QUO VADIS by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1896) tells a story of the coming of Christianity to Rome in the time of Nero. It depicts the discontinuity between Christianity and the Greco-Roman pagan world, and what happens when people actually live by the Sermon on the Mount.
This would be a revolutionary moral change today. It was an even more revolutionary change then.
Unlike in Christianity, worship of the Greco-Roman gods had nothing to do with morality nor with hope and heaven. The pagan gods were regarded as powerful supernatural beings who had to be appeased with worship and animal sacrifice for the sake of one’s family or one’s city or nation, but who otherwise did not care about you.
Many of the Roman upper classes had come to believe that religion was a useful superstition for keeping the common people contented.
This had nothing to do with leading a virtuous life, which was the province of philosophy, and only a select few were followers of philosophy.
Christianity represented a moral revolution. St. Paul, St. Peter and the Christians depicted in this novel practiced universal love, unconditional forgiveness and the sharing of all wealth and property—something unprecedented in any mass movement.
The Christian missionaries taught that in the Kingdom of God, there was no distinction between rich and poor, free and slave, man and woman or Roman, Greek or Jew. They created communities whereby poor people could band together and provide for their own needs, independently of the oppressive and indifferent Roman state. The collision of the pagan and Christian view of life is the subject of this novel.
Imagine being a freedman in 1st Century Rome. You can get free food and entertainment, but you don’t own property and you’re competing for jobs with slaves. Your government doesn’t care about you, but appeases you out of fear of mob violence. The philosophers don’t care about you because you’re illiterate. The temple priests don’t care about you, either, other than your ability to pay for animal sacrifices, and you may not have all that much faith in the pagan gods anyway.
Then you are told that there is single all-powerful God who created the universe and everything in it, and yet cares about you, personally. In fact, he cares so much about you that he took human form and suffered torture and death so that you might have eternal life.
The all-powerful God does not care whether you are free or slave, rich or poor, male or female, literate or illiterate, Jew or Greek or some other race or nationality.
He promises you an eternal life in which you are compensated for all the suffering and injustice you suffered here on earth, and in which your oppressors will suffer eternal punishment for all the things they did.
He promises you forgiveness for all the bad things you’ve ever done and the way you’ve messed up your life. He gives you a chance to start over with a clean slate.
Furthermore, the End Times are coming soon in which all human institutions will dissolve and cease to matter. It’s easy to see the power of that message. It is even more powerful for slaves, who were a great part of the Roman population.
Ancient pagans and modern rationalists sneered at Christianity for appealing to marginalized people—slaves, women, misfits, poor people, the illiterate. They did not perceive, or maybe did not respect, the power of Christianity to take these stones that the builders rejected and make them the heads of the corner.
Interestingly, the two main characters in Quo Vadis are the historical Gaius Petronius and the fictional Marcus Vinicius, both patrician Roman slave-owners.
They think of their slaves as livestock, not fellow human beings. As humane individuals, they treat their slaves humanely, just as they treat their dogs and horses humanely, but never think of slaves as individuals with rights or minds of their own.
Vinicius falls in lust with a beautiful Christian maiden, Lygia, a princess of the Lygians (said to be ancestors of the Poles), who is being held hostage to guarantee her people’s good behavior. Vinicius and Petronius scheme to have her transferred to Vinicius’ custody, so that he can possess her sexually.
The scheme goes wrong, she escapes into the Christian underworld and Vinicius goes in search of her. Along the way, he begins to want her to love him and not just submit to him. He then begins to love her for herself and to care for her welfare and happiness. The end of this process is his conversion to Christianity.
This is incomprehensible to his friend Petronius, a lover of art and refined pleasure and a courtier in Nero’s palace. Petronius enjoys the deadly challenge of trying to keep in the despot’s favor while preserving his own self-respect.
Without intending to, Petronius sets in motion Nero’s ambition to perform as a poet and musician during the burning of a great city and afterwards is unable to dissuade Nero from making the Christians the scapegoat for the burning of Rome.
Sienkiewicz depicts Nero as a weak person, not so outwardly bad to begin with, who is corrupted by the power to gratify virtually every desire and to force people around him to validate his every action. One of them is the Stoic philosopher Seneca, whose rationalist principles do not give him to moral strength to stand up against absolute power.
To gather exotic predatory animals from every corner of the known world, bring them to Rome and choreograph innovative ways of staging their attacks on helpless victims—all this, as Sienkiewicz shows, was an amazing logistical and organizational achievement and moral failure.
The crowds in the stadium at first are gratified and maybe addicted to the sadistic pleasure that Nero provides, but eventually they become satiated and dissatisfied and, in the novel, turn against Nero.
Lydia is one of the prisoners in the arena. She is rescued in a dramatic way and goes to live with Vinicius as his wife on his estate in Sicily.
Interestingly, Vinicius continues to own pagan slaves, although he frees his Christian slaves. Nor do the Christians in the novel demand that he sell all he has and give it to the poor, as Jesus recommended to the rich young man who wanted to be perfect.
The unregenerate pagan Petronius, who falls out of favor with Nero, preserves his self-respect by holding a banquet for his friends and then calmly committing suicide before Nero can order his death. At the same time, he dispatches a message to Nero insulting his artistic taste in an unforgettable way. I think Sienciewicz intended Petronius as an example of the limitations of paganism at its best.
Sienciewicz’s novel is true to known facts, but, in my opinion, he exaggerates and simplifies somewhat.
I do not doubt there were a hard core of Christians who were not only willing to endure death and torture for their enemies, but also to forgive their enemies. But the letters of St. Paul show that within the early Christian community, there was contention and backsliding as well as deep faith. Belief in a creed does not automatically change human nature.
Similarly I can’t believe that all the Romans were as cruel as the mob in the stadium during the slaughter of the Christians.
The title of the novel is based on a story of St. Peter deciding to leave Rome and regroup the Christian community in other cities to the east. He encounters Christ and asks, “Quo vadis, domine?” (Where are you going, Lord?) Jesus replies that if Peter deserts his people, he will have to go to Rome and be crucified a second time. Peter turns, returns to Rome and is martyred, along with St. Paul.
If St. Peter, St. Paul and the early Christians described in this novel were to appear today in any big city in the Western world, they would be just as out-of-place as they were in ancient Rome.
I think the original message of Christianity is mostly submerged beneath the need to accommodate the limitations of average human nature and the need to preserve the social order and has been distorted and co-opted to serve the interests of ambitious individuals and structures of political, economic and ecclesiastical power, but it still exists and still retains its transformative power.