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Anatomies of failed revolution in Ovid’s Aeginetan Plague and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man1

Hunter Gardner


This essay examines the way that plague discourse allows two writers, Ovid and Mary Shelley, to contemplate the power of a revolution to transform a civic body. The author focuses initially on Ovid’s rendering of plague on Aegina in Metamorphoses 7, contextualizing it as a response to the changing significance of pietas as well as to the succession crisis faced by the Principate in the 20’s BCE; she interprets King Aeacus’ narrative of the tragedy he witnesses among his people and their replacement by Myrmidons (ant-people) as a cynical response to the Augustan revolution and its ability to implement lasting change in how Roman subjects interact after the prolonged civil wars of the late Roman Republic. The author then turns to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, in which a plague eradicates all of known humanity except for a single survivor and eye-witness, Lionel Verney. The essay demonstrates that Shelley taps into Ovid’s cynicism regarding the potential for human recovery after widespread devastation as she and her protagonist consider various alternatives for effective governance in England. Shelley’s exploration of the affective bonds born from familial ties (Ovidian pietas) suggest that such ties pose insurmountable problems to implementing permanent transformation within any human social order.

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  • 1 This paper was originally given at a conference hosted by the International Ovidian Society at the (...)
  • 2 This line of speculation has been developed recently within interdisciplinary ventures in Deep Hist (...)
  • 3 For the “clean sweep” potential of a plague (AIDS in particular), see Sontag (1988, 175); this is, (...)

1Barbara Fass Leavy has argued that plague texts from different historical periods are united by their attention to “the psychological and moral issues concerning what constitutes human beings as a group and what individuates its members” (1992, 11; cf. Stephanson 1987). A broad range of Anglo-American plague narratives, from Defoe’s eighteenth-century Journal of the Plague Year to Margaret Atwood’s twenty-first century MaddAddam trilogy draw from the Latin plague narrative to explore those issues, in part by invoking the family, as a social unit bound by implied loyalty and solidarity, in order to reflect on the autonomy of the self. Imagery of the Golden Age and epochal evolution, especially that developed in the epic poems of Lucretius, Vergil, and Ovid, allow writers in later Anglo-American accounts of pestilence to frame the question of the individual’s relationship to the family and wider community as one whose answers shed light on the ideal conditions of human existence: at what stage in human development did individuals function optimally,2 in an age “golden” with the sort of concord postulated in Vergil’s Georgics (1.125-28) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1.89-100; Payne 2020, 96); and is it possible to recover the conditions of that stage in the wake of a “clean sweep,” the tabula rasa effected by the cataclysmic impact of a pandemic?3

2In the present essay, I’d like to redirect the question, narrowing its transhistorical scope to focus on the way that plague discourse allows two writers, Ovid and Mary Shelley, to contemplate the potential for revolution, to interrupt what is perceived as decline from idyllic conditions, and the power of a revolution to permanently transform a civic body, if not altogether restore humanity to its pristine, pre-lapsarian state. I borrow the phrase “anatomy of a failed revolution” from Lee Sterrenburg, who in turn borrowed it from Crane Brinton’s 1938 survey of revolutionary processes, The Anatomy of Revolution (Sterrenburg 1978, 329). In a 2019 publication, I’ve interpreted Ovid’s rendering of plague on Aegina in Metamorphoses 7 as a cynical response to the Augustan revolution and its ability to implement lasting change in how Roman subjects act and interact after the prolonged civil wars that defined the end of the Roman Republic. I argue here that Shelley taps into that cynicism as she considers various alternatives for effective governance in England. In the process she explores the affective bonds born from familial ties (Ovidian pietas) as both the solution and problem to implementing permanent transformation in the civic body.

  • 4 The gender of the introduction’s author is perhaps intentionally ambiguous, though many readers equ (...)

3In a temporally stratified approach to inscribing a plague of the future, set in the late 21st century (2073-2100 CE), Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) invokes Roman oracular power to speculate on how pestilence impacts the human subject and her relationship with the larger community. In her author’s introduction, “Shelley” cites the leaves of Vergil’s Sibyl at Cumae as the source of the fragmented prophecies she has reassembled as testimony for the future envisioned in the novel:4

  • 5 References to passages in Shelley’s novel are taken from Luke’s (1993) edition and abbreviated LM.

Scattered and unconnected as they were, I have been obliged to add links and model the work into a consistent form. But the main substance rests on the truths contained in these poetic rhapsodies, and the divine intuition which the Cumaean damsel obtained from heaven. I have often wondered at the subject of her verses, and at the English dress of the Latin poet…Doubtless the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl have suffered distortion and diminution of interest and excellence in my hands. My only excuse for thus transforming them, is that they were unintelligible in their pristine condition (LM 4).5

  • 6 For Shelley’s use of the Sibyl and the episode from Book 6 of the Aeneid, which she records having (...)
  • 7 The equivocal nature of the Sibyl’s prophecies has been demonstrated more recently by Draper (2022) (...)

4The introduction to the testimony of the last man, structured as a katabasis in which the author and her companion make their way down into the Sibyl’s cave, conjures Vergil’s Aeneas (LM 3), whose access to the afterlife reveals the culmination of Rome’s future under Augustan rule in Aeneid 6.6 At the same time, the scattered condition of the leaves, relying on the author’s interpretation rather than gifted with the Sibyl’s original organizing and divine force, recall Helenus’ prophecy in Aeneid 3, which stressed the frailty of the prophetic carmina entrusted to the leaves, so easily disrupted by a gentle breeze (tenuis ventus, 3.448).7 Just as their scattered and confused conditions (“strewed about” and gathered by “hasty selection,” LM 3) underscore the ephemeral nature of the inspired prophecy, the speaker’s reassembly and interpretation of the leaves, “giving [them] form and substance” (LM 4) will offer few reassurances for the future that Lionel Verney, the narrator and titular hero, records.

5Moreover, as Julia Wright observes, through the frame of the Sibyl, “Shelley offers a narrative that is itself shattered into fragments, dramatizing [a] failure to contain through the prefatory fiction in which an editor collates the Sibyl’s leaves” (2000, 145). Indeed, anxieties over a failure to contain—for Wright such anxieties are born from the intractability of England’s empire—are reflected throughout the desperate wanderings of Lionel Verney and his shrinking band of survivors. They are also, however, evident in the Latin literature, and one Latin epic treatment of pestilence in particular, that so inspired Shelley’s novel. Shelley has chosen the “Latin poet” as a source for understanding plague’s expurgatory power, its power to wash away old ways of being in the world and speculate on new templates for human relationships, templates originating within the family but extending to govern a much wider spectrum of communal interactions. While Vergil, and the wandering impulse that guides Aeneas and the Trojans in their quest to find a permanent settlement, has clearly colored Shelley’s vision of communal disintegration and the potential for a new order (cf. Gardner 2019, 259-64), I turn today to that other Latin, Augustan epic poet, Ovid, as testimony for her skepticism over political revolution in Europe in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, but also for her more sweeping evaluation of human relationships, especially familial ones.

I. Pietas and the Principate in Ovid’s Aeginetan Plague

  • 8 For an astute reading of imagery circulating during the first Principate that promoted Augustus as (...)
  • 9 See Gomel (2000, 409-11) on the “clinical detachment” that Thucydides as “chronicler-witness” to th (...)

6 As reflected in his Metamorphoses Ovid also questions the dynamics of healing and then governing a plague-stricken population. In particular, Aeacus’ narration of the loss of his citizens on Aegina and their miraculous recovery in book 7 allows the poet to interrogate Augustus’ ability to remedy (permanently) the plagues of civil war and instability that led to the instantiation of the first Principate.8 Ovid, I argue, has Augustus very much in mind when he narrates the birth of the Myrmidons. In the Metamorphoses, the citizens of Aegina are nearly eradicated from a pestilence sent by Juno and are replaced by the ant-born Myrmidons; bound to serve as soldiers in the war between Athens and Crete, the Myrmidons constitute a new citizenry dreamt into existence by king Aeacus after he receives signs from Jupiter in the form of ants filing up a nearby oak tree. The king speaks in the voice of an (almost) sole survivor of plague’s devastation, adopting a narrative stance of chronicler-witness that a number of significant pestilence texts in the western tradition would follow.9 Where Thucydides had offered a detached, clinical account of the suffering he observes during the Athenian plague, Ovid’s Aeacus, repeatedly betraying his fears for his kin and citizens, is uniquely invested in the plague’s devastation—an investment Shelley’s narrator Verney will share.

7The king’s account is offered up as recollection to the Athenian Cephalus, who has been charged with recruiting soldiers for a war against Crete. Cephalus is impressed by the vigor, youth, and equality of the Aeginetan people, but wonders what has happened to the former inhabitants, whom he had met on an earlier visit:

  • 10 The text is Anderson’s (1993). Translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

… ‘adveniens equidem modo gaudia cepi,
cum tam pulchra mihi, tam par aetate iuventus
obvia processit; multos tamen inde requiro,
quos quondam vidi vestra prius urbe receptus’ (Met. 7.513-17).10

“…just now as I was arriving, I was very encouraged to meet in my path a group of youth so fair, so equal in age (tam par aetate); but still I must ask, what of the many whom I saw when I was received in your city before?”

8In response, Aeacus explains how, prior to the transformation of the ants, pestilence spread from the countryside, where it afflicts wildlife and livestock in a manner evocative of Vergil’s Noric Plague (G.3.470-566), and invades the city, afflicting Aegina’s citizens, despite the dutiful attempts of family members to tend to each other. As with previous plague narratives in Latin epic (those of Lucretius in DRN 6 and Vergil in the third Georgic), Ovid’s narrator dwells on death, heaps of bodies, the rotting corpses strewn without burial (7.584-86), neglect of religious rites (7.608-10), and the failure of medical arts (7.525-7; 561-62).

  • 11 Gardner 2019, 166-75 offers a more detailed look at pietas in the Republican period and the resonan (...)

9Moreso than his predecessors, however, Ovid focuses intently on pietas, that preeminently Roman value that prescribed loyalty and service to gods, family, and fatherland. In his study of the evolution of pietas in the late Republic, Richard Saller cites a number of illustrations of the virtue, drawn from Valerius Maximus, where duty to or affection for family members clashes with obedience to the state (1994, 109; Valerius Maximus, 5.4.3; 5.4.6). 11 Such exempla and the splintering of loyalties they illustrate underscore the urgency, at least from the perspective of the emerging Principate, of redirecting the affective feelings traditionally encompassed in the virtue. While Galinsky has stressed the cooperative effort and social responsibility conveyed by Augustan pietas, in contrast to other relatively “competitive” Roman virtues (1996, 85-6), demonstrations of pietas could also widen divisions within the body politic by recognizing a distinction between familial and civic devotion. Scholarship on Augustan values has frequently observed how Augustus appropriated pietas and positioned himself, in his role as pater patriae, as the predominant object of its devotions. An honorary shield (clipeus virtutis), among the tokens bestowed on Augustus during the (so-called) great settlement of 27 BCE, promoted four attributes characteristic of a noble ruler (Zanker 1990, 95-96): virtus, clementia, iustitia, and pietas erga deos patriamque. The bestowal significantly limits the range of pietas “to gods and fatherland,” rather than granting its traditional relevance to familial relationships, a reasonable modification in light of the senate’s wish to encourage the new ruler’s devotion to the state, but one enthusiastically adopted by the Princeps in his display of copies of the clipeus throughout Italy.

  • 12 Special thanks to one of the anonymous readers for observing the parallel between Aeacus’ and Augus (...)

10It is also worth stressing that the line distinguishing familial and civic realms, so important to this new articulation of pietas, became less clearly drawn as the Principate faced a succession crisis by the late twenties, following Augustus’ own near-fatal illness and the death of his most obvious successor, Marcellus, the latter of which occurred during an outbreak of pestilence in the city in 23 BCE (Dio 53.30-33), twin disasters that anticipated and necessitated yet another settlement to clarify Augustus’ prerogatives and powers as Princeps. While one-man rule ought to eliminate the fractious wrangling that brought down the Republic, it also presented new challenges for continued governance, challenges that would become more painfully obvious as subsequent candidates for succession, the children of Agrippa and Julia in particular, would meet with untimely deaths or prove unacceptable as candidates. Aeacus’ eye-witness account of his legacy, the citizens of Aegina, diminished in contrast to his own painful endurance offers a useful reflection of the circumstances that would propel Augustus’ grasp for continuance of the Principate in the 20’s BCE.12 And while Aeacus’ biological sons do survive the plague, their fraught relationships (as we shall see) underscore the problems rather than the securities of monarchical succession.

  • 13 Bömer (1976, 346) cites verbal parallels for the domus funesta (e.g., Cat. 64.246) as a “cursed” ho (...)

11In the first part of Aeacus’ narration of plague among the citizenry, his audience learns of suspicion within the “household” or domus, deemed a source of death (funesta),13 and flight from one’s Penates (“household gods”) out of a drive for self-preservation (7.574-75). But the king soon turns to family members acting on each other’s behalf, reciprocal gestures within Jupiter’s temple, made more pronounced by comparison with accounts of the Athenian plague, those of Thucydides and Lucretius, who also mention death in sacred spaces but overlook any acts of familial devotion. Ovidian irony stages the deaths of family members while they pray for the lives of their kin, what Anderson describes as “a supreme moment of pietas” (1972, 305). After admitting his own suicidal urges in the face of widespread death among his citizenry (ut vitam odissem et cuperem pars esse meorum, 7.583), Aeacus recalls scenes within Jupiter’s temple:

templa vides contra gradibus sublimia longis
(Iuppiter illa tenet). quis non altaribus illis
inrita tura dedit? quotiens pro coniuge coniunx,
pro gnato genitor, dum verba precantia dicit,
non exoratis animam finivit in aris,
inque manu turis pars inconsumpta reperta est! (7. 587-92).

You see across the way a temple raised high by a long flight of steps. Jupiter is worshiped there. Who did not burn incense in vain on those altars? How often did a husband die while praying on behalf of his wife, or a father on behalf of his child, upon altars unable to be won over, and part of the incense was found unburned in his hand.

12Such conjugal and parental affection, whose failure marked the advent of Ovid’s Iron Age in Metamorphoses 1, when “pietas lay conquered” (victa iacet pietas, 1.149), initially acquits the citizens of Aegina, not only of the usual deviance of a plague-stricken populace, but also of the moral crimina that characterize a fallen race. The boundaries of pietas prompting citizens to attend dutifully to their own kin are eventually transgressed, as the glut of corpses in need of burial prompts the living to burn their dead “on pyres not their own” (alienis ignibus, 7.610). At that moment, when a boundary distinguishing one citizen’s claim to honor kin from another’s is explicitly (if surreptitiously) crossed, the narrative poses the question, not easily answered, and one Shelley will eventually revisit: what bonds are worth maintaining (or should at all costs be maintained) and what are the consequences for the greater body politic if those bonds are severed? The Roman family unit existed in a productive tension with the larger respublica, serving as a microcosm of the state, while also being shaped by roles and relationships that have no analogue with the larger social order. In his De Officiis, Cicero observes that the individuals united within a household constitute una domus, which in turn functions as a “foundation of the city and, so to speak, the seed plot of the respublica.” At the same, time the coniugium between spouses that anchors the domus does not map easily onto the state, and Cicero himself acknowledges that the bonds among fellow citizens in a civitas are more remote than ties among family members (1.53-54; see Miller 2004, 57 and Gardner 2010, 460-61).

  • 14 Cf. Anderson’s implied query (1972, 310): “…it is not apparent why Aeacus has long been deprived of (...)

13Ovid’s plague is remedied and its narrative “re-solved” under the leadership of king Aeacus, with a little help from the gods. He cannot bring back the dead, but he is allowed a new crop of citizens, and ones without messy familial entanglements and loyalties, that is, without pietas in need of realignment. After praying to Jupiter to prove his patrimony and remedy the plague’s devastation, Aeacus spies a line of ants filing up a nearby oak tree and begs to have just as many citizens fill his city walls (624-28); he dreams that these ants are transformed into humans and is the next morning alerted by his son Telamon that a miracle has occurred. It is worth stressing that unlike the bereft condition of much of the remaining citizenry, and despite his solitary status as indicated by surprise at the “unaccustomed voices of people” (voces desuetas hominum, 645-6),14 the king’s three sons remain alive, though their legacy, as noted above, will be marred by internal conflict. Earlier in the narrative, Aeacus makes prayers explicitly for himself, his country, and his sons, mirroring, in his use of pro with the ablative to indicate a beneficiary, the familial devotions staged earlier in Jupiter’s temple (sacra…pro me patriaque tribusque/ cum facerem natis; 589-90, cf. OLD 3b). But it is only after the king transfers his imprecations outside the shared space of the temple and appeals to the familial bond he shares exclusively with Jupiter that his prayers are answered. As such an initial parallel between the pietas observed by the king and his subjects yields to a divide between the successful outcome here—a hearty new crop of citizens whose de facto father is Aeacus—and the inefficacy of the citizens’ efforts on behalf of their own kin.

14Aeacus and his sons will survive, along with a newly populated patria, but how sustainable is this model for either civic governance or dynastic continuity? In Metamorphoses 11, Ovid addresses the fratricide of Phocus by Peleus, who is named explicitly through his patronymic as a “son of Aeacus” (Aeacide, 11.250, 275) and who found asylum in Trachinia only after being driven from Aegina, the “home of his father” (domo patria), as a criminal stained by his brother’s blood (11.268-70):

felix et nato, felix et coniuge Peleus,
et cui, si demas iugulati crimina Phoci,
omnia contigerant: faterno sanguine sontem
expulsumque domo patria Trachinia tellus

Peleus, fortunate in his son and in his wife, and to whom all good things befell, if you omit the crime of murdered Phocus: the Trachinian land received him, guilty with the blood of a brother and exiled from his home and fatherland.

  • 15 For Augustus’ attempts to pass moral and marital legislation as well as evidence for the reception (...)

15Such a narrative coda to the experience of plague and aftermath on Aegina, in mirroring the challenges of the early Principate, implicates Augustus and his methods of promulgating a new dynasty within a questionable model of authoritarian power. We are also reminded that brotherhood, whether expressed through Aeacus’s biological children or the new crop of Myrmidon brothers, is a fraught concept in the Roman imagination and especially in Latin epic, as Philip Hardie’s work (1993) in particular has shown (see also Bannon 1997). Ovid’s narrative of recovery broaches the political utility of pestilence: now that plague has eradicated a vast segment of the old citizenry, might Aeacus be able to instill among the new citizens a different set of values, ideals, and habits of life? Augustus infamously passed a series of marriage and adultery laws, aimed partly at increasing the population among the upper classes; as is well known, the legislation restricted who could marry whom and the laws met with a good deal of resistance. Scholars have also demonstrated Augustus’ interest in curbing the license of young men and cultivating their support, partly to replenish military resources drained through protracted civil war.15 Might Ovid, or even Augustus, have found the faces of young Romans reflected in the faces of these uniformly loyal and martially inclined young men?

16Aeacus concludes his account with their description, one that returns his audience to the very parity observed by Cephalus in the first place:

… egredior, qualesque in imagine somni
visus eram vidisse viros, ex ordine tales
adspicio noscoque: adeunt regemque salutant.
vota Iovi solvo populisque recentibus urbem
partior et vacuos priscis cultoribus agros
Myrmidonasque voco nec origine nomina fraudo.
corpora vidisti: mores, quos ante gerebant,
nunc quoque habent; parcum genus est patiensque laborum
quaesitique tenax et quod quaesita reservet.
hi te ad bella pares annis animisque sequentur (7.645-58).

I go outside and I look upon and recognize in order men such as those I had seen in my dream: they approach and greet their king. I pay my vows to Jupiter and divide the city and the fields left empty by the former inhabitants among the new population, and I call them Myrmidons. You’ve seen their bodies: they have the same habits as those they carried on before; they’re a thrifty sort and enduring of hard work and they cling to gain, storing away for keeps what they’ve gained. These fellows, equal in years and courage, will follow you to war.

17The privileges (grants of land) and functions (serving in war) awarded to this new population effectively sort out the confused heaps of those rotting bodies of kin and acquaintances left in the wake of contagion. If we read King Aeacus as an Augustus figure, however, we might question such rigorous mechanisms of recovery. These measures work for now, but can they be sustained? If not, how and why do things fall apart? Can Shelley’s reading of Ovid tell us anything about that process? Her narrator Lionel Verney, posing emphatically as a lone survivor and deeply invested in familial relationships, observes Ovid’s reassessment of the ties that bind in the wake of plague and asks similar questions about the role of those ties in the unraveling or refabricating of the political order.

II. Family and the Failures of “Our Little Society” in The Last Man

  • 16 See also Uden (2020), who stresses the author’s frustrations in her approach to antiquity, reflecte (...)

18 In many ways, Shelley’s novel wears its Greco-Roman heritage on its sleeve. Scholars such as Mark Payne (2020) have rightly observed the Greek inheritance, especially Hesiod, that shapes the attitudes of characters in the novel as they respond to increasing calamity.16 Verney quotes Elton’s translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days (LM 166; cf. Hesiod Erga 242-47), using the Greek poet’s work overtly at the start of chapter five, in a “frame-breaking function…[that] direct(s) our attention back to pre-modern awareness of human precariousness (Payne 2020 94; cf. Neumann 1979, 187)”; in so doing, the author signals a Greek epic tradition viewing pestilence, along with famine, as twin scourges sent by the gods to punish humankind in a fallen, Iron Age and brings within her own novel a distinct role for plague as a catalyst for epochal evolution. And yet the mythologies of Rome’s founding frame the internal testimony of the last man, and not only through reference to Sibylline prophecy and Aeneas’ trip to the underworld, mentioned above. Our narrator, Lionel Verney, devotes much of his account to his childhood spent “as uncouth a savage as the wolf-bred founder of Rome” (LM 9). By the novel’s closure, Verney arrives in Rome pondering its relics and perusing its libraries (LM 335-9), reflecting self-consciously on his former identity as a Romulus figure, where his “robber and shepherd propensities, similar to those of [the city’s] founder, were of advantage to its sole inhabitant” (LM 338). If, as Wright (2000) has argued in her exploration of cartographic insecurities that shape the narrative of the survivors’ flight from pestilence, England’s anxieties over imperial governance—over physically and conceptually managing the spaces it had acquired—generate the novel’s constant sense of displacement, Roman imperial power offers both a model and a foil to English hegemony. As recent accounts of the spatial anxieties born from territorial acquisition in Latin literature attest (Lindheim 2021; Dufallo 2021), Roman writers, including Ovid, betray a sense of dis-ease under the pressure of changing imperial boundaries, pressure reflected in Aeacus’ own need to meticulously dole out land to citizens and organize the space of his own kingdom, marking a virtually clean sweep that replaces old inhabitants with new ones (…populisque recentibus urbem/ partior et vacuos priscis cultoribus agros, 7.648-9). In Shelley’s novel, Rome is cast as a site of return, a coming home to the land of Verney’s cultural if not geographic inheritance, while also being the point of departure for uncharted territory. Verney’s observations on Rome as the crowning achievement of human civilization and his concerted engagement with Latin literature brings his journey full circle (Thomas 2000, 31), while the city’s derelict condition also signals the fate of any government propelled by imperial ambitions.

  • 17 Biographical approaches to the novel note a clear reference to Lord Byron’s own historical (and fat (...)

19 Within the arc of Verney’s narrative, and engaging the traditions of Latin epic that explicitly colored pestilence with shades of internal discordia, a specter of civil war haunts England. Through her meditations on such discord and the role of the family in anchoring or disrupting a newly established republican government, Shelley more directly taps into Ovid’s family-focused account of a social order deteriorating under the pressures of pestilence. Verney befriends England’s former crown prince, Adrian, a relationship formalized as brotherhood through marriage, after Verney weds Adrian’s sister Idris. While Adrian expresses strong support for the country’s new republican constitution, others among the English aristocracy are less sanguine about the change in governance, including the ambitious Raymond, another of Verney’s “brothers,” again through marriage, after Raymond weds Verney’s own sister, Perdita. Raymond sets his designs initially on restoration of the monarchy, but later wins election as Lord Protector, England’s highest office under its new constitution. After serving for a brief time as Protector of England, Lord Raymond takes his revolutionary fervor to Greece, which he liberates from the Turks (LM 31).17 In the abandoned city of Constantinople Raymond’s victory is rendered somewhat Pyrrhic by its condition, hollowed out by the eruption of the literal plague that will dominate the remainder of the novel.

20Despite the novel’s futuristic setting, throughout his account of England’s political instability, Verney makes references to Roman civil war and revolution (LM 241), as well as the monarchical ambitions of Julius Caesar that helped topple the Roman Republic (LM 39); he also regularly notes the political revolutions in France and America (LM 39). Verney views England as constantly “on the eve of civil war” (LM 34), a threat not dissipated until after the plague has made its way into western Europe and invaded England’s shores. Civil war comes closest to erupting when Irish refugees, fleeing pestilence in their own territory, enter England in hopes of finding aid, but find hostility instead. Adrian manages to quell the discord, as he invokes English troops to recall that, “these are your brothers, commit not fratricide; soon the plague will not leave one for you to glut your revenge upon” (LM 219). It is through brotherhood that the narrator gives such civil discord a specifically Roman inflection. As with hostilities between the English and Irish, Verney stages contention for the Protectorship—fought between Adrian and himself after Raymond’s death and the abdication of Raymond’s successor, Lord Ryland—as wrangling between brothers. Ultimately Verney, who stood for the position primarily to spare the poor health of his brother-in-law, concedes to Adrian, who bids him to return to the care of his family: “Return to Windsor then, my brother; for such you are by every tie—fill the double place my absence imposes on you, and let me, in all my sufferings here, turn my eyes toward that dear seclusion…” (LM 185).

21 In fact, Adrian’s secluded status as a bachelor positions him in the novel as explicitly suited for assuming leadership of England during the plague. A lack of certain familial entanglements (marriage or paternity) liberates him from bonds complicating behaviors during an atmosphere of disease, behaviors Aeacus observed in his own plague-stricken Aegina, a freedom reflected in the improved health that he assumes in tending to the sick (LM 187). After Ryland has abdicated the Protectorate, Adrian assumes the role with a fervor, thriving uniquely under the conditions of a diseased body politic in constant need of his services. In contrast, Verney feels the constant pull of his wife, Idris, and their two children; the desire to protect them shapes his attitude toward interacting with the larger community (LM 179, 188). As Mellor notes, Shelley betrays a certain cynicism about family life and the constancy of “domestic affections” (1993, xvii), as human folly and the plague play equal roles in eradicating Verney’s kin. Banerjees’s further explorations of such cynicism highlights Perdita, whose identity as Raymond’s wife is gradually subsumed within her husband’s, a willing subordination that effects a “self-repudiation bordering on the self-hatred women internalize through socialization in patriarchy” (2010, 524) and ultimately destroys her. At the same time, the narrator observes that, even amidst an atmosphere of self-destruction and frayed familial bonds, the crisis of plague and looming mortality “drew closer the ties of kindred and friendship” (LM 197).

22 Still, respect for bonds of family and friendship alone is not enough to ensure the survival of a civic body—especially one corrupted by the deep-seated gender inequities that scholars like Mellor and Banerjee observe governing the self-destructive acts of the novel’s characters. As Sterrenburg has demonstrated, Shelley’s “anatomy of failed revolutions” (1978, 345) in The Last Man responds to body politic metaphors articulated in such thinkers as William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Edmund Burke, who contemplate disease in the civic corpus as either necessary, restorative, or detrimental, but ultimately able to be remedied. Shelley clearly engages the political philosophy of her near contemporaries: her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, adopts a fairly optimistic view of revolutionary fervor; in speculating on France’s recent revolution, she observes:

…as in medicine there is a species of complaint in the bowels which works its own cure, and leaving the body healthy, gives an invigorated tone to the system, so there it is in politics: and whilst the agitation of its regeneration continues, the excrementitious humours exuding from the contaminated body will excite a general dislike and contempt for the nation (Wollstonecraft, cited in Sterrenburg, 1978, 330).

23Sterrenburg notes that, as with Burke and Godwin, Wollstonecraft acknowledges the discomfort and “complaint” accompanying revolutionary processes, but her invocation of nosological discourse ultimately reveals “…nature and disease metaphors sanctioning a regeneration in the realm of politics.” Shelley, in response to her parents’ generation, largely denies the potential for renewal in her literal rendering of contagion in the body politic: “no political remedies whatsoever will avail against it…Mary Shelley copes with the problem of revolution by cancelling out history itself” (331). After chronicling the vagaries of governance in England, as the country emerges from a monarchy to various forms of republican control under the Protectorate, Verney comments skeptically on the abdication of the Lord Protector Ryland, who beats a cowardly retreat from London once the city is infected with plague (LM 182-83), the move that allows Adrian to emerge as Protector. Though Adrian performs his duties admirably, the body he governs rapidly dissolves under the corrosive force of a literal plague.

  • 18 Neumann (1979, 173-94) offers a less disparaging approach to the novel’s autobiographical elements; (...)
  • 19 Scholars have often viewed representations of and challenges to the apocalypse, such as that issued (...)

24Verney’s observations of the body politic are matched by his chronicle of his familial relationships under the strain of political upheaval and pestilence, a point underscored by the common (often disparaging) accounts of the work as a roman à clef, thinly disguising the author’s own experience of daughterhood, marriage, and motherhood.18 As we have seen, Ovid’s account of the Myrmidons, viewed as an account of Roman recovery after Actium, and when read against a prior tradition linking pestilence with civil discord, suggests that familial bonds are frequently the casualties of strife within the body politic. Shelley’s invocation of such bonds grants her novel a deeper meditation on the relationship between the individual and the various members of the body politic with whom she must engage.19 It is with pronounced cynicism that such bonds are depicted in the novel (Mellor 1993, xvi): in so far as the template for the body politic lay in domestic life, the gendered inequalities that structured the family would for Shelley continue to infect the wider community.

25Family is asserted repeatedly as the reason to survive, and yet it also prompts many of the protagonists’ most noxious behaviors. As noted above, Perdita, Verney’s sister, kills herself when she is removed against her will from Greece by her brother; she had intended to remain there until death by the tomb of her husband Raymond. Rather than the pestilence, it is the grief of Verney’s wife Idris over her lost child and the turmoil she experiences when Verney contracts the disease that ultimately kills her. A foolhardy desire to sail to Greece to see the tomb of her parents brings about the death of Clara, Verney’s niece and, at that point in the novel, as far as Verney knows, the last woman on earth. Familial bonds offer no remedy against the plague and indeed exacerbate its destructive impact, leaving Shelley with little raw material to rebuild the social order. Idris expresses hope for the future within the confines of “our little society” (252), a reference to Verney’s immediate family departing from their home at Windsor, and she offers her own idealized portraits of “our little tribe, the patriarchal brotherhood of love, which would survive the ruins of…nations which had lately existed.” Her vigour and optimism, however, proves to be fleeting as she dies before the “little society” is able to depart from England (258).

III. Verney’s Fate: Ventures Beyond the Family

  • 20 On the revelatory power of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature, see especially Berger 1999.
  • 21 For a compelling account of the cultural work performed by utopian visions in Latin literature, see (...)
  • 22 Cf. Mellor (1993, xvii), who emphasizes how Shelley resists Romantic tendencies to idealize nature (...)

26The little society—family as a microcosm of a larger social order—imagined by Verney and expounded by Idris is already compromised to the extent that it cannot offer a template for building a healthy body politic. Does the promise of a returned aurea aetas, a Golden Age signaled through nature’s renewal, indicate that the plague’s aftermath—that which is “revealed” by its apocalyptic force20—opens up possibilities for more harmonious relationships among humans within their environment, one in which that optimum balance between individuals and resources is struck and maintained (Payne 2020, 96)? Shelley’s narrator frequently observes the operations of nature as a backdrop to humankind’s largely self-destructive tendencies. Nature’s beneficence plays a key role in Greco-Roman portraits of the Golden Age, indicating the absence of strain on existing resources and resultant concord among human beings (Hesiod Erga 109-20; Ovid Met.1.101-12; Vergil G.1.125-29; cf. A. 8.318-27).21 For Shelley, despite a golden-age bounty that emerges along with the plague, nature is no longer a source of moral authority, but instead a source of indifference,22 offering up harvests left uncultivated as a foil to and painful reminder of humanity’s wretched condition (LM 305). When the group of survivors arrives in “smiling” Italy, Verney describes their temporary retreat in Milan as “paradisical” (LM 315), while also emphasizing its failure to provide happiness; he details the abundance of livestock, fruits, corn, and olives, some of it yielding to decay: “all plenty and yet alas! all poverty, painted in wondrous hues and fantastic groupings this land of beauty” (LM 313; cf. 198-199).

  • 23 This is especially evident in Verney’s increasingly uncivilized condition after he survives the shi (...)

27Shelley, moreover, rejects the possibilities of peace among species that often characterizes Greco-Roman golden-age imagery, famously observed in Vergil’s prediction of a returned aurea aetas in the fourth Eclogue (4.18-25) and his account of plague in Noricum in the third Georgic (3.537-45); Ovid’s Aeacus had similarly noted the absence of predatory wildlife threats in Aegina, and like Vergil, inflects his plague-stricken Aegina with shades of the Golden Age (Met. 7.545-551). Verney, by contrast, whose own stature is gradually reduced in relation to the animal world,23 experiences a surprising vulnerability before “two goats and a little kid, by the mother’s side,” when the male steps forward and charges at the narrator with his horns (LM 334); presumably the male goat is attempting to protect his offspring after Verney reaches out to the kid with food. Familial bonds within the animal kingdom prove just as pernicious to Verney as those bonds, now severed, that defined relationships within his own family. Rather than suggest a restored harmony between humans and the natural world in the wake of pestilence, Shelley ultimately resists the enticements of an aurea aetas as well as ideologies that would view plague’s expurgating power as a means to achieving that end.

28 The author’s overtures to an evolution of the ages conjure apocalypse without revelation (cf. Paley 1993). As the title suggests, there is no afterward, only endlessly deferred finality (Thomas 2000, 23; Wright 2000, 145). In this respect, the novel’s pandemic finds closer kinship with the plagues that conclude Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and Vergil’s third Georgic than the disease “remedied” by Ovid’s ant-born race of Myrmidons. Yet, as I hope to have suggested in examining the language of family ties that bind citizens on Aegina as tightly (and destructively) as those in Shelley’s vision of the world in the late 21st century, both works dramatize the critical role that family devotion and loyalties play in structuring the template for the optimal functioning or dysfunction of the body politic. Where Ovid’s implied rejection of Augustan social legislation stops far short of indicating that revised gender roles might prolong the pax Augusta, Shelley, by emphasizing the destructive force familial relationships frequently have upon women, perhaps inches more closely to a realizable solution, though it is not one advanced within Verney’s testimony.

  • 24 As with the marriage between Perdita and Raymond, mentioned above, though Verney speaks in fonder t (...)

29It is also worth noting that, beyond the question of an inherently imbalanced gendered binary, Shelley’s novel imaginatively glances at the restorative potential in recognizing an other. If Shelley sees the family (frequently, if detrimentally, eliding boundaries between selves24) as irremediably contaminated as a model for healthy social relations, her readers might look elsewhere for answers to the question of how humans can best exist communally, the shadowy foil to the unfettered individuality and isolation that define Verney in his last moments. As Mellor notes (1993, xxiii-xxiv), Verney is granted his exceptional immune status only after succumbing to disease brought on him by an infected Black man, explicitly marked as other: Shelley indicates the remedial power of such an embrace, for it is this singular experience in the novel that brings both illness and recovery, and the immunity that propels Verney into his search for future companions. In fact this is the only mention of a “negro” sufferer in the novel, despite the recognition that, like Thucydides’ plague, this pestilence came from Africa:

It was quite dark; but, as I stept within, a pernicious scent assailed my senses…while I felt my leg clasped, and a groan repeated by the person that held me. I lowered my lamp, and saw a negro half clad, writhing under the agony of disease, while he held me with a convulsive grasp. With mixed horror and impatience I strove to disengage myself, and fell on the sufferer; he wound his naked festering arms around me, his face was close to mine, and his breath, death laden entered my vitals…(LM 245).

30The episode precedes Verney’s discovery of the death of his young son Alfred and reunion with his grief-stricken wife. Concurrent with their reunion, symptoms of the plague appear; for three days Verney lingers on the threshold of death, until he recovers, albeit with much skepticism from those who have attended him. His restoration offers a stark contrast to Idris’s dismal, prolonged suffering. Verney’s recovery in fact improves on his former condition, so that, “…I did not revive to doubtful convalescence; health spent her treasures upon me; as the tree in spring may feel from its wrinkled limbs the fresh green break forth…” (LM 250). Renewed health prompts his departure from London, along with his surviving daughter and Idris, who claims to have recovered and pretends to be well: the family unit remains intact and crucially at a distance from the rest of those leaving England (these “were the only persons with whom we had contact,” LM 252).

31 It is worth noting, of course, that the Black man who is presented as the source of Verney’s illness does not recover, establishing a dynamic that mirrors the racist (and highly exploitative) politics of colonialism buttressing a predominant English view of its hegemony over conquered nations. The sequence of events in the narrative clearly suggests transmission through contagion, though it is worth stressing Verney’s remark early in the novel that the “plague was not what is commonly called contagious,” and some scholars have noted Shelley’s status as an “anti-contagionist” (see Chatterjee 2014, 41). If Shelley’s novel nods instead towards the miasma theory of disease, as is suggested by its emphasis on the “pernicious scent” emanating from the victim, it also implies for its protagonist a perspective that polarizes filth, smell, and the dark skin of Africans living in British colonies with the “whiteness, sweetness, and cleanliness,” of British colonizers (Tullett 2016, 309). Still, I would argue that our recognition of the racism informing Verney’s encounter with an other does not entirely preclude the power of the narrative to glance beyond its own racist discourse, ultimately propelling Verney to further encounters with other (non-English) citizens that may disturb or even invert the hierarchies that structured English colonial practices.

32 In fact, Verney’s embrace of an other is echoed at the end of the novel when he departs from Rome and decides to quit Europe altogether. In his solitude Verney is forced initially to reverse Robinson Crusoe’s skepticism of the non-white, non-European human being: “he [Crusoe] had fled from his fellows…I would have knelt down and worshiped the same…the wild and cruel Caribbee, the merciless cannibal” (LM 326). In the novel’s penultimate paragraph, Verney imagines “leaving behind the verdant land of native Europe, adown the tawny shore of Africa, having weathered the fierce seas of the Cape” and perhaps shoring his boat in some creek, “shaded by spicy groves of the odorous islands of the far Indian Ocean” (LM 341-2). We readers are given nothing to hope regarding the success of the venture, only that it may involve individuals of a very different stripe than the isolated “little society” of Englishmen and women who had accompanied Verney for much of his journey. At the very least, Shelley has, within the frame of her highly speculative fiction, laid the ground for questioning what Verney might find beyond the once familiar, now alienating city, as he abandons Rome, tracing the path of the Tiber toward the sea.

33 As I hope to have demonstrated, that ground is illuminated through the vision of family, its demise, and the challenges of renewal anticipated in Ovid’s Aeginetan plague. While the happy outcome enjoyed by Aeacus offers a jarring foil to the continued isolation of Verney, who in closing offers “no expectation of alteration for the better,” but only a monotonous “intolerable” present (LM 342), the representation of both men as sole-survivors to the piecemeal elimination of country and kin sheds light on how each writer implicates the challenges of governance within a larger and largely intractable scheme of human relationships, relationships that repeatedly deny the promise and golden-age potential of a clean sweep. If the Metamorphoses poet poses Aeacus’ plight as a question concerning the Roman virtue of pietas and the repercussions of family entanglements within the newly emerging Augustan Principate, Shelley’s Verney answers that question with skepticism, piloting a new course with neither “hope nor joy,” and only a tentative grasp for something else beyond the bounds of England and Europe, whose own histories have so conditioned his view of where he stands in a fallen world.

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1 This paper was originally given at a conference hosted by the International Ovidian Society at the Fondation Hardt (Geneva, 2021). Many thanks to audiences at the conference for initial feedback; thanks also to the editors of Dictynna, Jacqueline Fabre-Serris and Florence Klein, and to the anonymous readers for exceptionally careful and thoughtful comments.

2 This line of speculation has been developed recently within interdisciplinary ventures in Deep History, that is, time as encompassing the entire emergence and development of homo sapiens, regardless of the technologies often linked to the start of human history. This approach to understanding the experience of humans on the planet has been advocated by Daniel Lord Smail in particular; see also the collection, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (2011), co-edited by Smail and Andrew Shryock.

3 For the “clean sweep” potential of a plague (AIDS in particular), see Sontag (1988, 175); this is, of course, a potential whose effects are imagined in literature and visual arts rather than realized in human experience—as Foucault implicitly distinguished in his reference to two distinct dreams of plague (2003, 47), and as those of us living with the continued effects of the COVID pandemic know all too well. From the modern era, Payne turns to Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality for the question of locating the age at which “you would wish your species had stopped. Discontented with your present state…you might perhaps wish to be able to go backwards” (cited in Payne 2020, 96). As Payne himself shows, primarily through Hesiod, the ancient world had long sought answers to the same question.

4 The gender of the introduction’s author is perhaps intentionally ambiguous, though many readers equate the authorial voice with Shelley herself; see esp. Mellor (1993, xxiv-xxv); cf. Eberle-Sinatra (2001, 101-2).

5 References to passages in Shelley’s novel are taken from Luke’s (1993) edition and abbreviated LM.

6 For Shelley’s use of the Sibyl and the episode from Book 6 of the Aeneid, which she records having read in 1824, see Goldsmith (1993, 277-80), who argues that the Sibyl, as mouthpiece of the god Apollo, underscores the constraints of patriarchy encountered by the author.

7 The equivocal nature of the Sibyl’s prophecies has been demonstrated more recently by Draper (2022), who observes that the noxious properties ascribed to the Sibyl in her cave in Aeneid 6 recall the Latin tradition linking pestilence to civil discord, properties that in turn color the horrida bella (“frightful wars,” 6.87) she prophesies with distinct shades of civil strife. For Heyworth and Morwood, the fragile condition of the leaves and impossibility of restoring them once they have been disturbed reflect authorial anxiety: “it is tempting to see this as a depiction of despair from an author who had found his own carmina in disorder, whether physical or metaphorical” (2017, 199).

8 For an astute reading of imagery circulating during the first Principate that promoted Augustus as a healer of the state, particularly his ties with the god Apollo (Apollo Medicus), see Wickkiser (2005); cf. Miller (2009, 353-67), on Apollo’s depiction as a healer in the Metamorphoses and Williams (2009), who argues that Ovid’s treatment of Apollo as an avatar for Augustus reflects poorly on the Princeps, especially when compared with Aesculapius’ success at restoring Rome in Metamorphoses 15.

9 See Gomel (2000, 409-11) on the “clinical detachment” that Thucydides as “chronicler-witness” to the plague introduces to nosological discourse; while Gomel mentions The Last Man among the inheritors of this tradition, I argue here that Verney as narrator is relatively Ovidian in the familial concerns that shape his survivor’s account of the plague.

10 The text is Anderson’s (1993). Translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

11 Gardner 2019, 166-75 offers a more detailed look at pietas in the Republican period and the resonance of Augustan pietas in key episodes in the Metamorphoses. For commentary on the changing nuances of pietas that developed with the emergence of the Principate, see Hellegouarc’h (1963, 276) and Manson (1975, esp. 26), who argues for changes in the meaning of pietas as observed within Ovid’s poem.

12 Special thanks to one of the anonymous readers for observing the parallel between Aeacus’ and Augustus’ roles as eye-witnesses to a dwindling legacy and the problems of veiled, monarchical succession that it casts in high relief. For the continuing problem of succession and stability in the late 20’s BCE, especially from the perspectives of the plebian class that viewed Augustus as its savior, see Richardson, (2012, 105 n. 33).

13 Bömer (1976, 346) cites verbal parallels for the domus funesta (e.g., Cat. 64.246) as a “cursed” house, implying Roman superstition and ritual failures with consequences for family lineage, but rejects these in favor of a more literal, physical interpretation: the space of the house is deadly (“todbringend”) and thus needs to be avoided; but cf. Anderson (1972, 304) who notes that flight from an “accursed house” is an Ovidian innovation within nosological discourse. If we press the parallel between Augustus’ succession crisis and Aeacus’ pestilence further, we might also observe rumors of Livia’s role in poisoning members of the Augustan domus (e.g., Dio 53.33.4).

14 Cf. Anderson’s implied query (1972, 310): “…it is not apparent why Aeacus has long been deprived of human sounds. After all, his three sons were preserved…” The slip in logic, however, has the narrative impact of augmenting the devastating force of the plague on the town and enhancing the impression of Aeacus’ isolation, an impression that may have guided Shelley’s own nosological experiments.

15 For Augustus’ attempts to pass moral and marital legislation as well as evidence for the reception of such legislation among the Roman populace, see esp. Suet. DA 34 and Dio Cassius 54.16, 56.1 ff.; cf. Prop. 2.7; Ovid Ars 1.31-34, 3.57-58. The secondary literature on the topic is vast: Csillag (1976) is fairly comprehensive; Galinsky (1981) speculates on the motives behind the legislation; see also Wallace-Hadrill (1985) for poetic responses to the laws. The laws also incentivized marriage at a younger age and indicate the Princeps’ interest in the Roman youth; see Gardner (2013, 33-44). Yavets (1984) considers how the Princeps’ initiatives directed at the youth bolstered his own public image; cf. Fear (2005, 25). See also Eyben (1993, 112-14) for Augustus’ youth-oriented policies.

16 See also Uden (2020), who stresses the author’s frustrations in her approach to antiquity, reflected in Verney’s failed attempts to engage successfully with the relics he encounters in Rome. As efforts to conjure the past recur throughout Shelley’s fiction, she betrays “a preeminent desire…to make time meet—to imagine poles of time as bodies that can interact. These interactions can be…disappointing, or even horrifying” (194).

17 Biographical approaches to the novel note a clear reference to Lord Byron’s own historical (and fatal) support of the Greek revolution in 1824; cf. Neumann (1979, 176-7).

18 Neumann (1979, 173-94) offers a less disparaging approach to the novel’s autobiographical elements; cf. Banerjee’s brief overview of scholarship addressing the personal loss experienced by Shelley that colors elements of The Last Man (2010, 519-20).

19 Scholars have often viewed representations of and challenges to the apocalypse, such as that issued in Shelley’s novel, as attempts to generate an apolitical discourse (e.g., Northrop Frye’s view of formal apocalypse as absolute freedom from circumstance and a means of liberating its human participants from history; 1957, 117-19; cf. Goldsmith 1993, 9). As Goldsmith argues, however, any speculation on the circumstances that attend human life beyond history is undeniably entangled in the historical and political moment that has produced such speculation (Goldsmith 1993, esp. 11-24).

20 On the revelatory power of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature, see especially Berger 1999.

21 For a compelling account of the cultural work performed by utopian visions in Latin literature, see Evans (2008), who stresses the narrative challenges of depicting Golden Ages: “…they provide no possibility for conflict or narrative development: they are fixed, inert, unable to change—because change would result in a degree less of perfection” (6).

22 Cf. Mellor (1993, xvii), who emphasizes how Shelley resists Romantic tendencies to idealize nature in The Last Man. Payne (2020, 93) sees nature as a “major agential force” in the novel and emphasizes the author’s resistance to the perceived dichotomy that governs the relationship between nature and culture (“S.’s work is deliberately archaic in its refusal to erect and police this boundary”).

23 This is especially evident in Verney’s increasingly uncivilized condition after he survives the shipwreck that drowns his last surviving companions, Adrian and Clara; cf. LM 329, 331.

24 As with the marriage between Perdita and Raymond, mentioned above, though Verney speaks in fonder terms early in the novel of his union with Idris and Adrian, “we each divined the other’s thoughts, and…our eyes, in mute language, told a thousand things no tongue could have uttered” (LM 57).

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Hunter Gardner, « Anatomies of failed revolution in Ovid’s Aeginetan Plague and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man »Dictynna [En ligne], 19 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2022, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Hunter Gardner

University of South Carolina

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