Quo Vadis (novel)

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Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero
Quo Vadis 1897 Edition.jpg
First American edition title page
Author Henryk Sienkiewicz
Original title Quo vadis. Powieść z czasów Nerona
Translator Jeremiah Curtin
W. S. Kuniczak
Country Poland
Language Polish
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Polish dailies (in serial) and Little, Brown (Eng. trans. book form)
Publication date
Media type Print (Newspaper, Hardback and Paperback)
Scene of the historical novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz ("Quo Vadis"), entitled "Ligia leaves Aulus' house". Illustration by Domenico Mastroianni.Postcard from 1913. Publisher: A.N. Paris (Alfred Noyer Studio).
Nero and the burning of Rome, Altemus Edition, 1897. Illustration by M. de Lipman.

Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, commonly known as Quo Vadis, is an historical novel written by Henryk Sienkiewicz in Polish.[1] "Quo vadis Domine" is Latin for "Where are you going, Lord?" and alludes to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, in which Peter flees Rome but on his way meets Jesus and asks him why he is going to Rome. Jesus says, "I am going back to be crucified again", which makes Peter go back to Rome and accept martyrdom.

The novel Quo Vadis tells of a love that develops between a young Christian woman, Ligia (or Lygia), and Marcus Vinicius, a Roman patrician. It takes place in the city of Rome under the rule of emperor Nero, circa AD 64.

Sienkiewicz studied the Roman Empire extensively prior to writing the novel, with the aim of getting historical details correct. As such, several historical figures appear in the book. As a whole, the novel carries an outspoken pro-Christian message.[citation needed]

Published in installments in three Polish dailies in 1895, it came out in book form in 1896 and has since been translated into more than 50 languages. This novel contributed to Sienkiewicz's Nobel Prize for literature in 1905.[citation needed]

Several movies have been based on Quo Vadis including two Italian silent films, Quo Vadis (1912), and 1924, the Hollywood production, Quo Vadis (1951), and the 2001 adaptation by Jerzy Kawalerowicz.

Characters in Quo Vadis[edit]

  • Marcus Vinicius (fictitious son of the historical Marcus Vinicius), a military tribune and Roman patrician who recently returned to Rome. On arrival he meets and falls in love with Ligia. He seeks the counsel of his uncle Petronius to find a way to possess her.
  • Calina (fictitious), usually known as Ligia (Lygia in some translations), the daughter of a deceased king of the Ligians, a barbarian tribe (hence her nickname). Ligia is technically a hostage of the Senate and people of Rome, and was forgotten years ago by her own people. A great beauty, she has converted to Christianity, but her religion is originally unknown to Marcus.
  • Gaius Petronius (historical), titled the "arbiter of elegance," former governor of Bithynia. Petronius is a member of Nero's court who uses his wit to flatter and mock him at the same time. He is loved by the Roman mob for his liberal attitudes. Somewhat amoral and a bit lazy, he tries to help his nephew, but his cunning plan is thwarted by Ligia's Christian friends.
  • Eunice (fictitious), household slave of Petronius. Eunice is a beautiful young Greek woman who has fallen in love with her master, although he is initially unaware of her devotion.
  • Chilon Chilonides (fictitious), a charlatan and a private investigator. He is hired by Marcus to find Ligia. This character is severely reduced in the 1951 film and the 1985 miniseries, but in the novel itself, as well as in the Polish miniseries of 2001, Chilon is a major figure as doublecrossing traitor. His end is clearly inspired by Saint Dismas.
  • Nero (historical), Emperor of Rome, portrayed as incompetent, petty, cruel, and subject to manipulation by his courtiers. He listens most intently to flatterers and fools.
  • Tigellinus (historical), the prefect of the feared Praetorian Guard. He is a rival of Petronius for Nero's favour, and he incites Nero into committing acts of great cruelty.
  • Poppaea Sabina (historical), the wife of Nero. She passionately envies and hates Ligia.
  • Acte (historical), an Imperial slave and former mistress of Nero. Nero has grown tired of her and now mostly ignores her, but she still loves him. She studies the Christian faith, but does not consider herself worthy of full conversion. In the 1951 film, it is she who helps Nero commit suicide.
  • Aulus Plautius (historical), a respected retired Roman general who commanded the invasion of Britain. Aulus seems unaware (or simply unwilling to know) that Pomponia, his wife, and Ligia, his adoptive daughter, profess the Christian religion.
  • Pomponia Graecina (historical), a Christian convert. Dignified and much respected, Pomponia and Aulus are Ligia's adoptive parents, but they are unable to legalize her status. According to Roman law Ligia is still a hostage of the Roman state (i.e., of the Emperor), but she is cared for by the elderly couple.
  • Ursus (fictitious), the bodyguard of Ligia. As a fellow tribesman, he served her late mother, and he is strongly devoted to Ligia. As a Christian, Ursus struggles to follow the religion's pacifist teachings, given his great strength and barbarian mindset. He is clearly portrayed as a noble savage.
  • Saint Peter (historical), a weary and aged man with the task of preaching Christ's message. He is amazed by the power of Rome and the vices of Emperor Nero, whom he names the Beast. Sometimes Peter doubts that he will be able to plant and protect the "good seed" of Christianity.
  • Saint Paul (historical) takes a personal interest in converting Marcus.
  • Crispus (fictitious), clearly a Christian zealot who verges on fanaticism.

Historical events[edit]

Sienkiewicz alludes to several historical events and merges them in his novel, but some of them are of doubtful authenticity.

  • In AD 57, Pomponia was indeed charged with practising a "foreign superstition", usually understood to mean conversion to Christianity.[citation needed] Nevertheless, the religion itself is not clearly identified. According to ancient Roman tradition she was tried in a family court by her own husband Aulus (the pater familias), to be subsequently acquitted. However, inscriptions in the catacombs of Saint Callistus in Rome suggest that members of Graecina's family were indeed Christians.[citation needed]
  • The rumor that Vespasian fell asleep during a song sung by Nero is recorded by Suetonius in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars.
  • The death of Claudia Augusta, sole child of Nero, in AD 63.
  • The Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which in the novel is started by orders of Nero. There is no hard evidence to support this, and fires were very common in Rome at the time. In Chapter 50, senior Jewish community leaders advise Nero to blame the fires on Christians; there is no historical record of this, either. The fire opens up space in the city for Nero's palatial complex, a massive villa with lush artificial landscapes and a 30-meter-tall sculpture of the emperor, as well as an ambitious urban planning program involving the creation of buildings decorated with ornate porticos and the widening of the streets (a redesign which is not implemented until after Nero's death).[citation needed]
  • The suicide of Petronius is clearly based on the account of Tacitus.[citation needed]

Similarities with Barrett play[edit]

1896 was also the year that playwright-actor-manager Wilson Barrett produced his successful play The Sign of the Cross. Although Barrett never acknowledged it, several elements in the play strongly resemble those in Quo Vadis. In both, a Roman soldier named Marcus falls in love with a Christian woman and wishes to "possess" her. (In the novel, her name is Ligia, in the play she is Mercia.) Nero, Tigellinus and Poppea are major characters in both the play and novel, and in both, Poppea lusts after Marcus. Petronius, however, does not appear in The Sign of the Cross, and the ending of the play diverges from that of Quo Vadis.


In 1951, Quo Vadis was adapted as a film by Mervyn LeRoy.

A successful stage version of the novel by Stanislaus Stange was produced in 1900.[2] Film versions of the novel were produced in 1901, 1912 and 1924.[3] A 1951 version directed by Mervyn LeRoy was nominated for eight academy awards. The novel was also the basis for a 1985 mini-series starring Klaus Maria Brandauer as Nero and a 2001 Polish mini-series directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz.

Jean Nouguès composed an opera based on the novel, to a libretto by Henri Caïn; it was premiered in 1909. [4] Feliks Nowowiejski composed an oratorio based on the novel, performed for the first time in 1907, and then his most popular work.


The character Ursus was featured in a number of Italian adventure films from 1961 to 1964. He was first featured in 1961's Ursus, where he must rescue his fiancee from a sacrificial cult, and was portrayed by actor Ed Fury. This film was released in the United States initially as Mighty Ursus and was later adapted for the American television film package, The Sons of Hercules, where it was retitled "Ursus, Son of Hercules". In 1961's La Vendetta di Ursus (The Revenge of Ursus), while portrayed by Samson Burke, Ursus is a farmer with his younger brother Doraius, who fights to prevent the malicious King Zagro and Lycurgas from overtaking the neighboring kingdom of Leecha. That same year, Ed Fury returned in Ursus nella valle dei leoni (Ursus in the Valley of the Lions), in which he is the prince of a fallen kingdom, raised by lions after the rest of the royal family was killed.

The next film, Ursus e la ragazza tartara (Ursus and the Tartar Girl, released in English-speaking countries as Ursus and the Tartar Princess), was filmed in France in 1962, and starred British actor Joe Robinson as Ursus, but takes place in Central Asia; Ursus fights a Khan played by famous Armenian actor Akim Tamiroff. This film was also released to American television under the title "The Tartar Invasion". Ursus nella terra di fuoco (Ursus in the Land of Fire), released in 1963, yet again stars Ed Fury. In it, Ursus must overthrow a vicious general who has overtaken the throne of an unnamed country. It was adapted for The Sons of Hercules package, where it was retitled "Son of Hercules in the Land of Fire".

Ursus's next three films were Ursus il gladiatore ribelle (Ursus The Rebel Gladiator, aka "Rebel Gladiators"), 1963 (starring Dan Vadis); Ursus il terrore dei kirghisi (Ursus, the Terror of the Kirghiz, aka "Hercules, Prisoner of Evil") 1964 (starring Reg Park); and Gli Invincibili Tre (The Invincible Three, also released to American television as "Three Avengers") 1964 (starring Alan Steel as Ursus). The final film to feature Ursus was the relatively high-budget teamup film Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincibili(Hercules, Samson, Maciste and Ursus: the Invincibles) (1964) which was released in English-speaking countries as "Samson and the Mighty Challenge" . The film features Ursus along with Maciste, Samson and Hercules. Yann Larvor portrays Ursus in this film, while Alan Steel played Hercules, Renato Rossini played Maciste and Nadir Baltimore played Samson. This film was also released in Europe as "Le Grand Defi" and "Combate dei Gigantes".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Halsey, F. R. (1898-02-05). "Historians of Nero's Time" (PDF). New York Times. pp. BR95. Retrieved 2009-01-02. 
  2. ^ Gerald Bordman, "Stange, Stanislaus", The Oxford companion to American theatre, Oxford University Press, 1984.
  3. ^ http://www.casttv.com/video/f987ap1/the-many-faces-of-ursus-ed-fury-dan-vadis-alan-steel-video
  4. ^ Gesine Manuwald, Nero in Opera: Librettos as Transformations of Ancient Sources. (Tranformationen der Antike ; 24). Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013. ISBN 9783110317138

External links[edit]