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, vanquished and scattered by Titus and Hadrian, persecuted and murdered by Hitler, would eventually be reestablished in Palestine, a process taking place at the time Yourcenar wrote.
The only voice heard in the Memoirs of Hadrian is that of the first-person narrator, and the many-layered process of the narration as it touches first on history, then on philosophy, talks of travels, analyzes personalities, and muses on death and love continually adds to the portrait of a fully rounded being whose appeal is not confined to his position as emperor. The boundaries of the character extend beyond any arbitrary limit, including that of gender. Hadrian pursues all experiences. He hunts with passion. He eagerly throws himself into the military life. As a politician in Rome, he pursues love affairs with the wives of powerful men and loses himself in conjecture about their family lives and the place of women in society. His aesthetic enjoyment of their physical beauty is rendered poignant by his consciousness of the impossibility of knowing them as genderless individuals. The relationship with Plotina, Trajan’s wife, reaches the ideal limits of human ties for Hadrian, since she offers unconditional understanding and friendship with no sexual strings attached; even after her death, he feels her presence and reveres her. The crucial love affair with Antinous, coming as it does within the context of numerous love affairs with women and boys, is not emphasized as homosexual but is recounted in a matter-of-fact tone, as if the gender of the beloved were a neutral factor.