Hadrian: love, life, regrets of an emperor


Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar, 1951, new editions published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

This novel by Yourcenar I had read earlier, during an unripe age, and I had not paid much attention to it. Recently, I read it again and found it interesting, well-written, touching. Having studied the written sources, the author creates a monologue of the Roman emperor, as a memoir or legacy addressed to his successor, Marcus Aurelius.

British Museum: Bronze Head of Emperor Hadrian found in the river Thames and his lover Antinoos. David Holt on flickr
British Museum (17) Bronze Head: Emperor Hadrian with his lover Antinous. (CC BY-SA 2.0) by David Holt

In the book, Hadrian (76-138 AD) is already old and recounts his life, from his childhood to his war successes, his rise to the highest office and his great love for Antinous of Bithynia. He describes his relatives, his opponents, his circle in general, his loyal advisers and friends, as well as his wife Sabina and Plotina (the wife of his predecessor Trajan), who played an important role in his life.

Wise, modest, educated, intelligent, brave, full of virtues that almost make him a divinity for his own subjects, seems to the reader this Hadrian. At the same time, he is a man who commits crimes and falls in love as only mortals can.

Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo,commissioned by Hadrian as a family mausoleum.
Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo, commissioned by Hadrian as a family mausoleum.

Hadrian’s childhood in Spain, the wars against the Sarmatians and the Dacians, his view of Trajan, his love for Athens and everything Greek, are not some fictional invention of the writer.

All of these elements arise from a careful study of the relevant historical texts.

Where perhaps we can distinguish a poetic freedom is in the description of Hadrian’s feelings towards Antinous, the beautiful young man from Bithynia whom the emperor passionately loved and deified after his premature death:

My young shepherd was turning into a young prince.

“He was no longer a mere boy, eager to jump down from his horse at the halts to offer spring water cupped in his palms. The donor knew now the immense worth of his gifts.”

Anyone who has ever found him or herself in a Greek museum (or in other museums around the world) probably knows the face and the body of Hadrian’s lover, or even his story.

When Antinous dies so young, Hadrian sinks into despair, and in his mourning he becomes creative.

He orders the construction of temples and statues for his dearly departed, builds a city that bears his name, urges a new religion to be founded around him. But the life of a leader of such an empire cannot stop, no matter how great his sadness.

Enemies lurk in East and West, wars, revolts continue, and a successor must be found because Hadrian is childless. First, he chooses Lucius, who proves to be inferior to the circumstances. He writes bitterly:

I had leaned for support upon a ruined wall.

Lucius dies, he too was young. The successor must be found urgently, as Hadrian himself has grown old, he is ill and sees the end approaching.

This time his choice will prove – as far as we know from history at least – right.

It is Marcus Aurelius, the recipient of these thoughts written by Yourcenar’s Hadrian:

“I have known you from your cradle, young Annius Verus, who by my provision, now call yourself Marcus Aurelius. (…) I have seen you read with passion the writings of the philosophers, and clothe yourself in harsh wool, sleeping on the bare floor and forcing your somewhat frail body to all the mortifications of the Stoics”.

Exotic names, religions, folks, tribes, places, dreams are mentioned in the pages of this book which can attract both the friends of literature and those of history. Hadrian saw it all, Hadrian experienced it all, and thanks to his insight and education, he could judge and describe them in a unique, wise way.

Rome's Colosseum in contemporary times.
Rome’s Colosseum in contemporary times.

In the twentieth century, author Marguerite Yourcenar gave him a new voice in order to narrate all this.

If you are interested in following the traces of Hadrian, Carole Madge has created a site describing her travels all over the world on the footsteps of her favourite Roman emperor.

Lito Seizani contributes giving personal insights into being an every-day tourist. She is the author of "The Ideal Bench", which is available on Amazon.

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