"Their glances locked for a while--the one mild and curious, the other venomous and bitter--and no one in that vast gathering of people or within Caesar's brilliant retinue realized that the two most powerful rulers of mankind were looking at each other just then. Nor did it even occur to anyone that one of them would soon be gone, vanished into darkness like a gory nightmare, while the other, the old man in the worn gray cloak of slaves and wanderers, would seize possession of the city and the world and hold them forever."
The world's current tragedies, conflicts, and the moral issues that plague our own society are large, sobering, and serious. While this is indeed the case, it doesn't negate the fact that--as many problems plague our world today--history tells us that we have come a long way.
I think it is absolutely imperative for someone to truly know his or her history because, in learning about our past, we come to understand our present and shape our future.
Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz is a piece of outstanding historical fiction that takes place in Rome during the emperor Nero's reign, from approximately 54-68 AD. Through incredible, seemingly eye-witness detail, Sienkiewicz's writing reminds one how dark, how truly dark, the world was before the Light came into it.
Living in a Christian civilization, there is so much that I at least take for granted. Upon entering the world of the Roman empire under Nero's rule, suddenly everything was disturbingly different. The violence, debauchery, lavishness, irrationality, baseness, and lust that characterize Nero's rule are unmatched to anything we might see here today in our nation.
"Rome ruled mankind, but it was also its cesspool and its seeping ulcer. It reeked of death and corpses. Death's shadow lay over its decomposing life...All that passed for life in this capital of the earth seemed suddenly like some kind of mad processional for capering buffoons, a dance of mindless clowns, and a bloody orgy that had to end by its own excess."
The darkness dimmed the Roman ideology, too. The whole mindset and perspective of your average Roman was based on a foundation absolutely different from that of Christianity. A quote from one of the main characters illustrates the dominate philosophy of pagan Rome:
"Fakery is in fashion. The world lives by deceit and life is an illusion anyway, so what harm is there in cheating and being cheated? The soul is also an illusion. The only thing that counts is to be intelligent enough to distinguish between the illusions of pleasure and pain."
As the reader gradually comes to understand the basic characteristics of ancient Rome, one begins to comprehend what an absolutely foreign, unprecedented, and mind-boggling thing Christianity truly was at that time.
I remember wrestling with a hypothetical situation about a year ago. I imagined myself before a vicious interrogator, who held our child hostage and threatened to end her life unless I rejected my faith. What would I do, if I ever found myself in such a situation?
Quo Vadis takes one among the very first Christian believers, Sts. Peter and Paul included. The immensity of their task, the sheer daunting enormity of winning hearts and souls in such a dark lair of sin and evil is incredible. And the consequences of their allegiance to Christ were deadly.
As I read, I couldn't help but think to myself: these are my brothers and sisters. These people believe the same things that I believe today--the same Faith, the same Church. And look...look at what they did! And me: what am I doing?
With astounding detail, Sienkiewicz relates the great burning of Rome, as if he had been standing there amongst the flames and devastation. With the same vividness, he recounts Nero's ruthless and merciless punishment of the Christians, whom he blames for the destruction of the seat of the empire.
Christians are devoured by wild animals obtained from all corners of the Roman world. They are crucified. They are set on flames as human torches, lighting up the streets of Rome. Mothers and fathers clutch their children to their chests as they face imminent death.
"As if this were a signal, the pack hurled itself into the breech in dozens and tore into the Christians. The gallery quieted down, stopped howling and watched the scene below with greater attention. The quavering men's and women's voices still cried out their plaintive 'Pro Christo! Pro Christo!' amid the snarls and growling, but the arena was now a heaving, tumbling mass of dogs and mutilated prey. Blood stained the sand in streams. The dogs fought each other for bits of human offal. They tore bloody arms and legs out of each other's jaws. The stench of blood and ordure filled the amphitheater. The kneeling figures who were left soon vanished under the swarming mass."
I return to my hypothetical. Would I have the same courage as these? Would my gaze be on beyond this world? Would I see, too, that life begins after death...that I don't exist for this world...that this death will bring about victory?
I knew, years before I met my husband, that I would want our honeymoon to be in Rome. It was always my dream to visit St. Peter's Basilica. It worked out quite conveniently that my husband-to-be shared the same dream. So, the day after our wedding, we took a plane to the eternal city.
As I read Quo Vadis, I could picture so clearly the setting: the sunset that gilded all the buildings, the intense heat of a summer afternoon, the grandeur of it all.
One of the greatest highlights of our honeymoon was a special tour we took of St. Peter's, which brought us below ground level to some ancient burial places that had been evacuated. It was during this evacuation that the bones of St. Peter had been found--buried way below ground, exactly underneath where the main altar was later placed. As the climax of the tour, we were able to see and pray before his bones. Christ literally built His Church on the foundation that is the rock of St. Peter.
And it was none other than the blood of the martyrs--the blood that Caesar ordered shed to wipe-out the Christians--that was the seed of the Church.
From simply a historical perspective, Quo Vadis is an incredible read. Sienkiewicz meticulously researched the setting of his novel and it shows, from the proper names he uses to describe Roman culture to the geographical position of various places in the city. To read his novel is truly to enter into the world of ancient Rome.
On top of this is another motivation to pick up the book: enter into the greatest conversion that changed an empire and a world.
Maybe, through this novel, you'll experience a deeper conversion yourself!