Thursday, September 19, 2019

Margaret Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian

"I fell to making, and then re-making, this portrait of a man almost wise."
I admit to being uncertain about this book until at least halfway through. I mostly kept reading it because it came highly recommended. (This means you, O!) At one point, though, I told The Other Reader (who had read it before we were even a couple, had liked it, but had half forgotten it) that it was like 'a campaign biography. It's just a resumé of all the good things Hadrian had done and wants to do.' I may even have accused Yourcenar of being French, and thus incapable of irony. But I was wrong...

The quote above (from the afterword in my edition, 'Reflections On The Composition') is a bit of a clue. Yourcenar definitely admires Hadrian, but is capable of seeing his limitations. It's actually a fairly subtle portrait.

The work is structured as a letter from Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius, emperor-to-be, and is in her understanding of the voice of Hadrian, and, of course, to Hadrian himself what he does is reasonable and wise. Hadrian dutifully intends to do well by the empire. Now this does lead to statements like:
"I put the finishing touches to the long and complex reorganization of imperial domains in Asia Minor; the peasants were the better off for it, and the State, too."
or, of the reconstruction of a library in Athens:
"Particular attention had been paid to the choice of lamps, and to their placing."
Which makes him sound like a well-intentioned, but micro-managing, Jimmy Carter. And he kind of is.

A bit of background: Hadrian is the middle of the so-called 'Five Good Emperors,' who ruled Rome from 96 AD to 180 AD. After the mad incompetence of Nero and Claudius, and the harsh tyranny of Domitian, this was almost a century of relatively stable and somewhat tolerant rule; Hadrian himself was emperor from 117 to 138 AD. Marcus Aurelius, the recipient of the memoirs, was the last of those five emperors and the adoptive grandson of Hadrian. Hadrian takes over from Trajan, who expanded the empire, and enters into a period of consolidation.

Also Hadrian was almost certainly homosexual or bisexual, and Yourcenar presents him as such.

Now the idea that this is a letter to Marcus Aurelius fades a bit as you go along; well, even in pre-Tweet days, a letter of 300 pages would be a bit improbable. And as the book ends with Hadrian dying, presumably he's not writing a letter at that point. Hadrian starts his discourse mentioning his illness (dropsy or edema) which Hadrian knows will kill him, but then backs up to go through the course of his life. What impact did his childhood in Spain have? The loss of his natural father?  What is his relationship with Trajan, his predecessor and adoptive father? This presents a less secure, but still vigorous Hadrian. Then when he becomes emperor, what are his plans and visions for the state? The two quotes above come from that phase, and are a fair sample of Hadrian in his prime. But later the sick and tired Hadrian comes to the fore, and this was in some ways the most engaging, as Hadrian reckons with what he had done, and what his legacy was likely to be.

My edition has a fifteen page bibliographic note, and it's clear Yourcenar has done her homework. She means for this to be a real representation of Hadrian's inner life as far as we can know it, and, though we can't ever know for sure, I have to say, it really works. Even if that does include a bit of boring, but successful, do-gooding-ness in the middle of his life.

The two main early sources for the life of Hadrian are Dio Cassius, and The Augustan History. I immediately went off and started the latter...

I pulled this off the shelf for Meytal's Women In Translation month, but didn't quite finish it in time, though I've been hacking away at this post for a while now. It covers France--Yourcenar was born in Belgium, but mostly grew up in France, and was the first woman elected to the French Academy--for my Europe reading challenge, hosted at Rose City Reader.

I had a few other ideas for this post, but it's taken me long enough already!


  1. Cathing up on a few of your posts...
    Yourcernar, did you like her style of writing?
    Did it flow or was it hard work all the way?
    She is won many prizes but that does not say everything. I have her book L'OEuvre au noir on my Kindle....worth giving it a chance?

    1. It was a bit of work. I think she does a good job catching the mindset of a 'good' Roman emperor, but there's not much story, or personal tension, outside of the history. It impressed me more than I loved it. But it felt very real.

    2. Oke...then I think I will postpone the French version and if I read it it will be in English. Thanks for feedback!

    3. I get the feeling this one may be different from her others, though. I read something about Coup de Grace, I think it was, set in Latvia in the immediate post WWI period that sounded interesting and quite different.