MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN - Marguerite Yourcenar
Written in the form of a testamentary letter from the emperor Hadrian to his successor, the
youthful Marcus Aurelius, the work is as extraordinary for its psychological depth as for its
accurate reconstruction of the second century of our era. In it, Yourcenar reimagines Hadrian's
arduous boyhood, his triumphs and reversals, and finally, as emperor, his reordering of a worn-
torn world, writing with the imaginative insight of a great writer of the twentieth century while
crafting a prose style as elegant as those of the Latin stylists of Hadrian's own time.
"A classic . . . The entire is exquisitely poised."—George Steiner, The New Yorker
"A singular, and singularly beautiful, novel whose theme is the interaction of great power, great
mind, and great love: of mastery and vulnerability."—Shirley Hazzard
"Yourcenar's prose [is] beautiful. What made [this author] remarkable, however, was not so much
her style as the quality of her mind . . . If you want to know what 'ancient Roman' really means, in
terms of war and religion and love and parties, read Memoirs of Hadrian . . . No other document
takes us so deeply into the pre-Christian mind . . . Yourcenar gathers not just the round-cheeked
boys and the fire festivals but also the less glamorous materials—the tax abatements, the judicial
reforms—into sentences that throb and glow like rising suns."—Joan Acocella, The New Yorker
Wall Street Journal article, October 9, 2010
Portrait of Power Embodied in a Roman Emperor
By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
In 1982, when I first read Marguerite Yourcenar's "The Memoirs of Hadrian," I asked Arnaldo
Momigliano, the great scholar of the ancient world, what he thought of the novel. Italian to the
highest power, he put all five fingers of his right hand to his mouth, kissed them, and announced,
"Pure masterpiece." Now, nearly 30 years later, I have reread the work and find it even better
than before. A book that improves on rereading, that seems even grander the older one gets—
surely, this is yet another sign of a masterpiece.
ts author was born in Belgium, wrote in French, and lived much of her adult life in Maine with her
excellent translator and companion, Grace Frick. As such, Mme. Yourcenar (1903-1987) was, in
effect, a writer without a country, though she was the first woman elected to the Académie
Française (in 1980). She was the last aristocratic novelist of the 20th century, and not only in the
sense that her father was of aristocratic descent. She did not ask in her fiction the contemporary
middle-class questions of what is happiness and why have I (or my characters) not found it,
concerning herself instead with something larger—the meaning of human destiny as it plays out
on a historical stage.
Mme. Yourcenar wrote a good deal of fiction, but her imperishable work is "Memoirs of Hadrian,"
first published in French in 1951. The novel is in the form of a lengthy letter written by the aged
and ill Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from A.D. 117 to 138, to the 17-year-old but already thoughtful
Roman emperors seem to be divided between monsters and mediocrities, with an occasional
near-genius, like Hadrian, thrown in to break the monotony. Highly intelligent and cultivated, he
was a Grecophile, always a good sign in the ancient world. As emperor, he attempted to pull back
from the imperialist expansion of his predecessor Trajan and wanted, as the chronicler Aelius
Spartianus put it, to "administer the republic [so that] it would know that the state belonged to the
people and was not his property."
And yet Hadrian was also a Roman emperor, which meant living amid dangerous intrigue,
wielding enormous power and being able to fulfill his erotic impulses at whim. He was, Spartianus
writes, "both stern and cheerful, affable and harsh, impetuous and hesitant, mean and generous,
hypocritical and straightforward, cruel and merciful, and always in all things changeable"—in
short, not a god but a man.
Mme. Yourcenar has taken what we know of the life of Hadrian and from this sketchy knowledge
produced an utterly convincing full-blown portrait. One feels that one is reading a remarkable
historical document, an account of the intricate meanings of power by a man who has held vast
power. Imagine Machiavelli's "The Prince" written not by an Italian theorist but by a true prince.
Imagine, further, that he also let you in on his desires, his fears, his aesthetic, his sensuality, his
feelings about death—in a manner at once haute and intimate, and in a prose any emperor would
be pleased to possess.
"I see an objection to every effort toward ameliorating man's condition, on earth," Hadrian writes,
setting out the political philosophy that will inform his reign, "namely that mankind is perhaps not
worthy of such exertion. But I meet the objection easily enough: so long as Caligula's dream
remains impossible of fulfillment, and the entire human race is not reduced to a single head
destined for the axe, we shall have to bear with humanity, keeping it within bounds but utilizing it
to the utmost; our interest, in the best sense of the term, will be to serve it."
Part of the mastery of "Memoirs of Hadrian" is in its reminder that the emperor, like the rest of us,
remains imprisoned in a perishable human body. Hadrian's letter to young Marcus is being written
at the end of his life, and so with a sure grasp of the inexorability of "Time, the Devourer." Hadrian
has come into his wisdom only after manifold errors and tragic mistakes; not least among the
latter, contriving, through thoughtlessness, in the death of his great love, the Bithynian youth
Antinous. He is writing "when my harvests are in." The letter lets Hadrian take his own measure.
"I liked to feel that I was above all a continuator," Hadrian writes. He notes that he looked "to
those twelve Caesars so mistreated by Suetonius," in the hope of emulating the best of each: "the
clear-sightedness of Tiberius, without his harshness; the learning of Claudius without his
weakness; Nero's taste for the arts, but stripped of all foolish vanity; the kindness of Titus,
stopping short of his sentimentality; Vespasian's thrift, but not his absurd miserliness."
Mme. Yourcenar has Hadrian compare himself, favorably, with Alcibiades, who "had seduced
everyone and everything, even History herself." Unlike Alcibiades, who had brought destruction
everywhere, he, Hadrian, "had governed a world infinitely larger...and had kept pace therein; I
had rigged it like a fair ship made ready for a voyage which might last for centuries; I had striven
my utmost to encourage in man the sense of the divine but without at the same time sacrificing to
it what is essentially human. My bliss was my reward."
Like most of our lives, Hadrian's—and so Mme. Yourcenar's novel—is plotless. What keeps the
reader thoroughly engaged is not drama but the high quality of Hadrian's thought and powers of
observation. Hadrian, through the sheer force of his mind, comes alive. That this most virile of
characters has been written by a woman might be worth remarking were it not the case that the
greatest novelists have always been androgynous in their powers of creation. With the dab hand
of literary genius, Mme. Yourcenar has taken one of the great figures of history and turned him
into one of the most memorable characters in literature in a masterpiece too little known.
The Passage from Now to Then: Examining Historical Literature Through Marguerite
Yourcenar's "Memoirs of Hadrian"
By Deva Jasheway
When considering historical literature that is based upon people who once lived, readers often
ask where the details are taken directly from historical accounts, and where they differ. This is a
perfectly valid lens through which to view the work, but one should not attach too much
importance to faithful adherence to historical accuracy. A novel like Marguerite Yourcenar's
Memoirs of Hadrian undeniably transports the reader back to the time of Hadrian, but it does not
relate the progress of his life exactly the way it was. It cannot, because Yourcenar was not a
Roman scribe; in this case she was a novelist and historian. As such, her account was affected
by the changes that, over centuries, take place in historical accounts. If a moment in history were
an object frozen in time, then it would remain the same, but it is the record of the moment, and
not the moment itself, that is generally the source for the historical writer – and the record is
subject to the same changes as any other object. Moreover, any record of an event, whether
historical or recent, is strongly influenced by perspective, and very rarely truly objective. With this
in mind, we might recognize that in some cases it may never be possible to achieve historical
Many people regard history as a static, unchanging set of information. They think of events of the
past as though they were long ago set in stone, failing to recognize that such works of stone are
further worked upon by the passage of time. In speaking of the statues and sculptures that
remain from centuries ago, Marguerite Yourcenar’s essay “That Mighty Sculptor, Time”
insightfully notes just how different the original work was from what we see. No one would claim
that a statue “lives” the way a human does, but like a human body the supposedly inert creation
changes with each moment that goes by. “Everything, including the atmospheric conditions of the
museums in which they are today imprisoned, leaves its mark on their bodies of metal or stone”
(Mighty Sculptor, 58). Even the change over generations in how people view the object alters
what future generations will see; “Of all the changes caused by time, none affects statues more
than the shifts of taste in their admirers” (Mighty Sculptor, 61).
It is much the same with history as with these statues. The metaphor is quite clever, because
statues have a connotation of indestructibility. The stone and metal Yourcenar talks of are hard
substances, not easily decomposed, which would be able to last for centuries; if one can view the
statues she discusses as standing in for history, then history must also be indestructible and able
to survive through the ages. Yet if the reader considers more carefully, they will see that
Yourcenar acknowledges this survival, but claims that what survives today is far removed from
the time that produced it. While the historical accounts we now read resemble the first accounts,
which only resembled the actual events, they are not the same. Years that have crept by,
revisions for clarity or illumination, or in other instances multiple translations, have served to
separate newer versions of historical resources from their generators. This applies most when
discussing historical subjects like the Roman Empire, the records of which are necessarily
translated and interpreted.
In “That Mighty Sculptor, Time,” Marguerite Yourcenar writes of “statues so thoroughly shattered
that out of the debris a new work of art is born” (Mighty Sculptor, 58). Although not the same
situation, Yourcenar’s writing of Memoirs of Hadrian shares features with that process. She
gathered the pieces left over from Hadrian’s life, “thoroughly shattered” in the sense that she had
to draw upon multiple historical books and records to pull out the full picture that Memoirs
presents. She recreated Hadrian’s life with several pieces in a different place than they had
previously occupied, and added a few new pieces where she deemed necessary. This type of
reconstruction is unavoidable in a work like Memoirs of Hadrian, which, despite the historical
records left to the world, takes place in a time far removed from the age in which Yourcenar lived.
Such reconstruction is not limited to literary works; even the author of a supposedly objective
textbook on Hadrian would be required to go through the same process of gathering and fitting
pieces of his life together.
The distance between the older periods of history and modern times can create perspective
problems for the author, such as Marguerite Yourcenar recounts in regard to finding the right
voice for Hadrian. In her notes on Memoirs of Hadrian she states that she envisioned the work in
a dialogic mode, but claims that she could not find the voice of Hadrian in the midst of all the
other characters (Hadrian, 320). It seems that there is another reason that dialogue did not work:
there is no dialogue in the writings of the time, and therefore nothing to on which to base “an
exchange about serious or urgent, subtle or complex matters, a conversation between Hadrian
and [others … ] Nothing, or virtually nothing, is left us of those inflections, those quarter tones,
those articulated half smiles which yet can change everything” (Mighty Sculptor, 31). Without the
remnants of interacting voices from the time, she would have most likely created a markedly
contemporary set of dialogues.
It is from Hadrian’s voice in the texts of his time that Yourcenar built her novel’s voice; “In an
attempt to rediscover that voice […] I used the little – but the diverse little – that is left from
Hadrian himself” (Mighty Sculptor, 33). “Hadrian himself” is an important distinction – she went
directly to the source, of which she could find only a few wisps, to find the voice that she felt
would fit the man. Following this, in the same essay, she notes the same link between historical
records and statues that this essay draws when she describes this pool of information as “bits of
voice out of which to reconstitute an entire tone or timbre of voice, the way others reconstitute a
broken statue out of fragments of marble” (Mighty Sculptor, 35).
Yourcenar also demonstrates in “Tone and Language in the Historical Novel” the extent of the
difficulty of “rediscovering” a voice from so long ago. Between the beginning and completion of
Memoirs of Hadrian, approximately two decades passed. In this case, the passage of time
worked to Yourcenar’s benefit, for she tells us, “it took me years to learn how to calculate exactly
the distances between the emperor and myself” (Hadrian, 322). This could easily refer to the
voice of the emperor that she worked so hard to reconstruct. If these imagined memoirs were to
be plausible, they must appear to be written by a long-dead Roman emperor, and not a European
woman of the twentieth century. She managed to find the line between his voice and hers
perhaps better than others would have, but in looking back over her writing she admits, “I don’t
flatter myself that I always succeeded” (Mighty Sculptor, 35). While one unsuccessful passage
may only be insufficient in evoking Hadrian (“I no longer believe that he would have recounted
himself in that fashion“ (35)), another’s trouble lies in the use of modern language. In this vein,
Yourcenar says of the passage following the death of Antinous, “I caused him to speak the
French of my day” (36). While her treatment of this is more of an observation than a criticism, it
shows how the stretch of centuries can affect the accurate or, to use Yourcenar’s word,
“authentic” portrayal of history.
History refers not to events themselves, but to the relating of those events – to the records and
documents, and thus it changes like the statues in Yourcenar’s “That Mighty Sculptor, Time,”
gaining “the accumulation of dirt and the true or false patina” (58). As one looks at Yourcenar’s
beautiful expression of how simply existing in the world ages the statues, so to speak, it is
possible to see how the same process applies to history. As Yourcenar puts it, “We do not
possess a single Greek statue in the state in which its contemporaries knew it” (Mighty Sculptor,
57). In the same way, we cannot see the events of the past the way someone living at the time
did; however, just as we can infer what the statue looked like in its original finished state, we can
speculate on what history looked like to those for whom it was the present. Trying to recount
history in a perfect, unchanged state is impossible; thus an unbending loyalty to exactness of
detail is energy wasted. Yourcenar followed the details in “authentic” historical records concerning
Hadrian rather closely, but it was a path she chose, and not an end goal. Of greater concern was
finding the correct essence of Hadrian’s life and the events in it; as the author herself says, “With
[historical] truth […] one errs more or less“ (Hadrian, 330), and it is of greater importance that “the
impression, if not the expression, seems authentic” (Mighty Sculptor, 36).
That is not to say that the details supported by historical texts are not important, because they
certainly are. This should be clear in the discussion of Memoirs of Hadrian, a book that is well-
grounded in research and documents of the time. The importance of historical records, however,
is shaded by the fact that history does not remain as an intact entity. Instead, it creates more of a
hunt-and-peck situation, and in compiling a complete picture of any historical event, a certain
amount of guesswork is involved. As mentioned before, this is most applicable in relation to
events of centuries before the present day. The more time that passes between the moment of
occurrence and the moment of retrospect, the more chances appear for pieces of the records to
be changed or lost.
Those “lost” moments can be reconstructed as well as any other aspect of history, although it is
far more difficult to prove. Yourcenar’s words confirm this: “Each wound helps us to reconstruct a
crime and sometimes even to discover its causes” (Mighty Sculptor, 59). The space left by the
missing information is evidence in itself. Because any theories on what that information might be
can only be deemed “accurate” as far as the evidence allows, it would be beneficial to follow
Yourcenar’s advice and “let inexactitude play its part” (Mighty Sculptor, 36). This is just what she
has done in writing Memoirs of Hadrian. The acknowledgement that such speculations are
speculations is necessary; so, too, is the recognition that the distance between the dweller of the
present day and the events of the past prevent them from coming any closer to the precise details
of those events. Allowances of inaccuracy are essential as long as we lack the vehicle to cover
1.0 out of 5 stars
Yourcenar’s prose is indeed stunning, and it is very apparent that there was much
meticulous research done to capture the character of Hadrian and the historical
backdrop of his time. However, I couldn’t help but feel that this book was so dense,
rambling, and esoteric that it made it next to impossible for me to actually follow the
story, making it all the more difficult for me to enjoy it. With all the excellent reviews
and all the hype surrounding this novel, I was awfully disappointed. I can see why it
has gotten praise, but have yet to see really what makes this a great novel besides
the prose and the research that was involved.
2.0 out of 5 stars
A look at the meaning of life through the eyes of a man who had almost limitless
power combined with a desire to do good. The voice of Yourcenar's Hadrian can be a
tad depressing due to his rather bleak philosophy about life, but the novel is
nevertheless impressive in the scope of its observations on the experience of
My initial interest was learning about the life and circumstances of this emperor of
Rome, and to that extent, I was slightly disappointed, as these took a back seat to
3.0 out of 5 stars
FINALLY finished. After plowing through three books by M. Yourcenar, I've given up
attempting to find the magic in her work that so many others have insisted is there
3.0 out of 5 stars
Dated, passionate, repetitive, artsy, a little claustrophobic.
3.0 out of 5 stars Slow, meditative and sad
I really wanted to like this book but while I found it well-written with a lingering,
contemplative beauty, it was ultimately a little too self-interested and, dare I say,
self-indulgent for me. Yourcenar's Hadrian is definitely her own creation and one
which reflects herself, I would guess, rather than the second-century Roman
The blurb describes this as `part historical novel and part general reflection about
life' - I would say it's almost wholly the latter, with hardly any of the former at all.
Other reviewers have praised Yourcenar's historical evocation but I'm afraid I'm not
one of them. I admit I'm far from being an expert on the second century CE, but the
sense of `Romanness' feels very unconvincing to me.
Structured as a long valedictory letter to Marcus Aurelius, this is a book which only
takes place within Hadrian's own mind, so there is little drama, no scenes, no
speeches, no other voices other than Hadrian's own.
The Antinous episode, in particular, suffers from a melancholy, romantic flavouring
that is very nineteenth-century (in a Goethe's Werther mode) rather than anything
more robustly Roman.
So overall this is a strange book, definitely worth reading as an intelligent meditation
on the `human condition', but which I found very unsatisfactory as a novel.
3.0 out of 5 stars What would Wallsend have been called otherwise?
Hadrian. He certainly saw the world - one minute in Greece, the next up in the north
of England restraining the Caledonians, before nipping over to Germany. Alas, these
"memoirs" (a fictional account of his life, in fact) give us little insight into these great
campaigns and a lot of imperial navel-gazing, worrying about death and harping on
about gay lovers.
That's a little unfair, perhaps; there's a lot of intelligent thought here but the overall
product is rather dry and tedious to read. Maybe that says more about me than
about Ms Yourcenar's work.
4.0 out of 5 stars
Memoirs of Hadrian is the most meticulously researched, and, as a result, the most
historically accurate work of historical fiction I have ever encountered. Written
intermittently between 1924 and 1954 by a French-American, homosexual woman, it
has since become a bit of a monument of historical fiction, and, to a lesser extent,
gay fiction. If not for its non-Roman, non-Emperor origins, it would surely be called a
monument of autobiography and history. If only it were "real."
It convincingly portrays the inner thoughts of an old and dying Emperor Hadrian, as
he looks back at an eventful life of over sixty years. It is told in the first person, as a
long letter to the young Marcus "Mark" Aurelius, his young future successor. At first I
thought this approach a bit clumsy. Yet it is believable: long works were sometimes
addressed to friends of the author, as if letters; and Marcus Aurelius seems a
convincing target. The Meditations and the genuine autobiography of Hadrian would
have made a great pair.
Unfortunately, this book is not and never will be quite genuine. Hadrian did in fact
write an account of his life, but it has been lost. This book can be viewed, from one
direction, as an attempt to fill that void -- piecing together the evidence that does
remain, filling in a few holes with fiction, and adding a poetical fancy over the whole.
Everything flows nicely, with the author simply trying to patch up history rather than
As a scholarly experiment in history, literature, and biography the book rings and
shines. If Mme. Yourcenar wished only to convincingly portray the emperor and his
world, she succeeded wonderfully. Hadrian traces his entire life, from glazing over
his childhood in Spain, to his imperial cursus honorum, to his accession and
extensive travelling throughout the Empire. His many personality quirks and traits
are also on display: like his great admiration for Greek culture, his artistic and
literary pretensions, his passion for detail, his competency and justness as a ruler,
but also his extravagance. As a historical figure, there is a bit of both Nero and
Augustus in him.
Ultimately, he ruled competently enough for most people to overlook his
idiosyncrasies. Antinous, a man-boy from Bithynia whom he fell desperately in love
with, is a great example. After the young man died, by drowning in the Nile river at
the age of twenty (some say accidentally; this book takes the more fanciful route of
willing sacrifice), Hadrian deified him. He started a cult around the kid, founded cities
in his name, and commissioned hundreds or even thousands of statues in his image.
Yet, in a world of Suetonius and other scorned senators like him, no one seems to
have batted an eye.
As entertainment, this book is sometimes lacking. It is caught between general,
pure-entertainment historical fiction, and genuine historical texts -- between I,
Claudius and The Meditations. It sometimes "smells too much of the lamp" -- like she
did her research a little too well and didn't rely on her writing talents enough.
Perhaps she forgot that it was a work of fiction and not a history text. Though, for
this very reason, this book probably would make a fun and informative read for
students of an introductory Roman History course. The general reader, however,
may want to brush up on their Roman history beforehand. The names of long-gone
people and places abound, and footnotes and/or a glossary would have been nice. At
least, these were lacking in the edition I read -- though the bibliographical notes and
the author's notes on the book's composition were great additions.
"Convincing" is the best one-word review I can imagine for this book. It sucked me
in, and only slipped a few times. Yes, occasionally, very occasionally, I felt the huge
time gap, and perceived the work as a "fake." Yet, I am even convinced that, if it
were not widely established as fiction, it could fool most people, even some scholars.
5.0 out of 5 stars Epic book of a wise and simple man who was a Roman
This book takes you back in time to the 2nd century and the memoirs of Emperor
Hadrian. But it makes you feel as though this man could be talking to you, telling
you his inner most thoughts on life and death. The book is totally compelling and you
feel for Hadrian as a man. He talks about his love of life , nature, friendships and
ultimately, his greatest love, the young Antinous. The portrayal of this relationship
and its unfortunate ending was very moving.
You also begin to see just how humanitarian and ahead of his time this man was.
The birth of liberty, humanitarian values, democracy and provincialism all figure in
his reign. The evidence and influence of Hadrian are still to be felt. This is a
wonderful window into the 2nd century and the life of a compassionate and hugely
dynamic man. I feel richer and wiser for having been introduced to his thoughts on
life and living. It is a great introduction to Roman history, and history in general.
5.0 out of 5 stars a masterpiece
I usually don't write book reviews but in this particular case I think that i need to talk
about one of the aspects of the book that is missing in the other reviews.
All the reviews talk about it as a historical book. Readers praised its language fluency
and historical accuracy. They're not wrong, but I don't think that it is the essence of
the book, the reason why the author wrote it. This memoirs don't allow us to enter
the emperor's mind and the roman philosophy and beliefs. No one can know what
these were and the author doesn't pretend to do so. This book is rather a personal
work that allow us to enter the author's mind and philosophy (because it is first a
philosophical treaty) and to analyse our relationship with our roman past. Marguerite
Yourcenar isn't a historian, she is a philosopher.
She was the first woman to enter L'académie Française, and she's undoubtedly one
the major French writers of the century.
A critical paper by Lawrence N. Siegler
May 6, 2002
We have spent the last few weeks reading the remarkable novel, Memoirs of Hadrian. I found
this an extraordinary book, ingenious, intellectual, interesting, and in many ways, beautiful.
The book has an immediate and forceful impact for many of us. It says much to us who must die
sooner or, (as we hope), later and who are reviewing and contemplating his or her own life and
who might intend to write an accounting some day when, as they say, if one can get around to it.
Alas, for most of us that day will never be. But if we could, a memoir like the one written for
Hadrian would be a fine model.
In any case, we need not be an enlightened Aristotelian monarch nor match the talented and
poetic Marguerite Yourcenar to empathize with the aging Hadrian, (Publius Aelius Hadrianus).
His basic inner thoughts are closer to ours than we might expect. Yourcenar’s exquisite skill
allows us to clearly understand Hadrian who is concerned with the judgment of posterity, welfare
of heirs, condition of the world, and who especially tries to learn more about himself.
Certainly this book follows the concept of self-examination. Yourcenar’s literary ancestor, Michel
de Montaigne’s motto was, “que sais-je?” (What do I know?). Proust, a more recent French
forbearer, also sought better to know himself and the world around him. His memorable novel of
free association, a deliciously constructed multilevel remembrance that contained enormously
insightful commentary, must have influenced Yourcenar.
Yourcenar in her notes writes that in the 16 century her work might rather be set as an essay,
th th th
and perhaps as a play during the 17 or 18 centuries. In the 20 century, the novel form
seemed to her most appropriate. Her sensitive fiction allows her to expand and enter Hadrian’s
psyche. It makes him real to the modern reader.
A memoir in an epistolary form was used by earlier French authors Choderlos de Laclos (Les
Liaisons Dangereuses), and Montesquieu (Persian Letters). Yourcenar’s use of these two forms
creates an effect both intimate and honest. The first person singular that she employs for
Hadrian also causes an internal and personal effect.
Memoirs of Hadrian is more than merely an historical novel. It is more factual and far less fanciful
than earlier historical novels like those of Walter Scott (Ivanhoe), Victor Hugo (Hunchback of
Notre Dame), Gustave Flaubert (Salambo), and Alexander Dumas, (Three Musketeers).
As a philosophical novel, it follows several slightly earlier works such as Walter Pater’s Marius the
Epicurean and Ernest Renan’s, Life of Jesus. Like Robert Graves (I, Claudius – 1934) and
Herman Broch, (Death of Virgil – 1945), Yourcenar has had a great influence on later authors like
Mary Renault, Colleen McCullough, Leon Uris, and Herman Wouk.
Marguerite Yourcenar has done very careful and extensive research for this book. Fortunately
she provides a tone of unpretentious erudition. In novels, historical precision is not essential, but
nevertheless in Memoirs of Hadrian factuality is comfortingly present. Historians might dispute its
details, but in general, Yourcenar created a valid history and a significantly vivid and honest
portrait of the Emperor. As a result, Hadrian’s putative recollections and musings are quite
Hadrian’s opinions and basic ideals are an amalgam of Roman virtues, Greek Philosophy, and
Humanism. Indeed, Western Civilization is still saturated with these concepts. Historian Arnold
Toynbee in Civilization on Trial says, “Whatever chronology might say, Thucydides’ world and my
world have proved to be contemporary.”
Hadrian’s values compel us to apply them against our own standards. Discipline, Patience,
Strength, Justice, Love, Beauty, Art, and Honesty are concerns with which we still measure the
world. Memoirs of Hadrian then is a moral book, even a philosophical one and it represents one
of the best of its genre.
The actual Meditations of Marcus Aurelius exists today. Yourcenar carefully used this short set of
reflections and comments written some 40 years after Hadrian’s death by Marcus Aurelius shortly
before his own death in 180. The Meditations and Memoirs of Hadrian are so close in spirit that
one feels the communication between Hadrian and Aurelius, which this book is meant to be, and
is plausible, genuine, and reasonable.
Marcus Aurelius mentions Hadrian in a minor way only a few times in his own text. Marcus
extensively thanks and praises many people in his Meditations, including his immediate
predecessor Antoninus Pius but there is no such adulation for Hadrian. Hadrian willed that the
control of Rome go to Aurelius after the death of Pius. It is interesting in view of what we know
about Hadrian’s personal life that Aurelius specifically praises Pius’ abhorrence of pederasty.
Yourcenar adds no insight into Marcus’ neglect of appreciation of Hadrian his benefactor.
Yourcenar works hard to create and support an aura of veracity. We know that Hadrian wrote a
number of poems and other items, most lost or in fragments. People in the book are those that
actually lived and interacted with Hadrian such as Phlegon, Arrian, Celer, Fronto, and even
Juvenal and Suitonius. She portrays these characters with attributes derived from various
ancient letters, poems, accounts, and inscriptions. This makes for an enormous verisimilitude
and gives the book believable insight into the Hadrian’s life and times.
Yourcenar of course composes Hadrian’s reflections in this book. Although she tries very
carefully to place herself inside of her subject, she cannot but put something of herself into
Hadrian expressing his irony, explanations, and philosophy.
This “1 person approach” mostly succeeds but occasionally produces stiff, erudite, and
mannered expressions. Yourcenar uses relatively modern words like bourgeoisie and has
Hadrian ponder social problems, such as the great disparity between the rich and poor, not a
major concern during his era. Also his concern about Christianity, its sects and practioners,
which Hadrian surely would consider infra dignitatem, are Yourcenar’s. Hadrian’s comments on
nature, divinity, denial, renunciation, and death are, in our time and his, important topics.
Yourcenar has much to say through Hadrian.
Although Yourcenar has inserted her own modern agenda, she seems to be almost at one with
the persona of Hadrian. His intellect, his spirit, philosophy, his sexuality, his dominance and
power, his discipline, honesty, love of beauty, and his approach to mankind, all intrigue this
author and us as well.
In Yourcenar’s notes regarding the Memoirs, she is furious at critics who considered the
reflections as hers personally rather than those of Hadrian. She calls this “utterly fatuous.” She
doesn’t say however, if her own passions and disposition are so different from his. Is this also
utterly fatuous? An insightful, yet unwritten biography might contain the answer.
One learns that Hadrian did institute reforms against the worst elements of slavery, torture, child
sacrifice, and the status of women. He says many cogent things regarding his ardent desire for
peace. He also states somewhat cynically, “Peace was my aim, but not at all my idol; even to call
it my ideal would displease as too remote from reality.”
More importantly Yourcenar shows us a complete Hadrian, a stoic, a sensualist, optimist, realist,
cynic; an administrator, warrior, politician, and a superstitious yet incisive prognosticator and
perceptive interpreter of his world. We may be astounded that Hadrian was so deep, but we
believe it because the author has Hadrian put his thoughts in ways an imaginative, and
freethinking Emperor would.
We learn what Hadrian has done; his travels, problem solving, building, and reforming. We know
Hadrian as a literate, expressive, wise, and remarkable fellow. He is someone imperious and
disciplined – someone brutal and superstitious yet one possessing honest and blunt
Both Yourcenar and our member, George Weimer, have said one must be a certain age and
have a certain amount of experience before reading or even writing certain books. Yourcenar
could not even complete the beginning of this book when she was under 30. As in the case of
Proust, an author or a reader must be at least close to or beyond middle age to get the most
benefit from such a book. Some books are not for the young. Conversely, some books are not
for the old either. This book is about a summing up of life and has much meaning to those who
are at that point in their lives.
Yourcenar’s use of language from the earliest pages, though not simple, is often a thing of beauty
and worth savoring. In it we find especial brilliance and graceful expression. Perhaps too poetic
for some, occasionally too dense, and arguably, in some cases, slightly banal, still I find her work
passionate and beautifully wrought.
At the opening of the book, she has Hadrian say, “Like a traveler sailing the Archipelago who
sees the luminous mists lift toward evening, and little by little makes out the shore, I begin to
discern the profile of my death,” then at the very end she translates Hadrian’s well-known poem
and has him conclude, “let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes.” This kind of skill
and careful writing is found overwhelmingly often in this book.
The translation is also superb. What else might one expect from Yourcenar, who translated
Virginia Woolf’s The Wave and Henry James’s What Masie Knew into French, and for over 10
years lived in the US and taught at Sarah Lawrence? She and her co-translator and long-term
companion, the American Grace Frick have certainly found les mots justes, the right words, to
connote the sometimes florid, aphoristic, imperial and self-serving thought and assertions of
The first chapter’s title are the first three words from Hadrian’s surviving poem; “Animula, Vagula,
Blandula.” This sets the tone for the memoir with a poetic double entendre and a fitting farewell
for a sensual, ironic, and clever man.
Animula Vagula, Blandula,
Hospes comesque corporus,
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, Rigida Nudula
Nec, ut Soles dabis locas… .
Let’s look at this poem. The punctuation is Yourcenar’s. The first line: Animula, Vagula,
Blandula, indicates a vague, wandering and gentle soul, wandering about the world, as did
Hadrian during his life. He suspects he will continue to wander after death. The next line says,
Hospes comesque…, host and companion of our corporis, our body or essence. Note the
dualism that we are our own constant host and companion. Quae nunc, that now, abibis in loca,
will go off, (the soul that is) and in an altered state, loca agreeing grammatically with, Pallidula,
somewhat pale, Rigida, rigid and inflexible and Nudula or naked exposed and bare.
There is a dual meaning in these three words, Pallidula… . This expected future state must be
compared to his current life. A little pale and somewhat stiff and naked, in the post-mortem sense
of course. One must not neglect the dissolute emperor’s past and his hopeful future visceral
secondary meaning. Enthusiastic and avid Novel Club readers of Salter’s, Roth’s, and Smith’s
crudities will appreciate these vulgarities.
To further support the erotic nuance, he ends with Nec ut, not, as in the manner of the, Soles,
sunny past, abibis, it giving in the future, Iocos or joy. The expression, Io can also imply an
expression of pain, again another duality. Hadrian has compared his past and future with these
hopeful double meanings.
In any case, after commencing with the actual poetic and thanos- appropriate words of Hadrian,
Yourcenar creates a powerful veracity, which becomes more forceful as the book continues. She
immediately establishes Hadrian’s intelligence, honesty, heroic idealism, and most importantly his
modernity and meaning.
We can empathize with the easily understandable comment that, “ it is difficult to remain an
emperor in the presence of his physician and difficult to keep one’s essential quality as a man”.
Also many of us know how true it is when he muses, as we all have, that his body, a faithful
companion that has served him well is not performing so well lately. These truisms, perhaps
somewhat banal, show another part of Yourcenar’s range of expression.
The book however at once becomes believable because Hadrian is someone not so different
from us. He tells us that he has reached the age where, “life, for everyman, is to accept defeat.”
Is he not one of us?
Yourcenar quickly establishes Hadrian’s reflective, moderate habits, his morality, and his
subscription to the Roman virtues. He is against gluttony, for water rather than wine, for
simplicity, moderation, even in his own asceticism. He even notes, the egregious behavior of
wine snobs. Like us, he fails at some of his ideals. This makes him even more real.
Yourcenar outlines his musings on love; its power, irrationality, and mutability. There are five
rather dense pages early in the book devoted to assertions, theories, and praises of the Erotic.
This complicated exultation meant to establish the classical view of love, introduces and
describes for us the sentiments of Hadrian expressed in the central chapter of this book, called
One might suspect Yourcenar’s own sentiments in Hadrian’s reminiscences about Antinous.
These remembrances are nonetheless an excellently developed classical and ideal concept of
physical and spiritual adoration. Certainly this ideal still exists in full force today as a component
Comments on the role of the seducer are influenced by Yourcenar’s Gallic roots, to wit; de Sade,
Leclos, Balzac, Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Proust. Hadrian’s approach to love, sex, and seduction
seems rather one-sided and that side his. This is more classical than modern but still exists to a
In reviewing his great passion long after the death of Antinous, Hadrian says, “The same law
which ordains that the convalescent, once cured, ceases to understand the mysterious truths laid
bare by illness, and that the prisoner, set free, forgets his torture, or the conqueror, his triumph
past, forgets his glory.” Yourcenar certainly expresses these ironic observations of human nature
She gives Hadrian a modern appeal, though expressed by an ancient and conditioned as we are
today by the stoic, the skeptic, and other concepts and philosophical systems developed since
ancient times. Hadrian, ever the Hellenist seeks beauty everywhere and yet, as Emperor,
remains the practical, serious, and forthright Roman. Are not we too a combination of realist and
passionate esthete? As Alexander Pope’s poem says about Man, “…chaos of thought and
passion all confused…”
Hadrian writes his memoirs to Marcus Aurelius, in order to know himself better. He finds existing
books and other men’s opinions faulty and inadequate. He relies on honest introspection.
Yourcenar’s metaphor of a person as a mountain range with various materials, veins and
accumulations heaped up pell-mell is an exquisite example of the poetic style that fills the book.
The chapter called Varius Multiplex Multiformis further establishes Hadrian’s background and
involves us in his life. His Spanish roots; a prophetic, protean, and superstitious uncle, a
dedicated civil servant father, and basic items about his family are outlined. He studies in Greece
and joins the army as a very young man.
He becomes a lover of Hellenistic Art and Literature. Yourcenar establishes Hadrian’s cultural
enthusiasm with his comments such as, “Everything men have said best has been said in Greek.”
He says further, “I’m not sure the discovery of love is necessarily more exquisite than the
discovery of poetry.” Nevertheless, it seems his pursuit of love was far more exquisite than his
pursuit of poetry. We realize, what one says often is far from the way one acts.
At this point, Yourcenar sets forth Hadrian’s political progress. After the decline and removal of
Domitian and the short reign of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian’s older cousin becomes the first Roman
Emperor born outside of Italy. We learn of the ascent of his “Spanish tribe.” Hadrian reflects on
life around him as a now mature judge, soldier, and administrator. We learn of his enemies as he
prepares his unmerciful revenge on them.
We begin to see what makes the Emperor tick. For example, clear thinking Hadrian says, “It is
not that I despise men. If I did I should have no right, and no reason, to try to govern. I know them
to be vain, ignorant, greedy, and timorous, capable of almost anything for the sake of success, or
for raising themselves in esteem (even in their own eyes), or simple for avoidance of suffering…”
This is a cynical and haughty though honest statement. As a judge, he knows men’s foibles. He
is however honest enough to see these same weaknesses in himself.
Yourcenar continually sets the musings and assertions of Hadrian in a Roman context, as a
Roman male and a Roman Emperor. He sees the glimmering of the divine in Man. Hadrian
looks for ways to freedom. He accepts experience and fate and says, “I have finally learned to
accept myself.” The Hadrian she paints is highly focused and able to convert calamity to positive
experience using discipline, optimism, and concentration.
As a frontier soldier he rather casually describes his daring and bravery. With the help of Trajan’s
wife Plotina and probably, although Yourcenar does not mention it, the support of the Army, he
gains the throne. Plotina is the most admired woman in Hadrian’s entire discourse. She must
have been essential in influencing Trajan’s hesitant choice to seek the crown.
There are few admirable women in this work. Hadrian held no great respect for women.
Yourcenar, writing in the early 50’s does not hold current feminist views. Comments on the role
of women, their social intrigues and cosmetic preoccupations, and their general status, describe
the state of Roman women in the 2 century. As to how much this still applies, I defer to our
more courageous Novel Club members to reveal.
Hadrian had inherited an overextended empire. The cost of the conquests and then maintaining
the empire were burdensome. He commences peace talks with the Parthian foe Osroes and
begins travels on the frontiers. The section is entitled Tellus Stabilita, (Stable Earth), a term then
used in Imperial government propaganda which connotes the “Genius of the Pacified Earth.”
Genius is used in the sense of protector and spiritual supporter.
Attianus, his patron during his early years in Rome, soon assassinates Hadrian’s four major
enemies. Attianus is removed from his posts and then shortly afterwards is reinstated. Hadrian
feels that he now has gained respect because the people and Senate know that there will be no
more political murders. He begins the healing process and calls for morality. More popularly, he
cancelled debts and reduced taxes.
We learn of the reforms and policies of Hadrian. Slavery is one area in which he reduces the
most heinous abuses. He attacks unfair and burdensome laws. He says, “Laws too severe must
be broken and those too complicated are too easy to break.” Too much respect for the past and
tradition becomes a “pillow” for lazy judges.
Forced marriage, inheritance, and the inferior legal status of women will be improved by the
Emperor. Incidentally, Hadrian’s own arranged marriage was clearly a self-serving political and
Hadrian justifies his policies and his role as a great builder. He says interestingly that colossal
effigies gives means of expressing, in true proportions, those things we most cherish. What
better excuse for a megalomaniac?
Hadrian says very practically that each of us has to choose between endless striving and wise
indignation. He notes that “ Man has always conceived of his Gods in terms of providence and
worships his representative on earth,” be they priest or king.
Hadrian even feels divine. He humorously says that being divine is more demanding than being
an Emperor. Wisely, Yourcenar quotes many of Hadrian’s thoughts on astrology, superstition
and cultic practices to remind us that he was very much a pagan.
Saeculum Aureum or the Golden Age is the peak of Hadrian’s career. He falls for a handsome
adolescent Bythnian beau, a moody and pensive idealist, all in the best tradition of classical
romance. He compares their relationship to that of Patroculus and Achilles and Hephaestion and
Alexander. Thus begins ”splendor at high noon” and “the halcyon seasons, solstice of my days, a
special love, not disintegrating to banalities or indifference.” This is also a period of great civic
productivity for Hadrian.
Hadrian’s ephebophilic relationship, although it has all the features of “true love” does have its
problems. Yourcenar’s presentation of their love might appear a little shrill to some readers yet it
has had great resonance to the homophilic community.
This is not the only time Yourcenar has written novels concerning the conflicts between the
hetero and homosexual worlds. Alexis and Coup de Grace cover abandoned, sadistic, and sad
affairs of homosexuals and their various types of lovers.
One wonders what else there was besides physical attachment and adulation. What does “This
graceful hound, avid for caresses and commands,” mean? Does the vulgar argot term, “Bull-
Dyke” apply to Yourcenar’s approach to romance?
The quality of this love is in question. When Hadrian relates his attempts to integrate the young
lover into his more exotic erotic endeavors, the young man, is visibly shocked, but like a
compliant and dominated companion does not object.
Hadrian self-centered interpretation of Antinous’ suicide deems this act his lover’s attempt to
extend his life. Hadrian does all in his power to deify Antinous by building cities, temples, and
establishing a cult to him. This last love is perhaps more powerful than were it to have lasted
longer and ultimately become transient. Yourcenar demonstrates that none can question the
power of love to expand, transcend, and make ecstatic and agonizing the course of one’s life.
The chapter called Disciplina Augusta and Patiencia lists Hadrian’s accomplishments and needs
for the future: need of the educated middle classes, (“in spite of their well-known deficiencies”),
the vital need of libraries, Christians who “hold a doubtful proposition about loving others as
themselves”, the flawed, unnecessary, and brutal suppression of the Jews, and Hadrian’s theory
of political succession. Much in these musings are probably Yourcenar’s own.
Hadrian’s own plan of succession is questionable. All candidates are from his Verus clan.
Hadrian’s ex-lover, “an artist in pleasure,” Lucius Ceionius, (earlier known as Ceionius
Commodus Verus and renamed Aelius Ceasar), who was Hadrian’s first choice to succeed him,
dies of a lung disease. He then adopts Antoninus Verus (renamed Antoninus Pius), mentioning
his kindness and level headedness, to succeed him. He assigns the son of the dead Lucius
Ceionius and Marcus Aurelius, earlier known as Annius Verus as co-rulers when Antoninus Pius
We do get an argument for adoptive succession as opposed to natural succession. It is
questionable that our descendants are worthy or deserving enough for what we give them. That
question was lost on the otherwise rational and brilliant Marcus Aurelius. Foolishly, Aurelius
made his own only surviving son, the worthless Commodus, Emperor.
Hadrian calmly comments on his death. He says, "meditation on death does not make it easier.”
He is content saying all he has implanted in humanity has taken root. He is no longer angry and
ready to die. Uninhibited by his long life of introspection, he kills his 89-year-old brother-in-law,
Julius Servianus, Julius’ grandson Fuscus and even a bothersome architect named Apollodorus.
This seems brutal and vindictive, especially at the end of a rational and sensitively examined life.
Yourcenar, to her credit adheres to historical facts.
We have read a novel full of wisdom and poetry and containing a very large, maybe too large
number of subjects. Marguerite Yourcenar has successfully and vividly set these observations
and comments as elegantly expressed by an educated and experienced monarch who is facing
Yourcenar’s messages in this book though devoted to the classical period are directed to modern
man. These directions are meant to be as applicable to today as they were in ancient times. The
classics refresh and revitalize the present. We examine the phenomenal heritage of our Western
Civilization and realize that people have tussled with the same basic questions as we. Progress
has been distressingly slow.
Memoirs of Hadrian provides much. For readers who love History and especially the Classics this
is a chance to enter those times in a manner which is intimate and informing. For those who love
Philosophy, this book is stimulating and provocative. For those who enjoy passionate, fluent, and
exquisite literature this has been a superb opportunity to read the opulent and brilliant prose of