Places: Quo Vadis

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Quo vadis, 1896 (English translation, 1896)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: c. 64 c.e.

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Rome

*Rome. Quo VadisCapital of the vast Roman Empire, which ruled over perhaps fifty million people in Nero’s time, most of Europe and the Middle East. All the subjects of the empire are represented in Quo Vadis, from Germans to Egyptians, giving Rome a cosmopolitan quality unmatched until the twentieth century. This great ancient city of more than one million people (half of whom are slaves) provides Henryk Sienkiewicz with a stage on which to present a vast morality play. Two Romes are shown in competition. One, that of Caesar, is dying. The other, that of Christ, is being born.

The novel reaches its climax when Nero starts a fire that consumes much of the city. Fire is a symbol of both destruction and perfection. Christians preach that the world will perish in fire, and Christ promised to cast fire upon the earth. Christianity itself is said to have begun with flames of fire at Pentecost. In this symbol Sienkiewicz illustrates both the death and coming rebirth of Rome.

Nero’s palace

Nero’s palace. The novel repeatedly contrasts houses. Nero’s Roman palace is the home of a beast who “devours.” Evenings, the palace is the site of excessively lavish and wasteful meals, lascivious sexuality, mediocre artistic performances, superstition, malicious court intrigue, militant atheism, and savage brutality. (Christians are occasionally used as human torches to illuminate evening garden parties). The ultimate waste is Nero’s order to burn Rome so that its destruction may inspire his poetry.

Christian houses

Christian houses. Homes of Roman Christians, who typically live in the labyrinthine alleys of cheap Roman apartment complexes. Their houses are places of labor, not leisure, of poverty, not luxury. Nevertheless, these homes are characterized by true equality, simplicity, joy, hope, trust, and love. They radiate compassion, as when a Christian physician tends his would-be murderer.

Sand pits and tombs

Sand pits and tombs. Forbidding and forlorn places in Rome where Christians gather in secrecy at night to find fellowship and encouragement. In these places, the Christians perform baptisms and the Eucharist, preach, and pray at the same hours during which Nero’s orgies take place–a study in the marked contrast of two philosophies.


Amphitheater. Public area that Nero has had built for the brutal games in which Christian and pagan Rome meet. There, day after day, Christians are fed to wild beasts, killed by gladiators, and burned in fires to amuse the populace and to avenge their alleged responsibility for burning Rome. In contrast to the pagan blood-lust of the crowd is the symbolic blood-sacrifice of the Christians, through whose innocent lives Rome will ultimately be redeemed.

*Appian Way (Via Appia)

*Appian Way (Via Appia). Royal road outside Rome that is the site of the incident that gives the novel its title. While fleeing the Neronian persecution in Rome, Peter encounters Christ, who asks him, “Quo vadis?” (where are you going?). When Peter learns that Christ is going to Rome to be crucified anew, he retraces his steps to experience his own martyrdom. In addition to giving the novel its title. the road symbolizes the choice between the way of Caesar and the way of Christ.

Sources for Further StudyGessner, Peter. “Henry Sienkiewicz and Quo Vadis.” Bulletin of the Arts Club of Buffalo, 1997. An overview that focuses on the portrayal of the early Christians and Petronius.Giergielewicz, Mieczlav. Henryk Sienkiewicz: A Biography. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1991. An authoritative biography of the author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905.Hannan, Kevin. Review of Quo Vadis. The Sarmatian Review 15, no. 1 (January, 1995). Briefly discusses the author’s background research in ancient Rome and Poland in preparation for writing the book.Kridl, Manfred. A Survey of Polish Literature and Culture. Translated by Olga Sherer-Virski. New York: Columbia University Press, 1956. Discusses the novelist’s techniques, which he repeats in many of his works, including Quo Vadis. Describes Sienkiewicz’s use of history in this novel of ancient Rome.Krżyanowski, Julian. A History of Polish Literature. Translated by Doris Ronowicz. Warsaw: PWN-Polish Scientific Publishers, 1978. Stresses the importance Sienkiewicz places on the accuracy of historical detail in his novels. Notes how he uses this approach successfully in Quo Vadis.Lednicki, Waclaw. Henryk Sienkiewicz: A Retrospective Synthesis. The Hague: Mouton, 1960. Assessment of the novelist’s career; gives readers a sense of the relative value of Quo Vadis to other works by the writer.Mansour, Lawrence. Review of Quo Vadis. Slavic and E. European Journal 44, no. 4 (Winter, 2000): 679. Explores the rationale for and analyzes newest English translation of Sienkiewicz’s work and finds it wanting in several areas.Miłosz, Czesław. The History of Polish Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1969. Comments on the uneven quality of Sienkiewicz’s fiction. Believes the novelist presents a simplistic portrait of the classical period in Quo Vadis.Monte, Richard. “Rome in Poland.” History Today 51, no. 10 (October, 2001): 4-6. Gives insight into the Polish film release of Quo Vadis and its significance to the country.
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