Fallen Leaves wishes its readers, whoever they may be, a happy Orthodox Easter.
The miracle of Pascha is to turn death into life. Ultimately, no amount of positive thinking or aesthetic cultivation will help one to avoid the one experience that is common to everyone and yet is always undertaken utterly alone. But now, instead of defeat and tragedy, it points the way to renewed life; and one is no longer alone, but accompanied by God Himself, who freely chose to share in the suffering of each human being.
The world, however, subsequently divided into one part that rejoiced in this message, and one that responded with extreme violence. The persecution of the early Christians is not simple to explain, and from a certain angle can easily seem implausible. For one thing, much of what we know about it comes from Christian sources, for which descriptions of increasingly outlandish methods of torture and execution became a genre convention. Secondly, much of what we think we know about this period actually comes from popular sources that appeared much later — for example, 19th-century novels and paintings, whose outwardly pious subject provided a cover for cheap thrills and vulgar titillation.
“The Christian Dirce,” Henryk Siemiradzki, 1897.
Sadism and nudity. Oh, it’s also supposed to be allegorical.
Your mental image of ancient Rome is likely heavily influenced by a novel from 1896 that you may never even have heard of, Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz. This book was the prototype for the Hollywood historical epic, and indeed was made into one in 1951.
Sienkiewicz has it all: voluptuous orgies, cinematically graphic executions, caricatured tyrants, exotic opulence and equally exotic cruelty, and of course, a love story. The plot describes how a hot-headed young patrician, Marcus Vinicius, falls in love with a saintly young Christian girl, which leads him to abandon his wealth and status. As a Roman in a 19th-century European novel, Vinicius is of course totally unable to control his impulses, and works off his anger by sadistically whipping his slaves. He first attempts to purchase Lygia’s affection with material luxury, then offers to make a lavish sacrifice to her strange new god and cannot understand why she is not impressed, but eventually is converted by none other than St. Peter and St. Paul (the VIP treatment!). This coincides with Nero’s persecutions, and Lygia is sentenced to be gored by a bull in the Colosseum for all to see, but, inevitably, the Hollywood ending conquers all. It also turns out that Vinicius does not quite have to abandon all of his wealth, as the happy couple is able to retire to his private holdings in Sicily.
Ostensibly, the novel upholds Christian humility and pacifism. It also has a Roman Catholic ideological dimension that is presented tastefully, but deliberately — St. Peter has a convenient vision telling him that he is to become the leader of a great church, which is openly said to be a “new” Roman Empire, replacing the decadent empire of Nero. Despite these religious aims, however, Quo Vadis is almost comical in its failure to present a remotely plausible depiction of Christian devotion, which ultimately reveals the author’s total lack of understanding of religious feeling and what might actually drive someone to convert. Instead, we learn that teenage hormones, evidently, are the most effective religious motivation. St. Paul’s speech to Vinicius occurs somewhere offscreen; we immediately cut to Vinicius, who has instantly become a new man glowing with faith. Nero inflicts horrific suffering on Christians, but for the most part unnamed extras are the ones doing the suffering. Sienkiewicz actually makes it a point to write that, even though the depraved Roman guards in Nero’s dungeons constantly rape female Christians, Lygia alone is somehow spared this fate, just so that she may land in the male lead’s chiseled arms untarnished as Rome burns in the background with dramatic music playing.
From a purely literary perspective, Quo Vadis has certain strengths, but Christianity was the last thing on Sienkiewicz’s mind. And so, reading this manipulative book creates the temptation to transfer one’s skepticism to its source material. Did Romans really watch gladiators kill each other in the arena, or was it more like a professional athletic competition? Would they really have thrown Christians to the lions?
A gladiator’s helmet, with extra protection.
But then, one does not preclude the other. The crowds could have enjoyed an organized display of martial arts by two teams of highly paid sportsmen, followed by a brawl to the death between poorly equipped, half-starved prisoners. Perhaps we should view it as a kind of video game for a world that lacked the necessary technology. Being civilized people, Romans would surely have taken the opportunity to maim and kill purely virtual opponents (who, of course, are considerate enough to let the player win every time), had it been available.
In general, the rationale for many excesses of ancient history is now visible. “Bread and circuses,” for example, used to seem like a fanciful exaggeration, a grotesque caricature of decadence. But now we see the logic of it — Roman emperors found it convenient to make the population depend on their personal good graces, if necessary by deliberately preventing people from making a living on their own. Roman and later Byzantine emperors separated their personal guard from the army proper and recruited its complement outside the capital and, often, outside the country. Many of the guardsmen could not speak the language of the empire and thus were isolated from its society; they were privileged and at the same time universally hated, again totally dependent on the ruler’s good will.
So, to answer the question of whether Romans would have enjoyed watching Christians being torn apart by lions, perhaps we should ask whether contemporary audiences would enjoy something similar as well. And the answer is: of course they would! Romans were arguably less bloodthirsty, for the sole reason that they didn’t have journalists to incite them on social media. So, in a very indirect, unintended way, Quo Vadis is indeed more accurate than I may have made it out to be. Here is its single best scene. Sienkiewicz’s Nero, who fancies himself a poet and artist, craves validation from his courtiers, and murders anyone who fails to praise him with sufficient enthusiasm. Petronius, a highly cultured, independent-minded patrician with impeccable manners and aesthetic sensibilities, is asked to comment on Nero’s latest work:
from Quo Vadis, Chapter XL
“What is truth?” Nicholas Ge, 1890.
What does this have to do with the historical Nero? Very little, I imagine. In Sienkiewicz’s time this character must have seemed utterly ridiculous. But now it is easy to identify him: this Nero is us. The infantile, petulant narcissist, who explodes in violent fury when colliding with reality, is the model for humanity that is offered and enabled by contemporary Western society. The violence is still mostly virtual, but clearly doesn’t have to be. All that is needed before they bring out the lions (imagine the ratings! people will start watching the Oscars again!) is a suitable target, much like how, in Quo Vadis, Nero blames Christians for the fire of Rome.
The point is not whether Nero was a mad tyrant — perhaps the real Nero was the best Rome had. But the part of Roman society that lashed out against Christianity was hard-hearted, callous, self-obsessed, and increasingly detached from reality. The greatest crime of Christianity, in their view, was that it called them back to the world of normal human feeling: Jesus weeping for Lazarus, the prodigal son returning to the Father, the publican standing afar off. “What is truth?” Pilate said to Jesus. He said it with a rueful laugh; his only remaining conviction, after a distinguished career in the Roman diplomatic and military corps, was that there is no truth. He knew that he was presiding over a travesty of justice, but he had ceased to believe in justice itself.
We only see fragments of the ancient world reflected in our own, but the reflection is very clear. Just as Pilate’s cynicism and Nero’s rage can be seen in our world, so can Martha careful and troubled about many things, Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, Peter filled with bitter regret over his cowardice — the normal, ordinary people who have been told that their existence is not needed. And yet, the all-powerful masters of the world died in their sins, while those they despised did not perish, but were passed from death unto life. “He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.”
Христос воскресе из мертвых, смертию смерть поправ,
и сущим во гробех живот даровав!