“In turning the pages of a volume of Flaubert’s correspondence much read and heavily underscored by me about the year 1927 I came again upon this admirable sentence: ‘Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.’ A great part of my life was going to be spent in trying to define, and then to portray that man existing alone and yet closely bound with all being.”
-Marguerite Yourcenar, “Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of
Hadrian was the third of the “five good emperors of Rome,” of whom Marcus Aurelius was the fifth, in the first third of the second century. He was a soldier and administrator who worked his way up in the eyes of his predecessor Trajan, until Trajan, on his deathbed, adopted him. According to Yourcenar’s novel, which is regarded as her masterpiece, he was the paragon of men, a man of great achievement and vision who drank life to the fullest.
His accomplishments were many, and given the political context in which he lived, admirable. He decided that the empire had expanded enough and ended the ceaseless wars Rome waged on its neighbors. He built new ports and encouraged trade. He untangled legal codes and made taxes more fair. He couldn’t abolish slavery (and probably had no inclination to do so), but he made it much more humane: he forbade the castration of slaves, he ended the practice of forcing slaves into brothels or the gladiatorial ring, he banished rich people who were cruel to their slaves. In addition, he increased women’s control over their own property.
In government, he professionalized his advisors and lieutenants and ended the practice of provincial cities sending bribes to the imperial household. He was relentlessly on the move until his health failed, inspecting and bonding with the armies, supervising construction, mending fences with hostile neighbors and internal factions (although he failed with the Jews, or they with him). He tried to build a system that would survive bad emperors and last for centuries.
As a man he dabbled with superstitious ideas like astrology and Mithraism, but he never let them control him. He did not let pride or vanity or fanaticism get the better of him. He thought much farther ahead than anyone else in his time, but he was a sensualist who tried many things, including women and men. The love of his life was a teenaged Greek boy named Antinous. When Antinous died young, Hadrian created a cult around him, littering the empire with statues of him and naming a city after him.
The novel takes the form of a memoir written for Marcus Aurelius, who was Hadrian’s adopted grandson. The memoir was written at the end of Hadrian’s life and we get a lot of meditation on poor health and dying, but the bulk of the novel concerns Hadrian’s healthy days – and Hadrian was a very healthy man. In fact, Hadrian, as Yourcenar portrays him, was, warts and all, one of the greatest men of the ancient world.
The book is beautifully written, translated from the French by Yourcenar’s partner Grace Frick, in collaboration with Yourcenar. It is not like a conventional novel, though. It does not have scenes and dialogue. It is all tell and no show, as you might expect a memoir to be. So it’s not for everybody. But if you are interested in the life of a colossus, as told by the man himself, you might give it a try. Here is a link to the book’s page on Amazon: Memoirs of Hadrian
I have another novel by Yourcenar in the queue. I’ll report on it if it meets expectations.