on May 26, 2003
The Christian v. lion's story has been around so long that it has pretty much become a kind of myth. It is a phrase one brings up in order to illustrate some point or other, but is hardly ever thought about in historical terms. In fact, Christianity itself sometimes seems as if it is becoming a kind of myth. The left doesn't take it seriously, and bashes Christians for being intolerant and condescending. But Christians, in their haste to retaliate, often act intolerant and can be arrogantly condescending. The sense of what it means to be Christian seems to get lost in all of this.
Quo Vadis takes us back to the days when Christianity was fresh and new and shows us just what kind of world it was then that caused such a movement to flourish. This alone would make it an excellent novel, but it works wonderfully on all levels. The characters are superbly drawn, the setting is realistic, the plot crackles along, and, perhaps most importantly in a novel with this subject matter, it never becomes preachy or didactic, instead maintaining an objective perspective throughout.
Rome was the greatest of the ancient empires, yet despite all of its glorious achievements, it was truly a barbaric place. The concept of human rights was non-existent. Slaves--of all races--were property, and could be used in any way one saw fit, including the most vicious or depraved. The rule of law, while discussed in philosophical terms, was only sporadically and occasionally applied. The law instead came and went at the whim of the powerful, and if the powerful happened to be someone like Nero--the ruler of Rome during the course of this novel--then the law was sadistic, cruel, wicked and unpredictable.
We see the effect that living this kind of society has on the two main characters of the novel, both of whom are members of the upper crust: Petronius, a courtier; and Vinicius, a military officer. Petronius, as Nero's confidant, can never let his guard down. He must flatter, cajole, deceive and manipulate Nero every minute of the day, for his very life depends on it. It is a life, "drained and listless and detached," as we are told in the first sentence of the novel. Vinicius falls in love with a captive Christian female, and through his love we see how Christianity changes his life. But it is an unbelievably difficult and dangerous undertaking--with the demented presence of Nero and his sycophants looming over everything--to form an attachment with a person and then a cause such as this.
It gradually dawns on us how the Christian movement began in the first place, and why attempts were made so mercilessly to stamp it out. Instead of dishonesty and cruelty, it called for honesty and kindness. Instead of privilege for the elite, its promises were made to all. Instead of arrogance, it preached submissiveness. Perhaps most importantly, it simplified one's life, and allowed one to live without fear.
Rome is burned, possibly at Nero's orders, incredibly, so that he can experience suffering as he believes a true artist must. To divert the anger of the Romans, he blames Christians. Thousands of men, women, and children are rounded up, put in dungeons for months, then on successive festival days were crucified, burned alive, mauled by gladiators, and, as we know, attacked by wild animals. Their fate is so hideous that in time even the jaded Romans became sickened by it.
These historical events, and the actions of the characters during them, are what make up the bulk of the novel. To say the least, it makes for very compelling reading; indeed, some parts are difficult to bear. And as mentioned, it is presented in a very objective way. Not all of the Christians are presented sympathetically--one, in fact, is a fiery, all-will-be-damned type--and not all the Romans are presented harshly. The noblest character in the novel may very well be Petronius, who uses his influence as much as he can to alleviate the suffering he sees around him. And although he recognizes to some degree the power and decency of the movement, he himself does not wish to become a Christian. He can not abide the idea of being required to love his fellow man, most of whom--the unwashed, ignorant mob--he detests. He is a magnificent creation.
The book is a real eye-opener, a good reminder of what the world was like before the birth of Christ, and a sobering reflection on what being a Christian truly means. At the same time it is also a superbly researched and entertaining piece of historical fiction, and the kind of thing for which historical fiction buffs are constantly on the alert. Great stuff.
(I should mention that this review is of the Kunizak translation.)
on November 13, 2002
This novel has ideas, romance, violence, adventure, mysticism, and politics, so it can't be boring even if some reviewers complain about its slow start. Set in the middle of Nero's tenure in power, in the First century AD, it tells the story of Vinitius, a Roman military officer from a Patricious family with good standing at the court. He has the friendship and protection of Petronius, the Arbiter of Elegancy, a sensual, rich and cultivated man with much influence in court. Vinitius falls in love with the beautiful slave Ligia, who is a Christian living with a Roman Patricious family also converted to Christianity. Through his obsession with her, he gradually discovers the new religion and realizes the moral pit in which his culture has been decaying. Then Nero sets Rome on fire and Vinitius finds out that he'll have to rebel against the State in order to gain love. He is baptized and suffers persecution. Then he has to rescue his beloved from the Colliseum, just when she's going to be throwed in to the lions. The end is mystical and completely beautiful, and that's when you understand the title, which means "Where are you going, my Lord?", and is pronounced by St. Peter as he is fleeing Rome.
A very entertaining and rewarding novel, it is also a fictional testimony of the early years of Christendom. My favorite character is Petronius, a liberal, magnanimous and "cool" Pagan Roman who finds disgrace for protecting those he loves. very recommended.
on August 18, 2002
When one of the Italian volcanoes erupted in the hey day of the Roman Empire, a Roman Centurian was caught and suffocated in the ash. In the subsequent conflagration, his corpse remained remarkably preserved.
Despite his height and weight, obviously being quite smaller than us, the presence of muscular tone and apparent physical strength is both startling and revealing. National Geographic did an extraordinary photo-essay on this about 15 years ago.
Needless to say, these men and women were at least physically the same as us 2000 years later.
Sienkiewicz describes for us the debauchery of ancient Rome under the aegis of Emperor Nero and the blossoming of Christianity.
The dialogue of the early Christians is, while not disturbing, distracting. By example, Stephen Pressfield's dialogue between Leonidis and the emissaries of Xerxes in Gates of Fire is wholly conjectural. Likewise, Vinicius' coversations with Paul of Tarsus and Peter are also guesswork.
Yet, this is a brilliant story of societal conflict, love and treason. One is reminded of some of the correspondence between Lord Acton and the Pope of Rome hundreds of years later. Acton wrote, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
And the backdrop of this remarkable love story between a Christian Princess and one of the battle weary Tribunes of Rome is one of total immorality and corruption.
Additionally, we get to read a novel over a 100 years old. The first printing of Quo Vadis is in 1896 so we see a great historical romance in a style a century old. No quips here. No witty remarks between Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. It's hard times with Super Bowl-like events in the Coliseum where the losers get eaten.
It's great read. You really can't go wrong with one of the first "best sellers" ever written. A little PG-13 caveat. It is quite gory.
on March 1, 2002
Sienkeiwicz weaves a masterful tale of early Christian experience during the reign of the Emperor Nero. While the facts relating to this novel are wrapped around a love story, this novel is really a witness to the power of conversion to Christ; particularly when such a conversion could easily meet with death.
Sts. Peter and Paul appear as characters in this novel. The author's attention to detail is obvious from the very beginning. He makes the depravity of Nero come to life without making an obvious gross caricature of the man. I found the author's portrayal of the Augustan court in a time when Rome is ruled by a tyrant who has obvious self-control and self-esteem issues quite fascinating.
In sum, this novel is a great bit of historical fiction. The story flows quite naturally and does not diverge into several "hard to follow" story lines. Rather, Sienkiewicz keeps the reader enthralled from beginning to end with this witness to Christian faith. This novel is, in short, inspiring.
on August 28, 2001
The battle between good and evil underlies the stories of the greatest works of world literature. This conflict is implicit, if not explicit, in almost every literary work of considerable merit. While in Goethe's "Faust", the two opposing forces are represented through Mephistophiles and God Himself, in "The Brothers Karamazov" by Dostoevesky, the conflict takes place within the soul of Ivan Karamazov. However the central theme of neither is the conflict between good and evil itself. Of the novels of the 19th century, the one which deals with this conflict itself as its main concern is "Quo Vadis". It is a novel set in the reign of the Roman emperor Nero-the period which marked the begining of the decadence & fall of the Roman empire. However, "Quo Vadis" is not just a historical novel depicting the tortured rise of Christianity and the staggering decadence of the Romans. To understand a novel, it must be judged in terms of its abstract meaning - the aspect of universality, the metaphysical value judgements it propounds; the timeless and fundamental problems of human existence it deals with. If a novel projects a certain fundamental view of man and of life; concerns itself with human values, purposes, goals, passions and emotions (which are changeless) it can never become outdated. It is from this point of view that "Quo Vadis" has been and shall remain relevant for all ages to come. In purely abstract terms its theme is, 'the conflict between good and evil', presented in terms of the following questions: which is more powerful?, which shall ultimately triumph? The crux of the novel lies in the dilemma of Peter: Why did Jesus choose Rome - the centre of wealth, power and corruption, drowned in debauchery and immorality - as the place to lay the foundation of the Christian faith? "Quo Vadis" tells us:- 1. Integrity-unflinching devotion to one's ideal-will ultimately reap its fruits. The good, in itself, is indestructible. 2. The evil, in itself is impotent; it shall ultimately perish. 3. Immoral means can never achieve a moral end. 4. By pandering to evil, the essentially noble soul only makes itself a victim of evil, not a winner over it. These value judgements, clearly apply to all men, at all times, all over the world. In a world where the evil seems to be pulverising the good, this novel claims: "The Good shall prevail". At a concrete level, the theme is: "The tortured but exalted rise of Christianity in the decadent and evil world of Rome". The plot-theme is :"The agonized spiritual journey of a typical Roman towards the understanding, acceptance and internalization of Christianity." The Christians represent the Good-an entirely new moral order that seeks to change the world; the Romans represent the Evil-unconcerned with morality. As a part of the background Nero symbolizes evil, Peter symbolizes the good, while the battleground of good and evil is Rome itself. As a part of the central plot, Ligia symbolizes the Christian virtues, Petronius symbolizes the Roman decadence, while the battleground of good(the Christian attitude) and evil(the Roman attitude) is the soul of the hero, Vinicius. The central plot moves and is moved by the background in a manner rarely matched in world literature-the integration of plot and theme is simply perfect. Every action of every character, and every event follows from the characters' values(or moral premises)or quest for values or moral conflicts; dramatizes it and furthers it towards the achievement of those values or resolution of those conflicts, forming a logically determined plot structure. Every event dramatises the spiritual state or development of the characters and every step in the spiritual development of the characters is dramatised. There is a direct analogy between the trials and tribulations of the Christian faith and the complete internalisation of the Christian faith by Vinicius and his quest for attaining Ligia. Another striking feature of the novel is the way in which Sienkiewicz has portrayed an era 2000 years old. One would think - "He must've seen all this with his own eyes!!" The vividness of his descriptions matches (perhaps surpasses, in terms of colour and vitality) the level of Tolstoy in "War and Peace". I suppose Kuniczak's brilliant translation has enhanced this aspect significantly. There is, however, a minor flaw - many readers may find the first half of the novel rather slow, since it over-elaborately concentrates on Vinicius' psychological development. At the end one is awestruck by the overwhelming merits of the novel - a superlative sense of drama; a wonderfully handled plot structure; the fact that that the power to chose one's actions in full focus of ones values has been given to man; that integrity, endurance and moral courage have been glorified; that love has been projected as a response to another's moral values and virtues, integrating the soul and the body; the fact that the basic premise is that the world is a place where the good shall ultimately triumph over the evil and the fact that man has been projected as being capable of achieving supreme joy and spiritual fulfilment. The above view has been given in reference to the hardcover version of W. S. Kuniczak's translation of "Quo Vadis?"
on June 8, 2001
I must confess that I started reading this book only after having enjoyed the film "Gladiator"...the book starts off slow but I promise, once you settle into the story,this novel will draw you in with it's vivid descriptions of the melting pot that was Rome...the heart of the story is romantic, the love of a Roman for a Christian girl...the main character goes through a touching transformation, which made me think of the soul alot...and the porttait of early christianity is very moving...I've since drifted from this faith, but the book reminded me that Christianity also had it's past full of sufferings-a fact I overlook from the comforts of my home...it shows early christianity, persecuted, hidden and striving-even with men of different temperaments-there is a hell fire preacher who annoys, another like Peter who speaks of Love...i found the modern translation very appealing- I once tried this novel in it's more archaic language and found myself quickly bored....this modern translation drew me in and has some beautiful expressions found throughout...my favorite character was Petronius, an endearing pagan Roman who delights only in the beautiful but has a heart enough to risk his own life for those he loves...he is sarcastic and witty and his influence over Nero borders on the humorous....great historical novel, perhpas one of the best I've ever read..if any customers out there don't seem to get enough of the film "Gladiator", please read this book...you will not be disapointed!!!
on November 18, 2000
I had honestly never heard of Nobel Laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz--though I was aware of the title of this novel--until I picked up an interesting looking book at the Dartmouth Bookstore one day. It had a cover painting of a Cossack or someone wielding a saber and an introduction by James Michener. Either Michener or a cover blurb referred to the book, With Fire and Sword, as the great novel of Poland. So I figured what the hey, and I bought it. Well, suffice it to say, Henryk Sienkiewicz is now one of my all-time favorite authors.
Basically, Sienkiewicz was a victim of a trap that I had never previously given much thought to; he simply had no great modern translator to render his work accessible to us. With Fire and Sword and the volumes that followed it to form a trilogy had not been translated into English since Jeremiah Curtin, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, did so on their publication. Though there appears to be some scholarly dispute about the quality of Curtin's work, I tried reading reading his translation of the middle volume, The Deluge, because the new translation is almost impossible to find, and I have to say that as desperately as I wanted to read it, I could not get into the flow of his text. The Polish names make for tough sledding anyway, but combined with his fairly archaic English, I just couldn't take it.
Quo Vadis? has actually remained more popular over the years, in fact it is one of the best selling novels of all time, so there have been decent translations available all along, but you really should seek out the W. S. Kuniczak version if you can find it. Kuniczak, himself a novelist, devoted at least six years to updating Sienkiewicz's Trilogy and his dedication to the author's work paid off brilliantly. Though still recognizably written in the style and language of a hundred years ago, the books now read with a much more natural flow. His background as a novelist seems to have served him well, because rather than reading like someone converted Polish to English verbatim, they read like an English retelling of the Polish tale. That obviously could be cause for concern to folks who have a thorough grounding in the original, particularly if he took great license with the author's work, but as a reader, all I really care about is that his versions are terrific books.
The novel--which will particularly appeal to anyone who enjoyed Ben-Hur (see Orrin's review) or The Robe--is set in Nero's Rome and is built around the stark contrast between the voluptuary decadent Romans and the ascetic Christians. Vinitius is a patrician in good standing at Nero's court until he falls in love with the Christian girl Ligia. At first somewhat reluctantly, but then with gathering fervor, Vinitius is drawn out of the moral depths of his prior life and himself becomes a Christian. By the time that Nero burns down Rome and blames the Christians, Vinitius has become a believer and is prepared to sacrifice his position and even his life to save Ligia from the Coliseum and the Games where Nero sacrifices Christians to distract the restless populace of Rome.
In addition to Bread and Circuses and the romantic tale, there are scenes of surpassing beauty centered on Christian faith. One such is Vinitius's baptism scene; after he tries futilely to convince the Apostle Peter to flee to Sicily with him and Ligia, Peter responds:
"The Lord will bless you for your kind heart and noble feeling, but you do not realize that the Master Himself thrice repeated to me the words, 'Feed my sheep.'"
Vinitius became silent not knowing what to respond.
Peter continued, "I cannot leave my flock in the day of disaster. When there was a storm on the lake and we were all terrified in the boat, the Lord did not desert us. Why should I, His servant, desert my flock, those whom He has given me?"
Then Linus raised up his emaciated head and said weakly, "O Peter, Christ's appointed shepherd, why should I not follow your example?"
Vinitius rubbed his forehead as if struggling with his thoughts, then taking Ligia by the hand spoke to all present: "Hear me, Peter, Linus and you, Ligia. I only spoke as my own human intellect dictated. However all of you reason according to Christ and His teaching. I don't fully understand that yet and my inclination and my thinking is still different from yours. But since I love Christ and want to be His servant, I here kneel before you and swear to you that I too will not leave my brethren in the days of trouble." Then he raised his eyes and with religious fervor exclaimed, "Do I understand You at last, O Christ? Am I now worthy of You?"
His hands trembled, his eyes glistened with tears, his whole body shook with faith and love. Peter took an earthen vessel filled with water and, pouring the water over the head of Vinitius said solemnly, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen."
Another such scene explains the title of the book. "Quo Vadis?", means "where are you going?" and derives from a New Testament verse (John 13:36). As Sienkiewicz renders it, Peter is finally leaving Rome, at the behest of Paul and the remaining Christians, when:
Suddenly, up ahead a vision struck the eyes of the Apostle. It seemed to him that the golden circle of the sun, instead of rising in the sky, moved down from the heights and was advancing on the road toward them. Peter stopped and asked Nazarius, "Do you see the brightness up ahead approaching us?"
"I See nothing," replied Nazarius.
Peter shaded his eyes with one hand and said after a while, "Someone is coming toward us amid the gleam of the sun."
But no approaching footsteps could be heard. All was quiet around them. Nazarius however noticed that the trees were quivering in the distance as if someone was shaking them. The light too was spreading in a broad vista over the plain. He looked in amazement at the Apostle.
"Teacher, what is the matter?" he cried out in alarm.
The staff fell from Peter's hand to the ground. He stood motionless looking intently ahead of him; his mouth was open; on his face Nazarius could see surprise and rapture.
Then Peter threw himself on his knees, his arms outstretched and cried out, "O Christ! O Christ!" He prostrated himself kissing someone's feet.
The silence continued long. Then the words of Peter could be heard by Nazarius, with mingled sobs coming from the old fisherman, "Quo Vadis, Domine?" (Where are You going, Lord?)
Nazarius did not hear the answer but to Peter's ears came a sad but sweet voice saying, "When you desert my people, I am going back to Rome to be crucified a second time."
The Apostle lay on the ground, his face in the dust without motion or speech. It seemed to Nazarius that he might have fainted or even died, but he finally rose, picked up his staff with trembling hands and without a word turned back towards Rome.
The boy, seeing this, asked, "Quo vadis, domine?" (Where are you going, sir?)
"To Rome," answered the Apostle in a low voice. And he returned.
It is sequences like this that make this not merely an action packed historical melodrama but also a genuine novel of ideas. At the core of the story lies the miracle of how an obscure religion embraced by the people at the very fringes of this society, literally hiding in catacombs to escape persecution, could rise up, conquer the Empire and reshape the world. On either plane, the physical or the metaphysical, thifind the rest of Sienkiewicz's works is an exciting story and is sure to send you scurrying to.
on January 27, 2000
Given that Mr Sienkiewicz won the Nobel literary prize for mainly this work, that alone is a pretty good bet for reading it. Written in the 1890's, this book is seen as one of the world's first "bestseller" novels, and is definitely an epic of, well, epic proportions.
Unfortunately, the book does suffer slightly as a result of the translation, as noted by an earlier reviewer, so if you can read Polish, do get the original version. Nevertheless, although the book starts off a tad slow, think of the beginning as a push off from a cliff, because after that it's as fast paced a thriller as money can buy.
A basic exposure to Roman and Christian history will make the book really come alive. Although certain "facts" are not correct, or have been omitted, remember that the book is meant to be fiction. The historical events are merely a platform for a passionate love story between a pagan Roman and a Christian girl. However, it is the seeming impossibility of this love, together with descriptions of the nearly moronic Roman "royal court", keeps you reading well into the night. The emotional roller-coaster makes you, the reader, feel exhausted.
Definitely recommended, and one of the most enjoyable books I've read.
If you liked this, do check out his other novels - especially the brilliant "Teutonic Knights" which is another epic of a young Polish knight (and of course a lovely maiden or two thrown in for good measure) and the history of middle ages Poland up to the battle of Grunwald where the Teutonic Knights were defeated.
on July 16, 2004
Quo Vadis is one of my favorite all-time novels. Quo Vadis is interesting and worthwhile for many reasons - in describing the activities and lives of early Christians, in detailing the gradual conversion of a Roman patrician to Christianity (and, thus, describing plainly some of the principles important to Christians), in illustrating the history, activities and "mindset" of Rome and her citizens during the reign of Nero and in describing the upbringing and reign of Nero himself. It is beautifully and clearly written. I sought out this book after reading about it in Ayn Rand's "The Art of Fiction" in which she says "...I consider "Quo Vadis", technically, <to be> one of the best-constructed novels ever written..." (p. 16). I agree with her short analysis of this book: It was easy to follow the plot and all of the many details as they were being built while, at the same time, not appearing "simplistic".
on March 28, 2003
Having been a huge fan of Robert Graves' I Claudius and Claudius the God, I was always sad that Graves did not write a sequel to highlight the reign of the last Augustan ruler. Many times reading Quo Vadis, I felt like this was that book. It does give a good insight to the decadence of Nero's reign along with some references to his predecessors. It also clarified some often-misrepresented assumptions like all gladiatorial competitions taking place in the Colosseum. We learn that Nero pre-dated the Colosseum and in fact, the battles were staged in a large "wooden" arena.
Some of the action has some good vivid descriptions such as the burning of Rome and some of the gladiatorial fights. The book also gives a glimpse at what Christianity could have been. We see how the disciples Peter and Paul worshipped their religion in a way that is totally unlike anything today.
The characters are excellent and the book never gets boring.