Reviewed by David Maclaine
Let's try not to blame the author of Quo Vadis for being so successful that a lot of woefully ignorant people have come to believe that the central conflict in his novel was the reason the Roman Empire fell. Henryk Sienkiewicz founded his story on a lot of scrupulous research. He integrated the early Christian Church's traditions about the ministries of Saints Peter and Paul with histories of Nero's reign. His novel was an international bestseller and was adapted into a film, so the author's vision of the resolute, righteous early Christians trying to survive persecution by a morally dissolute emperor became for a great many people their main image from Roman history. Far too many Christians now cherish the naïve belief that the Roman Empire fell because it was undermined by the sexual license of its pagan rulers, blissfully unaware that the fifth-century catastrophe that shattered the Western half of the empire came a century after Christianity had become the Empire's official religion.
Quo Vadis deserves better. It is a work wrought with descriptive power and a major novelist's gift for characterization. The account of the famous fire that destroyed much of Nero's Rome may be more cataclysmic than modern research would support, but it leaves readers with unforgettable images of mass destruction. If the devout Christian girl at the heart of the story is a bit too much the pure and perfect heroine, there's real art in the depiction of the unscrupulous Greek hired to track her down, one of the most amusing scoundrels in literature. Sienkiewicz' greatest accomplishment is his magnificent portrait of Petronius Arbiter, who embodies all the best of the Epicurean philosophy, and whose love for beauty, grace and cultivated pleasure is the perfect counterpoise to the Apostles' austere view of life. Sienkiewicz makes it possible both to applaud Christianity's core of compassion and its new vision of human equality, and to mourn the loss of the culture it replaced. (1895 in the original Polish in serial form; most modern editions in English 400-550 pages)More about Quo Vadis at Powell's Books or Amazon.com