Memoirs of Hadrian ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Hadrian was born in 76 A.D. and became emperor of the Roman Empire in the year 117, at age 41. His reign lasted until his death in 138, at age 62. Hadrian was known as one of the five “good emperors,” meaning he was known for his peaceful reign, rather than for cruelty or for the extravagant vices that some of his predecessors were known for. Hadrian is known mainly today for three things: his love for Antinous, a Bithynian youth (Bithynia is today part of Turkey), who died at age 19 by drowning in the Nile River; for having built the famous Pantheon in Rome (or at least having it finished); and for a wall he had built in Britain (parts of which still remain) known as “Hadrian’s Wall,” which was supposed to keep the “barbarian hordes” out of territory belonging to the Roman Empire.
Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar, is a historical novel, a fictional account of Hadrian’s life and times. Although fiction, it is based on extensive historical research, which the Bibliographical Note at the end of the novel explains. It is told in Hadrian’s voice, from his point of view, as if he, from across the centuries, was writing it himself. It is an extended letter to 17-year-old Marcus Aurelius, future emperor-to-be.
Of course, as emperor of one-third of the earth’s population at the time, Hadrian had many problems, many ups and downs. The emperor was essentially a warrior, a general holding together the military factions of his empire and, as such, was often in peril of his life. There were always the greedy, the ambitious, the selfish who wanted to destroy the emperor in an effort to attain their own ends. Hadrian was by all accounts a modest man, not interested so much in being loved or admired. He believed that true love and admiration from the people must be earned, rather than automatically given just because one has fallen heir to a powerful position.
The most dramatic event in Hadrian’s life was his love for Antinous, the beautiful youth whom he watched grow into manhood. Antinous was Hadrian’s better self, his constant companion, the emotional axis of Hadrian’s life during the years they were together. Their love was a love for the ages, like that of Achilles and Patroclus centuries earlier. When Antinous committed suicide (apparently) by drowning himself in the Nile River at age 19, Hadrian was never the same again, living for about eight more years. He “deified” Antinous, building a city (Antinoopolis) in Egypt to his memory. Many statues, coins, and other works of art bore Antinous’s image. A cult was built up around his name and memory. When Hadrian died of a “dropsical” heart in 138 A.D., one can’t help but believe that the two of them were reunited in death.
Memoirs of Hadrian was first published in 1951, in French, and later translated into English. It is a glimpse into another time and place into the mind of a man who lived so long ago that it’s difficult for us to imagine. Despite its historical subject matter and its moderately dense prose, it is never very difficult reading, especially after the first fifty pages or so. Not for everybody, but if you make it through to the end, you will find it immensely rewarding and memorable.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp