Quo Vadis: “It was close to noon before Petronius came awake, feeling as drained and listless and detached as always.”
Quo Vadis was part of the read-along hosted by Nick at One Catholic Life and, thanks to him, I’ve finally finished this book that I’ve long been meaning to read. It was truly fascinating to be completely immersed in the Roman Empire under Nero, and Sienkiewicz did an outstanding job of describing it’s grandeur and excesses, it’s beauty and cruelty, in a way that remains with the reader long after he is finished the novel. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Quo Vadis helped Sienkiewicz win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905.
Perhaps it’s useful to ground the novel by examining a few of the characters within its pages, especially since some of them are draw from real life:
Gaius Petronius: a real historical character. He is the uncle of Marcus and an arbiter of taste and artistic elegance. A member of Nero’s court, he has wit and a lazy sophistication but is uncannily shrewd and impresses Rome with his persuasive and engaging personality
Marcus Vinicius: the nephew of Gaius Petronius (and apparently the fictitious son of the real Marcus Vinicius) who is a patrician and a military tribune. He is crazy for Lygia.
Lygia (Callina): captured daughter of the king of Lugii (now south-central Poland) who is a slave living in the home of Aulus Platinus and his wife, Pomponia Graecina. She has become a Christian.
Pomponia Graecina: an historical figure who is married to Aulus Platinus and who is a Christian. Lygia is effectively their adopted daughter but they cannot legalize her status under Roman law.
Emperor Nero: ah, Nero, the Emperor of Rome. Of course, an historical figure. He is self-absorbed, and cruel, with no thought for anything but his acting and furthering his reputation and power.
Poppaea Sabina: an historical figure, who is the wife of Nero. She is jealous and cunning.
Chilon Chilonides: a fictitious Greek character who is a reprobate but Marcus hires him to find Lygia, in spite of his traitorous character.
The Apostle Peter: of course, an historical character, he is now an older man who is in Rome to spread the Christian faith although he is off-put by Nero whom he calls The Beast and sometimes wonders how the seeds of Christianity will grow there.
The Apostle Paul: of course, an historical character, he has a major influence in the growth of Marcus’ faith
Marcus Vinicius is madly in love with Lygia, a slave girl living in the house of Aulus Palatius a retired general and his wife, Pomponia Graecina. Though a slave and considered a barbarian, Lydia was the daughter of a barbarian king and moreover, very beautiful, her beauty the source of Marcus’ infatuation. When he gets the chance to speak with her, he is further enamored and enlists the assistance of his uncle, Petronius, to plead with Nero for her to be given to him. What he doesn’t realize is that Lygia is a Christian and she is appalled by the behaviour during Nero’s decadent banquets. On her way to the house of Marcus, she is rescued by fellow Christians and the hunt is on, driven by Marcus and his near pathological desire to possess her.
To find her, Petronius hires a cunning yet dishonest Greek called Chilon, who is trying to hide his former transgressions with one of the Christians, yet he is able to join their community. When Marcus attends a sermon of the Apostle Paul, although he is unexpectedly affected by Paul’s words, he attempts to capture Lygia and is gravely wounded by her enormous protector, Ursus.
From here the reader observes Marcus’ slow transformation from a selfish, petty, tyrannical nobleman, to a man who begins to see that there is someone greater than himself and thence begins to develop a hesitant sympathy for his fellow man. Lygia is now viewed, instead of an object for his conquering and possession, as a precious soul who must be respected and won. Themes of betrayal, perseverance, loyalty, sacrifice and forgiveness permeate the pages and the reader is treated to a rollercoaster of emotions and an assortment of adventures.
In spite of my enjoyment of the historical aspect of this novel, I must confess that the love story drove me a little bit crazy. Marcus first of all “loved” Lygia because of her great beauty. He was silly for her, determined to possess her. Then when he met her, he was almost rabid with his love for her. I liked that his love for her developed with his newly found faith, but the drama was overpowering and for a male, not quite believable. Again, this story reminded me of my reads of The Art of Loving and C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves, begging the question, What is Love? However, I will give Sienkiewicz the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that such overly dramatic agonies of love are simply not my cup of tea. I wish they were as I probably would have enjoyed the novel more.
Southeast of Rome, about 800 m from the Porta San Sebastiano (the largest gate passing through the Aurelian Walls in Rome), there lies a small church (see below) called Santa Maria in Palmis, also called Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis. While fleeing persecution, tradition tells us that this is where Peter met Jesus and asked him, “Domine, quo vadis?” (Lord, where are you going?) and Jesus answered, “Eo Romam iterum crucifigi.” (I am going to Rome to be crucified again.) In this church is a bust of Sienkiewicz, as it is said that he was inspired to write Quo Vadis while sitting in this church.
Another book set in Ancient Rome during Nero’s reign is The Ides of April. While it’s a children’s book, it has some historical figures woven into the story and it’s excellent!