|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 Marcus Aurelius.
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 accuracy.
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 that distance.
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 humanity.
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 Hadrian's thoughts.
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 emperor.
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 rewrite it.
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 Emperor
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 16th century her work might rather be set as an essay, and perhaps as a play during the 17th or 18th centuries. In the 20th 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 believable.
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 “1st 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 introspection.
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 Hadrian.
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 Saeculum Aureum.
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 of love.
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 significant extent.
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 fluently.
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 2nd 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 unsentimental move.
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 dies.
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 death.
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 Marguerite Yourcenar.
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