Rome of the times of Emperor Nero, mired in crimes and debauchery. A nephew, a young and beautiful warrior, the patrician Marcus Vinicius, is Petronius, a writer, an esthete, a connoisseur of luxury and pleasures, an “arbiter of grace”, the approximate Nero. The young man says that when he returned to Rome from the war against the Parthians, he injured his arm and took him, wounded, to the house of the gray-haired commander Aulus Plutius. There Vinicius was captivated by a young Ligia, similar to the fragile dark-haired blue-eyed nymph. She is the daughter of a king of the Ligians who live in the far northern forests, and she was called in her home by Kallina. She got a child as a hostage to Rome and grew up in the house of the noble Awla and his faithful, virtuous wife Pomponia. Considering Lygia as their own daughter, they brought her up clean, chaste and not at all like dissolute Romans. They say that she is very young,
In the house of Avla Vinicius Lygia said many ardent words, and a reciprocal feeling flared in the girl’s heart. But she somehow drew fish on the sand… Vinicius, who lost his head, is ready to marry Lygia. But Petronius tells Nero that Vinicius has fallen in love with a skinny laggic hostage. These words immediately disgust the emperor from the girl-and he promises Petronius to take her to the palace and give Vinicius.
In the palace Lygia is accompanied by a giant and strongman Urs,
Lygia is crying. She does not want to become a concubine to Vinicius. Better poverty than luxury and dishonor! Lygia decides to flee.
After learning about the disappearance of Ligia, Vinicius furiously kills an old slave who has nursed him. For the first time in his life, someone dared to resist the wishes of a young patrician! Maddened with love and desperation, Vinicius searches for Lygia. Petronius, sympathizing with his nephew, is ready to give him his beautiful slave, golden-haired Greek Evnika. But she is so passionately praying not to send her out of the house, that astonished Petronius understands: the girl is in love with him! And Evnika’s devotion touches his heart. Evnika leads the cunning Greek Chilo – a drunkard and a red-haired, scam, a spy and informer, who undertakes to find Lygia. Learning that the girl was drawing fish on the sand, this man, like a monkey and a fox at the same time, goes in search.
Soon he finds out that the fish is a secret sign of Christians. Pretending to be a Christian, Chilon penetrates into their surroundings and meets the physician Hlavka, whose family at one time gave out to the robbers, and left himself to die on the road. Now Chilo is afraid that Glaucus recognizes him, and tries to set on the healer another Christian, the simple-hearted strongman Urban, who is told that Glauck is the spy of the emperor. By the way the giant shudders, when Chilo accidentally mentions the name of Ligia, the sly Greek understands: Urban is Urs!
In Rome, the apostle Peter. On his nightly sermon all the Christians of the city gather. Chilon leads Vinicius there, who hopes to meet Lygia there. The Apostle Peter strikes the boy with simplicity and majesty. The face of the old man shines with such force of persuasion as is inherent in the truth alone. But the preaching of Peter is a denial of the whole habitual Vinicia of life. However, the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is shocked by the young patrician. And he suddenly realizes that the Christian Lygia will never become his concubine. Seeing Lygia in the crowd, Vinicius admires the spiritual beauty of the girl and realizes that against her faith all his strength and courage is nothing.
After going after the sermon after Ligia, Vinicius breaks into her dwelling and tries to take the girl away, but Urs falls on his patrician’s head with his mighty fist.
In the poor little room of Ligia, the physician of Glaucus heals Vinicius. Ligia herself gently cares for the young man. He is happy; not wanting to leave his beloved, he decides to stay with the Christians and sends for Chilon – the only one who knows where Vinicius is now. When he saw Chilo, Glaucus recognized him as a scoundrel who had ruined his whole family, and Urs was an old man who set him against Glaucus. Chilon howls in horror, but the appeared apostle Peter lets go of the Greek with the world: Glaucus and Urs forgive his enemy…
Vinicius, shocked, reflects on the kindness and mercy of Christians. Then he falls into oblivion, and it seems to him that Lygia leads him to where the sun is shining.
A few days later Vinicius feels that his passion is replaced by a deep true love. But the tortured Lygia, not daring to love a pagan with a wolf Roman heart, decides to part with the young man.
Vinicius returns to his house, but everything around him seems empty and insignificant to the boy. He longs for Lygia – and often remembers the amazing man with whom he met Christians – about Paul of Tarsus. “Every word of it turns to dust all the foundations of our world,” thinks the young man. His soul is changing. He is now disgusted with the debauchery of the Roman nobility, and at a luxurious feast he rejects the harassment of Empress Poppey. She disappears, laughing ominously. Vinicius dreams of Lygia. Unexpectedly comes to him the ragged Chilo and declares that from a burning love to Christians again he has traced them all. Enraged by the meanness of a Greek, Vinicius tells him to carve; Then groaning Chilo leads the youth to a new home of the apostles. There Vinicius asks Peter and Paul for the hands of Ligia and promises that he will try to understand and accept the teachings of Christ.
A distraught Nero is dreaming of a great fire – and soon the Emperor’s henchmen set Rome on fire. Looking for Lygia, Vinicius, in despair, rushes around the city enveloped in flames. With difficulty getting out in a smoldering tunic from the sea of fire, the young man stumbles upon Chilo, who advises him to look for Lygia and Peter in one of the underground prayers of Christians. Vinicius hurries there and sees a lot of desperate people, whom the apostle Peter comforts with a kind word. Noticing Vinicius, weakened from the horrors, Peter leads him to Lygia. Having fallen on his knees, the young man warmly thanks the Lord, and Peter, who loved Vinicius with all his unbridled heart, baptizes the young patrician in the poor hut of the excavator.
The people are bubbling with anger. To save the emperor and himself, the patricians rumor that the city was set on fire by Christians. Caraya “villains”, Nero is going to arrange for a mobile spectacle, which will be remembered in the centuries. Poppeya secretly leads to the emperor Chilo; he is ready to extradite all Christians – and above all Vinicius with the Ligia. Oh, Chilon terribly avenges Vinicius for spanking!
Petronius warns his nephew that the persecution of Christians is being prepared. With what pleasure will the “arbiter of elegance” upset the plans of this monkey-Nero! But Vinicius does not have time to save Lygia: the girl is taken to prison. Petronius understands: this is the revenge of Poppey, which Vinicius rejected for the sake of Lygia. The young man was not captured because they want to enjoy his suffering, torturing Lygia in front of him.
The mob is gripped by the thirst for blood, the Christians thrown into prison – the thirst for martyrdom. The suffering of Vinicius exceeds the strength of man. And Saint Peter receives a revelation: in this city of Satan Christ wants to establish his capital!
With enlightened faces, Christians go to their deaths and die in terrible agony in the arena. Chilon, sitting in luxurious clothes next to Nero, whispers: “They see their resurrection!” – and falls without feelings. Executions continue. Vinicius, disguised as a grave digger, gets into a terrible dungeon and spends three days with a sick Ligia. Their souls have already been cleansed of all earthly things. Vinicius firmly decides after the death of Lygia to admit that he is a Christian, and follow his beloved.
Christians are burned on poles, lighting the gardens of the emperor with hundreds of living torches. From one of the pillars on the graying Chilon, Glaucus, enveloped in flame, looks at each other and wheezes: “Forgive!” And the shocked Chilo, turning from a miserable little man into a majestic old man, shouts: “Christians are innocent! The arsonist is Nero!” These words are instantly carried throughout Rome, and the apostle Paul baptizes in the dark alley in the repent of his sins. Soon Chilona is seized, but no torture can now force him to renounce his words. He is torn out his tongue and given away to the bear in the arena. But the beast does not touch the unhappy; Chilon exhales with an enlightened face.
And the emperor decides to arrange Vinicius “a merry wedding.” And now, as a white chalk, a young man sees Ursa pushed out into the arena, and then they release a huge tour, to whose horns the nude Lygia is tied. Urs grabs the tour by the horns and turns his neck around him. The audience roars with delight, and Nero, frightened by the crowd, gives Ursa and Ligia life and freedom.
In the house of Petronius, Ligia and Vinicius besought the suffering Peter to leave Rome. “I must follow my flock,” the old man answers, but still Christians manage to convince him that he must sow the seeds of truth in other cities and towns. And Peter leaves Rome – but on the Appian Way is Christ to him. “Quo vadis, Domine?” (“Where are you going, Lord?”) – the apostle asks and hears in reply: “If you leave my people, I go to Rome,
Shocked Peter returns to Rome. Soon the apostles are thrown into prison. But when they lead the beaten Peter to death, he marches like a conqueror and, glancing around Rome, whispers: “You are redeemed, you are mine!”
Equally calmly goes on the same day to the execution and Paul. He knows that the seeds he has sown will never dispel a whirlwind of anger.
Vinicius and his wife Ligia peacefully live in Sicily. They love each other, they believe – and are immensely happy.
And Petronius is doomed. Nero is plunged deeper into the infamous debauchery, and the “arbiter of grace” now only hinders the emperor. He is going to send a death sentence to Petronius, but he decides to play with Nero the last joke. At a luxurious feast, surrounded by friends, under the enchanting music, he opens his veins. Together with him, the beautiful Evnika dies, who refused to live without her beloved. Before his death Petronius sends a mocking letter to Nero, in which he writes that he is ready to forgive the emperor all crimes and murders, but deeply despises him for his bad poetry. The guests, looking at the beautiful marble-white bodies of the breathless Petronius and Evnika, understand that the only thing that remained in the old world was poetry and beauty.
Nero performs and fools. It seems that the world is turning into a bloody and clownish orgy. Finally, the rebellious legions proclaim the emperor Galba. With the words: “What an artist dies!” Nero puts a knife to his throat, but he is afraid, and the slave with a short blow helps his master to die.
And from the soil soaked with blood and tears, the seedlings of seed sown by Peter are rising quietly and steadily…
Nero long ago passed away, and the basilica of Peter on the Vatican Hill still reigns over Rome and the world. Near the ancient Kapenski Gate is a small chapel with half-written inscription: “Quo vadis, Domine?”