Yourcenar’s text is many-layered and pursues many purposes simultaneously. Knowledge of ancient history and current events is important for Yourcenar’s readers, because the ironic counterpoint between past and present is a constant thread of her narrative. Yourcenar was deeply concerned about the horrors of World War II, which had destroyed the Europe in which she had come of age. In Hadrian, she presents an example of a fully realized individual of immense intellectual capacity in a position of unlimited power and explores the possibilities of such a ruler’s rational institution of centralized government, a possible model for a world crawling back from the brink of destruction. This model is flawed from the start, however, by the inevitable irony of the reader’s knowledge of subsequent history in juxtaposition with the narrator’s inevitable ignorance. Thus, as the author holds out the hope of a reasonable, centralized bureaucracy, she also acknowledges the probability of its eventual failure.

This same ironic reflection extends over Hadrian’s notes on problems with Jewish activists in Palestine and his contacts with Christians. The reader knows that Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius both considered Christians dangerous but also understands that the Christian church would eventually assume the empire that would be lost by Hadrian’s successors, that the pope would sit in Hadrian’s place in Rome. The reader also knows that the Jewish people,...

(The entire section is 486 words.)