Petronius woke only about midday, and as usual greatly wearied. The evening before he had been at one of Nero's feasts, which was prolonged till late at night. For some time his health had been failing. He said himself that he woke up benumbed, as it were, and without power of collecting his thoughts. But the morning bath and careful kneading of his body by trained slaves hastened gradually the course of his slothful blood, roused him, quickened him, restored his strength, so that he issued from the elaeothesium, that is, the last division of the bath, as if he had risen from the dead, with eyes gleaming from wit and gladness, rejuvenated, filled with life, exquisite, so unapproachable that Otho himself could not compare with him, and was really that which he had been called, -- arbiter elegantiarum. (p. 3)
Summary: Marcus Vinucius, a young and handsome patrician, falls in love with Lygia, who is a beautiful hostage from a barbarian tribe, who has been raised by the general Aulus Plautius and his Christian wife Pompona Graecina. (The latter two are historical; Aulus Plautius was a reasonably successful general who governed Britain for a while, and Pompona Graecina was tried, and cleared, at one point for a 'foreign superstition', which may or may not have been Christianity, but is usually thought to have been so.) Vicinius's uncle is Gaius Petronius Arbiter (also historical, and generally thought to be the author of the satirical and bawdy Satyricon), who has special connections with Nero. Nero thinks of himself as an artist first and foremost, and as an artist he has an insatiable need to be admired by a properly appreciative critic whose taste is of the first water; as Petronius, who lives for poetry and beauty, is undeniably a critic of such taste, he has done well in Nero's court, able to navigate like no one else the emperor's swiftly changing moods. Petronius, whose love of his nephew is his one non-aesthetic motivation, uses his influence to get Lygia detached from Aulus Plautius. She, however, is a Christian, and horrified by the dissoluteness of Nero's courts; and Vinucius, not accustomed to resistance, presses his position much too hard. Lygia runs away, and Vinucius is desolate.
Petronius steps in again, hiring a wily Greek, Chilo Chilonis, to find her. Chilo realizes after just a few questions that Lygia must be a Christian, and he begins searching for her by pretending to be a Christian and infiltrating the local Christian community in Rome. After some time searching, he discovers that a major Christian leader, Peter the Apostle, is in town and the Christians will be going to hear him speak in a cemetery outside the city. Vinucius goes in the hope of seeing Lygia; to his own surprise, he is impressed by the speech of the old fisherman Peter, but he puts it all out of his mind when he sees Lygia. He follows her to where she has been hiding, but due to her loyal bodyguard Ursus, he does not succeed in carrying her away, but is wounded in the attempt. Instead of killing him, the Christians take him in and tend him until he is back to health. It becomes clear that Lygia and Vinucius are in fact falling in love, but Lygia cannot marry a non-Christian. She vanishes again, and Vinucius realizes he cannot pull her away from her faith. But he has begun to change, and, comparing his own behavior to that of the Christians, he recognizes that there was something very wrong with his prior way of viewing things, and he eventually converts. Lygia and Vinucius are betrothed with the blessing of Peter and the support of another Christian leader who has arrived in the city, Paul.
But things in the broader world are slowly rumbling to a larger doom. The emperor Nero is composing his masterwork, an epic poem about the burning of Troy. But due to some comments by Petronius, he concludes that he is failing to achieve his true potential in the poem because he has never seen a city burn. Not long afterwards, Rome does, a fire started in multiple places. Ofonius Tigellinus, the prefect of the praetorian guard and Petronius's primary rival in the court, convinces Nero to blame the Christians. Petronius's star begins to fall with Nero as, out of fear for his nephew and Lygia, he attempts, futilely, to direct Nero's actions elsewhere. Chilo betrays the Christians yet again, telling Nero and his men where to find them. They are rounded up, including Lygia, and Nero plans a great games for the very public punishment of these terrible criminals for arson, which in the premodern world is perhaps the single greatest crime one can commit in a city. The bloodthirsty crowd rejoices to see the criminals die again and again, but as Nero, in his need for artistry, cannot avoid the grandiose, even some of the most bloodthirsty start sobering as the punishments go on and on and on, and start to wonder if it can really be the case that all of these people, men and women and little children, are behind the fire, and when Nero caps his entertainments with a lighting of Christians as torches while he sings his poem about the burning of Troy, he has already raised suspicions enough about who else might have started the fires.
Vinucius and Lygia will with difficulty escape it, but many will not. Peter will be crucified. Paul will be beheaded. And Petronius having burned all of his leverage with Nero in the attempt to save Vinucius and Lygia, recognizes that Nero will likely order his death. Refusing to give him the satisfaction, he hosts one final party, of the highest taste and quality, and slits a vein. With his death, the last of the great goods that still adorned the raw power of Rome, poetry and beauty, dies, nevermore to be seen again. But the death of the apostles is a different kind of death; it is in fact the birth of a new age.
One of the things I very much like about this novel is, in fact, the focus on Petronius, who is very well characterized. He is a cynical aesthete, believing nothing, almost nihilistic in values; he is very much not a Christian, and never will become one. But there are many worse things than a life devoted to poetry and beauty, and his loyalty to his nephew is portrayed very admirably. Even in the court of Nero, some of the greatness of prior generations has not been lost. But the life of poetry and beauty has no weapons against corruption, and it is a life that passes like the flowers of the fields. Something else is needed if you want something to endure.
"Quo vadis?" ("Where are you going?") is, of course, from the a part of the legend of the death of St. Peter, which is found in the novel. Peter is convinced that, for the good of the church, he should leave to avoid the persecutions. But on the way, he has a vision in which he sees Christ going the opposite direction. "Where are you going, Lord?" he asks. And Jesus replies, "I go to Rome to be crucified again." Ashamed, Peter returns to Rome to be crucified -- which, of course, although no one could have known it at the time, is the act that seals the destiny of Rome as a Christian city. But "Quo vadis?" does not just represent this. It is the question, whether they realize it or not, that all of the characters of the novel are facing: Where are you going? And whether we realize it or not, it is the question every reader's life is tasked with answering, as well.
He had pressed his lips to her hands, white as jessamine, and for a time they heard only the beating of their own hearts. There was not the slightest movement in the air; the cypresses stood as motionless as if they too were holding breath in their breasts.
All at once the silence was broken by an unexpected thunder, deep, and as if coming from under the earth. A shiver ran through Lygia's body. Vinucius stood up, and said, --
"Lions are roaring in the vivarium."
Both began to listen. Now the first thunder was answered by a second, a third, a tenth, from all sides and divisions of the city. In Rome several thousand lions were quartered at times in various arenas, and frequently in the night-time they approached the grating, and, leaning their gigantic heads against it, gave utterance to their yearning for freedom and the desert. Thus they began on this occasion, and, answering one another in the stillness of night, they filled the whole city with roaring. There was something so indescribably gloomy and terrible in those roars that Lygia, whose bright and calm visions of the future were scattered, listened with a straitened heart and with wonderful fear and sadness.
But Vinicius encircled her with his arm, and said, --
"Fear not, dear one. The games are at hand, and all the vivaria are crowded."
Then both entered the house of Linus, accompanied by the thunder of lions, growing louder and louder. (p. 241)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.
Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis: A Tale of the Time of Nero, Dover (Minneola, NY: 2011).