Quo Vadis (novel)

Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, commonly known as Quo Vadis, is a historical novel written by Henryk Sienkiewicz in Polish.[1] "Quo vadis, Domine?" is Latin for "Where are you going, Lord?" and appears in Chapter 69 of the novel[2] in a retelling of a story from the apocryphal Acts of Peter, in which Peter flees Rome but on his way meets Jesus and asks him why he is going to Rome. Jesus says, "If thou desertest my people, I am going to Rome to be crucified a second time", which shames Peter into going back to Rome to accept martyrdom.

Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero
AuthorHenryk Sienkiewicz
Original titleQuo vadis. Powieść z czasów Nerona
TranslatorJeremiah Curtin
W. S. Kuniczak
GenreHistorical novel
PublisherPolish dailies (in serial) and Little, Brown (Eng. trans. book form)
Publication date
Media typePrint (Newspaper, Hardback and Paperback)

The novel Quo Vadis tells of a love that develops between a young Christian woman, Lycia (Ligia in Polish) and Marcus Vinicius, a Roman patrician. It takes place in the city of Rome under the rule of emperor Nero, c. AD 64.

Sienkiewicz studied the Roman Empire extensively before writing the novel, with the aim of getting historical details correct. Consequently, several historical figures appear in the book. As a whole, the novel carries a pro-Christian message.[3][4][5]

It was first published in installments in the Gazeta Polska between 26 March 1895 and 29 February 1896,[6][7] as well as in two other journals, Czas and Dziennik Poznański, starting two and three days later.[8][9] It came out in book form in 1896 and has been translated into more than 50 languages. The novel contributed to Sienkiewicz's Nobel Prize for literature in 1905.[10]

Several movies have been based on Quo Vadis, including two Italian silent films in 1913 and in 1924, a Hollywood production in 1951, a 1985 miniseries directed by Franco Rossi, and a 2001 adaptation by Jerzy Kawalerowicz.


The handsome but brutal tribune M. Vinicius, returning to Rome from service in the east, falls in love with "Lygia", a hostage daughter of the Lygian king, who is being raised in the house of Aulus Plautius (a general of British fame), and his wife Pomponia Graecina, who is secretly a Christian. Petronius uses his influence with Nero to have Lygia seized from the Plautius' and given to Vinicius; but the plan misfires when Caesar, during her brief custody on the Palatine (in which she meets Acte), invites her to a riotous feast, where Lygia, inculcated with Christianity by Pomponia Graecina, is horrified by Vinicius' drunken advances, and the degeneracy of the Roman court. She commands Ursus (her Lygian bodyguard, and also a convert) to organize a band of Christians to waylay her chariot while she is being conveyed the following day from the Palatine to Vinicius' house; the plan succeeds, and Lygia disappears.

Vinicius is now driven to distraction with the thwarting of his obsessive desire; Petronius, taking pity on him, secures him the services of the cadging Greek philosopher Chilo Chilonis; from the sign of a fish which Lygia had drawn Vinicius in the house of Plautius Chilo discovers that Lygia is Christian; and since a vigilant watch on the gates has revealed that she is still in the city, Chilo undertakes to disguise as a Christian to worm out the secret of her hiding-place. Hope revives when Chilo recognizes Ursus in Urban, a common Christian laborer. When he learns that the entire Christian community in the city is to meet at night in Ostrienum outside the city walls, to hear Peter the Apostle (lately arrived from Galilee), Vinicius insists on accompanying Chilo to the event in disguise, hoping to see Lygia; although momentarily impressed by Peter's recollections of Christ, Vinicius forgets all when he spots Lygia in the crowd; together with Chilo and the powerful athlete Croton, originally brought along in case of danger, he follows Lygia and Ursus from the meeting to a plebian insula in the trans-Tiber region of the city; he and Croton enter the building to retrieve Lygia, but Ursus strangles Croton to death and nearly kills Vinicius, sparing him only at Lygia's intercession; the cowardly Chilo flees.

Here Vinicius is magnanimously nursed to health by Lygia and her fellow Christians, who to his immense surprise, have forgiven him all; he is further shocked when, on his summoning Chilo (by agreement with the Christians) to communicate to his household that the cause of his disappearance is a sudden trip to Beneventum, it emerges that Glaucus, the Christian doctor who is attending Vinicius, had been betrayed by Chilo to bandits during a previous period of his unscrupulous adventures; whereupon with Peter's approval Glaucus forgives him all. Meanwhile, when Lygia realizes, while acting as his nurse, that she is herself deeply in love with Vinicius, she confesses to Peter, who while affirming that her love is not sinful, says she cannot marry Vinicius as long as he is not a Christian. Lygia changes her residence, vanishing a second time.

A Vinicius restored to health returns to his role in society as a patrician and Augustian (or courtier of Caesar). Yet although he cannot bring himself to embrace Christianity, he is now disgusted with the profligacy of Nero's court, and begins to treat his slaves with more mercy; and even earns the enmity of the empress Poppaea Sabina by rejecting her advances. At this juncture Chilo reappears, with information of Lygia's new hideout, urging him to surround the house with troops and reclaim her; but Vinicius, changed by his contact with the Christians, rejects the temptation, and has Chilo scourged for his ingratitude before forcing him to promise never to spy on the Christians again; Chilo privately swears revenge. Vinicius repairs unattended to the house indicated by Chilo, and lays before the apostles Paul and Peter his unchanging love for Lygia and his altered ways, promising to convert if Paul will undertake to instruct him in the faith; overjoyed, the apostles summon in Lygia, who confesses her love for him; with the apostles' blessings the two are engaged.

Soon after, Nero retires for recreation to Antium, where Vinicius, as his courtier, is forced to attend him, accompanied however with Paul; in Antium Nero, who is composing a song on the fall of Troy, repeatedly complains that he has never seen a real city burning; but even his degraded courtiers are shocked when messengers break into the banqueting hall one night with information that Rome is aflame. Vinicius dashes madly on horseback to the city, in tortured anxiety for Lygia; the trans-Tiber region of the city where Lygia resides has not yet been reached by the fire; with the help of Chilo who now reappears (having broken his promise not to spy on the Christians), he finds Lygia and Peter sheltering in a quarry-man's hut outside the city; here, with outraged multitudes rioting outside, and gladiators and escaped slaves killing and pillaging, Vinicius (who has meanwhile been converted by Paul) vows never to desert them, and Peter baptizes him on the spot.

Nero meantime returns to Rome, where he sings his poem before the outraged multitude, which believes him to be the author of the calamity; Petronius however restores the situation by riding into the crowd (who idolize him for his reputed humanity), and promising them extraordinary gifts of "bread and circuses" in the name of Caesar. But as Nero remains unpopular, Tigellinus, Caesar's praetorian Prefect, advocates finding a scapegoat for the disaster; in the middle of the convocation, in which various candidates are suggested (including Tigellinus himself, who rebuffs the suggestion with a vailed threat) Tigellinus is called away, and returns to with the suggestion that the Christians fulfill that office; it emerges that Chilo, still furious from his flogging by Vinicius, has come forward to accuse them of the crime; Petronius, Tigellinus' longstanding rival for influence over Nero, protests, but is overridden by Poppaea, who hates Lygia for her beauty, and Vinicius for spurning her. Petronius leaves with the certainty that he has irrecoverably lost his influence over Nero, and is therefore almost certainly doomed to death.

Immediately on returning home, Petronius warns Vinicius of Lygia's danger; but before he reaches her, she is seized by soldiers, informed of her hiding place by Chilo; with the latter's contrivance, multitudes of other Christians are imprisoned, and Nero plans a series of games in the arena featuring their deaths to divert unpopularity from himself. During a whole series of ghastly exhibitions, including devouring by wild beasts, butchery by gladiators, and finally burning them on crosses by nighttime to illuminate a luxurious banquet in Caesar's gardens open to all Rome, Vinicius attempts unsuccessfully to rescue Lygia from prison. Meanwhile, Chilo who since informing has been raised to the rank of an Augustinian suffers the pains of a tormented conscience while watching the undeserved sufferings of the Christians in the arena, though they had repeatedly pardoned him for the severest crimes; at the last show, when he encounters Glaucus yet alive on one of the crosses, who again forgives him, Chilo breaks down, and accuses Caesar before the crowd of being the incendiary; the court scatters, and Paul emerges from the confusion to promise him salvation if he perseveres in his repentance; this gives him the fortitude to later die unperjured in the arena when he refuses to retract his accusation of the emperor. Meanwhile, the final games come around, in which Lygia and Ursus are exposed in the arena to an aurochs; however, Ursus with his preternatural strength breaks the beast's neck; the crowd, glutted with the slaughter of innocents, demands of Caesar to spare the pair, and Nero acquiesces out of cowardice; Vinicius and Lygia marry and settle on his estates in Sicily, where they live unprosecuted as Christians.

The rest of the novel relates the historical events of Peter's martyrdom (“Quo vadis, Domine?”), Petronius’ resigned death in the aftermath of Piso's conspiracy, and concludes with a vision of retribution in the death of Nero based on Suetonius.

Characters in Quo Vadis

  • Marcus Vinicius (fictitious son of the historical Marcus Vinicius), a military tribune and Roman patrician who recently returned to Rome. On arrival, he meets and falls in love with Lygia. He seeks the counsel of his uncle Petronius to find a way to possess her.
  • Calina (fictitious), usually known as Lygia (Ligia in some translations), the daughter of a deceased king of the Lugii, a barbarian tribe (hence her nickname). Lygia is technically a hostage of the Senate and people of Rome, and was forgotten years ago by her own people. A great beauty, she has converted to Christianity, but her religion is originally unknown to Marcus.
  • Gaius Petronius (historical), titled the "arbiter of elegance," former governor of Bithynia. Petronius is a member of Nero's court who uses his wit to flatter and mock him at the same time. He is loved by the Roman mob for his liberal attitudes. Somewhat amoral and a bit lazy, he tries to help his nephew, but his cunning plan is thwarted by Lygia's Christian friends.
  • Eunice (fictitious), household slave of Petronius. Eunice is a beautiful young Greek woman who has fallen in love with her master, although he is initially unaware of her devotion.
  • Chilon Chilonides (fictitious), a charlatan and a private investigator. He is hired by Marcus to find Lygia. This character is severely reduced in the 1951 film and the 1985 miniseries, but in the novel itself, as well as in the Polish miniseries of 2001, Chilon is a major figure as doublecrossing traitor. His end is clearly inspired by Saint Dismas.
  • Nero (historical), Emperor of Rome, portrayed as incompetent, petty, cruel, and subject to manipulation by his courtiers. He listens most intently to flatterers and fools. The novel does indicate, though, that the grossly exaggerating flatteries concerning his abilities as a poet actually have some basis in fact.
  • Tigellinus (historical), the prefect of the feared Praetorian Guard. He is a rival of Petronius for Nero's favour, and he incites Nero into committing acts of great cruelty.
  • Poppaea Sabina (historical), the wife of Nero. She passionately envies and hates Lygia.
  • Acte (historical), an Imperial slave and former mistress of Nero. Nero has grown tired of her and now mostly ignores her, but she still loves him. She studies the Christian faith, but does not consider herself worthy of full conversion. In the 1951 film, it is she who helps Nero commit suicide.
  • Aulus Plautius (historical), a respected retired Roman general who commanded the invasion of Britain. Aulus seems unaware (or simply unwilling to know) that Pomponia, his wife, and Lygia, his adoptive daughter, profess the Christian religion.
  • Pomponia Graecina (historical), a Christian convert. Dignified and much respected, Pomponia and Aulus are Lygia's adoptive parents, but they are unable to legalize her status. According to Roman law Lygia is still a hostage of the Roman state (i.e., of the Emperor), but she is cared for by the elderly couple.
  • Ursus (fictitious), the bodyguard of Lygia. As a fellow tribesman, he served her late mother, and he is strongly devoted to Lycia. As a Christian, Ursus struggles to follow the religion's peaceful teachings, given his great strength and barbarian mindset.
  • Peter the Apostle (historical), a weary and aged man with the task of preaching Christ's message. He is amazed by the power of Rome and the vices of Emperor Nero, whom he names the Beast. Sometimes Peter doubts that he will be able to plant and protect the "good seed" of Christianity.
  • Paul of Tarsus (historical) takes a personal interest in converting Marcus.
  • Crispus (fictitious), a Christian zealot who verges on fanaticism.
  • Calba (historical), a Roman Emperor after Nero.
  • Epaphroditus (historical), a courtier who helps Nero commit suicide.

Historical events

Sienkiewicz alludes to several historical events and merges them in his novel, but some of them are of doubtful authenticity.

  • In AD 57, Pomponia was indeed charged with practising a "foreign superstition",[11] usually understood to mean conversion to Christianity. Nevertheless, the religion itself is not clearly identified. According to ancient Roman tradition she was tried in a family court by her own husband Aulus (the pater familias), to be subsequently acquitted. However, inscriptions in the catacombs of Saint Callistus in Rome suggest that members of Graecina's family were indeed Christians.
  • The rumor that Vespasian fell asleep during a song sung by Nero is recorded by Suetonius in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars.[12]
  • The death of Claudia Augusta, sole child of Nero, in AD 63.
  • The Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which in the novel is started by orders of Nero. There is no hard evidence to support this, and fires were very common in Rome at the time. In Chapter 50, senior Jewish community leaders advise Nero to blame the fires on Christians; there is no historical record of this either. The fire opens space in the city for Nero's palatial complex, a massive villa with lush artificial landscapes and a 30-meter-tall sculpture of the emperor, as well as an ambitious urban planning program involving the creation of buildings decorated with ornate porticos and the widening of the streets (a redesign which is not implemented until after Nero's death).
  • The suicide of Petronius clearly is based on the account of Tacitus.

Similarities with Barrett play

Playwright-actor-manager Wilson Barrett produced his successful play The Sign of the Cross in the same year as publication of Quo vadis? started. The play was first performed 28 March 1895.[13] Several elements in the play strongly resemble those in Quo Vadis. In both, a Roman soldier named Marcus falls in love with a Christian woman and wishes to "possess" her. (In the novel, her name is Lycia, in the play she is Mercia.) Nero, Tigellinus and Poppea are major characters in both the play and novel, and in both, Poppea lusts after Marcus. Petronius, however, does not appear in The Sign of the Cross, and the ending of the play diverges from that of Quo Vadis.


A successful stage version of the novel by Stanislaus Stange was produced in 1900.[14] Film versions of the novel were produced in 1901, 1912 and 1924.[15] A 1951 version directed by Mervyn LeRoy was nominated for eight Academy Awards. The novel was also the basis for a 1985 mini-series starring Klaus Maria Brandauer as Nero and a 2001 Polish mini-series directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. It was satirized as the quintessential school play gone horribly awry in Shivering Shakespeare, a 1930 Little Rascals short by Hal Roach.

Jean Nouguès composed an opera based on the novel to a libretto by Henri Caïn; it was premiered in 1909.[16] Feliks Nowowiejski composed an oratorio based on the novel, performed for the first time in 1907, and then his most popular work.

Ursus series (1960–1964)

Following Buddy Baer's portrayal of Ursus in the classic 1951 film Quo Vadis, Ursus was used as a superhuman Roman-era character who became the protagonist in a series of Italian adventure films made in the early 1960s.

When the Hercules film craze hit in 1959, Italian filmmakers were looking for other muscleman characters similar to Hercules whom they could exploit, resulting in the nine-film Ursus series listed below. Ursus was referred to as a "Son of Hercules" in two of the films when they were dubbed in English (in an attempt to cash in on the then-popular Hercules craze), although in the original Italian films, Ursus had no connection to Hercules whatsoever. In the English-dubbed version of one Ursus film (retitled Hercules, Prisoner of Evil), Ursus was referred to throughout the entire film as Hercules.

There were a total of nine Italian films that featured Ursus as the main character, listed below as follows: Italian title/ English translation of the Italian title (American release title);


In the small church of "Domine Quo Vadis", there is a bronze bust of Henryk Sienkiewicz. It is said that Sienkiewicz was inspired to write his novel Quo Vadis while sitting in this church.


  • Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer of Jewish descent who coined the term genocide, writes in his memoirs that he first conceived of the idea of the mass extermination of an ethnic group as a young boy in Poland when reading Quo Vadis.[17]

See also


  1. Halsey, F. R. (1898-02-05). "Historians of Nero's Time" (PDF). New York Times. pp. BR95. Retrieved 2009-01-02.
  2. Sienkiewicz, Henryk (June 1896). "Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero". Translated from the Polish by Jeremiah Curtin. Quo vadis, Domine?
  3. "The Man Behind Quo Vadis". Culture.pl. Retrieved 2018-02-16.
  4. Socken, Paul (2013-09-01). The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age?. McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP. ISBN 9780773589872.
  5. Soren, David (2010). Art, Popular Culture, and The Classical Ideal in the 1930s: Two Classic Films — A Study of Roman Scandals and Christopher Strong. Midnight Marquee & BearManor Media.
  6. "Gazeta Polska 26 March 1895" (in Polish). Retrieved 2018-11-08.
  7. David J. Welsh, "Serialization and structure in the novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz" in: The Polish Review Vol. 9, No. 3 (1964) 53.
  8. "Czas 28 March 1895" (in Polish). Retrieved 2018-11-08.
  9. "Dziennik Poznański 29 March 1895" (in Polish). Retrieved 2018-11-08.
  10. "International Conference, "Quo vadis": inspirations, contexts, reception. Henryk Sienkiewicz and his vision of Ancient Rome | Miejsce "Quo vadis?" w kulturze włoskiej. Przekłady, adaptacje, kultura popularna". www.quovadisitaly.uni.wroc.pl. Retrieved 2018-02-16.
  11. Tacitus, Annals XIII.32
  12. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Divus Vespasian 4
  13. Wilson Barrett's New Play, Kansas City Daily Journal, (Friday, 29 March 1895), p. 2.
  14. Gerald Bordman, "Stange, Stanislaus", The Oxford companion to American theatre, Oxford University Press, 1984.
  15. http://www.casttv.com/video/f987ap1/the-many-faces-of-ursus-ed-fury-dan-vadis-alan-steel-video
  16. Gesine Manuwald, Nero in Opera: Librettos as Transformations of Ancient Sources. (Tranformationen der Antike ; 24). Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013. ISBN 9783110317138
  17. Raphael Lemkin, Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin, p. 1, Yale University Press (2010), ISBN 978-0300186963
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