‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951 Club)

The fictional Memoirs of Hadrian was published in 1951 but was first conceived by Marguerite Yourcenar in 1924 when she was only twenty-one years old. In the years inbetween Yourcenar must have done an incredible amount of research in order to write a book which is so convincing at times that I had to remind myself that this is a fictional account. The memoirs are in the form of a very long letter to the young Marcus Aurelius, who has been chosen by Hadrian to succeed to the throne after Antoninus Pius; Antoninus has been chosen to succeed to the throne after Hadrian. In this way Hadrian is attempting to steer the Roman Empire through the rough period ahead with Emperors that he can trust and whom he believes will do a good job. He sees Antoninus Pius as someone who will continue Hadrian’s reforms and Marcus Aurelius as the closest thing to a Platonic philosopher-king.

After a slight preamable Yourcenar describes Hadrian’s early adult life in the army and then the senate. For instance, he recalls being the one to first inform Trajan that he had succeeded Nerva. It is under Trajan’s rule that Hadrian realises that the Roman Empire is over-extending itself. When he becomes Emperor he puts a halt to most expansionist policies with one result being the wall across Britannia that is now known under his name. Hadrian hadn’t been named as successor to Trajan although he was probably the most obvious choice. This made his path to power a little tricky and Yourcenar has Hadrian being a bit equivocal over the details on this matter. Four conspirators from the Senate are killed by his servant Attianus. Hadrian claims to have written to him to ‘act quickly’ but then seems to be shocked that they were all assassinated. Although with most of the memoirs we get to see how reasonable and intelligent he is (after all wouldn’t we all portray ourselves that way?) this episode shows us that he is capable of being just as ruthless as any other would-be Emperor. He also claims that he ‘deserved to wield power’ and that the ends justifies the means.

Hadrian played by his own rules and was prepared to shake things up. He refused honorific titles, he disliked the brutality of the Games but endured them to keep up appearances, he travelled throughout the whole Empire, he relinquished undefendable territories that were won by Trajan and passed many legal reforms. Hadrian, although married, also had a passionate relationship with the young boy Antinous and the pages following his death at twenty demonstrate how much he cared for the boy; his grief over his death is real and lasting.

Hadrian is one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ starting with Nerva and ending with Marcus Aurelius, these were ‘benevolent dictators’ who stood out in contrast to the other tyrannical Emperors. With the memoirs we get a sense of Hadrian’s idealism; he is in awe of the Greeks and feels that the Romans compare unfavourably with them but his idealism does not blind him to the practical measures that are required to run an Empire. Below is a brilliant, albeit long, quote from the book showing his idealism.

My ideal was contained within the word beauty, so difficult to define despite all the evidence of our senses. I felt responsible for sustaining and increasing the beauty of the world. I wanted the cities to be splendid, spacious and airy, their streets sprayed with clean water, their inhabitants all human beings whose bodies were neither degraded by marks of misery and servitude nor bloated by vulgar riches; I desired that the schoolboys should recite correctly some useful lessons; that the women presiding in their households should move with maternal dignity, expressing both vigor and calm; that the gymnasiums should be used by youths not unversed in arts and in sports; that the orchards should bear the finest fruits and the fields the richest harvests. I desired that the might and majesty of the Roman Peace should extend to all, insensibly present like the music of the revolving skies; that the most humble traveller might wander from one country, or one continent, to another without vexatious formalities, and without danger, assured everywhere of a minimum of legal protection and culture; that our soldiers should continue their eternal pyrrhic dance on the frontiers; that everything should go smoothly, whether workshops or temples; that the sea should be furrowed by brave ships, and the roads resounding to frequent carriages; that, in a world well ordered, the philosophers should have their place, and the dancers also. This ideal, modest on the whole, would be often enough approached if men would devote to it one part of the energy which they expend on stupid or cruel activities; great good fortune has allowed me a partial realization of my aims during the last quarter of a century.

With the planned succession of his power passing to Antoninus Pius and then to Marcus Aurelius Hadrian hopes to secure the dominance of Rome’s power but he is not always so optimistic as is shown with this quote where he envisages the downfall of Rome:

But other hordes would come, and other false prophets. Our feeble efforts to ameliorate man’s lot would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in what is good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters; what had seemed to us wise would be pointless for them, what we had found beautiful they would abominate. Like the initiate to Mithraism the human race has need, perhaps, of a periodical bloodbath and descent into the grave. I could see the return of barbaric codes, of implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally prey to insecurity. Other sentinels menaced by arrows would patrol the walls of future cities; the stupid, cruel, and obscene game would go on, and the human species in growing older would doubtless add new refinements of horror. Our epoch, the faults and limitations of which I knew better than anyone else would perhaps be considered one day, by contrast, as one of the golden ages of man.

Although I’m glad to have read this book and I’m impressed with what Yourcenar has achieved I didn’t enjoy reading it as much as I thought I would. I have read other fictional accounts, such as Graves’s Count Belisarius or Gore Vidal’s Julian, that were more enjoyable to read. Yourcenar has gone for authenticity rather than readability which isn’t a bad thing but it did make it a bit tedious at times. I’m sure that anyone who knows a lot more than me about the Roman world will get a lot more from it, but still, I’m glad that I read it.

I read this as part of The 1951 Club where contributors all read books from the same year. This was organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.


Filed under Fiction, Yourcenar, Marguerite

12 responses to “‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951 Club)

  1. This sounds really fantastic. I am chagrined to admit I had not heard about this book before.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I’m sure you’d get a lot more out of it than me, Melissa. It is an impressive work as I kept thinking I was actually reading Hadrian’s words. I wonder if it’s been translated into Latin?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Somehow, I guessed you’d come up with a title I don’t think anyone else has covered…. ;)))) Sounds fascinating, if a little dense at times, but I’m glad you thought it was worthwhile reading. I’ve linked your review on my 1951 page!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I kept looking to see if anyone else had reviewed it over the week. Maybe someone is writing another review this very second. 🙂

      I struggled at first deciding on what to read for the 1951 Club but after a while Hangsaman and Memoirs of Hadrian just stood out for me. I also considered Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier, a short-story collection that I’ve been meaning to read for a while now.

      Liked by 1 person

      • This one is definitely not for me as I don’t read historical fiction and over the last few years I’ve avoided fiction books about real people. I end up wondering what is real and what is fiction and then want to read a non fiction book on the subject: conclusion: read non fiction.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan

        I know what you mean and that was one of the reasons I wasn’t totally taken with it. I felt at times that I would be better off reading a non-fiction book on Hadrian. I found myself looking up things on Wikipedia as I read it.


  3. Wow, what a lot of research time! This doesn’t sound massively up my street. but it’s great to have it represented in the 1951 Club.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I don’t think she worked on it for the whole period but she came back to it a couple of times, I think, before she felt she had enough knowledge to tackle it.


  4. I get that Hadrian is a real person, and this isn’t a non-fiction, but what about the context? I’ve been reading Bridge over Drina, which is also a fiction book inspired by a real place, but while the people and their stories are made up, the context is based on truth. In a way they represent how things where at the time at this place, despite not being real (Think Camron’s Titanic film). Do you know if the context of the book gives a realistic picture of the time?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge Over the Drina is a longtime favourite of mine; I hope you’re enjoying it. If you’re interested, I reviewed it a little while ago here.

      I think that Yourcenar did an incredible amount of research to make the ‘Memoirs’ as close to what they might have been if Hadrian had written them himself (I think I read somewhere that he did write his memoirs but they are lost to us – don’t quote me on that though) and as such she sticks to the facts as much as possible. Even the style feels, even in translation, as if it were original. But this is also why, in my opinion, why it’s not quite as good as it could have been if, say, she’d ditched the memoir angle and written it in the third person. It’s almost as if she’s tied down too much by the ‘facts’ and the limitations of looking through Hadrian’s eyes all the time. With a book like The Bridge Over the Drina, I feel that Ivo Andrić is more free to be creative and to tell a more dynamic story.


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