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Series / Pompeii: The Last Day

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A 2003 docudrama by the BBC depicting the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, directed by Peter Nicholson and screenplay written by Edward Canfor-Dumas.

Unlike many other films or television series about the disaster, this one follows several characters inspired by the real remains of victims found over the past century.

Among them are ambitious politician Julius Polybius and his family, Stephanus the Fuller and his timid wife Fortunata, gladiator Celadus the Thracian and Pliny the Younger.

Tropes in this work:

  • All Are Equal in Death: Slaves and masters alike die side by side and many people whom would never have interacted with each other otherwise, form close bonds in their last moments.
  • Asshole Victim: Stephanus. He stayed behind to loot as much valuable things as he could and even ignores a person injured on the floor, crying for help to steal his gold.
  • Ancient Rome: This trope naturally comes into play.
  • Apocalypse How: Type 0. The whole of Pompeii is destroyed and thousands die, but the rest of the Roman Empire carries on with life, largely unaffected by the disaster.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Sabinus chooses to drink poison than be killed by the eruption.
  • Beautiful Slave Girl: Hedone.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Africanus, a gladiator, is mortally injured by a falling pumice stone fairly early on in the disaster and is one of the first to succumb to the toxic fumes released by the final pyroclastic surge.
  • Color-Coded Patrician: Julius Polybius and his family.
  • Covers Always Lie: Stephanus and Hedone are the only two characters shown in the picture above. While they do play an important part in the story, they are far from the main focus.
  • Chekhov's Volcano: Considering that this documentary details the disaster of Pompeii and Herculaneum, it's only natural that old smokey isn't gonna stay asleep for long.
  • Death by Materialism: Stephanus delays his escape in order to collect as much of his money as he can. When he finds out his wife has taken most of it, he resorts to robbing somebody else's house. Which doesn't stop, even as the situation deteriorates. He only stops his looting rampage when the volcano destroys Pompeii and kills him along with anyone else who stayed.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Epidia dies while being held by her husband Polybius.
  • Deadly Gas: Gases released by incoming pyroclastic flows first finish off an injured Africanus, and then suffocate Pliny the Elder.
  • Death of a Child: A little girl and her father huddle together in one of the final scenes, sobbing as ash clouds engulf them. There is also the baby and female slave who are killed when a large pyroclastic flow hits Herculaneum.
  • Downer Ending: All of the main characters eventually die except for Pliny the Younger and his mother Plinia. However, others survive. In the first few hours of the eruption when everything started going to pot, the majority of the people of Pompeii realised early on that whatever this was, it wasn't good, decided to take everything they could and evacuate. Restitutus, a slave of Fortunata and Stephanus, also abandons them to go to his family and escape the eruption, a journey which is implied to have succeeded.
  • Driven to Suicide: Julia's husband Sabinus chooses to drink poison rather than die a slow death in what he believes to be the end of the world. He tries to offer some to her but she refuses.
  • Dying Alone: Stephanus, some time after finding that his wife and slaves have all abandoned him.
  • Face Death with Dignity: The slave girl in Herculaneum merely resigns herself to her fate at the hands of the incoming pyroclastic flow.
  • Greed: What ultimately causes Stephanus's death. He could have escaped along with those who could, but instead he stays behind to grab as much money and valuables as possible, which results in him being killed by the pyroclastic flow when it hits Pompeii. Hell, his corpse is even found clutching a bag of ill-gotten gold.
  • Happiness in Slavery: The slaves in Polybius' household remain loyal to him even after they've been freed.
  • Historical Domain Character:
    • Pliny the Younger, Pliny the Elder and Plinia as well as arguably Celadus, whose character was constructed based on graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii ('Celadus the Thracian makes all the girls sigh').
    • Technically everyone who dies, as they are based on bodies from the sites and what information can be gathered from them and their surroundings. For example, Polybius's name is known because it is written on an election slogan in the house's walls, and he (and his relatives) were identified by testing their DNA. This is why they know the younger man is the older man's son in law and not his son.
  • I Want Grandkids: Polybius is very excited about his daughter Julia's pregnancy.
  • I Will Only Slow You Down: Pliny's mother falls over and begs for him to go on without her, but he runs back and helps her up, having her lean on his shoulder as they flee Misenum.
  • Lady Killer In Love: Celadus, if one interprets his kiss with Fortunata as an expression of actual love. We don't get to see it develop into anything more though.
  • Last Kiss: Fortunata and Celadus are last seen sharing a kiss before the volcanic fumes presumably claim their lives.
  • The Night That Never Ends: The sky over Pompeii grows dark in the middle of the day due to all the clouds of ash. It takes on a tragic light when one realizes that the majority of the characters will not live to see daylight again.
  • Passed in Their Sleep: See below. The last we see of them, they have all fallen asleep from exhaustion and are spared the suffering that others went through during the remainder of the disaster.
  • Peaceful in Death: Polybius, along with his wife and daughter.
  • The Queen's Latin: To be expected, since it is a BBC production featuring British actors. Averted with some of the slaves, who have noticeably foreign accents.
  • Say Your Prayers: Hedone the slave girl kneels down to pray just before a roof crashes down on her.
  • Scenery Porn: The views of Pompeii and the surrounding landscape prior to the eruption.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Despite the eruption appearing to be harmless at first as well as the people around the volcano thinking that it isn't one (and thus greatly underestimate and downplay it), the volcano made a good enough point that the majority of Pompeii's inhabitants decided to book it and flee to the south before the eruption got any worse.
  • Shown Their Work: Quite a lot of extensive research was conducted before the making of the program and stories were even inferred based on the death throes and belongings of certain victims' remains.
  • Sole Survivor: Pliny the Younger.
  • Taken for Granite: What ultimately happens to Stephanus and other citizens still out on the streets when a pyroclastic flow hits Pompeii.
  • Tempting Fate:
    • Speaking of Julia's difficult first pregnancy, Polybius tells his son-in-law Sabinus that they'll have many sons, "gods willing". He's not finished speaking when the volcano erupts, sealing the fate of the whole family and ensuring that Julia will never have a child.
    • When it begins raining pumice stones, Africanus catches a few and remarks on how light they are. He then walks outside and mocks the other gladiators for being afraid of harmless pebbles, before being hit square on the head by a significantly larger rock.
    • Polybius does it again when he reasures people that his house's walls are strong and they'll be safer inside, praying to the gods to spare them. Immediately, the roof over the altar room collapses under the weight of the accumulating volcanic ash and rocks.
  • The Apocalypse Brings Out the Best in People:
    • As conditions get worse, Julius Polybius reevaluates his life priorities and changes from career-obsessed politician to loving family man. He even frees his slaves and tells them to go, knowing that they have families too. They all choose to stay however.
    • Fortunata gains the courage to defy her controlling husband Stephanus.
    • Subverted with Stephanus the Fuller, who robs a house despite seeing the owner lying injured on the floor crying for help.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Stephanus counts. Prioritizing his own greed over everything else, including his own safety proves fatal to him in the end, when he's too focused robbing abandoned houses to escape the volcano and is killed when pyroclastic flows destroy Pompeii.
    • You could say that many of those who decided to stay in order to loot the abandoned city when the shit hit the fan are suicidally stupid. The others are sadly out of luck or decided to stay because they're out of options.
  • Together in Death: Polybius and his wife, as well as Celadus and Fortunata.
  • Troubled Fetal Position: Stephanus assumes this once he realizes his fate is sealed. He is still sitting in the same position two thousand years later.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The mission to rescue Rectina from the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Partially justified however, as it is unknown if she survived the eruption or not.