Book Review: Quo Vadis

Quo VadisWhen I posted my reading plans for the year, a friend suggested that Henryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword: An Historical Novel of Poland and Russia would fill the Forgotten, Long, or Translated classic categories of the Back to the Classics Challenge. I was looking over descriptions and reviews of the book and decided to look into for next year’s challenge, but noticed along the way that Sienkiewicz had also written Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero. That’s a title I have heard of for years but never read, and I was looking to replace the classic I had originally chosen for a translated one, so I started listening to this via audiobook. Then I got the free Kindle version to reread or look more closely into various sections.

The Latin phrase quo vadis means “Where are you going?” and is usually connected with a legend that says Peter was fleeing from Roman persecution when, outside the city, he saw Jesus with His cross coming into the city. When Peter asked where He was going, Jesus supposedly replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” I had thought perhaps the title might be a metaphor for the various characters, especially Marcus Vinicius, and it may be, but the author includes the legend as a scene near the end of the book as well.

Vinicius is a Roman tribune who falls in love with a beautiful young woman who is the ward of a general. Her name is Callina, though she goes by Ligea throughout most of the book because her people were known as Ligeans. They were conquered by Rome, and technically she is a hostage. Somehow she came to the house of Aulus Plautius and his wife, Pomponia Graecina, but she has become like a daughter to them. Marcus’s attraction at first is primarily lustful: she’s beautiful and he desires her, so his uncle, the influential Petronius, suggests that, since she is a hostage, they can have Caesar take her from her home, bring her to the palace, and then give her to Marcus. Marcus doesn’t understand why this does not go over well with Ligea (duh), but while at the palace where they participate in a feast which turns into a drunken orgy, Marcus realizes that one of the things he loves about Ligea is that she’s not like other women, and to either take her by force or subject her to such an atmosphere would not only violate her personally but would change everything he loves about her.

At one time Ligea drew a fish in the sand, but Marcus did not know it had any special meaning. Ligea escapes the palace with her servant and the help of a number of other Christians. In trying to find her, Marcus learns that the fish is symbolic of Christianity. He and Petronius are surprised that Ligea is a Christian, as there are a number of odd rumors going around about Christians, such as that they poison wells and fountains, worship an ass’s head, murder babies, and “give themselves up to dissoluteness.” But since Ligea and the one or two other professing Christians they know are not like that, then the rumors, they reason, must be wrong. Marcus doesn’t care, as he is willing to set up an altar to Christ and add Him to the other gods he worships, if he can only find Ligea and make her his.

Marcus does find the Christian community, and as he spends time with them, he realizes that being a Christian is not just a side religion for them, but rather affects everything they do. Furthermore, it is an obstacle between himself and Ligea, because, though he senses she loves him, she could not be his mistress, because it would violate her religion, and she could not marry him because he is not a believer. Thus he is in an agony.

The context of their story plays out in the backdrop of the Roman civilization of the time. Though many covet the favor of Nero’s court, it’s an uncertain place to be, as Nero’s favor can change on a whim or the merest displeasure. When Marcus reminds Petronius that he is “playing with death” by his verbal jousts, Petronius replies that “That is my arena, and the feeling that I am the best gladiator in it amuses me.” The excess, frivolity, self-gratification, depravity, and cruelty of the Romans, particularly the patrician class, is contrasted with the poverty, simplicity, sincerity, and goodness of the Christians. Many of the major characters come to their own fork in the road and have to decide which way they are going.

And all at once he saw before him a precipice, as it were without bottom. He was a patrician, a military tribune, a powerful man; but above every power of that world to which he belonged was a madman whose will and malignity it was impossible to foresee. Only such people as the Christians might cease to reckon with Nero or fear him, people for whom this whole world, with its separations and sufferings, was as nothing; people for whom death itself was as nothing. All others had to tremble before him. The terrors of the time in which they lived showed themselves to Vinicius in all their monstrous extent. He could not return Lygia to Aulus and Pomponia, then, through fear that the monster would remember her, and turn on her his anger; for the very same reason, if he should take her as wife, he might expose her, himself, and Aulus. A moment of ill-humor was enough to ruin all. Vinicius felt, for the first time in life, that either the world must change and be transformed, or life would become impossible altogether. He understood also this, which a moment before had been dark to him, that in such times only Christians could be happy.

The author has Nero and Peter coming face to face at one point, which probably did not really happen, but of the meeting he says:

For a while those two men looked at each other. It occurred to no one in that brilliant retinue, and to no one in that immense throng, that at that moment two powers of the earth were looking at each other, one of which would vanish quickly as a bloody dream, and the other, dressed in simple garments, would seize in eternal possession the world and the city.

Even Petronius, though not at all tempted by the Christian religion, acknowledges “that a society resting on superior force, on cruelty of which even barbarians had no conception, on crimes and mad profligacy, could not endure. Rome ruled the world, but was also its ulcer.”

There is a definite Catholic flavor to much of the Christianity in the book, perhaps most noticeable when the author has Peter saying that God will build His capital in Rome rather than Jerusalem (not something the Bible ever intimates) and calls Peter the “vice-regent” of Christ. But there is also a surprising amount of truth in a lot of the characters’ grappling with what Christianity would mean to them. The author portrays many of the Romans as not really believing in the gods, much less loving them, though they felt compelled to placate them with offerings for good measure. But the Christians had “found a God whom they could love, they had found that which the society of the time could not give any one –happiness and love.”

“What kind of God is this, what kind of religion is this, and what kind of people are these?” All that he had just heard could not find place in his head simply. For him all was an unheard-of medley of ideas. He felt that if he wished, for example, to follow that teaching, he would have to place on a burning pile all his thoughts, habits, and character, his whole nature up to that moment, burn them into ashes, and then fill himself with a life altogether different, and an entirely new soul.

Since the book was written in 1895 and translated in 1896, of course it reads like an older work – more telling than showing, a little dragged out in places. Peter and Paul are highly idealized. I had to smile at a description of Marcus’s handsomeness remarking about his “brows joining above the nose.” Perhaps a unibrow was considered handsome then. 🙂 But the descriptive passages of the famous Roman fire and the persecutions in the arena were quite well done. Of course, given the setting, we know that someone among the main characters will end up in the arena, but it didn’t happen in any of the ways I had thought it might, and there is quite a bit of intrigue about whether that person can be saved before their time in the arena comes.

The author is said to have done quite extensive research before starting this book, and he weaves historical details in fairly seamlessly. I am not well versed in that segment of history, so I am not sure how much is factual and how much is fictional except that he did include some actual historical figures, though of course their conversations are fictional.

I have to commend him, too, that some of the scenes portraying the profligacy of the people left one feeling disgusted and sick at their actions without the descriptions getting too gratuitous. I wish modern authors would take a note from this. He does include a few details I would prefer to have been left out (too many mentions of “heaving bosoms”), but considering what could have been said about what was going on, particularly at Nero’s feast, he showed much restraint. I’ve often said “less is more” with these kinds of details, and this book illustrates that.

The book left me with several thoughts to ponder, among them: the cost of following Christ, something we don’t take into account in our day in many places in the world; the thought that whatever persecution or disfavor we think Christians are facing now, we really haven’t seen anything yet in most places; the testimony of the Christians that belied the rumors about them (“For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” – I Peter 2:15); the thought in an above quote, that in such times only Christians could be truly happy, for this world is not the end for them.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Frederick Davidson, and honestly, it was hard to follow at first. That’s one reason I got the Kindle version as well. I am not sure if it was due to the opening of the book itself or the narrator’s voice. He did some characters very well, particularly Petronius, Chilo (a wily investigator employed by Marcus), and Nero, but other times he spoke in a monotone. Once I got well into the book and invested in the characters, however, the less his narration bothered me.

There are a number of film versions, notable a 1951 film starring Deborah Kerr and Robert Taylor, that I would like to see but haven’t yet. It would be interesting to see how they condense the 22 hours of the book to the 2 hours or so of a movie. I was very surprised it was not on Netflix.

Though it was not a flawless book, overall it was a good read and I enjoyed it.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Quo Vadis

  1. Pingback: Reading Plans | Stray Thoughts

  2. Fascinating! What you describe of Roman life under Nero (the profligacy, the only nominal worship of the pagan gods) sounds very accurate to what I listened to from Durant’s Caesar and Christ.

    My library has both this book and the 1950s film – it looks like it’s almost 3 hours long. I’m thinking I’ll try picking this up one of these days.

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  4. Got a chuckle out of the unibrow.

    I LOVE this rather descriptive passage. It communicates so much, so well (regardless of whether or not this happened – which no):

    “For a while those two men looked at each other. It occurred to no one in that brilliant retinue, and to no one in that immense throng, that at that moment two powers of the earth were looking at each other, one of which would vanish quickly as a bloody dream, and the other, dressed in simple garments, would seize in eternal possession the world and the city.”

    I’ve never heard of this book before but it’s now on my radar!

  5. Pingback: Back to the Classics 2015 Wrap-Up Post | Stray Thoughts

  6. Pingback: Books Read in 2015 | Stray Thoughts

  7. It gives me such feelings finding this good review of this book. I had it at home, a very old edition. My mother gave it to me because she is a big fan of Sienkiewicz. She had part of the trilogy about the polish people. I don’t know how to write this in english but she had “A sangre y fuego” and “El diluvio”. I know those are good books, but the only book I had time to read was “Quo Vadis”, that is very nice, and I remember very well the arbiter elegantiarum and the first part of the book where he is having his long bath. Thank you for the good memories

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