(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian has often been called a historical novel, but strictly speaking it is not, since it rejects the use of local color, period dress, and period customs found, for example, in the works of Sir Walter Scott or Alexandre Dumas, père.

The novel is divided into six parts, with Latin titles taken from Hadrian’s poetry, philosophical ideas, or coins minted during his reign, and describes different phases of the emperor’s life. The narrative traces a slowly rising curve with its apex reached at the time of Hadrian’s greatest happiness, the result of his passionate love and extraordinary successes. This euphoria is followed immediately by a downward slope, at the bottom of which the emperor is overcome with doubt and despair; however, despite this depression, he courageously embarks on a new beginning. The work is addressed to Marcus Aurelius in the form of a letter, which allows for the use of the autobiographical first person favored by Yourcenar as being closest to the human voice. Knowing that his death is near, Hadrian sets down, in his most truthful manner, at risk of shocking or not being understood, the important personal and public events of his sixty-odd years, along with his meditations on politics, the arts, and the world.

Yourcenar portrays a great historical figure who, thanks to his broad humanist education and inquiring intelligence, dominated his life and times with objectivity and...

(The entire section is 511 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In a book-length letter addressed to Marcus Aurelius, his adopted grandson and heir, the sixty-year-old Emperor Hadrian tells of his impending death and meditates upon his life to instruct his heir through his accumulated experience, knowledge, and wisdom. The descendant of wealthy aristocratic administrators, Hadrian had been born in Spain. After his father’s death, the twelve-year-old boy went to Rome to complete his education, which included science, mathematics, art, literature, and Greek, and to begin his military training. Following his studies, he was named to a series of judgeships, which taught him about human motives and how to listen carefully and organize his time.

Hadrian had been promoted to junior officer rank in the army and stationed in Central Europe, where he was exposed to new experiences and ideas. There, he learned that Emperor Nerva had died and that his cousin, Trajan, had ascended the throne. Although such a family connection, coupled with his own ability and courage, offered new opportunities, advancement was not smooth, for the new emperor and Hadrian often clashed on private and public affairs. Since Trajan wanted to consolidate and increase Roman conquests, he embarked on many campaigns. As a result, Hadrian saw service all over Europe. He acquitted himself daringly and brilliantly and gained both a solid reputation among his colleagues on the battlefield and popularity in Rome. The emperor was so pleased with Hadrian’s contribution that he gave him a ring symbolic of imperial favor.

Increasingly influential in the emperor’s circle, partly because of Trajan’s wife, who shared many of his beliefs, Hadrian performs a variety of administrative functions as well as writing and delivering the emperor’s speeches. Gradually, however, this relationship, further strengthened by Hadrian’s marriage to Trajan’s grandniece, Sabina, begins to arouse irritation and jealousy in the old sovereign, who resents the successes of his subordinate.

Renewed conflicts in the empire make it necessary that Hadrian...

(The entire section is 844 words.)