Book reviews

Henryk Sienkiewicz’ Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero (Book League of America, 1925; originally published 1895-1896)

Whether the dictator is Nero, Stalin, Obama, or Communist China, a novel which speaks to our times.

Sienkiewicz’ massive novel of Christians persecuted under the pagan Roman emperor Nero reads like real life for Christians who survived Lenin, Stalin, Clinton, Obama, Communist Chinese, or other dictators who tried to crush Christianity.

Relevancy aside, the novel is a masterpiece of swarming detail; lugubrious paragraphs; and dynamic, not static characters—many of whom are people we first hate and then love (think Susan Lucci of All My Children).

The detail of the novel is amazing and reminds one that the ancient Roman Empire was as diverse as the contemporary United States: languages, races, literature, religions, etc.  Sienkiewicz must have researched the empire thoroughly to be able to enumerate such details.  See, for example, his descriptions of the Roman Forum and the general population (chapters II and XXXVI); typical Roman orgies (chapters VII and XXXI); the Great Fire of Rome (chapter XLIII); and the gladiators’ deaths and the slaughter of Christians (the “orgy of blood” in chapter LV).  These last examples are not for the weak.

The details that Sienkiewicz provides account, no doubt, for the lugubrious paragraphs, often running more than one page.  The print is small, and the 422 pages could be a severe challenge to contemporary American readers, who are more familiar with meager paragraphs and lots of insipid dialogue.  Stay with the reading, however; you will find yourself not lost in detail but immersed in the ancient world.  It helps, too, if one has visited Rome.  Reading about Trastevere (“Trans-Tiber” in the novel) and other Roman sites is enhanced if you’ve walked on the Janiculum or on “the island” in the Tiber.

True, Sienkiewicz mentions that there are thousands of people who fill the Roman Forum, the Circus, and the city of Rome itself, but, fortunately, only a handful of his characters are memorable.  My favorites:

Chilo, the old con man, whom we love to hate at first for betraying the Christians and who later becomes a Christian himself on seeing the man whom he betrayed (Glaucus) burned to death on a cross for Nero’s sadistic pleasure (chapter LXI).

Eunice, faithful slave to Petronius (he of Satyricon fame), who, although still a pagan, loves her master more like a Christian wife than a pagan slave.

Petronius, pagan Roman and author of Satyricon, uncle to one of the main characters, Vinicius, a tribune.  Arbiter of good taste in Nero’s court, he eventually commits suicide and despises Nero’s buffoonery and evil acts.  His suicide with Eunice at his side is an exemplar of their love for each other, although it does not comport with the Christian admonition to protect life.

Why read a master novel from a dead white male who constructed this masterpiece between 1895 and 1896?  Easy.

First, it’s a masterpiece, and, unless you’re an Antifa domestic terrorist, this work of literature cannot be torn down as easily as a statue.

Second, the novel is certainly entertaining, for both good and bad.  Bad, because readers will come to know how ancient Romans were cruel, vicious killers.  Good, because we will learn again the idea that what makes Christianity different from pagan religions is that it is based on love, the only force which destroyed such an evil empire as that of the ancient Romans.

Third, and most relevant for today, the Christian imperative to love, especially one’s enemies, worked against all those dictators and despots throughout the centuries who wanted to destroy the new faith, whether Nero in ancient times or, in the twentieth century, Lenin and Stalin, and, even closer to the American homeland, Clinton and Obama.  All these dictators despised human life, whether born (as in Nero’s case) or unborn (as in the cases of Clinton and Obama, who violently supported abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia during their occupations of the White House as American presidents).

Philosophically, a reader will become aware of other key ideas which Christianity contributed to the world.  Sienkiewicz makes it clear that Rome and the despot Nero “did not exist” for the first-century Christians, so focused they were on Christ Himself (chapter XX).  Christians brought the power of forgiveness to the world (chapter LXI), and it is inferred that Christians were the impetus for free speech, which leads to happiness, since no one could speak his or her mind freely under Nero’s despotic rule (chapter XXVI).  Moreover, Christians had respect for marital and sexual love while Romans just engaged in debauchery (chapter XXXIII).  Finally, the idea that “before God men are equal” is clearly a Christian idea in contrast to the Roman view which devalued human life, such as slaves (chapter LXIII).

For this reason alone, Sienkiewicz’ novel will give those who defend human life in this twenty-first Christian century, attacked by a new era of pagans, great hope.  After all, the despot Nero is gone, but ordinary life-affirming humanity continues.  As Sienkiewicz writes in his penultimate paragraph in the Epilogue: “And so Nero passed, as a whirlwind, as a storm, as a fire, as war or death passes; but the basilica of Peter rules till now, from the Vatican heights, the city, and the world.”

How fortunate for us that, no matter how many despots have arisen since 1895, what was true then is still true today.

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