Reviews of Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero (1895) and related work

Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero (1895Text)

Henryk Sienkiewicz (writer).

Read in 2023.

Read in Samuel A. Binion and S. Malevsky’s 1897 translation to English.

Ca. 64 CE, the Roman Empire is governed by the 27-year-old Nero. Fancying himself an artist, the emperor has liberated himself from his advisors, who resent the emperor’s involvement with the arts. He parties and rules impulsively while the Christian apostles Peter and Paul of Tarsus are active in Rome. One of Nero’s allies, the young nobleman and military commander Marcus Vinicius, is attracted to a barbarian hostage in the house of a general, not knowing she is one of the secret Christians.

The romance aspect of Quo Vadis is formulaic and dull. Vinicius’s love interest is Lygia, a demure princess who is “pale as linen” and described as “almost like a child”. While Lygia remains fundamentally passive, Vinicius—himself beautiful and traditionally masculine—wants only to “possess that maiden”. That is indeed what happens, though Vinicius’s perspective on love does evolve.

Sienkiewicz’s interest is not in the romance. Nero and the ahistorical “philosopher”-detective Chilo Chilonis are better characters than any of the lovers or Christians. Sienkiewicz’s favourite is clearly the historical poet Petronius, rendered here in great detail as an aesthete with surprisingly strong hands who despises Nero and retains the emperor’s respect by gently criticizing his compositions: A charming atheist.

The author’s historical research is impressive but partisan. The epic level of the plot is that Nero orders the Great Fire of Rome, and not for the sake of building his Domus Aurea but for transgression. Blaming Christians for his own crime, he has them killed, but they all become willing martyrs. That’s all very unlikely to have occurred as described here. In reality, Christians were mistrusted and ridiculed in Nero’s time, but not slaughtered en masse. Nero himself is remembered in a riddle in Revelation (ca. 95 CE), probably because he consented to popular and local persecution of the new religion. However, Roman state persecution of Christians did not start until 250 CE, when the emperor Decius formally required sacrifice specifically to the Roman gods. The myth of constant persecution, with harrowed Christians cowering in the catacombs beneath the city, stems from Lactantius and Eusebius. They were Christians, writing still later—in the early fourth century CE—when they celebrated Christianity becoming the state religion.

Like John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), Quo Vadis was a huge success in publication and adorned the bookshelves of many Christian homes around the turn of the century. Because of its overtly pro-in-group falsehoods and classicist setting, it was a didactic gift to students, and it is a lot more exciting than Bunyan.

Though the author goes into some detail on the horrors of the arena and mentions even rape as a weapon of terror, the biggest moral lapse of the Roman empire seems to be that its women can get divorced. The last few chapters align further with popular Christian mythology, outlining the ultimate success of the religion. Those sermons are an acceptable price of admission to a lovely otherwise-historical novel, though I would have preferred a more reasonable interpretation of Tacitus.

References here: Lord of the World (1907).

text fiction series

Quo Vadis? (1913Moving picture, 120 minutes)

Seen in 2023.

I saw a tinted version restored by the Lumière Project, with canned music based on compositions by Camille Saint-Saëns and Hector Berlioz.

A largely faithful adaptation (not the first), made in the melodramatic style typical of the time. The most interesting deviation from the novel is that time seems to be compressed for the epilogue; it looks here as if Nero dies in connection with the fire, when he really died four years later.

The narrative intertitles reveal each plot point before it is shown and provide dialogue only for the most winged of Sienkiewicz’s words. This implies a viewer already familiar with the original text, as many people would have been.

References here: Cabiria (1914), Se dig inte om (1936).

moving picture adaptation fiction