People of the Books: Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Hullo, Reader!  Thanks for your patience with me in my not warning you I’d be dropping off the radar last week; I had a conference last weekend (and also confirmation at church), so I wasn’t able to get to this.  But I’m back now (albeit a day late)—happy Saturday!  Have a book review!

Quo Vadis (which has apparently been made into a movie that I’m going to have to see now) is another of those books that somehow magically made it into my library when I wasn’t paying attention.  I have no memory of buying this or being given it, but I know I’ve moved it from at least one place to another with me.  In my great I Have to Read All These Books Before I Move Them Again project (yeah, it’s not going well; Reader, I own a lot of books) I finally decided to sit down with this one.

I must say, it was slow going at first.  Sienkiewicz doesn’t pull punches in how he sets up the story; he expects you to keep up as he throws you into 60s A.D. Rome under the craziness of Nero’s rule.  But stick with it; once you get situated in the overwhelming city (fortunately, my version had a map at the back so I could follow Sienkiewicz’s characters talking about where things were), you realize this is a pretty epic story.

The basic premise is that Marcus Vinicius, a nobleman of one of the ancient families and a decorated soldier now hanging about in Rome, falls in love with a gal named Ligia.  Add in the complication—Ligia is a Christian.  This is a time when Christianity was kept on the downlow because it wasn’t outright illegal but it definitely wasn’t liked, so Ligia’s faith is already questionable but also it’s a totally foreign idea to Vinicius.  He has all the power and wealth he could want; why on earth would someone want to follow a faith that tells you to give up stuff like that?  Foolishness.

So with this very simple plot, off we go.  Of course it gets more complicated; it’s set against the backdrop of Nero, who was batshit crazy and a half.  Petronius, Vinicius’s uncle, is one of Nero’s advisors (of a sort) and through his eyes we get to see the court falling apart as Nero loses touch with reality more and more.  The main punch of the book is when Rome gets set on fire, which Sienkiewicz described brilliantly, hauntingly, and horrifyingly.  For a city that large and that flammable to catch fire would indeed have been a sight for the ages, but the amount of people it displaced for the whims of a mad emperor is just staggering.

And then Nero blames it on the Christians—cue lions, torture, gore, and all of the awful debauchery that Rome could offer.  We of the 21st century are scary good at causing pain, but we have nothing on Rome.  They were terrifying in the amounts of ways they concocted to kill people; it’s even reflected in the language.  There are over thirty different verbs for “to kill” in ancient Latin.

I do try to correct folks when they think everything from Jesus to Constantine was lions eating Christians because that isn’t true.  Wide-scale persecution was relatively rare; most of the time Christians were mistrusted and ignored or simply thrown in jail for a while.  But sometimes they became scapegoats of epic proportions, and Sienkiewicz does a fantastic job of capturing how frightening and overwhelming that would be.  And one of the best parts about this book is that it makes you look at Christianity itself all over again.

Christianity is so completely embedded in modern Western culture we simply can’t look around without seeing it.  But when it was new and weird and secretive and still being ironed out—I don’t want to romanticize that at all, but I do love reading stories that make me remember it.  This is a time where there aren’t written stories but instead you would hear the Gospel from Peter himself (yeah, Peter and Paul have bit parts in this; it’s pretty awesome because I’m always ready to have them be ornery humans with their own doubts and fears, not knowing how much they would become pillars of the Church).  This is a time when there are the earliest of hymns, when people were still using the fish (ichthus) to identify each other, when books like Revelation make sense because people really did think Jesus was coming back any day because surely the world was tearing itself apart at the seams.

Sienkiewicz definitely has an angle—Nero bad, Christians good—but this isn’t at all a religion pitch.  He returns over and over again to how hard it is to be part of this faith and how different the early version of it was compared to what we know.  And the remarkable thing is that he was writing at the turn of the 20th century yet you can tell his heart is in the history of this rather than any attempts to convert the reader (of course, he would likely have assumed all of his readers would have been Christian already anyway).  Some of the characters don’t get Christianity and end the book still not getting it and yet being fully themselves, and five million points to an author who respects his/her characters enough not to try and force them into conversion moments.  My only real problem with characterization is in how Sienkiewicz talks about Ursus, Ligia’s bodyguard; a lot of the language there is very much about how this barbarian (they’re political hostages from a northern kingdom) is so very slow and more brawn than brains.  That caught me up several times because it’s so bald, but Ursus was still a real and marvelous character who actually stands in for the reader sometimes when we’re trying to understand what’s going on.  He also becomes a paradigm of loyalty and an example to be followed.

There is violence and sex and this is not for the faint of heart, Reader, but it is well worth the time, especially in this more modern translation (mad props to W. S. Kuniczak).  It’s a great story as well as a really well-written imagining of the early days of Christianity. I’ll definitely be keeping this on hand.

 

Rating:  4.5/5 stars  People of the Books:  Why I Am a Catholic by Garry Wills

 

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