Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Last Days of Pompeii

1. Chapter I


TO one of those parts of Pompeii, which were tenanted not by the lords of pleasure, but by its minions and its victims; the haunt of gladiators and prize-fighters; of the vicious and the penniless; of the savage and the obscene; the Alsatia of an ancient city--we are now transported.

It was a large room, that opened at once on the confined and crowded lane. Before the threshold was a group of men, whose iron and well-strung muscles, whose short and Herculean necks, whose hardy and reckless countenances, indicated the champions of the arena. On a shelf, without the shop, were ranged jars of wine and oil; and right over this was inserted in the wall a coarse painting, which exhibited gladiators drinking--so ancient and so venerable is the custom of signs! Within the room were placed several small tables, arranged somewhat in the modern fashion of 'boxes', and round these were seated several knots of men, some drinking, some playing at dice, some at that more skilful game called 'duodecim scriptae', which certain of the blundering learned have mistaken for chess, though it rather, perhaps, resembled backgammon of the two, and was usually, though not always, played by the assistance of dice. The hour was in the early forenoon, and nothing better, perhaps, than that unseasonable time itself denoted the habitual indolence of these tavern loungers.

Yet, despite the situation of the house and the character of its inmates, it indicated none of that sordid squalor which would have characterized a similar haunt in a modern city. The gay disposition of all the Pompeians, who sought, at least, to gratify the sense even where they neglected the mind, was typified by the gaudy colors which decorated the walls, and the shapes, fantastic but not inelegant, in which the lamps, the drinking-cups, the commonest household utensils, were wrought.

'By Pollux!' said one of the gladiators, as he leaned against the wall of the threshold, 'the wine thou sellest us, old Silenus'--and as he spoke he slapped a portly personage on the back--'is enough to thin the best blood in one's veins.'

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