Ever since the advent of the nineteenth century, fictional portrayals of the persecuted Church in Nero’s Rome have been a favored form of the Christian novel and a uniquely Lenten tradition. During the Victorian age in particular, Christians made it a habit during the weeks leading up to Easter to read these novels of the life and times of Christ as a “quiet time” family activity or "Sabbath Eve" exercise.
Most of the novels written for that purpose were anything but noteworthy. The predictable plots were constructed in order to contrast the corrupt brilliance of Pagan Rome with the austere and pious life of the early Church. Most readers can recount such business by heart: the orgies, the arena, the glimpse of the bloated and sensual figure of the emperor and his perversely corrupted court, the delicate and beautiful Christian maiden with her hair let down her back, the ill-fated love affair between her and some swashbuckling, worldly-wise, well-placed Roman soldier, the soldier’s reluctant conversion just in the nick of time, the dim passageways and fleeting sanctuaries of the catacombs, the horrific conflagration of Nero’s fire, and the sad but heroic martyrdom of each of the protagonists in turn.
But, there were a few good works mixed into the profusion of pulp. For instance, there were a few marvels such as Zygmunt Krasinski’s tragedy, Irdion. It portrays a Greek rebel who tried to turn the Christian dissenters into revolutionaries. John Henry Newman’s Callista, captures the universality of the Christian message in a time of heaving uncertainty, Paul Bereille’s Emilie, Hermann Geiger’s Lydia, George Whyte-Melville’s The Gladiators, Josef Kraszewski’s Caprea and Roma, and F.N. Farrar’s Darkness and Dawn all revolve around the lives, loves, and sacrifices of the early martyrs—each is considered a classic in its own right. Salammbo by Gustave Flaubert, though hardly counted among his best-known works, was undoubtedly among his best-written works—in large part because it was the passionate vehicles for his own struggles regarding the Gospel.
Lew Wallace, a bitter Union general during the War between the States, began writing Ben Hur to disprove the claims of Christianity. But, much to his surprise, he himself was converted as he researched the period and developed the characters. The result was an invigorating paean to the faith. Lloyd Douglas likewise turned his experienced fictional hand to the days of the early Church. As a result, he not only produced two classics of the genre, The Big Fisherman and The Robe, he also reinvigorated his own flagging faith.
But as fine as each of these books is, all of them pale in comparison with Quo Vadis. The triumph of Henryk Sienkiewicz sets his work altogether apart. As late as 1937, the French Larousse Encyclopedia asserted that the book was “one of the most extraordinary successes registered in the history of the book—both in terms of sales and in terms of literary merit.” The American literary critic Nathan Haskell Dole was hardly exaggerating when he commented, “It is said that if a person standing at the foot of Niagara merely touches the awful sheet of water with a finger, he is drawn irresistibly in; and so if a person begins this book, the torrential sweep of its immensity becomes instantly absorbing. It is one of the great books of our day.”
Sienkiewicz (pronounced sane-KAY-vitch) was trained in both law and medicine in his native Poland. He was a respected historian. He was a successful journalist. He was a widely sought-after critic and editor. He was an erudite lecturer. And in addition to all that, he was an amazingly prolific and wildly popular novelist—selling millions of copies of his almost fifty books in nearly three hundred editions in the United States alone.
He wowed the world with his grace, his learning, his courage, his depth of character, and his evocative story-telling. His writing includes some of the most memorable works of historical fiction ever penned—ranking with the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Samuel Johnson. Indeed, in 1905, Sienkiewicz saw his brilliant career capped when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
Quo Vadis? was published in 1898. It was nothing short of an instant phenomenon. It was the first book the New York Times dubbed a “blockbuster,” and became the standard against which all future mega-best-sellers was judged.
The book was intended to be an epic retelling of the great fire of Rome in 64 AD. Its broad, Biblical sweep of events includes the machinations of Nero’s court, the rising tide of persecutions against the fledgling Christian community, the movements of the Germanic tribes along the Roman frontier—not surprisingly featuring the Polish Ligians—and the ministries of the Apostles Paul and Peter. According to an old Christian legend, Peter was fleeing the Emperor’s persecutions when he had a vision of Christ along the Appian Way. Awestruck, the Apostle addressed the Lord, asking, “Quo vadis?” or “Wither do you go?” Jesus answered him, To Rome, to be crucified anew, inasmuch as you have abandoned my sheep.” Fully comprehending the rebuke, Peter returned to the city to face his inevitable martyrdom.
In the hands of Sienkiewicz, the legend comes alive with bristling dialog, fully-dimensional characters, abiding faith, and informed political rage. His portrait of the Roman world and its ethos is dynamic—rivaling even Walter Pater’s Greco-Roman classics. His ability to emotionally identify with protagonists across the centuries is stunning. His to faithfulness to the straightforward Gospel message of the early church is inspiring. But his ability to relate the struggle of the first generation of believers against the juggernaut of Messianic Caesarism to the struggle of modern believers against the juggernaut of Messianic Statism is nothing less than brilliant.
The story is never compromised by a propagandistic message, nevertheless, Sienkiewicz’s message of anti-revolutionary, anti-ideological, and anti-modernist traditionalism sounds out, loud and clear. Indeed, the way Sienkiewicz weaves the historical narrative, the plot line, the character development, and the message of the Gospel, it is evident that he was working out of the same worldview context as his Dutch contemporaries, Groen van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper, as well as the later English Distributists and Southern Agrarians. For many readers, the transformation of that kind of confessional faith into vibrant art is a kind of revelation in itself—akin to discovering G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Thomas Chalmers, Caroline Gordon, or Walter Scott for the first time.
Not surprisingly then, Quo Vadis? became a model for aspiring writers—both Hemingway and Faulkner argued that it was the finest historical novel ever written. It has been lauded by such widely varied authors as It has been lauded by such diverse writers as Mario Vargas Llosa, Andrew Nelson Lytle, James Michener, Shusako Endo, Allen Tate, David Morrell, Peter Ackroyd, Colin Thubron, and A.N. Wilson. In addition, four film versions of the story have been made in Hollywood, two more in France, one in Argentina, one in Peru, one in Brazil, and another one in Italy. The 1951 MGM big-budget production starring Peter Ustinov, Robert Taylor, and Deborah Kerr, is a confirmed classic—and is now available in video.
Sadly, the only English version of the book available throughout most of the twentieth century was the convoluted and archaic British translation of C.J. Hogarth. Thankfully, that has now been bracingly remedied with the brilliant new translation by W.S. Kuniczak. Published by Hippocrene, this new edition has restored the soaring prose, the dynamic pace, and the immediate accessibility of Sienkiewicz’s original.
Quo Vadis? is the kind of rich literary work with which the ever growing Christian fiction market—consisting of both readers and writers—really ought to be nurtured. And what better way to recover the old Lenten tradition than to read this classic?