he Victorian pre-occupation with Rome was almost certainly driven by parallels they wished to draw between their own state and that of the Romans. To many togas were an emblem which held within it the Romantic possibilities of the British empire, of quintessential Britishness itself. On September 29, 1834 only a week after news had reached England of Vesuvius' recent volcanic activity Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii was released by publishers and this bolstered the novel's immediate and longstanding success1.
The violence of Vesuvius and the tragedy of Pompeii having been brought before the public's eyes so perfectly in cue with the release of the novel, it must have seemed a temptingly authentic read. Like the virginal maidens depicted in so many Classical paintings of the period the Platonic ideal of the archetypal, the originary, underlined and informed the aesthetic choices of the period. Indeed the question of authenticity can be seen even in Thomas Babbington Macaulay's The Lays of Ancient Rome where the author convinces his audience that he is serving them up 'a literature truly Latin' distinct from the stuff of the Greeks.
The Victorians wished to sculpt themselves anew out of an image of the past, but this also meant having a preoccupation with identifying the original form from which everything had to be modeled. Bulwer-Lytton's novel belies this preoccupation with authenticity or rather conflates it with his own romantic vision of ancient Rome. He largely uses the logic of mimesis — the concepts of imitator and imitated — to characterize the distribution of power and world views espoused in The Last Days of Pompeii. Thus, in the first Chapter Glaucus laments to his friend 'Oh, my Clodius, how little your countrymen know of the true versatility of a Pericles, of the true witcheries of an Aspasia!' (my italics). Part of Glaucus' authority derives from the fact that he is an original Greek as the author tells us 'it was the mode [among the Romans] to imitate the Greeks, and yet to laugh at their own clumsy imitation.'
In the hierarchy of Platonic forms the Egytian Arbaces thinks that his, the oldest civilization of the three, is the original from which the others are derived and so he launches a tirade against the Romans and the Greeks
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 (all how tame and mutilated, when compared with the vast original!)-ye have filched, as a slave filches the fragments of the feast, from us! And now, ye mimics of a mimic! [Book I, Chapter IV].
The sanctimonious and scheming old man seduces the young Grecian Apæcides into joining his religion, the worship of Isis, by appealing to his desire for originary wisdom: 'From Egypt came all the knowledge of the world; from Egypt came the lore of Athens, and the profound policy of Crete...' (Book I, Chapter VI). Of course the boy is shocked to find that his fellow priests are moral equivalent of pimps and thieves masquerading as symbols of piety. Clearly there is a gap between what professes to be authentic and what it really is. Bulwer-Lytton suggests then that like the British the ancients too were obsessed with authenticity, and too their concept of cultural authenticity was informed by chronological primacy — that the first was necessarily the best. But by taking it to the extreme in the form of the Egytian Arbaces, whose sham religion rivals some of the more odious but comical cults of today, the author suggests that the question of authenticity is a much more problematic project than it first appears to be.
For one thing, as Clodius points out, 'The counterfeits are not bad little gods, upon the whole,' and all of the main protagonists, Greeks and the Romans alike, do seem to have a jolly good time in Pompeii. Moreover, when Glaucus retracts his admiration for Julia, a local Roman beauty, 'True; I was dazzled at the first sight, and mistook for a gem that which was but an artful imitation,' it is clear that the category of aesthetic authenticity is as much subjective as it is a philosophically calculable quantity. Equally, Arbaces' ensnarement of Apæcides into his religion and the fawning of the Romans upon Glaucus' for his 'Greekness' show us the notion of the authentic and the inimitable is invoked for certain ends, it is part of the power structure produced by discourse. When Lepidus compliments Glaucus' poetry saying that it is 'thoroughly Greek' and 'impossible to imitate in Roman poetry' of course he is affecting humility, playing the role of the humble suitor but he is also expressing a contestable preference. If Bulwer-Lytton's book sales inevitably reflects Victorian preferences then they, like the protagonists of The Last Days of Pompeii, make reference to the notion of authenticity as a mode of expressing their values and desires rather than to make a claim at universal truth.
1. "We have a hunger for something like authenticity, but are easily satisfied by an ersatz facsimile." — George Orwell, c. 1949. How true does this hold for The Last Days of Pompeii of Victorian Britain in general?
2. Are we in Derrida's world of 'every act is a citation' or are the ancients not wise enough to realize this? For example does Arbaces' tirade also support the argument that perhaps there is really no original in the practical sense?
3. Does anybody else we have studied in the class challenge the notion of authenticity?
4. Does Babbington Macaulay disagree with Bulwer-Lytton on the matter?
5. If we examine something like Edith Wharton's depiction of New York society in the nineteenth-century — did the Americans have a similar pre-occupation with the authentic or did it differ?
1. Bulwer and Vesuvius: The Topicality of The Last Days of Pompeii. Simmons, James C. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24.1 (1969): 103-105.
Last modified 8 March 2007
Last modified 8 June 2007