BY DANIEL T. GOMES
You may have watched the motion picture, but have you even heard of the book? Quo Vadis, one of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s most appraised novels, is a tour de force that will take you back to Nero’s Rome, in a magnificent story where love and faith triumph even over the Emperor’s madness.
The Polish author and Nobel Prize laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz tells us the story of Vinicius, a Roman tribune, and Lygia, a Christian servant of Roman patricians. Upon returning to Rome, Vinicius meets Lygia and falls in love with her immediately, which leads to a perilous series of events that will put the tribune’s feelings to the test. In this series of events, Vinicius discovers the Christian faith and becomes a believer, and his bond with Lygia grows even stronger. Nevertheless, Nero has Rome set ablaze and blames the Christians for it, resulting in a chaotic and bloody persecution of Christians. It’s needless to say that the consequences are just as nefarious as the act itself. Vinicius is forced to use every bit of power and influence he has in order to save Lygia and himself, and even this carries its sacrifices.
Quo Vadis is a remarkable example of Sienkiewicz’s skill as an historical novelist. Fiction and reality mesh together in such a way as to make it extremely difficult to tell which characters are fictional and which ones are historical. The author’s portrayal of characters like Nero and Gaius Petronius is a deep, faithful one; they’re not merely plastered in the work in order to fulfill empty gaps. These are complex, human characters that feel true to their historical persons, depicted in accordance with the historical setting of the novel.
Another proof of the author’s ability as a novelist is the progression of a given character’s arc. Although the characters may not always act reasonably (Nero being an obvious example), they do not betray themselves. Quo Vadis’ characters always behave according to their nature and status, making their development throughout the story seem all the more genuine. From small adaptations to life-changing transformations, a character’s arc never seems too unreasonable in this novel. A marvelous example of this would be Vinicius’ gradual conversion to Christianity: he believes and accepts Christ as his Lord and Savior, but being incipient in the Christian faith and its teachings, his mentality remains inured to his Roman education and military experience. Thus we witness a vicious internal struggle in Vinicius, whose natural impatience and pride often get the best of him, even as he seeks to embrace the Christian principles of humility and temperance.
Despite the movie’s influence, Quo Vadis has the power to stand on its own as a riveting work of historical fiction – arguably one of the best we have addressed in this magazine. Its wit and charm will have you stuck from the moment you pick up the book, and its twisting plot will have you hooked until you’re finished reading. It would have been remiss to dedicate our tenth issue to historical works and leave out such a laudable work from an equally meriting author. Read it for yourself; delve into this novel and allow it to consume your being – and you too will see that there is more to this love story than meets the eye.
Ichthus: Christian Symbols in Quo Vadis
The fish is a well-known symbol for Christians. You’ve probably seen it displayed in the trunk of cars; if that is the case, then you’ve probably asked yourself also, “Why a fish?” or “What is it supposed to mean?”
Its meaning is interwoven with its roots, the fish having been used as a mark of Christianity for almost as long as Christianity itself. The word “fish” in Greek is ichthus (or ichthys), adopted by Christians as an acronym: “Iesous Christos, Theou Uios, Soter,” or “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” It was used by Christians due to its innocuous nature – the cross being a much more conspicuous sign of Christianity – and found great popularity in times of dire persecution.
As such, the symbol features prominently in Quo Vadis, but it is not the only instance of Christian symbolism in the novel. After all, the title itself is a reference to the Acts of Peter, an apocryphal book where Peter, fleeing Rome, asks a returning Christ the famous question, “Quo vadis, Domine?” (“Where dost thou go, Lord?”), to which Christ replies that He goes to Rome to be crucified, this time in Peter’s place; upon hearing this, Peter goes back to Rome and meets his fate. This episode is featured at the end of Sienkiewicz’s novel – a novel that counts with the presence of not only Peter, but the Apostle Paul as well.
About the Author:
Daniel T. Gomes is a graphic designer and content writer from Lisbon, Portugal. He currently serves as Biblion’s Assistant Editor, having played a crucial role in the magazine since its inception. He is also a self-published author and one of the hosts of the biweekly Broklahomies Podcast.