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By Henryk Sienkiewicz
Translated by W.S. Kuniczak
Hippocrene Books, 1997
ISBN: 10-: 0-7818-0763-8 (he)
579 pages

Bob Corbett
Feb, 2015

I had never read this novel before. However, I did remember that the film version of the novel was extremely popular in my youth. It came out in 1951. I never saw the film, but I did remember these many years later that it was a famous film.

The novel is set in the four year period of 64 – 68 A.D. Nero is the emperor of Rome and is well on his way to insanity. He is cruel, unpredictable; a mega-maniac convinced he is indeed a god. He rules Rome for his pleasure and those around him holding various powers in the empire realize that in a moment’s change of mood, Nero might well order them exiled or killed at any time.

The masses are kept in somewhat a semblance of order by fear of imprisonment or some sort of torture or even worse.

The central plot revolves around the love affair of a Roman military leader, Vinicius, who has fallen madly in love with a woman, Ligia, who is actually in Rome, having been left there by her father, the head of a tiny nation within the empire, as a hostage to ensure that his nation follows Nero’s orders.

Vinicius, in the early part of the novel is a very mean and powerful figure. He is rich and used to being obeyed without question not only by his soldiers and many slaves he owns, but by just about anyone around him with the exception of Nero. However, he is very close to his uncle, Petronius, who is one of the senators and very close to Nero.

Venicius is just used to saying: I want X and he gets X. So he says: I want Ligia, but it isn’t so simple. Those who are close to her respect and love her, immediately hide her away so that Venicius cannot “get” her. Needless to say he is beside himself with furor.

He soon learns that she is a member of this new “cult” the followers of Jesus of Nazareth and that she is deeply influenced by two of this “Christian” religion, Peter and Paul, both of whom are in Rome.

Meanwhile Nero is the center of life in Rome and everyone else’s life spins around the wishes and whims of Nero, who is not only cruel and absolutely self-centered, but completely unpredictable, wielding the power of life, death, benefits or ruin with the snap of his fingers.

While the plot is centrally driven by the love affair, or would be love affair, between Venicius and Ligia, soon the reader is inside the inner circle of Nero’s “court” and seeing, up close, his madness, unpredictability and seemingly unlimited power and cruelty.

With Venicius we have someone central who is closely tied to Nero’s court, and with his uncle, Petronius, we are moved even more centrally inside the inner circle of the court, since Petronius, a senator, is also Nero’s most trusted “critic” of Nero’s poetry, which Petronius can, to some extent, influence and even modify by his very carefully constructed criticisms, which always seem to Nero as constructive and brilliant insights.

The novel also soon reveals to the reader the newly growing and very underground movement toward Christianity, most especially among the masses of the poor of Rome, but also, at times, even among the upper classes, which includes the circle of Ligia’s protectors.

Thus the primary story, which is gripping and often terrifying, is this struggle of Venicius to “connect” with Ligia, and his slow and gradual change from this absolute jerk of a human being to man deeply in love and beginning to learn something about the give and take of a genuine love affair.

Very soon Christianity becomes central to the plot. Ligia herself is not only a Christian but quite close to both Peter and Paul, and loved by all who know her and who desperately try to protect this astonishingly beautiful and marvelous human being from the corrupt and dangerous court of Nero.

The story of how this love affair plays itself out is simply a gripping tale, the reader never really knowing if it will turn out well or not.

However, alongside that love affair is the story of the conflict going on between the dominance of what passes for “culture” in Rome under Nero, and the challenge that this new Christian religion is bringing. I think a great portion of what elevated this novel to a much higher status that the love story and fictional biography of the madness of Nero could give it, was the analysis of the conflict between the nature of religion in Rome and the religion of the Christians. There were many long passages of the differences and the response of many different sorts of people to this conflict. I found that confrontation and challenge which the Christians were bringing to Rome was simply fascinating and elevated the novel about the rest of the plot.

On the other hand, the picture of these last days of Rome, the nature of Nero’s regime, the nature of relations between the free and the slave populations, the utter insanity and power of Nero, were all grippingly presented and fascinating and shocking reading.

It is quite a long novel, 579 pages in the translation I read, and while I was gripped by the various lines of the plot, I did find it at times quite indulgent and by the end felt that a careful editing of some 100 or more pages would have made the novel even stronger. Nonetheless, it is a novel that I would highly recommend to all. It keeps the reader attentive and nervous; one learns a good deal of history of this famous period of Roman and Christian history and astounds one with the horrors of the last days of Nero’s reign.

After I finished the novel I was curious as to just how historically accurate this novel was. According to what I could find, and it was a considerable commentary, it does seem that scholars hold this novel to present an historically accurate picture of Rome in these last days of Nero’s rule.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett