Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Quo VadisQuo 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.

The Forum Seen From the Farnese Gardens

The Forum see from the Farnese Gardens (1826) Camille Corot
source Wikiart

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

The Remorse of Nero After the Murder of his Mother

The Remorse of Nero After the Murder of his Mother (1878) John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart

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.

Quo Vadis

Public domain screenshot from the movie trailer Quo Vadis
~ source Wikimedia Commons

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.

Arch of Nero

Arch of Nero (1846) Thomas Cole
source Wikiart

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.

Nero's Torches (Leading Light of Christianity)

Nero’s Torches (Leading Light of Christianity) (1876) Henryk Siemiradzki
source Wikiart

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.

Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis

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!

30 thoughts on “Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

  1. Great post! I love the art. I’d read the story of the Quo Vadis quote, but I didn’t know there was a church associated with it–with a bust of Sienkiewicz. Fascinating.

    I think I was less put off by the silliness of the love story, though it is silly. I think of it as part of the convention You’re right about the development of Marcus being pretty well-handled, but Lygia is just an object to be admired and chased after. A reasonably well-developed boy character and a girl who’s a beautiful non-entity. There are a few other authors (male) who do that as well, as I’m sure we both could name…

    But I think my favorite thing in the novel was Petronius.

    • Thanks! And thanks for reading along with me, but actually ahead of me (therefore finishing on time)! 😉

      I think Lygia was an example of someone sticking to her beliefs, which allows the reader to see the struggles that decision could cause, yet knowing it’s worth it because what you reap from it in the future is of far greater value (contentment, self-respect, inner freedom, etc.) So while in some ways her character was one-dimensional, I think it helped make the story multi-dimensional so I did like her character.

      Oh yes! My absolute favourite was Petronius. I wished Sienkiewicz had developed him further but nevertheless, I think he kept him realistic. In fact, I felt he did a great job making all the characters believable, it was just the interaction within the love story that I struggled with.

      • That’s an interesting point about Lygia and I think you’re right: though she’s one-dimensional, her virtues (and the challenge to those virtues) make the story multi-dimensional.

        We’re spoiled with modern stories–novels, but maybe even more the movies–with romantic pairings in which both characters are well-developed. It just generally doesn’t happen in Victorian fiction, with Tolstoy being the possible exception, though even then I don’t find Natasha completely convincing. (Anna Karenina, though, even Kitty, or Dolly–they do seem so perfectly real.)

        It’s astonishing how much Sienkiewicz built up out of what’s basically a paragraph in Tacitus.

        • You made me think (which you often do; thank you! 😉) about Victorian novels and the characters. I think Elizabeth Gaskell develops both male and female characters well, as does George Eliot. Anthony Trollope’s characters are often caricature-y but even so, they are often more real than real people, lol! I can’t think of any more Victorian authors at the moment who develop both sexes well. I guess women can seem side-lined in literature but I’ve always thought that because men hung out with other men much more and only interacted with women under certain conditions, that’s why women might not be prevalent in a story.

          Ah, Tacitus! I must read him. I’m sure I’ll like him!

  2. Great review! I enjoyed reading it very much & also learning your reactions to the novel. I fell in love with this story when I read the condensed version contained in my high school library; it inspired me to do a lot of non-fiction reading about the “real” characters in the novel, such as Petronius Arbiter. Many years later I read the “real” novel, i.e., the unabridged version that helped secure the Nobel prize for Sienkiewicz. My reaction? well, I didn’t love it so much. I don’t know why, exactly. Perhaps I had less patience for the slow pace and the language, perhaps I sensed something lacking or unrealistic in some of the characters (I think you touched on this a bit when you discussed Marcus’ “love” for Lygia) or, perhaps, the extremely dramatic nature of the story appealed much more to the younger me. Quite simply, some books, even classics, appeal more to certain periods than to others and their popularity with readers reflects this (not to be too hard on Sir Walter Scott, for example, but many of his works, though classic, are rarely read today).
    I don’t want to go overboard in my criticisms of Quo Vadis, which really is a classic. It still has a lot to offer and is definitely worth the time. I’m glad I read it but . . . I’m also glad I encountered it (even in a condensed version) at a time in my life when I was particularly receptive to what it had to offer. Besides, I really learned a lot of Roman history researching its background!

    • Thanks so much, Janakay. You know what? I think I would have LOVED the love story in my late teens or twenties. But I’ve learned that it’s unrealistic to maintain those emotional highs and real love matures into something much deeper and less dramatic. I was hoping as Marcus’ faith began to grow and mature, so would his love for Lygia, so while his behaviour towards her changed, the drama of his feelings didn’t and I was rather disappointed.

      I do have to read Walter Scott soon and I have Ivanhoe on my shelf just waiting. While I’ve heard Scott’s vocabulary can be somewhat archaic, I’m more interested in how he treats his characters. I love the A&E version of Ivanhoe and I hope the novel doesn’t disappoint me.

      Back to Quo Vadis ………… I agree with you that aside from the love story, it has much to offer. There is nothing better than a well-researched novel to bring alive ancient times; I feel like I know Petronius, Nero, etc. I have Petronius’ Satirycon and I think I might try reading it sooner rather than later. I wouldn’t mind staying in Ancient Rome awhile longer!

  3. i haven’t read this, but i may get around to it next year?… so many books, so little… your review is enlightening. it gives me a sense of what it’s like anyhow… in general i’m not fond of cinematic love stories but i’ve read enough of them to have gotten used to them. the characters do seem a bit Scott-like and that might be enough to drive me to reading it. i wonder if it’s so well known because of the movie that was made of it? under normal circumstances it seems surprising that it became so famous… wonderful pictures as usual: tx for a dynamite review!

    • I think you’d like it, especially if you’re immune to overly-dramatic love stories. It’s fast moving and there is lots going on. Sienkiewicz really develops his characters well. My, Scott’s name keeps coming up and I’m thinking I have to try to get to Ivanhoe soon. I haven’t seen the movie of Quo Vadis, but I’m going to try to get it from the library.

      Thank YOU again, Mudpuddle, for your kind words!

  4. The romance sounds a bit soapy, but I’m curious actually to read a story where Peter and Paul are characters. Also I haven’t read a book from Poland yet so this could be a good option. I guess when these books were written there were no movies or TV shows as we know them, so they had to get their drama in where they could. 😉 I’m glad to hear the historical descriptions are good, at least!

    • I think you’d really like the historical aspects of the novel (and there are TONS of them) and you’d probably be able to stomach the love story a little more than I could. I’d definitely recommend the novel. Reading about Peter and Paul in an historic context was very interesting.

  5. Ah… It’s been years since I’ve read this book. And I haven’t read any book in Ancient Rome for ages. A reread would be great!
    Lovely review, by the way, Cleo, loved it! <3

    • I will await your review! 😉

      Have you read Ben Hur? Another historic Biblical style novel that I really enjoyed.

      Thank you, Fanda! You’re too kind! ☺️

      • I’ve read Ben Hur as well. Didn’t remember much of it, though (proof that it wasn’t that impressive :P)
        Have put Quo Vadis into my 300 Classics to Read in 20 years list, so I will definitely read it…. in the next 20 years :))

    • Thanks for letting me know, Carol. I haven’t heard anything from anyone else but if I do, I’ll certainly check into it. Sorry for the frustrations!

  6. Well, I think my computer is blocking something. I wondered if Quo Vadis has a lot of martyrs etc. that’s put me off a bit. Don’t want to go there at present. 😳

    • I do know what you mean but Quo Vadis didn’t read that way. It delved mostly into the love story and then into some of the characters. No gratuitous gore or deaths. It was more interesting from an historical perspective.

      Glad you were able to get through!

    • Hi Risa! Good to see you around again! I must admit I liked Ben-Hur better than this one. Have you read The Robe? I’d like to read that as well.

      • Hi Cleo! It’s good to be hanging around again! =D…. No, I haven’t read The Robe as yet. It’s difficult to find a hard copy of it. I’ve been holding out for years from reading it until I could buy a print, but after reading you review on Quo Vadis, I thought I’d just go for the e-books and read both this and The Robe!

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!