Memoirs of Hadrian,
published originally as Mémoires d’Hadrien
in 1951, is the magnum opus of acclaimed French author Marguerite Yourcenar. The novel is a work of historical fiction narrated in the first person by Roman Emperor Hadrian in the form of a letter to his successor and adopted grandson Marcus Aurelius (“Mark”). Hadrian reflects on his relationships, reign, and legacy as he approaches the end of his life. Yourcenar first began writing Memoirs of Hadrian
at age twenty-one but abandoned the novel before rediscovering and completing it two decades later. The book was incredibly well-received and years later, in 1981, Yourcenar would become the first woman to be inducted into the Académie Franêž”aise.
In the first chapter, Hadrian, now sixty years old and close to death, explains in a letter to Marcus Aurelius that he is writing his memoirs to make sense of the “shapeless mass” of his life. He describes his earliest memories as a child in Italica, a Roman city on the Iberian Peninsula. The son of a Roman official, he describes his early interest in astrology and the humanities. He also details the time he spent studying in Athens which originated his lifelong passion for Hellenistic culture. Then, as a young man, Hadrian becomes a soldier during the Dacian and Sarmatian campaigns under his cousin and guardian, Emperor Trajan. During this time, Hadrian impresses Trajan and secures his position as the emperor’s successor with the help of Trajan’s wife, Plotina. Hadrian also marries Trajan’s grandniece, Sabina.
The violence he witnesses during his military service sours Hadrian on Rome’s policy of military expansion, preferring a more diplomatic strategy. Trajan dies following a failed military campaign in Parthia and Hadrian replaces him as Emperor of Rome at the age of forty-one. Hadrian makes peace with Parthia and has his enemies executed. What follows is a so-called “Age of Gold” during which he institutes a number of reforms including the abolition of torture and forced labor, the development of a more bureaucratic system of government, and the promotion of a more multicultural society. Hadrian also oversaw the construction of his eponymous wall, which served as a symbol of his commitment to peace. His motto during this time was “humanitas, libertas, felicitas” or “humanity, freedom, happiness.”
At age forty-eight, Hadrian meets and falls in love with a fourteen-year-old Greek boy named Antinous. Hadrian says that he felt genuinely loved by Antinous, particularly in contrast with his loveless marriage to Sabina. However, when Antinous is nineteen years old he suspects Hadrian is being drawn away from him and more towards women and sensual revels. And so, during a visit to Alexandria, Antinous drowns himself in the Nile. Hadrian is devastated, and, in his grief, he has Antinous deified and creates the Cult of Antinous. He also dedicates the city of Antinopolis in his dead lover’s honor.
Up until this point, Hadrian’s governing strategy involved allowing all of Rome’s conquered peoples to practice their own religions and cultures as long as they still submitted to his authority as emperor. Unfortunately, this strategy was at odds with the Jewish people’s firm belief in monotheism—which of course meant rejecting the divine status of the Roman Emperor. Hadrian’s ban on circumcision, amongst other policies, leads to a revolt in Judea which forces the emperor to take military action, destroying Jerusalem and selling the rebels into slavery. Hadrian finds this campaign extremely upsetting as it disrupts his plans for a peaceful empire. As Hadrian ages, he notes a change in his temperament and finds that he is more prone to fits of rage—he gives an example of a time he inadvertently blinded his secretary during one such fit. In the last years of his life, he ponders his legacy and wonders about the fate of Rome after his death and about the nature of his own immortal soul. His recollections of his successor Marcus Aurelius as a young boy paint him as kind and virtuous. Hadrian remembers this and resigns himself to his inevitable demise.
In the postscript of Memoirs of Hadrian
, Yourcenar notes that she was interested in Hadrian’s reign in particular because it took place during a period in which Romans no longer believed in the traditional Roman Gods, but before Christianity was established. Yourcenar was drawn to this era because she saw parallels between Hadrian’s reign and the post-WWI era in which she lived. Memoirs
is generally regarded as a masterpiece among the over twenty books Yourcenar wrote in her lifetime. She died in 1987. A 2005 edition of The New Yorker
contends that “if you want to know what ‘ancient Roman’ really means, in terms of war and religion and love and parties, [you should] read Memoirs of Hadrian.”