Hero-Villain, but rather one written after the demise of the Gothic genre. He stands at the juncture of the Gothic and the historical novel proper, hearkening back to the classic Hero-Villain and anticipating the antagonist of later Historical Romances.

Arbaces is the guardian of two young Romans, a brother and sister, Apaecides and Ione. Arbaces had them brought from Naples to Pompeii where he could more directly influence them. Arbaces plans to make Apaecides a priest of Isis and to marry Ione, who he has known since she was a child but who he has only recently fallen in love with. Glaucus, for his part, meets Ione at a party and realizes that she is the Greek woman he had known and fallen in love with. They renew their friendship and fall in love. Meanwhile Apaecides becomes increasingly confused by the wily Arbaces’ corrupt sophistries, and the blind flower girl, Nydia, falls in love with the noble Glaucus, even though the gap in their social positions is so great–she is a slave–that there is no chance that she can ever be with him.

One day Glaucus sees Nydia’s owner beating her. He is offended by this and buys Nydia, planning to give her to Ione. Nydia realizes that Glaucus will never love her but is happy to deliver a letter from Glaucus to Ione. The letter is a declaration of love, but in it Glaucus also warns Ione about Arbaces. Ione goes to Arbaces to confront him about Glaucus’ warning, but Nydia, knowing what Arbaces is capable of, warns Apaecides and Glaucus, who rushes with Nydia to Arbaces’ palace. Arbaces and Glaucus quarrel, but during their argument an earthquake strikes Pompeii, and in the confusion Glaucus and Ione flee from the palace, leaving behind the weeping Nydia. Apaecides, now aware of Arbaces’ wickedness, converts to Christianity, and Glaucus and Ione become a couple. Another woman in love with Glaucus, Julia, tries to split Glaucus and Ione and gets from Arbaces a drug which, when given to Glaucus by Julia, drives him temporarily mad, and he runs, raving, into the streets of Pompeii. Wanting to know whether the drug had taken effect, Arbaces goes looking for Glaucus, but runs into Apaecides instead.

They quarrel, and Arbaces stabs Apaecides in the back, instantly killing him. Glaucus stumbles upon the body, and Arbaces knocks him on top of it, tosses the knife next to the pair, and cries out that a murder has been committed, summoning a crowd. Glaucus is arrested and condemned to fight wild animals in a gladiatorial show. Arbaces has Ione kidnaped and brought to his palace, but Nydia, who is aware of Arbaces’ actions, tries to contact the authorities. Arbaces prevents this and imprisons Nydia, but she manages to persuade a slave to carry a message to Sallust, a friend of Glaucus. Unfortunately, Sallust is drunk when the slave arrives and does not read the message.

The next day the games move at a lackluster pace and Glaucus is thrown to a lion, who retreats to his cage rather than attack Glaucus. The keeper is about to goad the lion to attack Glaucus when Sallust arrives, having read Nydia’s note when he sobered up, and demands Arbaces’ arrest. The mob, convinced by Sallust’s words, call for him to be given to the lions. At this point Vesuvius begins to erupt. All of Vesuvius begins to riot and flee. Nydia gets to Glaucus and the pair go to Arbaces’ palace, where they rescue Ione. They flee the city for the coast and go out to sea in a small boat. Arbaces is killed in the earthquake. Glaucus, Ione, and Nydia spend the night
in the boat, but before Glaucus and Ione awaken, Nydia, heartbroken over Glaucus, drowns herself.

The Last Days of Pompeii was enormously popular when it first appeared. It was aided in this by a historical coincidence: only a month before the novel’s debut in 1834, Mount Vesuvius erupted with more violence than had been seen in centuries. This piqued the interest and sympathy of the British reading public, and when Bulwer-Lytton’s book appeared it was eagerly devoured. (This is one of a number of examples of Bulwer-Lytton’s talent, supreme among 19th century novelists, for publishing a novel at the precise time in which it was guaranteed to be most popular). From the 1820s to the 1840s the “school of catastrophe,” paintings, poems, plays and novels depicting enormous disasters, was a popular one with the British reading public, and The Last Days of Pompeii was the most successful of the “catastrophe” novels. The Last Days of Pompeii was largely responsible for the genre of novels about late Rome, including Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurian (1885) and Lewis Wallace’s Ben Hur. The Last Days of Pompeii was one of the most prominent historical novels (see: The Historical Romance) of the 1830s and led to Bulwer-Lytton being seen as the best of the post-Sir Walter Scott historical novelists.

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