Quo Vadis: A Tale in the Time of Nero by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1896)

Quo Vadis is, as its subtitle implies, a work of historical fiction set in Ancient Rome during Nero’s reign. It is the love story and spiritual journey of a young couple – Marcus Vinicius, a Roman tribune from a patrician family, and Lygia, daughter of a Lygian barbarian chief, held as hostage in Rome. It is also a story of the decadence of Nero’s Rome and the persecuted early Christians.

Vinicius falls madly in love with Lygia when he meets her at the home of Aulus Paulinus and his Christian wife, Pomponia, a couple who had basically adopted her after her parents died.
What Vinicius doesn’t know is that Lygia has become a Christian.
Lovesick Vinicius consults Petronius, his uncle, who is highly favoured by Nero. Petronius decides to help out but his intervention causes an unfortunate turn of events for Lygia. She is summoned to Caesar’s palace where she meets Vinicius again at one of Nero’s feasts but she is appalled by his drunken behaviour.

“But her nearness to him began to act on Vinicius also. His nostrils dilated, like those of an Eastern steed. The beating of his heart with unusual throb…
He was no longer the former kind Vinicius, almost dear to her soul; he was a drunken, wicked satyr, who filled her with repulsion and terror.”

Although Lygia had been held hostage, she retained her personal bodyguard, Ursus, a huge fellow Lygian who considers her to be his Queen, and with his help she escapes the palace. It was not permitted to flee from the house of Caesar so she could not go back to her adopted family as that would be dangerous for them and would be the first place she would be looked for. She and Ursus instead make their way to the poor part of the city where the Christian community live and find refuge among them.

“To resign her, to lose her, not to see her again, seemed to him impossible; and at this thought alone frenzy took hold of him. For the first time in life the imperious nature of the youthful soldier met resistance, met another unbending will, and he could not understand simply how any one could have the daring to thwart his wishes. Vinicius would have chosen to see the world and the city sink in ruins rather than fail of his purpose. The cup of delight had been snatched from before his lips almost; hence it seemed to him that something unheard of had happened, something crying to divine and human laws for vengeance.”

Vinicius, torn between love and vengeance, sets out to find Lygia. When he discovers that Lygia has embraced the New Christian sect, he tries to find out where they meet, but the more he discovers about them, the more confused and unsure he becomes. He realises that Lygia would never submit to Roman ways but he knows that he can’t make himself believe. So his spiritual journey begins and he starts to change.

“He had not become clearly conscious that one of the deepest changes in his nature was this,—that formerly he had measured people and things only by his own selfishness, but now he was accustoming himself gradually to the thought that other eyes might see differently, other hearts feel differently, and that justice did not mean always the same as personal profit.”

I scheduled Quo Vadis this year for my daughter’s Year 12 studies and I read it as well. I wasn’t sure that she’s like it – Vinicius is a bit of a twit at times – but she did & so did I.
The author captures the time period in enough detail without overdoing the debaucheries of Nero and his cohort.
The contrast between the decadence and worldliness of Ancient Rome and the early Christians and its depiction of a slave-based society is powerful. The book builds in intensity and drama and culminates in the fire of Rome and Nero using the Christians as a scapegoat.
Henryk Sienkiewicz received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905. Quo Vadis (i.e. Where are you going?) is his best-known novel and has been published in fifty-nine languages.

This classic is well worth a read!

Lygia’s observation of Nero, whose original name was I.Domitius Ahenobarbus:

“She had imagined some kind of ghastly face, with malignity petrified in its features; now she saw a great head, fixed on a thick neck, terrible, it is true, but almost ridiculous, for from a distance it resembled the head of a child…
He had no beard, because he had sacrificed it recently to Jove,—for which all Rome gave him thanks, though people whispered to each other that he had sacrificed it because his beard, like that of his whole family, was red. In his forehead, projecting strongly above his brows, there remained something Olympian. In his contracted brows the consciousness of supreme power was evident; but under that forehead of a demigod was the face of a monkey, a drunkard, and a comedian,—vain, full of changing desires, swollen with fat, notwithstanding his youth; besides, it was sickly and foul. To Lygia he seemed ominous, but above all repulsive.”

Some of the historical characters in the book:

Petronius, the arbiter elegantiarum and part of Nero’s inner circle, stands out the most. He was refined and clever, and managed to keep in Nero’s (Bronzebeard’s) good books for quite some time.

“Life of itself would not be bad were it not for Bronzebeard. Thanks to him, a man at times is disgusted with himself. It is not correct to consider the struggle for his favor as a kind of rivalry in a circus,—as a kind of game, as a struggle, in which victory flatters vanity.”

When the end came for Petronius he did it on his terms, writing Nero a letter and reading it aloud to horrified guests at the dinner party where he was to take his own life.

“I know, O Caesar, that thou art awaiting my arrival with impatience, that thy true heart of a friend is yearning day and night for me. I know that thou art ready to cover me with gifts, make me prefect of the pretorian guards, and command Tigellinus to be that which the gods made him, a mule-driver in those lands which thou didst inherit after poisoning Domitius. Pardon me, however, for I swear to thee by Hades, and by the shades of thy mother, thy wife, thy brother, and Seneca, that I cannot go to thee. Life is a great treasure. I have taken the most precious jewels from that treasure, but in life there are many things which I cannot endure any longer. Do not suppose, I pray, that I am offended because thou didst kill thy mother, thy wife, and thy brother; that thou didst burn Rome and send to Erebus all the honest men in thy dominions. No, grandson of Chronos. Death is the inheritance of man; from thee other deeds could not have been expected. But to destroy one’s ear for whole years with thy poetry, to see thy belly of a Domitius on slim legs whirled about in a Pyrrhic dance; to hear thy music, thy declamation, thy doggerel verses, wretched poet of the suburbs, — is a thing surpassing my power, and it has roused in me the wish to die. Rome stuffs its ears when it hears thee; the world reviles thee. I can blush for thee no longer, and I have no wish to do so. The howls of Cerberus, though resembling thy music, will be less offensive to me, for I have never been the friend of Cerberus, and I need not be ashamed of his howling. Farewell, but make no music; commit murder, but write no verses; poison people, but dance not; be an incendiary, but play not on a cithara. This is the wish and the last friendly counsel sent thee by the — Arbiter Elegantiae.”

Poppaea: Nero’s second wife.

“She was greeted with shouts, and the appellation “Divine Augusta.” Lygia had never seen any one so beautiful, and she could not believe her own eyes, for she knew that Poppæa Sabina was one of the vilest women on earth. She knew from Pomponia that she had brought Cæsar to murder his mother and his wife; she knew her from accounts given by Aulus’s guests and the servants; she had heard that statues to her had been thrown down at night in the city; she had heard of inscriptions, the writers of which had been condemned to severest punishment, but which still appeared on the city walls every morning. Yet at sight of the notorious Poppæa, considered by the confessors of Christ as crime and evil incarnate, it seemed to her that angels or spirits of heaven might look like her. She was unable simply to take her eyes from Poppæa…”

“Poppæa looked still more attentively at Lygia…
Suddenly a frown appeared between the brows of the Augusta. Jealous of her own beauty and power, she lived in continual alarm lest at some time a fortunate rival might ruin her, as she had ruined Octavia. Hence every beautiful face in the palace roused her suspicion. With the eye of a critic she took in at once every part of Lygia’s form, estimated every detail of her face, and was frightened. “That is simply a nymph,” thought she, “and ’twas Venus who gave birth to her.” On a sudden this came to her mind which had never come before at sight of any beauty,—that she herself had grown notably older! Wounded vanity quivered in Poppæa, alarm seized her, and various fears shot through her head. “Perhaps Nero has not seen the girl…
But what would happen should he meet such a marvel in the daytime, in sunlight? Moreover she is not a slave, she is the daughter of a king,—a king of barbarians, it is true, but a king. Immortal gods! she is as beautiful as I am, but younger!” The wrinkle between her brows increased, and her eyes began to shine under their golden lashes with a cold gleam.”

Acte – a freed slave and Nero’s former mistress, she later became a Christian.

Peter – the disciple of Jesus; martyred under Nero in A.D. 64

Paul – a Pharisee and Roman citizen who persecuted the early Christians. He was converted on his way to Damascus and martyred under Nero in A.D. 64





Aulus Plautius and Pomponia Graecinus

Quo Vadis was originally written in Polish and my version was translated into English by Jeremiah Curtin.

2 thoughts on “Quo Vadis: A Tale in the Time of Nero by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1896)

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