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Literature / Quo Vadis

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A Historical Fiction novel set in Ancient Rome, Quo Vadis (1896) is internationally the most well-known work of Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, also known for the Sienkiewicz Trilogy. Quo Vadis tells the story of a romance between Marcus Vinicius, a young pagan Roman officer, and Lygia, a Christian barbarian princess raised in a Roman household. The novel is set during the events surrounding the Great Fire of Rome of AD 64, including the Roman persecution of Christians.

The title comes from a Christian legend, which recounts that as St. Peter was fleeing Rome as a result of persecution, he saw a vision of Christ and asked Him, Domine, quo vadis? ("Lord, where are you going?") — to which the reply was "I go to be crucified again." Thus realizing that he was abandoning the faithful of Rome to their fates, Peter returned to the city, where he was subsequently martyred.

Quo Vadis has been adapted to film several times, including a 1951 version directed by Mervin LeRoy (starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, and Peter Ustinov as Nero, with a young Sophia Loren as an uncredited extra) and a 2001 film directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz.

This book contains examples of:

  • Author Appeal: Lygia hails from the Lugii, an ancient tribe that (supposedly) lived in present day Poland during the time of the Roman Empire, possibly an example of Genius Bonus by the author, who was Polish.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Petronius is more than aware his fate has already been sealed, so instead he commits suicide while reading aloud a huge Take That! to Nero. For a book all about Christian values, this choice is still portrayed as a noble one, rather than one of the ultimate sins.
  • Broken Pedestal: Lygia already has a crush on Vinicius and hopes he will use his influence at court to help her get back to Aulus and Pomponia. Then he tries to rape her at the feast and admits that he was the one behind her kidnapping. The poor girl is heartbroken.
  • The Caligula: Emperor Nero's rule came soon after the Trope Namer, and was remembered as being little better.
  • Christianity is Catholic: The book takes place in very early days of Christianity, before there were any denominations, but it is pretty obvious that the book follows the history of Christianity as tought by the Roman Catholic Church; Peter is very clearly considered Christ's representative on Earth and even quotes the famous Bible verse used in favor of Papacy "Upon this Rock, I will build my Church". And he does get crucified upside down, very much a Catholic tradition. While he never gets referred to as "Pope", it's quite obvious that this is what the story is aiming for in his role. This is justified since Henryk Sienkiewicz was a Roman Catholic (like most of his native Poland).
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Chilon. After switching sides so many times it makes you dizzy and causing so much harm to all the good guys, he ends up completely broken.
  • Concert Climax: At a gladiatorial arena.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Let's just say Nero get creative when he starts persecuting the Christians. They are, in various groups:
  • Damsel in Distress: Poor Lygia. First she is separated from her loving adoptive family, gets assaulted by Marcus, then gets accused by Poppaea of cursing little Augusta, then gets imprisoned for her faith, falls terribly sick in prison and is nearly killed on the arena. Her strong faith is the only thing that keeps her going.
  • Date Rape Averted: Ursus defends Lygia from Vinicius' unwanted advances at Nero's feast.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Petronius. Which is why we love him.
  • Driven to Suicide: Several courtiers of Nero have been, in the past. Petronius on page. Eunice, for whom he's the entire world, joins him.
  • Face Death with Dignity:
    • The Christians who are killed in the persecution die in such a noble way that they make the executioners look like criminals (as Petronius points out).
    • Petronius himself prefers suicide over what might happen to him.
  • Fairest of Them All: Poppaea is very slighted when she realizes Lygia is more beautiful than her.
  • Fanservice: For a novel with such a pro-Christian message, the author goes into quite some detail describing the Romans' debauched activities.
  • Fed to the Beast: Christians are fed to massive dogs and lions in a truly gruesome scene.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: Vinicius was obsessed with Lygia for a long time, but after he's wounded and she nurses him (partway) back to health, he starts to see her as a person and truly care for her, rather than just lusting after Lygia's pretty looks.
  • The Fundamentalist: In his sermons, Crispus always focuses on the terrible punishment of sinners which no one can escape rather than on God's love and mercy. He is called out by St. Peter for calling Lygia's love for Vinicius a sin, and later by St. Paul for frightening the future martyrs. His faith, however, is genuine, even if his interpretation of it is misguided: after St. Paul calls him out, Crispus is honestly remorseful for having sinned in his dying hour.
  • Gentle Giant: Ursus is an enormous, incredibly strong man and a kind, devout Christian.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Ursus is calm, gentle and devoted Christian, but he won't hesitate for a second to kill you with his bare hands if you try to harm Lygia. It's sort of automatic for him, which makes him a little Afraid of Their Own Strength.
  • Gorgeous Greek: Eunice is a stunningly beautiful and graceful girl from Kos.
  • The Great Fire: The historical Great Fire of Rome is described in detail when Vinicius has to rescue Lygia from the flames.
  • Happily Adopted: Lygia, by Pomponia and Aulus.
  • Happily Married: Pomponia and Aulus. They're a perfect family, possibly the only one in Rome.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Eunice. One must admit that Petronius treats his home slaves pretty well. Also, Eunice is utterly in love with him (so much she can't stand the thought of leaving his house).
  • Heel–Faith Turn: Vinicius, then Chilon.
  • Historical Domain Character: Petronius, Nero, Poppaea, Saint Peter and Saint Paul all play prominent roles.
  • Ignored Enamored Underling: Eunice adores her master Petronius, who is at first unaware of that and is shocked when she tearfully refuses to be Vinicius's concubine. Then, however, he finds it out, and they are blissfully happy together, if for a very short while.
  • Love at First Sight: Downplayed; more like lust at first sight, but eventually leading to True Love which redeems Vinicius.
  • Love Martyr: Acte, the only person in the world who still loves Nero, having fallen in love with the good person he used to be.
  • Love Redeems: Vinicius's love for Lygia moves him to grow from an impetuous hotheaded warmonger into a loving, compassionate person.
  • Manly Tears: The tribune of the Praetorians giving the thumbs up to Ursus, Lygia, and Vinicius.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Chilon after seeing people he sold out being burned alive. The fact that they forgive him leads to his Heel–Faith Turn.
  • Professional Butt-Kisser: Nero's court. Anyone who won't kiss the aforementioned butt is liable to be Driven to Suicide. Or worse.
  • Questioning Title?: Although it is quoting a question, the novel's title does not itself contain a question mark.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Chilon. After he takes a Heel–Faith Turn, he's tortured to death along with the other Christians.
  • Running Gag: Petronius' dislike of craftsmen and him comparing others' rude or barbaric behaviour to different occupations. ("Calm thyself," said Petronius. "Thou hast the longing of a carpenter from the Subura.")
  • Saintly Church: The early Christian church in Rome is portrayed in such a manner. Its members live simple, happy lives, standing above the depraved environment surrounding them.
  • Sanity Slippage: Nero is already unhinged at the start of the novel but grows more and more so over the course of it. By the final chapters, he is executing even his previously loyal followers left and right.
  • The Scapegoat: After burning down Rome, Nero worries that the people will turn against him, and considers pinning the blame on one of this courtiers. Chilon convinces him to blame Christians as a whole instead.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Vinicius, for the first couple of chapters. He does everything to get Lygia brought to his house, hardly dwelling on the fact that she might not be willing or that she might be devastated to part from Aulus and Pomponia.
  • Take That!: Petronius' suicide note is an enormous one to Nero. To the point of stating that his wanton slaughter and destruction of Rome is still way less abhorrent than his art.
    Petronius: To Nero, Emperor of Rome, Master of the World, Divine Pontiff. I know that my death will be a disappointment to you, since you wished to render me this service yourself. To be born in your reign is a miscalculation; but to die in it is a joy. I can forgive you for murdering your wife and your mother, for burning our beloved Rome, for befouling our fair country with the stench of your crimes. But one thing I cannot forgive - the boredom of having to listen to your verses, your second-rate songs, your mediocre performances. Adhere to your special gifts, Nero - murder and arson, betrayal and terror. Mutilate your subjects if you must; but with my last breath I beg you - do not mutilate the arts. Fare well, but compose no more music. Brutalize the people, but do not bore them, as you have bored to death your friend, the late Gaius Petronius.
  • These Hands Have Killed: Ursus racks up quite the body count (using just his bare hands) but he regrets every single death.
  • Together in Death:
    • Vinicius and Lygia are looking forward to being united only in Heaven when they are expecting Lygia to either die of fever or get killed at the arena, and when they are able to live Happily Ever After in the earthly life, they are doubly happy in the knowledge that they won't be parted after death either.
    • Eunice chooses to die in her beloved Petronius's arms rather than inherit all his riches and live in comfort as a freedwoman.
  • Wicked Cultured: For all his faults, Nero does love poetry and music.

The movies also have examples of:

  • Adaptational Dye-Job:
    • Lygia is described as having dark hair in the book, whereas in both versions of the movie she has reddish-blond to straight blond hair.
    • Eunice is blonde in the novel, but in the 1951 film she's played by the dark-haired Marina Berti.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Petronius and Vinicius are shown playing chess, which even in primitive form wouldn't be invented for a couple of centuries after this time setting and wouldn't reach Europe until several centuries after that.
    • Nero would never have been able to get away with crucifying, let alone burning alive, a Roman citizen of the Senatorial class like Aulus Plautius, regardless of whether he was a Christian (even St. Paul wasn't crucified due to his Roman citizenship).
  • As You Know: "You'll spend some time with me, before rushing off to your estate in Sicily?"
  • But Liquor Is Quicker: Vinicius gives Lydia a goblet of wine and calls it "the panacea for all reticence."
  • Casting Gag: In the 2001 adaptation, Nero, who is Hollywood Tone-Deaf, is played by Michał Bajor - a sung poetry performer, very famous in Poland for his high vocal skills.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Nero singing a song horribly while carping at his lute players over how to play said song, while one slave gives him a pedicure and another styles his hair.
  • Face Death with Dignity: St. Peter, Aulus Plautius, Pomponia... everyone but the villains fit the bill.
  • Godiva Hair: Notably when Lygia is tied on the bull in the 2001 movie.
  • Headbutt of Love: In the ending of the 2001 movie.
  • Hero of Another Story: Aulus Plautius conquered Britain for Rome and defeated the Lygians.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Nero's singing.
  • Lady Macbeth: Nero has Pomponia executed on this excuse.
  • Large Ham: Peter Ustinov as Nero? Yes, please.
  • "Last Supper" Steal: A live-action recreation of the painting as Peter recounts the scene to the congregation in Rome.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Chilon is struck with remorse when he sees the Christians being killed, especially when Glaucus is burned and forgives Chilon with his dying breath.
  • Neck Snap: Ursus does this to a goddamn bull.
  • Promoted to Love Interest:
    • Downplayed, in the sense of "promoted to lust object", with Vinicius for Poppaea in the 1951 film. In the book, her lust for him is a short flight of fancy that comes and passes in the middle of the book, and she is more furious that he spurned her for Lygia than that he spurned her. In the film, she is very attracted to him from the beginning.
    • Inverted for the 2001 film, where Poppaea's attraction to Vinicius isn't included.
  • Psychopathic Man Child / Sissy Villain: Nero as portrayed in both film versions is capricious, self-absorbed, and effeminate.
  • Putting on the Reich: Directly choreographed from Triumph of the Will.
  • This Is What the Building Will Look Like: Nero with his plans of what the new Rome will look like—as long as something like, say, a fire gets rid of all the stuff already there.
  • Title Drop: As per the legend, Peter says "Quo vadis, Domine?" on the way out of town.
  • Virgin in a White Dress: In the 2001 movie, pure and virtuous Lygia always wears a simple white dress.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Paul has a prominent supporting role in the first part of the film, but vanishes afterward, apart from a mention of him going to Greece. Odd since he's also believed to have died during Nero's persecutions.
  • While Rome Burns: Quite literally, since the Trope Namer is one of the key characters.