Content anchor

Two Thousand Versions of Quo Vadis and Counting

Janusz R. Kowalczyk
Covers of Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis editions in different languages, photo: CBN Polona /

Quo Vadis – a historical novel about the persecution of the first Christians under Nero – is undoubtedly the most well-known among all the famous works by Henryk Sienkiewicz. The book, which contributed greatly to the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Polish author, has been published in 2002 editions in 59 languages, including Latin and Esperanto.

This data, collected by the National Library, accounts for the period from the book’s first edition until 31 July 2016.

The year 2016 was officially dedicated to Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), Poland’s first author to receive the Nobel prize for literature. For the occasion, the National Library organised a special exhibition displaying unique editions of Quo Vadis at the Palace of the Commonwealth in Krasiński Square in Warsaw. It accompanied the National Reading of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis on 3 September 2016. The title of the exhibition:  Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz – the Manuscript on Display describes its greatest attraction in the best way possible; visitors also had the opportunity to admire Sienkiewicz’s works published in languages from all over the world as well as special editions – some exotic and rare.

Immersed in ancient history 

Henryk Sienkiewicz was very capable as far as historical fiction is concerned. Contemporary life did not provide him with appropriate incentive to create equally gripping narratives. Neither Rodzina Połanieckich [The Połanieckis] nor Without Dogma were as successful as the Trilogy which preceded them.

The writer, who read Tacitus or Suetonius in the original Latin, closely followed the newest studies by ancient historians and decided to use his knowledge to write a novel. A few trips to Rome helped him start work on the book. He spent a whole month in Rome in October 1879, followed by three shorter stays in December 1886, December 1890 and April 1893, during which he learned about the history and topography of the Eternal City. He mastered it to such an extent that the boundaries between the real and fictitious events and characters of Quo Vadis are nearly imperceptible. The author himself had said:

Siemiradzki, a famous Polish painter who lived in Rome at the time, was my guide to the Eternal City. During one of our trips, he showed me a Quo Vadis roadside shrine. Then a thought crossed my mind that I should write a novel set in those times and that I would be able to make it happen thanks to my knowledge of the history of Christianity.

Sienkiewicz had read Ben-Hur by Lewis Wallace – he even had the novel printed in the Słowo [Word] daily. He was also familiar with Antichrist by Ernest Renan and with Rzym za Nerona [Rome under Nero] by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski. The paintings by Henryk SiemiradzkiNero’s Torches and Christian Dirce had also made a big impression on him.

In Quo Vadis, Sienkiewicz set the plot of a fictitious love affair into a real historical. The emperor’s court Pagan debauchery is juxtaposed with the moral virtue of Christian teachings – the mainstay of European civilisation.

The year 2016 is not only marked by the 170th anniversary of his birth and the centenary of his death. It is also the 120th anniversary of the publishing of Quo Vadis by Gebethner & Wolff publishing house in Kraków. Before that, between 26th March 1895 and 29th February 1896, the novel was published in instalments in all three partitions of the then-occupied Poland: in Warsaw’s Gazeta Polska newspaper (Russian occupation zone) as well as, with a small delay, in Krakow’s Czas [Time] (Austrian occupation zone) and in Dziennik Poznański [The Poznań Daily] (German occupation zone). Keeping up the momentum, the same publishing house quickly published a synopsis of the novel: Quo Vadis: a Novel about the time of Nero for Mature Youth (1899) and Saint Peter in Rome: A Short Story from the Period of the persecution of Christians under Nero (1900).

The first translations of the novel – into English and Russian – appeared the same year as the Polish premiere of the book: 1896. A year later, twenty editions of Quo Vadis were already available in Polish and other languages. The biggest number of reprints (52) appeared in 1900. To this day, approximately twenty Polish and foreign editions are printed each year. 

A love story in Ancient Rome  

The novel, first published 120 years ago as a ‘historical love story’, was critically acclaimed around the globe. Immediately after its publication, it was highly-praised by Pope Leo XIII and in 1913, it was made into a film. In 1916, the year Sienkiewicz died, the number of copies of Quo Vadis sold in the USA alone exceeded 1.5 million.

According to National Library data, by 31st July 2016, the number of the novel’s editions reached 2002 across 59 languages, including Latin and Esperanto. However, not every edition was included and so not all of the English re-editions the e-book were taken account.

A record number of editions were published in the following languages:

  • German: 294 editions (1898–1900: 18 editions)
  • Italian: 289 (1899–1900: 25)
  • Spanish: 235 (in 1900 alone: 9)

In Spain, it became customary to give the novel as a gift to children receiving their first communion sacrament, although the success of the Spanish edition was also due to the unsaturated market in Latin America. One of the first 1900 Spanish editions was given to Pope Francis as a gift by Polish President Andrzej Duda.

There were 192 editions of Quo Vadis in Polish (in the 19th century, there were 5 editions) circulated in runs of circa 100-, 150- and 200-thousand copies.

Immediately after the Polish edition, in 1896, two English editions of the book hit the market (Boston and London). By the end of the 19th century, there were 30 English editions (USA: 17; UK: 12; Canada: 1). So far, 134 English-language editions have been published.

Also in 1896, five Russian editions were published and by the end of the century, there were already 16 editions. Now – 100. However, from 1917 until perestroika, Quo Vadis was never published in the USSR.  

Since 1900, the French began to publish the book in their mother tongue; by mid-2016, there were 96 editions, as well as 84 Portuguese editions. A year later, they were followed by Hungarian editions – 61 in total (until 2016).

The first translations included (in the order of publication):

  • 1897: Bulgarian (17)
  • 1898: Dutch (30), Czech (29), Swedish (9), Armenian (7)
  • 1899: Danish (26), Croatian (16), Latvian (8)
  • 1900: Romanian (41) and Greek (15)

The 20th and 21st centuries saw subsequent translations into the following languages:

  • 1901: Finnish (16 )
  • 1902: Norwegian (21)
  • 1903: Slovak (13; first edition printed outside of the country – in the USA)
  • 1913: Serbian (17)
  • 1929: Hebrew (11)

Success is also evident among readers of such exotic languages as:

  • 1907: Japanese (42)
  • 1921: Korean (39)
  • 1922: Chinese (41)
  • 1930: Persian (15)
  • 1952: Turkish (15)

Fewer than ten editions of Quo Vadis have been published in the following languages:

  • Albanian (first published in 1933; 2 editions)
  • Amharic (2014; 1 edition)
  • Arabic (1910; 7 editions)
  • Bengali (1954; 2 editions)
  • Belarussian (1956; 3)
  • Burmese (1977; 1 –  a translation from English)
  • Estonian (1900; 6)
  • Faroese (1983; 1)
  • Greenlandic (1961; 1)
  • Georgian (1964; 2 ­– a translation from Russian)
  • Gujarati (1992; 1)
  • Hindi (1958; 3)
  • Indonesian (1933; 3)
  • Irish (1936; 1)
  • Icelandic (1905; 2)
  • Yiddish (1928; 3)
  • Catalan (1926; 5)
  • Lithuanian  (1904; 8)
  • Macedonian (1971; 4)
  • Malayalam (1984; 2)
  • Maltese (1902; 1)
  • Ottoman Turkish (1910; 2)
  • Slovenian (1901; 8)
  • Sotho (1960; 1)
  • Tamil (1945; 1)
  • Ukrainian (19-?; 6)
  • Vietnamese (1985; 5)

The first Hebrew edition was accompanied by a note revealing that the editor ‘dared remove a few fragments, for which there is no room in the Hebrew translation.’

So far, there have also been 13 Slovak editions of Quo Vadis, the first one being published in 1903 in Scranton (Pennsylvania). Svätý Peter v Ríme: povest' z časov prenasledovania krest'anov za panovania ukrutného cisára Nerona was published with a note: ‘Edition dedicated to the youth studying in America.’

It is interesting, that even though Quo Vadis was not published in Soviet Russia from 1917 until perestroika, three editions of the book appeared at the time in Soviet Armenia. On the other hand, Ceaușescu's reign in Romania  meant the country left a gap in the book's publication history from 1968 to 1989.

The first Belarussian edition was published in Rome in 1956 and was in, interestingly, Latin script.

The first edition in Esperanto appeared in 1934 in Amsterdam and in 1957 in Warsaw. In many countries, the novel was also published in Braille.

Life is not a bed of roses 

In 1905, contrary to common perception, Henryk Sienkiewicz was awarded the Nobel Prize not for Quo Vadis, but ‘because of his outstanding merits as an epic writer’ and for being one of the ‘rare geniuses who concentrate in themselves the spirit of the nation’. What is so unusual about this is, is that in 1905 Poland did not actually exist as a state.

In 1886, i.e. 10 years prior to the first Quo Vadis edition, civilised countries of the world joined – upon Victor Hugo’s inspiration – the Bern Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. Russia was not among them. Since Henryk Sienkiewicz was a citizen under the Russian administration, payment of his fees depended on the whimsical mood of his editors (not only the Russian ones) who abused the fact that Russia was not party to the convention and paid hardly any fees for the copyrights due to the Polish artist. Well, life is not always a bed of roses...

Many people have read and enjoyed Quo Vadis, but very few know its author. Dearly beloved in Poland... Read more about: The Man Behind Quo Vadis

Originally written in Polish, August 2016; translated by IS, edited by NR, Feb 2017

Language & Literature