Quo Vadis (1951) – Part One

The Partial Historians


Quo Vadis (1951) – Part One

This episode we return to the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ with a classic sword and sandal epic, Quo Vadis (1951). This film is available through many streaming platforms and we highly recommend revisiting it.

In Part One of two episodes on Quo Vadis, we examine the context for the film and the plot.

Quo Vadis (1951) helped to ignite Hollywood’s passion for ancient epics in this decade. It was a smash hit with some of the legendary stars of the era, including Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov. This film is not only epic in terms of length, but in terms of all the aspects that you could discuss in connection with it.

Special Episode – Quo Vadis (1951) – Part One

Resistance

The tale itself has a lengthy backstory which takes us all the way back to 19th century Poland. Henryk Sienkiewicz wrote the book in a serialised format between 1894-1896. Poland had been going a through a tough time over the course of the preceding century, in the sense that it did not exist independently between 1795 and 1918. During this period, the Catholic Church was crucial in preserving Polish culture. Sienkiewicz often wrote historical novels that would lift the spirits of his fellow poles, and Quo Vadis was no exception. For Sienkiewicz, the triumph of Christian characters such as Lygia and Ursus (meant to be from Lugii, i.e. Poland) represent the ultimate triumph of Poland over its cruel oppressors, with Nero representing nations such as Russia, Austro-Hungary and Prussia.  

Sienkiewicz’s novel was well-received, and was therefore adapted into toga plays, operas, and several films. The earlier film versions were made in Europe, including the notable 1912 silent classic.

Join us for the fascinating background of the 1951 film and stay tuned for Part Two!

Quo Vadis – Roll Call!

There are a LOT of characters to keep track of in a film of this length, so if you need a handy reference, check out the cast list on IMDB.

The main people that you need to know for our episode include:

Lygia

Fictional main lady love interest. Christian, hostage-turned-adoptive daughter of Roman general Aulus Plautus, and his wife, Pomponia Graecina.

Marcus Vinicius

Fictional main manly love interest. Roman, not Christian (yet). Militaristic, aggressive to start, turns all moral as the film progresses.

Lygia (Deborah Kerr) and Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) in the courtyard of her adoptive parents’ home in Rome.
Source: FilmAffinity.

Emperor Nero

Historical figure. Really was Roman emperor from 54-68 CE. Known as the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Really was terrible, although maybe not quite as unrelentingly awful as many suggest – including this film. Probably not as amusing as Peter Ustinov!A gold coin showing the obverse portrait of Nero. Bust of the historical Nero Peter Ustinov as Nero in Quo Vadis (1951)

Poppaea Sabina

Historical figure. Elite Roman lady. Complicated love life. Winds up as Nero’s second wife. Called beautiful but awful in the surviving sources. We say – the jury is out on that one. Typical fun, adulteress type character used to contrast to the ‘good girl’, Lygia. Historically, she is murdered by Nero while pregnant with their child. In Quo Vadis, Nero strangles her. An awful demise in reality and in film.Statue of the historical Poppaea Sabina found in Olympia, Greece Patricia Laffan as Poppaea Sabina in Quo Vadis (1951)

Petronius (Gaius Petronius Arbiter)

Historical figure. Served as governor of Bithynia and was consul in either 62 or 63 CE. Did a decent job, but in his personal life seems to have made pleasure his main goal. Dubbed the ‘Arbiter of Elegance’ by Nero. Accused of being part of a conspiracy against Nero and suicided whilst chatting casually to friends. Thought to be the author of the novel, The Satyricon, which is a very unusual piece because it does NOT focus on the elite and is pretty … eye-opening. Possibly makes fun of Nero through the gross figure of Trimalchio, a freedmen who has become a wealthy show-off with no taste. Close associate of Nero. In the movie, Petronius is Vinicius’ uncle and an elegant, witty, intelligent member of Emperor Nero’s inner-circle. He also has a weird obsession with the enslaved Eunice…

From left: Petronius (Leo Genn) attempting to advise Nero (Peter Ustinov) in a scene from Quo Vadis (1951).
Image source: FilmFanatic

Ursus

Fictional character. Bodyguard of Lygia, Christian convert. Super strong.

Peter

That’s St Peter to you! Follower of Jesus Christ. Christian (to state the obvious). Supposedly was crucified upside down, making him a martyr, which Sienkiewicz worked into his novel. Has a very famous domed building named after him.  

Pomponia Graecina

Historical figure. Elite Roman lady who was related to the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Mentioned by Tacitus for her ballsy behaviour. She wore mourning for DECADES after Julia was bumped off by Messalina, which could have led to her own downfall, but Claudius did not punish her. (Julia Livia, granddaughter of Tiberius, daughter of Livilla and Drusus Caesar – mother of Rubellius Plautus). Her husband was told to deal with her privately after she was charged for believing in an “alien superstition”, which some have taken to mean she dabbled in Christianity. Good choice to turn into a character with Christian leanings in Quo Vadis! Adoptive mother of Lygia in the film. V V Virtuous.  

Aulus Plautius

Historical figure. Really was a Roman general who won an ovation for a campaign in Britain. Really married to Pomponia Graecina.  

Acte

Historical figure. An imperial freedwoman that teenage Nero fell for HARD, much to his mother’s displeasure. Suetonius reports that she was one of the few to attend the interment of his ashes, so her devotion in the film tracks. In the film, not a Christian but still a good woman as she is virtuous and loyal. As the movie is set late in Nero’s reign, it makes sense that he has moved on from her by now. Sympathetic to Christians, so that’s something. Is in love with Nero but keeps it real with him. Helps him to commit suicide when everyone else has abandoned him. A good choice, as Nero’s suicide was supposedly aided by his slave.

Eunice

Fictional enslaved woman. For reasons that make absolutely no sense, she has a crush on her master, Petronius. He eventually loves her back – depends on the version of Quo Vadis that you consult as to how that happens. It’s fair to say, we’re not keen on her storyline.

Sound Credits

Thanks to the fabulous Bettina Joy de Guzman for our theme music.

Our Sources

  • Babington, B.; Evans, P. W., Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema (Manchester University Press, New York: 1993).
  • Cyrino, M., Big Screen Rome (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford: 2005).
  • Elley, D., The Epic Film: Myth and History (Routledge and Kegan Paul, Suffolk and London: 1984).
  • Joshel, S.; Malamud, M.; Wyke, M., ‘Introduction’, in Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, ed. S. Joshel, M. Malamud & M. Wyke (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London: 2001), 1-22.  And this what Dr Rad was quoting in the episode!
  • Malamud, M., Ancient Rome and Modern America (Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford: 2009).
  • Mayer, D., Playing Out Empire: Ben-Hur and Other Toga Plays and Films, 1883-1908, A Critical Anthology (Clarendon Press, New York: 1994).
  • Scodel, R.; Bettenworth, A. Whither Quo Vadis? (Malden, Massachusetts, Blackwell Publications: 2009).
  • Skwara, E. “Quo Vadis on Film (1912, 1925, 1951, 1985, 2001): The Many Faces of Antiquity.” Clássica (São Paolo) 16, no. 2 (2013): 163-174.
  • Solomon, J., The Ancient World in the Cinema (Yale University Press, Michigan: 2001).
  • Wyke, M., Projecting the Past: Ancient RomeCinema and History (Routledge, London: 1997).
  • Wyke, M., ‘Projecting Ancient Rome’, in The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media, ed. M. Landy (Rutgers University Press, New Jersey: 2001), 125-42.
  • You Must Remember This (7 March, 2016). The Blacklist Part 5: The Strange Love of Barbara Stanwyck: Robert Taylor.

The classic film poster for Quo Vadis, the Roman and Christian epic!
Image course: Wikipedia.

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