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Story of Quo Vadis |
The Quo Vadis Legend

Story of Quo Vadis is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 222, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

In his last trial, did Peter fail? An old tale says he did, then died heroically

Story of Quo Vadis - The Quo Vadis Legend

Story of Quo Vadis - The Quo Vadis Legend
Legend or not, Peter’s encounter with Jesus as the apostle attempts to escape certain death is a powerful story. “Where are you going, Lord?” the legend has him ask (in Latin, ‘Quo vadis, Domine?’). “To Rome, to be crucified again,” comes the reply, as Jesus walks past Peter, past the faithful Christians already crucified along the Appian Way, and to Rome. Shamed, Peter returns to the city and to his death.

The final years of Peter and Paul at Rome are shrouded in uncertainties. The last historical scriptural reference to Peter has him at the Council of Jerusalem advocating Paul’s mission to the Gentiles (Acts 15). The last to Paul puts him at Rome awaiting trial before the emperor (Acts 28).

That both men perished there, probably in the Neronian persecution, is accepted by most historians, and church tradition, considerably strengthened by twentieth-century archeology, identifies the places where each died and where each is buried. In addition to that, however, is a wealth of legend and mythology, most of it appearing 150 years after the apostles died.

The best known appears in the Acts of Peter, a third-century work that records that, when the Neronian persecution begins, Peter leaves the city rather than face crucifixion with other Christians in the Hippodrome. As he flees south along the Appian Way, he encounters Jesus walking toward the city. “Quo vadis, Domine?” he asks. “Where are you going, Lord?” Jesus, in what became known as the Quo Vadis Legend, replies. “To Rome, to be crucified again.” Peter, once again humiliated, thinks further, turns, and goes back to the city where, at his own request, he is crucified upside down, feeling himself unworthy of being crucified in the same way as his master.

In another legend, quoted by Clement of Alexandria, Peter’s wife is executed before he is. He bids her farewell, saying that he is glad that at last she is returning home. “My dear,” he says, “remember the Lord.”

Even within the realm of the historical, the documentation of facts is sparse. The first specific mention of Paul’s fate comes in a letter from a Roman priest or presbyter named Gaius, written late in the second century. It places the tomb of St. Paul near the Ostian Gate of the city and that of Peter on Vatican Hill. Monuments were erected by the Christians at both these sites in the time of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, about a.d. 160.

The apocryphal Acts of Paul, written about the same time, gives the site of Paul’s martyrdom as three miles down the Tiber from Rome, at a place identified as Aquae Salviae, just off the road to the port of Ostia on the Via Laurentia. He was buried, says this report, at the home of a Christian matron named Lucina, and the body was later exhumed and moved to the site identified by Gaius.

In twenty-first-century Rome there are therefore two sites commemorating St. Paul, one at his traditional place of execution, the site of the Church of the Tre Fontane, three fountains, which memorializes the legend that when his head fell under the sword it bounced three times; at each point a fountain of water sprang up.

The second is the place usually recognized as Paul’s tomb, where Constantine erected a small memorial church early in the fourth century. This was replaced by a more substantial building late in the same century which survived for nearly fifteen hundred years before it was burned down in 1823. In excavations for a third church on the site, a large, flat stone was discovered that bore the letters, Pavlo Apostolo Mart., “Paul Apostle and Martyr.” Scholars said the lettering dated from the time of Constantine. This lent much credibility to the tradition that Paul was indeed buried there.

Peter is assumed to have been crucified in the Hippodrome, which stood on Vatican hill beneath the towering Caligula Obelisk, brought by the Emperor Gaius Caligula from Heliopolis in Egypt. The body was buried nearby. In 1586, the Obelisk, by then crowned with a cross, was moved a short distance to St. Peter’s Square, where it stands today.

This is the end of the Story of Quo Vadis category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 222, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about Story of Quo Vadis from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at