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Memoirs of Hadrian - Marguerite Yourcenar, Grace Frick ”I was beginning to find it natural, if not just, that we must perish. Our literature is nearing exhaustion, our arts are falling asleep; Pancrates is not Homer, nor is Arrian a Xenophon; when I have tried to immortalize Antinous in stone no Praxiteles has come to hand, Our sciences have been at a standstill from the times of Aristotle and Archimedes; our technical development is inadequate to the strain of a long war; our technical development is inadequate to the strain of a long war; even our pleasure-lovers grow weary of delight. More civilized ways of living and more liberal thinking in the course of the last century are the work of a very small minority of good minds; the masses remain wholly ignorant, fierce and cruel when they can be so, and in any case limited and selfish; it is safe to wager that they will never change.”


Hadrian ruled from 117-138 and was the 14th Emperor of the Roman Empire. He was the third of five emperors that are referred to as the good emperors. He had good men to follow and also provided a good example of leadership to those that followed in his footsteps. He was the adopted son of Trajan (Roman Emperors seemed to routinely struggle to produce offspring.), and the first controversy of his ascension to power was that Trajan had never officially named him as his successor, but on a deathbed edict signed by Plotina the wife of Trajan, not by the Emperor, Hadrian was named to succeed.

He was uniquely qualified to lead Rome. As a soldier he was able to view the empire from a different perspective than any of the leadership in Rome. He fought courageously, but was discomforted from all the killing that was necessary to put down rebellions or conquer new territory. To Hadrian the warriors, women, and children they were killing were people that could have made good Roman citizens. This experience convinced him to change the policies of his predecessors. As Emperor he stopped the expansion of the empire and spent his time shoring up the relationship of Rome with the people of all the nations that composed the Roman Empire. He wanted everyone to have skin in the game. ”I was determined that even the most wretched, from the slaves who clean the city sewers to the famished barbarians who hover along the frontiers, should have an interest in seeing Rome endure.”


He rebuilt the Pantheon. ”I myself had revised its architectural plans, drawn with too little daring by Apollodorus: utilizing the arts of Greece only as ornamentation, like an added luxury, I had gone back for the basic form of the structure to the primitive, fabled times of Rome and to the round temples of ancient Etruria.” Hadrian was enamored with Greece and brought their philosophies and focus on art back to prominence in Roman thought. He built cities, repaired sculptures and ancient architecture, not just in Italy, but throughout the territories. He wanted his thinking, his beliefs to be felt everywhere. He was the first Emperor to travel to all of the geography of the Roman Empire. Instead of conquest, he built walls, most famously in England, to keep out nations hostile to Rome. He spent more time away from Rome than he did in Rome and improved the feeling towards Rome just by being a presence in areas most disaffected and disenchanted with being part of the Empire.

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian loved meeting people from different cultures and as a good Roman always wanted to assimilate the best of all humanity. He was a deep thinker who had a broad understanding of philosophies and religions. He liked to take time to think, to fantasize about a new life, a new world, but at the same time found that even entertaining such ideas he was alone among men of his class. ”I played with the idea...To be alone, without possessions, without renown, with none of the advantages of a civilization, to expose oneself among new men and amid fresh hazards...Needless to say it was only a dream, and the briefest dream of all. This liberty that I was inventing ceased to exist upon closer view; I should quickly have rebuilt for myself everything that I had renounced. Furthermore, wherever I went I should only have been a Roman away from Rome. A kind of umbilical cord attached me to the City. Perhaps at that time, in my rank of tribune, I felt still more closely bound to the empire than later as emperor, for the same reason that the thumb joint is less free than the brain. Nevertheless I did have that outlandish dream, at which our ancestors, soberly confined with the Latian fields, would have shuddered; to have harbored the thought, even for a moment, makes me forever different from them.”

Even Emperor’s dream of being someone else.

Marguerite Yourcenar

Yourcenar, as you can tell from the quotes I have shared, tells this story from the first person narrative in the form of a letter to Marcus Aurelius. We are in the mind of Hadrian. We experience the building of his philosophies, the implementation of change he had envisioned while only a tribune, and the compassion and retribution he shows his enemies. We feel the grief, on par with Alexander for Hephaestion, when Hadrian’s very close lover, a Greek youth named Antinous, drowns. Rome was lucky to have him as Emperor during a time when they were struggling to maintain control of an empire that had grown too large. He certainly extended the life of the Roman Empire and put forward concepts, in particular to equality, that were far ahead of their time. This novel is considered a classic of historical fiction and like all good literature I know I will be thinking about it for a long, long time. Highly Recommended!