Saturday, March 26, 2016

Quo Vadis: a Tale of the Time of Nero by Henryk Sienkiewicz | Book Review

I recently finished reading Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis: a Tale of the Time of Nero, translated by S.A. Binion and S. Malevsky. This book was one of the “big titles” on my reading list for this year, so I am pretty excited to have completed it already. Quo Vadis is a historical novel based in part on the apocryphal Acts of Peter. In order to write this novel, Sienkiewicz did extensive research on Rome and includes several historical figures in his book including the emperor Nero, Gaius Petronius the “arbiter of elegance”, Tigellinus the prefect of the feared Praetorian Guard, and of course the Apostles Peter and Paul. The novel takes place in 64 A.D. during the time when Nero’s insanity reached its peak and after killing his mother and sister, he burns down the city of Rome and then blames the Christians for the decimation and consequently begins to persecute them, featuring them in his violent games.

Quo Vadis was originally written in Polish and published in installments in a paper in 1895. It was published in book form a year later and is now available in over 50 different languages. The widespread publication and translation of Quo Vadis gained Sienkiewicz international renown which led to his winning the Nobel Prize in literature in 1905. This novel was also made into an Italian silent film in 1924 and was later made into a major motion American film in 1951. The movie was highly successful and popular during the time, a box office success.

The story begins with the fictional character of Marcus Vinicius (fictional), a military tribune and Roman Patrician as well as the nephew of Gaius Petronius. Vinicius encounters a Lygian hostage princess nicknamed “Lygia” (fictional) in the household of Aulus Plautius (historical) and Pomponia Graecina (historical) and immediately falls madly in love with her. Lygia is a hostage and while she has grown up her whole life and lives in the household of Aulus Plautius as their own daughter, she technically belongs to the state. Vinicius goes to great lengths to pursue her, eliciting the help of his uncle Petronius who petitions Caesar to give Lygia to Vinicius. Vinicius' plans go awry when Lygia, opposed to marrying Vinicius, escapes with her Lygian slave, Ursus, in order to flee from Vinicius and Caesar's house.

Later with the help of the fictitious character Chilon Chilonides, a philosophical private investigator who later turns out to be a double-crossing coward, Vinicius discovers Lygia is part of the Christian sect and it is not circumstances as much as it is her faith that stands in the way of a union between them. According to historical accounts, Pomponia was a member of some superstitious sect and while it was never confirmed that she was a Christian, it was suspected. In Quo Vadis Pomponia is the one who teaches Lygia about Christianity, the Scriptures, and the epistles of Peter and Paul.

After failed attempts to retrieve Lygia, Vinicius finds himself among the Christians he hates—hates because he believes they are responsible for keeping Lygia from him. In time he realizes that Lygia loves him as well but she refuses to act on her feelings because there is someone she loves more, her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Through the persistent ministry of the Apostles Peter and Paul, Vinicius eventually comes to believe in Jesus Christ as well, though his conversion is slow in the coming. Vinicius’ conversion was one of my favorite parts of the whole book, because it was realistically gradual while at the same time appropriately spiritually chaotic.

My favorite character in this novel was Petronius the "arbiter of elegance" and Vinicius' uncle. He is perhaps the most complex and fascinating character in Sienkiewicz’s novel. Petronius is highly knowledgeable in the arts, and proficient in appeasing and even impressing the insane emperor of Rome. Nero has a taste for the arts and a talent for poetry and song; at least he thinks he does. Petronius feeds Nero’s narcissism by giving him artistic criticism and critiquing his performances, though his opinions are always served with a large dose of subtle and cleverly crafted flattery. Petronius is cunning in maintaining his favor of the unpredictable emperor and is the envy of many other councilors in the court vying for Nero’s approval.

Petronius only ever falters when the safety and happiness of his nephew, Marcus Vinicius, is jeopardized. And this is when I really began to like his character. Instead of seeking his own, Petronius tries to protect Vinicius from Nero, as he knows his nephew is a Christian. Petronius is familiar with Christianity and its teachings as he hosts the Apostle Paul for an extended period of time shortly after Vinicius is converted and is seeking to learn more about the Scriptures and Christ. Petronius knows the fearful rumors circulating Rome concerning the Christians are false and that they are not responsible for the destruction of Rome. However, he never converts to Christianity himself though he respects and esteems his nephew's convictions.

One of my favorite parts in the book is in the last chapter shortly after Petronius falls out of Nero’s favor and realizes Nero seeks to kill him. Instead of giving Nero the satisfaction of punishing him, Petronius kills himself first, but not before he hosts a feast for several of his closer acquaintances and recites a letter written by himself to Nero containing his true feelings concerning Nero and his songs and poems.

“Pray do not think that my feelings were hurt, because thou didst burn Rome, and send to Erebus all the honest men in thy Empire. No, grandson of Chronos, death is the common doom of humanity, and one could expect nothing else from thee. But, to lacerate my ears for long years to come with thy singing, to see thy mountebank legs contorted in the Pyrrhean dance, to listen to thy playing, they declamation, thy poems, oh, wretched Suburban versifier, would be too much for my strength, and has aroused in me a wish to die” (Sienkiewicz, 508).

This is by far the greatest blow Petronius could inflict upon Nero and he does so with his usual flare of sarcasm and satire.

Admittedly, parts of this book were difficult for me to read. Sienkiewicz’s writing style is highly detailed and descriptive and he does not mince words when depicting Nero’s violent games and the persecution of the Christian saints. If anything he makes the violence sensational in a way that was almost overwhelming for me. I would be interested in hearing other opinions about violence in books, movies, and entertainment in general. I am really sensitive to violence, but I also believe that sometimes it is appropriate though it should never be glorified and enjoyed for its own sake. 

I also could not help but be slightly annoyed with Sienkiewicz's depictions of St. Peter and St. Paul, both who, as you can see, I am accustomed to calling apostles not saints, even though I know they were saints, as all Christians are. I am Reformed Protestant and Sienkiewicz was a Roman Catholic, so it is kind of obvious where we defer in terms of the authority of the apostles, especially of Peter. I could not help but feel that Peter's sermons in Quo Vadis were entirely uncharacteristic of any recorded sermon the Apostles preached in the Bible. For instance, in Quo Vadis, Peter never quotes the Scriptures—and by Scriptures I mean the Old Testament since those were all the recorded Scriptures the Apostles had at the time—when preaching (Acts 2:14-41). Instead, he simply narrates about his experiences with Christ before his Savior's crucifixion. I also took issue with the way Paul constantly refers to Peter as his “superior” since I cannot reference a single time Paul refers to Peter as his superior in the Bible.

And then my blood started to boil right around the time when Vinicius and Lygia go on and on about how they will be married in Heaven, if not in this life! I got the sensation that, to some extent, Christ was a means to an end more than the focus of their desire. I believe Christ specifically said, “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). I wish Sienkiewicz had researched God’s Word as much as he researched the history of Rome to write this novel, but then again it could be surmised that Vinicius and Lygia simply do not know this concerning the resurrection since they are both rather new and young Christians. Overall, I enjoyed this book and believe it is a worthwhile read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction and incredible literature. Speaking of which, this novel is in the public domain and there is an ebook of it on Google Books as well as a free audiobook on https://librivox.org/.


If you have read this book, I would love for you to weigh in with your opinion and thoughts! Have you ever read Quo Vadis or seen the movie?

4 comments :

  1. Enjoyed your review, Dani! I watched the movie many years ago and enjoyed it (though now it is quite vague in my memory). I've never read the book.

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    1. Thank you, Bethany! I only still have vague memories of the movie as well...it's been a while. The book is definitely a worthwhile read, beautiful language, very dramatic, and immersed in rich history. :)

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  2. I read this novel in Polish many years ago and I really enjoyed it. Out of three film adaptations ( American, Italian and Polish ) the one with Peter Ustinov as Nero is head and shoulders above the rest. As far as I know there are three translations of Quo Vadis into English ( Curtin's - the worst; Binion's - which I have yet to read and Kuniczak's which is the most modern but I don't know how faithful it is, because I read that the translator omitted parts of the text.
    As for this review, I enjoyed reading it and that's why decided to write this comment.

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  3. How fantastic you were able to read it in Polish! I enjoyed Binion's translation but I would love to compare it to the original. As for film adaptations I have only seen Hollywood's rendition from the 1950s and that was years and years ago. I should look into watching it again soon along with the others.

    Thanks k you for stopping by my blog!

    Dani xoxo

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