Memoirs of Hadrian Summary
by Marguerite Yourcenar

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Memoirs of Hadrian Summary

(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 lucidity. Hadrian, an art lover, poet, tireless traveler, general, economist, master builder, and political scientist, is a man who mistrusts conventional formulas and is more interested in observing than in judging. His generous nature leads him to improve the status of slaves, although he suspects that slavery will never be abolished, since other, more insidious forms of enslavement, just as inhuman, will simply take its place.

Acknowledging that his role is to impose Greek thought in all human endeavors, the emperor seeks to create a universe of perfect harmony and beauty under Rome’s might and majesty. Violence and war represent for him the greatest evils, and peace and liberty the requirements necessary for civilization. Furthermore, the collaboration of intelligence and work in such a beneficial environment will bring happiness to all.

Although Yourcenar does not describe the past in the light of the present, she does show that the period of Hadrian’s rule was very similar to her own time by portraying a highly sophisticated, complex, and skeptical emperor who reveals all the aspects of his political and emotional life. Hadrian characterizes himself partly through accounts of his actions, more often through analyses of his thoughts and feelings. Yourcenar’s character fits so well with the known facts of the actual Hadrian, and is so subtly portrayed, the fictional persona takes on a reality that seems to explain the actual Hadrian. With a talent that gives the novelist precedence over the historian and the moralist, and the philosopher precedence over the novelist, Yourcenar brilliantly revived a conception of a man and a life at the end of a great civilization.


(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...

(The entire section is 1,355 words.)