Quo Vadis?

Marco Montagnin

In literary fiction lives a Petronius, no matter whether being the real one or not; he is the arbiter elegantiarum, an aesthete

“For his outstanding merits as an epic writer”.

Henryk Adam Aleksander Pius Sienkiewicz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905.

Sienkiewicz was born in what was then ‘Congress Poland’ – a vassal state of Imperial Russia – in 1846.

Son of fallen aristocrats, Sienkiewicz first enrolled in medicine, then in law, and finally in history and philology; during his life, he was a tutor, a journalist, a writer and at times a traveller.

He was both loved and criticised, his works became international bestsellers, his fame exceeded that of other great writers, he who was awarded the Nobel Prize. However, after his death, his works were soon forgotten – unlike those from whom he stole the deserved prize, most notably Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy.

It was Quo Vadis? that made him famous, despite the fact some of his earlier works had already received positive reviews.

The success of the novel, translated into most European languages, brought the Polish author international fame, to the point that it was adapted into a film several times, including in Hollywood during 1951.

The writer’s troubled love life had only a marginal influence on his work: his first girlfriend’s parents annulled their engagement; he later got married but his wife died four years later. His second marriage lasted barely two weeks; he then remarried a third and last time, albeit under avuncular conditions.

Marriage, as a form of happiness and love as the driving force of life, is reflected in his novel: both in the purer, Christian vision and in the pagan one in which one is overwhelmed, defenceless and unconsciously at the mercy of external forces. However, it seems that the greatest fulfilment of the feeling of love occurs, in one of the characters, in its hedonistic form, in which it is not something absolute but complementary, thus not imperishable but temporary, and for this reason, something necessary to enjoy to the fullest:

I say now to myself as follows: I will fill my life with happiness, as a goblet with the foremost wine which the earth has produced, and I will drink till my hand becomes powerless and my lips grow pale. What will come, I care not.[1]

His seemingly quiet soul seemed to need to escape from the environment, from the people, from the country he called home. He travelled to the United States, to Western Europe, to Africa, to Turkey, and during these journeys he was would always take notes, write letters and reports that helped him in staging some of his works.

In the last part of his life, he went from being progressive to conservative. He tried several times to exploit his fame to bring world attention to the situation in Poland, but to no avail.

Quo Vadis? is a historical novel, focusing on the battle between good (the Christians) and evil (the pagans, first and foremost Nero). The story is about the love between a Christian girl and a Roman nobleman, Nero’s follies, pagan debauchery, and the superiority of Christian doctrine.

Sienkiewicz had an enormous admiration for ancient Rome and loved Christian Rome. The author relies on a flowing narrative mood, woven into a sentimental and pathetic background. The author relies on a flowing narrative vein, interwoven against a sentimental and pathetic background of images, visions, plastic evocations of men and events. The brilliant scenes, skilfully described, are mannerist paintings, rich in smells, colours and personae who are given the opportunity, during the narrative, to stand out – for a few words – from the crowd, thus becoming characterised. Despite this, the scenes were criticised for being historically inaccurate.

The sometimes-epic prose in Quo Vadis? stems from Sienkiewicz’s never-fading passion for the works of Homer.

The overly sentimental story, stripped of German romanticism, made the novel a success; yet this would not have been possible without Sienkiewicz’s ability to keep the reader entertained.  

The raft circled now nearer the shore, on which, among bunches of trees and flowers, were seen groups of people, disguised as fauns or satyrs, playing on flutes, bagpipes, and drums, with groups of maidens representing nymphs, dryads, and hamadryads.

Darkness fell at last amid drunken shouts from the tent, shouts raised in honor of Luna. Meanwhile the groves were lighted with a thousand lamps. From the lupanaria on the shores shone swarms of lights; on the terraces appeared new naked groups, formed of the wives and daughters of the first Roman houses. These with voice and unrestrained manner began to lure partners.

The raft touched the shore at last. Cæsar and the Augustians vanished in the groves, scattered in lupanaria, in tents hidden in thickets, in grottos artificially arranged among fountains and springs.

Madness seized all; no one knew whither Cæsar had gone; no one knew who was a senator, who a knight, who a dancer, who a musician. Satyrs and fauns fell to chasing nymphs with shouting. They struck lamps with thyrses to quench them. Darkness covered certain parts of the grove. Everywhere, however, laughter and shouts were heard, and whispers, and panting breaths.[2]

There is a hint of Roman theatre in the novel: the well-defined characters convey the writer’s hidden feelings. However, it is not the main characters, but a secondary one who shines the brightest, perhaps because he was inspired by the well-known figure of Gaius Petronius Arbiter; his life, forgotten except for brief historical descriptions, appears to be disclosed to us. In literary fiction lives a Petronius, no matter whether being the real one or not; he is the arbiter elegantiarum, an aesthete who plays with his own life in Nero’s court. Knowing that he cannot win, unafraid of death, he lives fearlessly according to his desires, surrounded by what he loves: art – be it inert or living form. His demise is sweetened: the account left by Publius Cornelius Tacitus seems to lack the elegance that should characterise a man like Petronius.

In those days Nero had gone into the region of Campania, and Petronius, having gone as far as Cumae, was detained there. He could not bear to remain suspended between hope and fear any longer, but he did not wish to precipitately give up life; he cut his veins and then bandaged them, as his whim suggested, opening them again and entertaining his friends on subjects that were certainly not severe or such as might gain him a reputation for rigid firmness. In turn, he listened to them say not theories on the immortality of the soul or maxims of philosophers, but light poetry and love verses. As for the slaves, he had some given gifts, others whipped. He went to lunch and dozed off, wanting his death, though imposed, to have the appearance of a fortuitous passing. He did not, like most of the condemned, add to his will any flattering codicils for Nero or Tigellinus or any other powerful person; but he made a detailed narrative of the scandalous nefariousness of the prince, mentioning the names of his lovers, his prostitutes, and the singularity of his perversions: then, after sealing it, he sent it to Nero. He then broke the seal, lest it should serve to ruin others.

Petronius’ death is more refined, without a second thought: he and his beloved slit their wrists during his last banquet, which led to his death – quite different from Trimalchio’s. He then beckoned to the Greek physician and handed him his arm.

He beckoned then to the Greek physician, and stretched out his arm. The skilled Greek in the twinkle of an eye opened the vein at the bend of the arm. Blood spurted on the cushion, and covered Eunice, who, supporting the head of Petronius, bent over him and said, —

 “Didst thou think that I would leave thee? If the gods gave me immortality, and Cæsar gave me power over the earth, I would follow thee still.” 

Petronius smiled, raised himself a little, touched her lips with his, and said, —

“Come with me.”


Then he gave a signal to the leader of the music, and again the voices and cithariæ were heard. They sang “Harmodius”; next the song of Anacreon resounded, —that song in which he complained that on a time he had found Aphrodite’s boy chilled and weeping under trees; that he brought him in, warmed him, dried his wings, and the ungrateful child pierced his heart with an arrow, —from that moment peace had deserted the poet.

Petronius and Eunice, resting against each other, beautiful as two divinities, listened, smiling and growing pale. At the end of the song Petronius gave directions to serve more wine and food; then he conversed with the guests sitting near him of trifling but pleasant things, such as are mentioned usually at feasts. Finally, he called to the Greek to bind his arm for a moment; for he said that sleep was tormenting him, and he wanted to yield himself to Hypnos before Thanatos put him to sleep forever.

 In fact, he fell asleep. When he woke, the head of Eunice was lying on his breast like a white flower. He placed it on the pillow to look at it once more. After that his veins were opened again. At his signal the singers raised the song of Anacreon anew, and the citharæ accompanied them so softly as not to drown a word. Petronius grew paler and paler; but when the last sound had ceased, he turned to his guests again and said,

“Friends, confess that with us perishes—”

But he had not power to finish; his arm with its last movement embraced Eunice, his head fell on the pillow, and he died.

The guests looking at those two white forms, which resembled two wonderful statues, understood well that with them perished all that was left to their world at that time, —poetry and beauty.[3]

Despite the criticism – of the omnipresent struggle between good and evil, Christian ideals, historical inaccuracy – the beautifully crafted novel elevated him to the Olympus of literature, alongside the man who, two years earlier, had revolutionised the historiography of ancient Rome.[4]

[1] Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis: a narrative of the time of Nero, 1897, Jeremiah Curtin translation, Dent, London, Ch. XXIX

[2] Ivi, Ch. XXXI

[3] Ivi, Ch. LXXIII

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