I’m reading, for one of my classes at Thomas More College, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel set in the last days of Saints Peter and Paul, Quo Vadis? The Rome of that imperial matricide, mass murderer, poetaster, and buffoon, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus Nero, was “a nest of evil,” “a seat of power, madness but also order, the capital of the world and also mankind’s most terrible oppressor, bringer of laws and peace, all-powerful, invulnerable, eternal,” so wicked, that Peter cannot fathom why God should lead him to build the Church upon such a foundation. Even the libertine Petronius understands that such a Rome cannot endure. “A society based on brute force and violence,” thinks that arbiter of taste, “on cruelty beyond anything possible among the barbarians, and on such universal viciousness and debauchery, could not survive forever. 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.”
Rome, pagan Rome, was exhausted. She would, in the next few centuries, produce a few fine public buildings, some aqueducts and roads, one near-great poet (Juvenal), a sad philosopher king (Marcus Aurelius), and a brief efflorescence of Platonic mysticism not uninfluenced by Christianity. That was it.
The west, the post-Christian west, is exhausted. She exceeds ancient Rome in population by twenty to one, she enjoys plentiful food and drink, and labor-saving (and labor-eliminating) machines, and the moral heritage of its Christian past, mainly spent down and in many places mortgaged. But she is exhausted. …
Quo Vadis? is a story of the irruption of the Christian faith into that exhausted world. Its protagonist, a young patrician named Marcus Vinicius, learns of a God who makes the Roman pantheon look ridiculous and shabby, and a force, a new thing in the world, Christian love, that the world dreads and yet desperately needs. Greece brought the world beauty, and Rome brought the world power, says his uncle Petronius, but what do these Christians bring? From what Petronius can see, all they bring is gloom; they spoil what few and fleeting pleasures are available to man in this life. But by the end of the novel Petronius admits that it is not so, though he cannot share in this new thing, this adoration of the God of love.
Vinicius will become a baptized follower of Christ. His passionate and violent desire for a young Christian woman—whom he would kidnap and rape rather than not enjoy—will be transformed, through his own defeat and humiliation, and a veritable miracle of Christ that saves her from the bloodthirsty Nero, into a love that he had never known, and that requires him to change his life forever. So he writes to Petronius, pleading with him to become Christian also. “Compare your fear-lined delights,” he says, “your concern for material objects when none of you is sure of tomorrow, your orgies that seem like funeral suppers, and you’ll find the answer. Come to our thyme-smelling mountains, to the shade of our olive groves, and to our ivy-covered coast. Peace waits for you here, the kind of peace you haven’t known in years. And love waits for you here, in hearts that truly love you. You have a good and noble soul, Petronius. You deserve to be happy. Your brilliant mind can recognize the truth, and when you’ve seen it, you will come to love it.”
“Compare your fear-lined delights … and you’ll find the answer.”