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.)