Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 823
When Marguerite Yourcenar in 1948 began to think of Hadrian, she had already developed her literary gifts in her previous works of fiction. She understood well the first-person narrative form; she had previously evolved themes both human and universal; she was interested in historical research as an aid to conveying eternal ideas; and she had developed an acute understanding of human frailty. In Memoirs of Hadrian, her first recognized masterpiece, Yourcenar makes full use of her talents, skills, and knowledge.
The work is divided into six parts, each having a Latin title taken from Hadrian’s poetry, philosophical ideas, or coins minted during his reign. Each title describes, and each part is devoted to, different phases of the emperor’s life. Each section’s title and subject correspond to the development of aspects of Hadrian’s power and personality. The first part gives an account of the progress of his illness and his renunciation of many activities as his soul prepares to leave his body. The second describes the variety and complexity of his character, followed by a section dealing with “the stabilized earth.” Part 4 equates the golden age with Hadrian, since that age represents the period when his life reached its apogee, a moment when nothing seemed impossible and when all was easy. There follows a section entitled “the August but humane discipline,” which is Hadrian’s contemplation of life from a different point of view, and the book concludes with a meditation on death.
Yourcenar intends to portray a great historical personage who, thanks to his broad humanist culture and inquiring intelligence, was able, without illusions and with remarkable objectivity and lucidity, to analyze his life and times. Hadrian is at once an aesthete, art lover, poet, tireless traveler, general, economist, master builder, and political scientist: In other words, he is deeply interested in everything.
Yourcenar’s book is, however, far more than the autobiography of Emperor Hadrian. It has also been called a learning “manual for princes” that explains how human knowledge and consciousness can be united with imperial knowledge and consciousness to create a better ruler. In his all-encompassing outlook on the world in which he lives, Hadrian is a kind of unique Everyman, a representative of the people without elements of demagoguery, who at the same time stands apart from the people and thus allows his rare genius full play in all areas of human endeavor.
Hadrian is sufficiently practical and pragmatic that in appreciating the beauty of such treatises as Plato’s Republic (third century b.c.e.) he is able to take such daring views further and to implement many of them in his rule. Thus, he restructures the state to be both less intrusive and more responsive to its citizens and he codifies better, because simpler, laws. His generous nature leads him to improve the status of slaves through proper regulation; he works to modify the ambiguous legal condition of women who “are at one and the same time subjugated and protected, weak and powerful, too much despised and too much respected.” Of course, despite his otherwise forward-looking liberalism, he does remain a man of his century, as is evident, for example, in his lack of understanding for women as individual and equal human beings.
Hadrian’s attitude toward his job and position is based on an honest regard for all the people in his care and exemplified by the statement “We emperors are not Caesars; we are functionaries of the State.” All of his life he had wanted to better the lot of the people by the wise application of three basic concepts—humanity, happiness, and liberty—tempered by discipline and patience, and he vehemently refused to believe that the masses are unworthy of such treatment or that such treatment could make them corrupt and complacent.
Memoirs of Hadrian has often been called a historical novel, but it lacks many of the customary attributes of the genre, such as descriptions of local color, period dress, and quaint customs. The Emperor Hadrian characterizes himself partly through accounts of his actions, more often through perspicacious analyses of his thoughts and feelings. If, at times, the book deviates from the recorded truth, it is only because Yourcenar is not presenting the picture of an epoch or an emperor in time, but presenting a human being out of time and with that collective sensibility or consciousness that had taken this particular and very special Roman for its spokesman.
The style of Memoirs of Hadrian, in which the narrator speaks in the first person, is not an interior monologue in the usual sense of the word but rather what has been described as the interior discourse. Through Hadrian’s retelling, Yourcenar has exposed universal truths and explored archetypes that have their origins in Western culture. She has demonstrated that her Roman emperor not only incarnates the serene Roman patience but also represents the fears and aspirations of thinking readers everywhere.