Study Guide

Quo Vadis

by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Quo Vadis Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

At the beginning of Quo Vadis, after being injured and cared for at the house of the general Plautius, warrior hero and tribune Marcus Vinicius tells his uncle Petronius about his unquenchable desire for a beautiful woman he saw at the general’s home and seeks his help in obtaining her. After the pair visit the general, Petronius tells Vinicius he has a plan to obtain the woman.

Petronius tells Nero that Lygia, a hostage of Rome who therefore belongs to Caesar, dwells in the home of Plautius. When Nero sends a centurion to retrieve Lygia from the general’s home, Pomponia fears they are coming to kill her husband but is little relieved when she discovers their real mission. Encouraging her adopted daughter to be strong in her Christian faith, she and the general release her to Nero’s care, sending with her Christian servants, including the giant Ursus. The angry general rightly suspects Petronius is behind the taking of Lygia and perhaps intends to make her a concubine for himself or Vinicius.

Placed among the concubines, Lygia is directed to the care of Acte, a freedwoman and Nero’s former lover, by a letter from Pomponia, who knows Acte has sympathy for the Christians. Acte promises to keep her from the lustful gaze of the emperor. At first believing Petronius betrayed him, Vinicius is delighted to learn that his uncle intends to see that Lygia be given to him. At one of Nero’s debauched parties, a drunken Vinicius tries to seduce Lygia, who is saved by Ursus.

Vinicius eagerly anticipates the arrival of Lygia from Nero’s palace and is enraged when he learns that someone has spirited her away. In a fit of anger, he smashes the skull of one of the slaves who had failed to prevent her being taken, even though the slave had nursed him from boyhood.

At the...

(The entire section is 747 words.)

Quo Vadis Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Quo Vadis is a novel set in ancient Rome at the time of the Emperor Nero and the early Christians. The title, a quotation from the New Testament, is Latin for “where are you going?” and on the most literal level refers to the scene in which the Christian apostle Peter has to decide whether to stay in Rome or leave it. In the scene, Peter is on his way out of Rome when he is confronted by a passerby who asks him the question; Peter’s response is that he is returning to Rome to make that city the Christian capital in accordance with visions he has seen.

On one level, this is a statement that the Christian church will find its center in Rome rather than in the Middle East, where Christianity originated. On another level, if the novel is in some way referring to the relationship between Poland and Russia in the nineteenth century, then the title question can be seen as a question for Poland and its future. The scene with the “Quo vadis” question comes near the end of the novel and looks forward to the ultimate triumph of Christianity that the narrator discusses in the closing chapters.

The opening chapters of the novel place the reader in the very non-Christian milieu of Nero’s imperial court, with its orgies and spectacles. Christianity comes into the story because the young Roman officer Marcus Vinitius falls in love with a Christian girl named Ligia, the daughter of a foreign king defeated by Rome. Ligia is drawn to Vinitius but is put off by his crude advances and flees with the help of her strongman servant Ursus.

Both angry and lovesick, Vinitius enlists the help of his uncle Petronius, the arbiter of elegance at Nero’s court, and a Greek...

(The entire section is 696 words.)

Quo Vadis Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When Vinicius returns to Rome after serving duty in the colonies, he calls on his uncle, Petronius, who is one of the most influential men in Rome. A friend of Emperor Nero, Petronius owns a beautiful home, choice slaves, and numerous objects of art. Petronius has no delusions about the emperor; he knows quite well that Nero is coarse, conceited, brutal, and thoroughly evil. Petronius is happy to see his handsome young nephew. Vinicius has fallen in love with Lygia, the daughter of a foreign king, now living with Aulus, Plautius, and Pomponia, and he asks his uncle to help him get Lygia as his concubine. Petronius speaks to Nero, and Lygia is ordered to be brought to the palace. Lygia’s foster parents send with the young woman the giant Ursus, who is Lygia’s devoted servant.

At a wild orgy in the palace, Vinicius attempts to make love to Lygia, but he does not succeed, owing to the watchfulness of Acte, who is a Christian and a former concubine of Nero. Lygia herself is a Christian, and she fears both the lust of Vinicius and that of the emperor himself. Then Acte receives information that Lygia is to be handed over to Vinicius. At the same time, the daughter of Empress Augusta dies, and the empress and her circle believe that Lygia bewitched the child. Alarmed at the dangers threatening Lygia, Acte and Ursus plan Lygia’s escape.

That night, the servants of Vinicius arrive at the palace and lead Lygia away. Meanwhile, Vinicius waits at his house, where a great feast is to take place in honor of his success in securing Lygia. Lygia, however, never arrives, for on the way to his house Vinicius’s servants are attacked by a group of Christians who are determined to free the young woman, their fellow Christian. Lygia’s rescuers take her outside the city walls to live in a Christian colony.

Vinicius is furious when he learns what has happened. Petronius sends some of his own men to watch for Lygia at the gates of the city, and as the days pass Vinicius grows more and more upset. Finally, Chilo, a Greek who passes as a philosopher, offers to find Lygia—for a sufficient reward. By pretending to be a convert to Christianity, he learns where the Christians meet secretly. He and Vinicius, together with a giant named Croton, go to the meeting place and then follow Lygia to the house where she is staying. When they attempt to seize her, Ursus kills Croton, and Vinicius is injured during the fight. For a few days afterward he stays with the Christians, who take care of him. Lygia nurses him until she becomes aware that she is in love with the pagan patrician; when she realizes what her feelings are, she decides to leave his care to others rather than put herself in a position where she might succumb to temptation.

Vinicius heard the Christians speaking of their religious philosophy at their meeting, and while recuperating he is amazed by their goodness and their forgiveness. He hears their leader, Peter, talk of Christ and of Christ’s miracles, and his mind becomes filled with odd and disturbing thoughts. He realizes that he must either hate or love the God...

(The entire section is 1268 words.)