Quo Vadis Hot take

Donald Tusk has got the Brexiteers all in a dither again by using the word quo vadis in a gnomic tweet. It is a dig at Boris Johnson, the English classicist par excellence who is  purposely misleading his country to a major crisis (if not worse).

Ancient context

The words mean “Where are you going?” According to the Latin text of the apocryphal Acts of St Peter, St Peter saw Jesus as as he was fleeing the persecution of Nero. Peter asked him “Where are you going?” to which Jesus responding “I am going to Rome to be crucified again”. The Acts of St Peter were one of many similar texts that developed themes or stories from the Bible. Many were lost over time. Some have since turned up in chance archeological discoveries like the Nag Hammadi codices or in Qumran on the Dead Sea. Some have been found in manuscripts. A tiny number survived throughout the medieval period. A similar book would be the Infancy Gospel of Matthew which inspired English folk songs like King Pharim. The Acts of St Peter have survived in multiple manuscripts in different languages.

St Peter returned to Rome to be crucified upside down according to other versions of the text found in manuscript fragments in Greek and other oriental languages.

In the New Testament Peter is an ambitious figure. He is both the rock on which Christ built his assembly, but also a deeply human and frail person who denied he was a follower of Jesus during the night when Jesus was tortured.

Modern context

Quo Vadis was the name of a book by Henryk Sienkiewicz, which was made into a film. Sienkiewicz was a Nobel literature laureate from Poland (like Tusk). His story tells of the love between Lygia, a Christian woman, and Marcus, a Roman patrician and playboy. Marcus is the nephew of Petronius Arbiter (a historical person and the likely author of the Satyricon).

The story is set in the dangerous and heady days of the reign of Nero. It culminates with the Great Fire of Rome and the persecution of the Christians, including Peter and Paul.

Where are you going with this, Donald Tusk?

Many commentators analysing Tusk’s words focus on the role of Nero. In the film, Peter Ustinov is a mesmerising figure. His Nero is one of the finest portrayals of a mad Roman Emperor. The conclusion is perhaps that Boris Johnson is a mad leader, bringing his country to ruin so that he can rebuilt it in his own image. He may then pick on a minority group to blame for his own failings. This is true. He is a dangerous man.

It ignores however the role of Petronius, who steals the scenes in the book. Sienkiewicz portrays him as a person who can take on responsibilities and act bravely when needed. His courage saved him at the end when he was accused of treason in true Arthur Miller style he refused to name accomplices. Like many the noble Roman he killed himself. Tacitus reports:

Yet he did not fling away life with precipitate haste, but having made an incision in his veins and then, according to his humour, bound them up, he again opened them, while he conversed with his friends, not in a serious strain or on topics that might win for him the glory of courage. And he listened to them as they repeated, not thoughts on the immortality of the soul or on the theories of philosophers, but light poetry and playful verses. To some of his slaves he gave liberal presents, a flogging to others. He dined, indulged himself in sleep, that death, though forced on him, might have a natural appearance. Even in his will he did not, as did many in their last moments, flatter Nero or Tigellinus or any other of the men in power. On the contrary, he described fully the prince’s shameful excesses, with the names of his male and female companions and their novelties in debauchery, and sent the account under seal to Nero. Then he broke his signet-ring, that it might not be subsequently available for imperiling others.

Tacitus, Annals

In his actions in the novel, Petronius follows the lead of Peter,  a frail human who must make a difficult choice for ethical reasons.

In Britain, we are all facing the same moment of decision. Hopefully for us the choice will not be between life and death, but two more clearly stated alternatives on a ballot paper.

Tusk’s question was directed at us and not Johnson.