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Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, commonly known as Quo Vadis, is a historical novel written by Henryk Sienkiewicz. Quo vadis is Latin for "Where are you going?" and alludes to a New Testament verse (John 13:36). The verse, in the King James Version, reads as follows, "Simon Peter said unto him, Lord, whither goest thou? Jesus answered him, Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards."

Quo Vadis tells of a love that develops between a young Christian woman, Ligia (or Lygia), and Marcus Vinicius, a Roman patrician. It takes place in the city of Romemarker under the rule of emperor Nero around AD 64.

Sienkiewicz studied the Roman Empire extensively prior to writing the novel, with the aim of getting historical details correct. As such, several historical figures appear in the book. As a whole, the novel carries a powerful pro-Christian message.

Published in installments in three Polish dailies in 1895, it came out in book form in 1896 and has since been translated into more than 50 languages. This novel contributed to Sienkiewicz's Nobel Prize for literature in 1905.

Several movies have been based on Quo Vadis including the 1951 Hollywood production Quo Vadis and the 2001 adaptation by Jerzy Kawalerowicz.

Characters in Quo Vadis

  • Marcus Vinicius (fictitious son of the historical Marcus Vinicius), a military tribune and Roman patrician who recently returned to Rome. Upon arrival he meets and falls in love with Ligia. He asks for the counsel of his uncle Petronius so that he can possess her.
  • Calina (fictitious), but everybody calls her Ligia (Lygia in some translations), the daughter of a deceased king of the Ligians, a barbarian tribe (hence her nickname). Ligia is technically a hostage of the Senate and people of Rome, and was forgotten years ago by her own people. A gorgeous beauty, she is a Christian (a fact unknown to Marcus).
  • C. Petronius (historical), titled the "arbiter of elegance", former governor of Bithynia. Petronius is a member of Nero's court who uses his wit to adulate and mock him at the same time. He is loved by the Roman mob for his liberal attitudes. Somewhat amoral and a bit lazy, he tries to help his nephew but his cunning plan is thwarted by Ligia's Christian friends.
  • Eunice (fictitious), household slave of Petronius. Eunice is a beautiful woman from Greece who has fallen in love with her master, who is completely unaware of this fact.
  • Chilon Chilonides (fictitious), a charlatan and a private investigator. He is hired by Marcus to find Ligia. This character is usually severely reduced in most movie versions and in the mini-series (with the exception of the 2001 Polish film), but in the novel itself Chilon is of major importance. A doublecrossing traitor, his end is clearly inspired by Saint Dismas.
  • Nero (historical), portrayed as an incompetent, petty, and cruel emperor, who is manipulated by his courtesans. He listens most intently to flatterers and fools.
  • Tigellinus (historical), the prefect of the feared Praetorian Guard. He is a rival of Petronius for Nero's favour and incites Nero into committing many cruel acts.
  • Poppaea Sabina (historical), the wife of Nero. She envies and hates Ligia passionately.
  • Acte (historical), an Imperial slave and former mistress of Nero. Nero has grown tired of her and now mostly ignores her, but she still loves him. She studies the Christian faith, but does not consider herself worthy enough to convert fully.
  • Aulus Plautius (historical), a respected retired Roman general who commanded the invasion of Britain. Aulus seems to be unaware (or simply doesn't want to know) of the fact that Pomponia, his wife, and Ligia, his adoptive daughter, profess the Christian religion.
  • Pomponia Graecina (historical), a Christian convert. Quite dignified and much respected. Pomponia and Aulus are Ligia's adoptive parents but they are unable to legalize the fact. According to Roman law Ligia is still a hostage of the Roman state, i.e. the Emperor, being guarded and cared by the elderly couple.
  • Ursus (fictitious), the bodyguard of Ligia. Her tribesman, he served her late mother and is strongly devoted to his princess. A Christian, he struggles to follow the teachings of Christianity despite his enormous size, great strength, and barbarian mindset. He is clearly portrayed as the noble savage.
  • Saint Peter (historical), a tired old man with the task of preaching the message of Christ. He is amazed by the power of Rome and the vices of emperor Nero (in the novel Peter names him the Beast). Sometimes he doubts that he will be able to plant and to protect the 'good seed' (Christianity)
  • Saint Paul (historical), takes a personal interest in converting Marcus.
  • Crispus (fictitious), clearly a Christian zealot bordering on being a fanatic.

Historical events

Sienkiewicz alludes to several historical events and merges them in his novel, but some of them are of doubtful authenticity.

  • In AD 57 Pomponia was indeed charged with practising a "foreign superstition", usually understood to mean conversion to Christianity. Nevertheless, the religion itself is not clearly identified. According to ancient Roman tradition she was tried in a family court by her own husband Aulus (the pater familias), to be subsequently acquitted. However, inscriptions in the catacombs of Saint Callistus in Rome suggest that members of Graecina's family were indeed Christians.
  • The rumor that Vespasian fell asleep during a song sung by Nero is recorded by Suetonius in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars.
  • The death of Claudia Augusta, sole child of Nero, in AD 63.
  • The Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which in the novel is started by orders of Nero. There is no hard evidence to support this, and it is worth pointing out that fires were very common in Rome at the time.
  • The suicide of Petronius is clearly based on the account of Pliny the Elder.

Similarities with Barrett play

1896 was also the year that playwright-actor-manager Wilson Barrett produced his successful play The Sign of the Cross onstage. Although Barrett never acknowledged it, several elements in the play strongly resemble those in Quo Vadis. In both, a Roman soldier named Marcus falls in love with a Christian woman and wishes to "possess" her. (In the novel, her name is Ligia, in the play she is Mercia.) Nero, Tigellinus and Poppea are major characters in both the play and novel, and in both, Poppea lusts after Marcus. Petronius, however, does not appear in The Sign of the Cross, and the ending of the play diverges from that of Quo Vadis.


Two films were produced in 1912 and 1925.. It was remade in 1951.

The character Ursus was featured in a number of Italian adventure films from 1961 to 1964. He was first featured in 1961's Ursus, where he must rescue his fiancee from a sacrificial cult, and was portrayed by actor Ed Fury. This film was released in the United Statesmarker initially as Mighty Ursus and was later adapted for the Americanmarker television film package, The Sons of Hercules, where it was retitled "Ursus, Son of Hercules". In 1961's La Vendetta di Ursus (The Revenge of Ursus), while portrayed by Samson Burke, Ursus is a farmer with his younger brother Doraius, who fights to prevent the malicious King Zagro and Lycurgas from overtaking the neighboring kingdom of Leecha. That same year, Ed Fury returned in Ursus nella valle dei leoni (Ursus in the Valley of the Lions), in which he is the prince of a fallen kingdom, raised by lions after the rest of the royal family was killed.

The next film, Ursus e la regazza tartara (Ursus and the Tartar Girl, released in English-speaking countries as Ursus and the Tartar Princess), was filmed in Francemarker in 1962, and starred Britishmarker actor Joe Robinson as Ursus, but takes place in Central Asia; Ursus fights a Khan played by famous Armenianmarker actor Akim Tamiroff. This film was also released to American television under the title "The Tartar Invasion". Ursus nella terra di fuoc] (Ursus in the Land of Fire), released in 1963, yet again stars Ed Fury. In it, Ursus must overthrow a vicious general who has overtaken the throne of an unnamed country. It was adapted for The Sons of Hercules package, where it was retitled "Son of Hercules in the Land of Fire".

Ursus's next three films were Ursus il gladiatore rebelle (Ursus The Rebel Gladiator, aka "Rebel Gladiators"), 1963 (starring Dan Vadis); Ursus il terrore dei kirghisi (Ursus, the Terror of the Kirghiz, aka "Hercules, Prisoner of Evil") 1964 (starring Reg Park); and Gli Invincibili Tre (The Invincible Three, also released to American television as "Three Avengers") 1964 (starring Alan Steel as Ursus). The final film to feature Ursus was the relatively high-budget teamup film Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincible(Hercules, Samson, Maciste and Ursus: the Invincibles) (1964) which was released in English-speaking countries as "Samson and the Mighty Challenge" . The film features Ursus along with Maciste, Samson and Hercules. Yann Larvor portrays Ursus in this film, while Alan Steel played Hercules, Renato Rossini played Maciste and Nadir Baltimore played Samson. This film was also released in Europe as "Le Grand Defi" and "Combate dei Gigantes".

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