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 recommendation of Petronius’s slave girl Eunice, the enraged Vinicius hires the traitorous Chilon to find his displaced property, Lygia. Chilon deduces that Lygia is a Christian, discovers the Christians’ secret worship place, and informs Vinicius that he can find her there. Vinicius, accompanied by the gladiator Croton, follows Lygia home from the worship meeting and attempts to forcibly recover her. Ursus intercepts them, kills the giant gladiator, injures Vinicius, and takes the injured man to Lygia, who nurses him back to health. In the company of the Christians and under the influence of the apostles Peter and Paul, Vinicius begins to recognize the inherent moral superiority and spiritual power of the Christian faith. After eventually converting, he is restored to his love, Lygia.
Nero’s madness grows, and he torches Rome to create an artistic moment. When the people suspect Nero of starting the fire, his wife and his adviser Tigellinus suggest that the Christians could be blamed instead. Thus begin the horrors of Nero’s persecution, in which Christians are dressed in animal skins, placed in an arena, and set on by wild beasts, or used as human torches to light the emperor’s garden at parties. In the arena, Lygia is saved from death on the horns of a bull by Ursus and released by Nero at the spectators’ demand. Lygia and Vinicius eventually escape to Sicily.
Because Christians in Rome insist that Christianity’s chief spokesperson be spared martyrdom, Peter leaves Rome with young Nazarius. On the Appian Way, Peter has a vision in which he sees the Lord walking and queries, “Quo vadis, Domine?” or “Where are you going, Lord?” to which Jesus replies he must go to Rome to be crucified a second time if Peter deserts his people. Profoundly moved, Peter returns to Rome where both he and Paul suffer martyrdom, as church tradition has held.
Petronius falls from Nero’s favor and comes under a death sentence for his defense of the Christians Vinicius and Lygia. At a party hosted for his friends, Petronius commits suicide along with his beloved slave Eunice, but not before writing a sarcastic and humorous letter to Nero enjoining him to commit any crime he...
(The entire section is 1,443 words.)