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Herculanum (Méry & Hadot)





Act I

Herculaneum, ad 79, under the rule of the emperor Titus. To the right, the Etruscan peristyle of the palace of Olympia; the queen’s gardens are protected by awnings against the heat of the sun. To the left, the Egyptian quarter with its lines of sphinxes, near the port where vessels arrive from Alexandria with their cargoes of provisions from the Nile Delta. In the background, villas, temples, palaces and consular houses rise to form an ‘amphitheatre’.

Kings and princes come to pay tribute to Olympia in her palace in Herculaneum. Two Christians, Hélios and Lilia, are brought before her by a crowd clamouring for them to be put to death. Olympia’s brother, the proconsul Nicanor, is in favour of their immediate execution, but Olympia is struck by the beauty of Hélios and she spares them. After sending Lilia away, she uses a magic potion to seduce Hélios. The earth quakes and a prophet, Magnus, warns of imminent doom.

Act II

A wild, deserted spot in the Ottayano Valley. On the right, a tumulus covered with rough stones, broken columns and ruins; a small cross stands on its summit. Here the early Christians meet to honour the tombs of the martyrs, pray together and adore the sign of Redemption. Volcanic rocks rise sheer on the horizon. In a break on the left, the sky is visible: the sun has set but there is still a glow of twilight.

Nicanor arrives looking for Lilia. On his orders his guards disperse the Christians gathered there. Then, left alone with Lilia, Nicanor attempts to seduce her. He pretends to have converted to Christianity but she does not believe him and firmly resists his persistent attentions. In the end, in fury, he cries out: “Your God does not exist!” Thereupon, he is struck dead by lightning and Lilia faints. Satan appears and voices his hatred for humanity and his intention of causing pain and suffering. He decides to sow jealousy in Lilia’s heart, and when she comes round, he shows her in a vision that Hélios has responded to Olympia’s advances. Taking up Nicanor’s cape, Satan disguises himself as the proconsul.


The queen’s gardens. Beyond, on a hill on the right, the temple of Hercules of Parthenope. On the left, hazy in the distance, Naples, rising up like an amphitheatre on the shores of the Gulf of Baia. In the centre, a victory column commemorating the Siege of Jerusalem by Titus.

Hélios yields to Olympia in the beautiful palace gardens. But amidst the bacchanalia Lilia appears to remind him of his vows. Olympia gives him a choice: either he accepts the throne, as her husband, or Lilia will die. Lilia sings an intense Credo. Satan, disguised as Nicanor, persuades Olympia to spare her life: she will make Lilia suffer more by making her witness Hélios’s marriage to the queen. Torn between Olympia and Lilia, Hélios in the end realises his infamous behaviour towards the latter: he must at least save her life. He chooses Olympia: “Queen, I am yours! I love you, Olympia.” Satan is jubilant.

Act IV

First tableau

The atrium of Olympia’s opulent palace, with rich Etruscan-style decorations.

The earth tremors grow more and more intense. Satan summons the slaves, who have taken advantage of the situation to escape. He encourages them to rise up against their masters, and thus help him in his mission. The roar of thunder and the rumbling of underground activity grow louder, while lightning streaks across the sky. Finally, a tremendous noise is heard as buildings begin to collapse.

Second tableau

The terrace of the palace of Olympia, supported by the Doric columns of an impluvium and overlooked by façades: four caryatids on one side, Corinthian columns on another. A road on the left, lined with Theban sphinxes, leads to the temple of Isis and Serapis. Visible in the background, running from the heights of Herculaneum towards the arid lower slopes of Vesuvius, is the aqueduct, with its two tiers of arches.

As the cataclysm intensifies and buildings collapse all around, Hélios appears on the terrace of Olympia’s palace. Half crazed, he calls out Lilia’s name. She comes to him and forgives him for his infidelity. The volcano erupts. Olympia arrives and Satan reveals his identity to her. The palace and the remaining buildings nearby collapse. The last refuge of the queen and the population is buried beneath successive surges of volcanic material.

The Christians die happy in the belief that they are saved. Finally, the air clears to reveal a scene of desolation, with Vesuvius in the background still belching forth smoke and fire.

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