For Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s contemporaries, as for us now, though to a lesser extent, it would have been impossible to read The Last Days of Pompeii without thinking of parallels between Britain and Rome. Nineteenth-century English artists, writers, and politicians proudly drew salient parallels between Rome’s imperial legacy and England’s imperial potential. Similarities to Rome helped Britons justify cultural superiority and foreign rule. Although the Victorians tended to celebrate England as the heir of ancient Rome, critics chided their country’s aspiring conquerors and reincarnated Romans for expanding heedless of negative consequences and inconsistencies.
Typically in works or literature and art, criticism is cleverly masked so as not to blatantly attack queen or country. Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s An Inglorious Moment in Ancient Rome, for example, famously depicts a pitiful Claudius cowering back in fear at the prospect of becoming emperor. The painting accentuates the unheroic side of Rome commonly and purposely ignored by most Britons, without explicitly suggesting parallels with England. In a similar fashion, Lytton reprimands Rome’s imperial tendencies, suggesting Britain’s foreign dominion is not wholly admirable or even legitimate.
The ever cynical and conniving Egyptian, Arbaces, is perhaps most resentful of Roman authority, precisely because Rome has stolen its identity from the lands it has conquered and subjugated.
Whether business or pleasure, trade or religion, be your pursuit, you are equally cheated by the passions that ye should rule! How I could loathe you, if I did not hate—yes hate! Greek or Roman, it is from us, from the dark lore of Egypt, that ye have stolen the fire that gives you souls. Your knowledge — your poesy — your laws — your arts — your barbarous mastery of war…ye have filched, as a slave filches the fragments of the feast, from us! and now, ye mimics of a mimic! — Romans, forsooth! the mushroom herd of robbers ! ye are our masters! the pyramids look down no more on the race of Rameses — the eagle cowers over the serpent of the Nile. [Book I, Chapter IV].
Not only are the Romans false in their claims of originality, believes Arbaces, the cultural imprisonment of the Egyptians is hypocritical and impious. How can Rome claim superiority and impose their will on the very people responsible for the origins of Rome’s laws, arts, and mastery of war? The mere thought of submission makes Arbaces furious. “He, the Son of the Great Race or Rameses—he execute the order of, and receive his power from, another!—the mere notion filled him with rage” [Book II, Chapter VIII].
Arbaces’ complaint is remarkably modern. He sounds more like a nineteenth- or twentieth-century colonial critic than an ancient Egyptian, much less a British imperialist. In fact, he articulates a common complaint of Europe’s colonized subjects, particularly from the Orient and India. It is thus surprising that Lytton allows Arbaces so prominent a role in the novel, and the opportunity to voice discontent with Britain’s imperial policies shared by so many of her nineteenth century colonies.
By making Arbaces the antagonist, however, Lytton actually deflates the poignancy of his claims. The critic of empire, Arbaces, therefore ceases to be seditious, at least explicitly. Nevertheless, Lytton forces the reader to pause and consider the paradoxical nature of imperialism and the credibility of inheriting Roman institutions that might not be totally Roman. In other words, if Roman traditions were actually inherited from other cultures, then Britain’s Roman traditions were not so pure. Rather than simply conforming to literary trends of the day, Lytton shrewdly introduces a mutinous theme to his book that would have resonated well among Briton’s colonized subjects but certainly not among his fellow MPs.
1. Can Arbaces rightly label the Egyptians as the originators of Rome’s cultural hallmarks?
2.If we consider Lytton’s treatment of Arbaces to be dismissive, how might we alternatively read Arbaces’ comments quoted above?
3. If Rome is guilty of stealing from Egypt, is Britain guilty too? Could that theoretically have undermined her imperial quest?
4. Have I read too deeply into Lytton? Is it likely he would have made an implicit criticism of the British Empire?
Last modified 8 March 2007