Quo Vadis, written by Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, is a work of historical fiction published in 1895. The novel takes place in Ancient Rome during the reign of emperor Nero and the plot revolves around the love story between a pagan, Roman patrician, Marcus Vinicius, and a Christian girl, Lygia.
A hothead warmonger who has served in the military in Asia, once he returns to Rome, Marcus stays in the house of the former general, Aulus Plautius, to recover from his injuries and rest. There, he sees for the first time the general’s adopted daughter, Lygia, who is a royal hostage. He falls madly in lust with her and tries with the help of his amoral uncle, Petronius, to possess her.
But the world into which the beautiful Lygia and her adoptive mother move is a far cry from the world into which Marcus lives and therefore tension and conflict arise.
On one hand, initially Marcus represents the Roman empire in all its violent and decadent glory. Used to indulge his own whims and desires, Marcus seeks nothing more than his own selfish pleasure, and so attempts to take Lygia according to the traditional Roman way: by applying force.
On the other hand, Lygia with her goodness, purity and humble Christian upbringing is a breath of fresh air against the corruption and viciousness of Nero’s court.
When Petronius convinces Nero to hand Lygia to Marcus as his personal slave, Lygia and the rest of the Christians come up with a plan. Lygia is hidden in the Christian catacombs. From this moment on, Marcus embarks on an anguished search for her throughout Rome.
When he finds her with the help of a Greek, private investigator, he tries to abduct her but ends up getting hurt when Lygia’s bodyguard, Ursus, attacks him. Instead of killing him, the Christians nurse him back to health.
Already the seeds of Marcus’s spiritual transformation have been planted. Marcus, deeply moved by the compassion the Christians show him and the kindness with which Lygia treats him, begins to question his own actions and gradually sees Lygia as something more than the mere object of his lust, as a person with a soul and emotions.
His change and his spiritual journey have been set in motion.
Quo Vadis is one of the top novels ever written for me because Sienkiewicz is a master of pathos. Written during the Romantic movement in Europe, it contains a lot of scenes brimming with romantic ideas and sentimentality. However, Quo Vadis is profoundly humane in its approach.
I maintain the idea that the human psyche and its deep exploration is the essence of good literature. And that’s exactly what this novel delivers. The relationship between Marcus and Lygia has the ability to move the reader because it functions on two levels. On the first level, we’re exposed to a most beautiful and passionate love story. On the second level, Marcus and Lygia represent the violent clash between the old world that is Rome (sadistic, vindictive, bloodthirsty, materialistic, malevolent, unstable, and ultimately deadly) and the new era Christianity brings (full of love, kindness, peace, respect and forgiveness).
One of the themes that takes central stage in the novel is love. What is love? What does it mean to love someone? How can love affect a person’s life? In Western literature, love has long been associated with both life and death. Quo Vadis is no exception.
Through his love for Lygia, Marcus sheds off his old skin and gains a new one. Eros becomes a revolutionary force that blows up Marcus’s soul. Gradually, he begins to realize there’s a whole world beyond inane self-seeking pleasure and selfish cruelty. By staying with the Christians for some time in the catacombs, he becomes aware that all the foundations of the empire are stinking, festering, falling into decay.
Marcus views the world through Lygia’s eyes. He becomes so devoted to her that his love for her reaches the point of divine adoration. And here enters a very interesting question. Sienkiewicz raises the issue of change. Can people reconsider and change? Can they smash their past and arise anew? Marcus proves that a spiritual awakening, a hopeful resurrection is possible.
His love gives him the opportunity to be reborn, to gain a new life full of meaning and purpose. He proves that humans are not flat, static beings condemned to die the same as they were born. They can rethink their actions, repent, change their mind and heart, mature and grow. They can be influenced and reshaped under the right circumstances.
Marcus’s initial emotions and thoughts as expressed in this passage:
But, first of all, he was unwilling and unable to be reconciled with fate, for never in life had he so desired anything as Lygia. It seemed to him that he could not exist without her. He could not tell himself what he was to do without her on the morrow, how he was to survive the days following. At moments he was transported by a rage against her, which approached madness.
He wanted to have her, to beat her, to drag her by the hair to the cubiculum, and gloat over her; then, again, he was carried away by a terrible yearning for her voice, her form, her eyes, and he felt that he would be ready to lie at her feet. He called to her, gnawed his fingers, clasped his head with his hands. He strove with all his might to think calmly about searching for her,—and was unable. A thousand methods and means flew through his head, but one wilder than another.
are vastly different from his later behaviour when he asks for Lygia’s hand with her consent as expressed in this passage:
And he stretched forth his hand, as if taking Heaven as witness of his love; and Lygia, raising her clear eyes to him, said,—
“And then I shall say, ‘Wherever thou art, Caius, there am I, Caia.’”
“No, Lygia,” cried Vinicius, “I swear to thee that never has woman been so honored in the house of her husband as thou shalt be in mine.”
For a time they walked on in silence, without being able to take in with their breasts their happiness, in love with each other, like two deities, and as beautiful as if spring had given themto the world with the flowers.
They halted at last under the cypress growing near the entrance of the house. Lygia leaned against his breast, and Vinicius began to entreat again with a trembling voice,—”Tell Ursus to go to the house of Aulus for thy furniture and playthings of childhood.”
But she, blushing like a rose or like the dawn, answered,—”Custom commands otherwise.”
“I know that. The pronuba [The matron who accompanies the bride and explains to her the duties of a wife] usually brings them behind the bride, but do this for me. I will take them to my villa in Antium, and they will remind me of thee.”
Here he placed his hands together and repeated, like a child who is begging for something, —”It will be some days before Pomponia returns; so do this, diva, do this, carissima.”
“But Pomponia will do as she likes,” answered Lygia, blushing still more deeply at mention of the pronuba.
And again they were silent, for love had begun to stop the breath in their breasts. Lygia stood with shoulders leaning against the cypress, her face whitening in the shadow, like a flower, her eyes drooping, her bosom heaving with more and more life. Vinicius changed in the face, and grew pale. In the silence of the afternoon they only heard the beating of their hearts, and in their mutual ecstasy that cypress, the myrtle bushes, and the ivy of the summerhouse became for them a paradise of love.
But their happiness is short-lived. Enraged by Marcus’s harsh treatment, Chilo double-crosses Lygia and the Christians, condemning them to endless torture and painful death.
Nero, to gain poetic inspiration, burns Rome, but the Christians are blamed instead. Lygia is imprisoned. From that moment, the tension escalates and the novel enters into suspense territory. Marcus and Petronius do everything in their power to free Lygia. When all fails, Marcus retains his faith in Christ. In some of the most gruesome scenes ever written in fiction, the Christians are killed and eaten alive by wild animals as entertainment in the arena.
Chilo repents, but is brutally killed by Nero’s court, though first forgiven by the man he hurt most. And here Sienkiewicz raises another important issue, that of forgiveness. Do people deserve to be forgiven after generating so much suffering and evil? The answer is not an easy one. After all, forgiveness is a personal matter. Perhaps, the point the Polish writer is trying to make is that it takes tremendous strength and courage to overcome the pain one has inflicted and forgive them.
Marcus is definitely strengthened as a character through his own suffering. He hopes and prays, proving that he possesses, indeed, a lion of a spirit. At this point, when all seems lost, love morphs into a death call which Marcus is more than willing to answer.
But the suffering of Vinicius surpassed human endurance. From the moment that Lygia was imprisoned and the glory of coming martyrdom had fallen on her, not only did he love her a hundred times more, but he began simply to give her in his soul almost religious honor, as he would a superhuman being. And now, at the thought that he must lose this being both loved and holy, that besides death torments might be inflicted on her more terrible than death itself, the blood stiffened in his veins. His soul was turned into one groan, his thoughts were confused. At times it seemed to him that his skull was filled with living fire, which would either burn or burst it. He ceased to understand what was happening; he ceased to understand why Christ, the Merciful, the Divine, did not come with aid to His adherents; why the dingy walls of the Palatine did not sink through the earth, and with them Nero, the Augustians, the pretorian camp, and all that city of crime. He thought that it could not and should not be otherwise; and all that his eyes saw, and because of which his heart was breaking, was a dream. But the roaring of wild beasts informed him that it was reality; the sound of the axes beneath which rose the arena told him that it was reality; the howling of the people and the overfilled prisons confirmed this. Then his faith in Christ was alarmed; and that alarm was a new torture, the most dreadful of all, perhaps.
Marcus and Lygia are an entity to the point where Marcus simply cannot exist without her. He tries all means possible to save her. He pleads, he begs, he speaks to influential people, he offers money. All in vain. When he becomes convinced that Lygia won’t be alive much longer, he bribes his way to her cell. In a scene of incomparable, emotional beauty and poignancy, he stays with her, both of them praying and bound in love. He has already decided that after her death he will declare to everyone that he himself is a Christian, so that they will kill him and thus go to Heaven with her.
For three days, or rather three nights, nothing disturbed their peace. When the usual prison work was finished, which consisted in separating the dead from the living and the grievously sick from those in better health, when the wearied guards had lain down to sleep in the corridors, Vinicius entered Lygia’s dungeon and remained there till daylight. She put her head on his breast, and they talked in low voices of love and of death. In thought and speech, in desires and hopes even, both were removed unconsciously more and more from life, and they lost the sense of it. Both were like people who, having sailed from land in a ship, saw the shore no more, and were sinking gradually into infinity. Both changed by degrees into sad souls in love with each other and with Christ, and ready to fly away. Only at times did pain start up in the heart of Vinicius like a whirlwind, at times there flashed in him like lightning, hope, born of love and faith in the crucified God; but he tore himself away more and more each day from the earth, and yielded to death. In the morning, when he went from the prison, he looked on the world, on the city, on acquaintances, on vital interests, as through a dream. Everything seemed to him strange, distant, vain, fleeting. Even torture ceased to terrify, since one might pass through it while sunk in thought and with eyes fixed on another thing. It seemed to both that eternity had begun to receive them. They conversed of how they would love and live together, but beyond the grave; and if their thoughts returned to the earth at intervals, these were thoughts of people who, setting out on a long journey, speak of preparations for the road. Moreover they were surrounded by such silence as in some desert surrounds two columns far away and forgotten. Their only care was that Christ should not separate them; and as each moment strengthened their conviction that He would not, they loved Him as a link uniting them in endless happiness and peace. While still on earth, the dust of earth fell from them. The soul of each was as pure as a tear. Under terror of death, amid misery and suffering, in that prison den, heaven had begun, for she had taken him by the hand, and, as if saved and a saint, had led him to the source of endless life.
Petronius was astonished at seeing in the face of Vinicius increasing peace and a certain wonderful serenity which he had not noted before. At times even he supposed that Vinicius had found some mode of rescue, and he was piqued because his nephew had not confided his hopes to him. At last, unable to restrain himself, he said,—
“Now thou hast another look; do not keep from me secrets, for I wish and am able to aid thee. Hast thou arranged anything?”
“I have,” said Vinicius; “but thou canst not help me. After her death I will confess that I am a Christian and follow her.”
“Then thou hast no hope?”
“On the contrary, I have. Christ will give her to me, and I shall never be separated from her.”
But Lygia, naked, unconscious and tied upon the back of an auroch inside the arena, is saved at the last moment when Ursus fights against the beast and kills it with his bare hands. Moved by the intense suffering of the couple, the people of Rome take them both under their protection.
The novel ends with Marcus and Lygia living happily married far away from Rome. Nero dies a degrading death and after the passage of centuries Christianity rules over an once debauched city.
Sienkiewicz is clever enough not to fall into the trap of fanaticism, religious blindness or preaching. He’s never absolute in his portrayal of either side. Not all Christians are kind and loving as shows the case of Crispus, a Christian zealot who verges on fanaticism. Not all pagans residing in Rome are dissolute as shows the case of Lygia’s adoptive father, Aulus Plautius, and Nero’s former mistress, Acte. And somewhere in the middle lies the case of Petronius and his former slave turned lover, Eunice, both representing the last good qualities of the old world: beauty and poetry.
In fact, he fell asleep. When he woke, the head of Eunice was lying on his breast like a white flower. He placed it on the pillow to look at it once more. After that his veins were opened again.
At his signal the singers raised the song of Anacreon anew, and the citharæ accompanied them so softly as not to drown a word. Petronius grew paler and paler; but when the last sound had ceased, he turned to his guests again and said,
“Friends, confess that with us perishes—”
But he had not power to finish; his arm with its last movement embraced Eunice, his head fell on the pillow, and he died.
The guests looking at those two white forms, which resembled two wonderful statues, understood well that with them perished all that was left to their world at that time,—poetry and beauty.
Petronius , indeed, represents an interesting philosophy that contrasts both with the Christian worldview and with Stoicism which was prevalent at that time in Rome. As he writes to Marcus,
There are only two philosophers that I care about, Pyrrho and Anacreon. You know what they stand for. The rest, along with the new Greek schools and all the Roman Stoics, you can have for the price of beans. Truth lives somewhere so high that even the gods can’t see it from Olympus.
Petronius stands for beauty, aesthetics and harmony in a world that devours its own flesh most horribly. And it is exactly this type of philosophy that enables him to face his death with a quiet dignity.
The existence of various philosophies, ideologies and cultures paints Quo Vadis with so much brightness.
If one asked me what is the purpose of literature, I’d reply that it is to move and shake up the reader. Quo Vadis definitely managed to do that. For me, the novel’s originality doesn’t stem from its plot or rich world-building. For me, the originality stems from the excellent exploration of the human soul and the enormous pathos that comes with it.
Quo Vadis is a novel that appeals to the heart. It touches and inspires in most unexpected ways. It’s a profound study on love, strength, faith, spirituality, personal growth, forgiveness and human endurance.
There are many beautiful parts in the novel, but the one who stood out for me, besides the scene with Marcus and Lygia in the prison, is when Marcus talks to Petronius about Lygia after their marriage.
Because I love her immortal soul, and because we both love each other in Christ; for such love there is no separation, no deceit, no change, no old age, no death. For, when youth and beauty pass, when our bodies wither and death comes, love will remain, for the spirit remains.
If that is not a frank and deep emotion that humbles and inspires, then I don’t know what it is.
So, for those of you who haven’t read Quo Vadis, grab a copy and sink your teeth in the book. If not for anything else, the novel presents one of the most fiery and heartening love stories ever written in the history of literature. And in a time like ours where people are so consumed with their own interests and personal gain, we have the need to read such stories even more.