Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Masterpiece

Memoirs of Hadrian

Memoirs of Hadrian, a novel by Marguerite Yourcenar, the Belgian-born French writer, was first published in France in 1951. Originally written in French, it was published in English in 1954. It was an ambitious project many year in the making; Yourcenar first had the idea for it in the 1920s, then worked on it, on and off, in the 1930s.

Many years in gestation, it was a book that, with the benefit of hindsight, she didn’t think she could have written when she was younger. “There are books,” she said later, “which one should not attempt before having passed the age of forty.”

Considered this author’s masterwork, and the book she’s best remembered for, it was from the start a critical success. The novel, told from a first person person by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, begins with a letter to his adoptive grandson, who became Marcus Aurelius and his successor.

Hadrian continues this imagined memoir with tales of his military conquests. He muses on his penchant for music, philosophy, and poetry and all things artistic and cultural.

The time of Hadrian’s rule is described by him as his personal “age of Gold,” which he attributes to his lover, Antinous. The love they share is more passionate and real makes his marriage to Sabina.  As encapsulated from the Modern Library edition:

“At once a psychological novel and a meditation on history, Memoirs of Hadrian is written in the form of a testamentary letter from the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD) to his successor, the youthful Marcus Aurelius. A tour de force of scholarship that uses Hadrian’s extant writings and the writings of historians, friends and enemies, It is a vivid reconstruction of the intimate life of the emperor and his entourage.

Hadrian appears as one of the Western world’s greatest liberals, a humanist who based man’s chances of happiness and security on the culture that was Greece and the great organizing power that was Rome. In a prose of epigrammatic brilliance, Marguerite Yourcenar has painted an unforgettable self-portrait of Hadrian, as remarkable for its psychological depth as for its authentic recreation of time and place.”


Yourcenar, who was the first woman to be elected to the Académie Française,  assisted in the translation of Memoirs of Hadrian from French to English. The book was was highly praised in any language in which it was published. Here are two samples from American newspapers.


Marguerite Yourcenar’s Classic Novel

From The Capital Times, March 26, 1964: It is cause for wonder that there are relatively few good novels of ancient Rome. Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil is. of course, the very best such novel: it has no peer. But certainly Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian come very close to equality with Broch’s novel.

The present edition contains the addition of “reflections” on the composition of the book, translated by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author, and with many illustrations which weren’t in the original first edition published ten years before.

It is a largely psychological novel and a meditation in history. and it is something new in that its approach to a historical figure is in depth. Its form is that of autobiography, presumably written by the Emperor Hadrian (78-138 AD) to his grandson, Marcus Aurelius.

Miss Yourcenar reconstructs the life of the Emperor and his many-faceted character — his wars, and his loves, particularly that one which seems to have been the chief love of his life — that for the handsome youth Antinous, the traumatic effect of his infidelity on the emperor.

Readers who may have missed this remarkable work up to this time will now find it readily. It is  enriched by the additions which have been made to it. By any standards, Memoirs of Hadrian is one of the classic masterpieces of the contemporary novel.


Roman Emperor Analyzes

From The Pittsburgh Press, June 21, 1963, reviewed by Mary C. Robb:  First published in English in 1954, this edition is enhanced by fine illustrations and a supplementary section entitled “Reflections in the Composition of “Memoirs of Hadrian.” The brilliant translation from the French is the work of Grace Frick and the author.

In a leisurely and deeply probing letter to Marcus Aurelius, his adopted grandson and chosen successor, the dying Hadrian reviews his own life and, more importantly, his understanding of himself and the Roman world he has ruled, and his hopes and fears for the future.

Mme. Yourcenar has described this letter as “a psychological novel and a meditation on history,” but the description, while adequate, hardly includes the remarkable effect she has produced.

Part of this effect is no doubt due to Hadrian himself, an Emperor who ruled at the height of Rome’s territorial expansion, and who believed deeply and firmly in the need for peace and justice. He was a soldier, a scholar, and a man of wide.ranging curiosity and powerful emotions, well worth our study.

Such a person deserves the right to tell his own story in his own way and this Mme. Yourcenar has allowed him to do with complete artistic integrity.

From the first page to the last the reader is aware only of Hadrian as his mind and heart review the past—the years with the legions on the frontiers, the halcyon days with Antinous, the labor of rule, the endless speculations about life and death and immortality, the good and the bad that were himself.

Memoirs Of Hadrian is a rare instance of an author’s mastery of subject so complete that the book seems to have written itself.


More about Memoirs of Hadrian


Quotes from Memoirs of Hadrian

“My hunger for power was like the craving for love, which keeps the lover from eating or sleeping, from thinking or even from loving as long as certain rites remain unperformed. The most urgent tasks seemed vain when I was not the free master over decisions affecting the future; I needed to be assured of reigning in order to recapture the desire to serve.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“Of all our games, love’s play is the only one which threatens to unsettle our soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body’s ecstasy.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“Nailed to the beloved body like a slave to a cross, I have learned some secrets of life which are now dimmed in my memory by the operation of that same law which ordained that the convalescent, once cured, ceases to understand the mysterious truths laid bare by illness, and that the prisoner, set free, forgets his torture, or the conqueror, his triumph passed, forgets his glory.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“Our great mistake is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“I am not sure that the discovery of love is necessarily more exquisite than the discovery of poetry.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“The written word has taught me to listen to the human voice, much as the great unchanging statues have taught me to appreciate bodily motions. On the other hand, but more slowly, life has thrown light for me on the meaning of books.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“Like everyone else I have at my disposal only three means of evaluating human existence: the study of self, which is the most difficult and most dangerous method, but also the most fruitful; the observation of our fellowmen, who usually arrange to hide secrets where none exist; and books, with the particular errors of perspective to which they inevitably give rise.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“He had reached that moment in life, different for each one of us, when a man abandons himself to his demon or to his genius, following a mysterious law which bids him either to destroy or outdo himself.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“The memory of most men is an abandoned cemetery where lie, unsung and unhonored, the dead whom they have ceased to cherish. Any lasting grief is reproof to their neglect.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“I knew that good like bad becomes a routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“Laws change more slowly than custom, and though dangerous when they fall behind the times are more dangerous still when the presume to anticipate custom.”

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