Hello readers! In this post, I'll continue my review of Memoirs of Hadrian, a historical fictional biography written by Marguerite Yourcenar.  As  I already said (in the first part of my review), I was absolutely enchanted by this historical novel that read like a genuine memoir. Yorcenar used a first person epistolary narration in the Memoirs of Hadian. The Roman emperor writes his story in a form of a long letter to his adopted grandson Marcus (Mark) who is also his future successor. The letter is both intimate and instructional. While Hadrian often drifts into personal digressions and philosophical arguments in the letter, he does address Marcus directly on a number of occasions, adding to credibility of this narrative letter.  

Being somewhat familiar with the life of Hadian, I still found the plot very interesting and engaging. While Marguerite Yourcenar did a tremendous amount of historical research for this novel, she also introduced her own ideas and employed some artistic freedom.  The author explains this in the ending of the novel, presenting her research and telling the reader exactly what creative liberties she took and where. While you read this book, you can clearly see that it is a labour of love. The same can be said for the transition done by Yorcenar lifelong partner Grace Frink.  You can read the first part of my review by following the link below.


Alright now, that's settled, let's continue with my review. Scroll down to read and see more. 

“For my part I have sought liberty more than power, and power only because it can lead to freedom. What interested me was not a philosophy of the free man (all who try that have proved tiresome), but a technique: I hoped to discover the hinge where our will meets and moves with destiny, and where discipline strengthens, instead of restraining, our nature.”

“In fancy I took the simple decision of going on, this time on the mere trail to which our roads had now given way. I played with the idea...To be alone, without possessions, without renown, with none of the advantages of our own culture, to expose oneself among new men and among fresh hazards...Needless to say it was only a dream, and the briefest dream of all. This liberty that I was inventing ceased to exist upon closer view; I should quickly have rebuilt for myself everything that I renounced. Furthermore, wherever I went I should only have been a Roman away from Rome. A kind of umbilical cord attached me to the city. Perhaps at that time, in my rank of tribune, I felt still more closely bound to the empire than later as emperor, for the same reason that the thumb joint is less free than the brain. Nevertheless I did have that outlandish dream, at which our ancestors, soberly confined within their Latian fields, would have shuddered; to have harbored the thought, even for a moment, makes me forever different from them.”


Hadrian at the start of the novel seemed a vulnerable old man, close to the end of his life, a man who professes that he never cared for youth and thus proceeds to describe it without romanticism. While Hadian remembers his childhood with some fondness, he observes his youth without any nostalgia. What else to expect from a man who never cared for youth and who thought maturity comes with years? In that sense,  Hadrian's psychological portrayal is convincing and well rounded.

 Indeed, our protagonist and narrator describes his youth with an objectivity that feels  close to wisdom. Hadrian describes his early life in Rome, his struggles, his first first loves (mostly married patrician women) and the delusions of those first loves. He realizes that the women he had had affairs with don't really care for him and if he is to be honest, neither does he for them.

 Hadrian proves to be an excellent observer of Roman society, noting its customs and social conventions, all the time being aware of both its advantages and disadvantages. Hadrian isn't a moralist, but a practical thinker. Outside of Rome, and on the war frontiers he is an excellent observer as well. He seems glad to leave Rome. Hadrian knows how to make himself useful and put his ego aside in service of the patria. Interestingly, Hadrian doesn't like war, and much prefer peace if he can have it. However, he dutifully goes to war and follows emperor, all the while making observations of his own. At times, Hadrian is unexpectedly sympathetic and emphatic, but he is not exactly an angel, remaining a practical man not devoid of ambition. Hadrian is always human. 


The friendship between Plotina and Hadrian is one of the most touching friendships described in this novel. Hadrian retains reserve in most of his relations, or so it seems, but to Plotina he gives his undying and unchangeable respect. What was behind this platonic friendship? Was it a genuine meeting of the spirits? What we know from historical records is that Plotina was rumored to have plotted to put Hadrian on the throne, even going so far as fabricating the adoption papers. It is certainly possible that Plotina tried to convivence her dying husband to sign them, but the fabrication might have been a rumour. This novel shows her as a woman who is a stranger to vulgar schemes and is more emotionally intelligent and diplomatically calculating than people assume, but who is nevertheless Hadrian's most trusted, consistent and loyal friend. Meaning that it is entirely possible Plotina acts in his favour when the opportunity presents itself.

And it was then that the wisest of my good geniuses came to my aid: Plotina. I had known the empress for nearly twenty years. We were of the same circle and of about the same age. I had seen her living calmly through almost as constrained an existence as my own, and one more deprived of future. She had taken my part, without appearing to notice that she did so, in my difficult moments. But it was during the evil days at Antioch that her presence became indispensable to me, as was always her esteem in after times, an esteem which I kept till her death. I grew accustomed to that white-clad figure, in garments as simple as a woman’s can be, and to her silences, or to words so measured as to be never more than replies, and these as succinct as possible. Nothing in her appearance or bearing was out of keeping with that palace more ancient than the splendours of Rome: this daughter of a race newly come to power was in no way inferior to the Selcucids. We two were in accord on almost everything. Both of us had a passion for adorning, then laying bare, our souls, and for testing our minds on every touchstone. She leaned toward Epicurean philosophy, that narrow but clean bed whereon I have sometimes rested my thought. The mystery of gods, which haunted me, did not trouble her, nor had she my passionate desire for the human body. She was chaste by reason of her disgust with the merely facile, generous by determination rather than by nature, wisely mistrustful but ready to accept anything from a friend, evenhis inevitable errors. Friendship was a choice to which she devoted her whole being; she gave herself to it utterly, and as I have done only to my loves. She has known me better than anyone has; I have let her see what I carefully concealed from everyone else: for example, my secret lapses into cowardice...


Hadrian wants to rejoin the army, and he eventually succeeds in doing it. While he plans, Hadrian speaks admirably of Plotina. I find myself interested in this feminine historical figure that was supposedly filled with so many virtues. Plotina is describes as an extremely intelligent, subtle and capable woman. Plotina is not the scheming sort, in the sense that she craves power for power sake, but she uses her powerful mind where she thinks it just. I really enjoyed her portrayal as a calm and wise woman, who while remaining a faithful wife to the emperor, keeps a watchful eye over the empire. She's also one of the rare female characters that take central page. 

I like to think that on her side she has kept almost nothing 
from me. No bodily intimacy ever existed between us; in its 
place was this contact of two minds closely intermingled. 

Our accord dispensed with avowals, explanations, or reti- 
cences: facts themselves sufficed. She observed them more 
closely than I; under the heavy braids which the fashion 
demanded her smooth brow was that of a judge. Her memory 
retained the exact impression of the minutest objects ; therefore, 
unlike me, she never had occasion to hesitate too long or to 
decide too quickly. She could detect at a glance my most 
secret adversaries, and evaluated my followers with cool 
detachment. In truth, we were accomplices, but the most 
trained ear would hardly have been able to catch the tones of a 
secret accord between us. She never committed the gross error 
of complaining to me about the emperor, nor the more subtle 
one of excusing or praising him. On my side, my loyalty was 
not questioned. Attianus, who had just come from Rome, 
joined in these discussions, which sometimes lasted all night; 
but nothing seemed to tire this imperturbable, yet frail, woman. 
She had managed to have my former guardian named privy 
councillor, thus eliminating my enemy Cclsus. Trajan’s 
mistrust of me, or else the impossibility of finding someone to 
fill my post in the rear, would keep me in Antioch: I was 
counting upon these friends to inform me about everything 
not revealed in the official dispatches. In case of disaster they 
would know how to rally round me the fidelity of a part of the 
army. My adversaries would have to reckon with the presence 
of this aged sufferer from gout, who was setting forth only in 
order to serve me, and with this woman who could exact of 
herself the long endurance of a soldier. 

I watched them depart, the emperor on horseback, firm and 
admirably placid, the patient group of women borne in litters. 
Praetorian guards mingled with the Numidian scouts of the 
redoubtable Lusius Quietus. The army, which had passed the 
winter on the banks of the Euphrates, moved forward as 
soon as its chief arrived; the Parthian campaign was beginning 
in earnest. First reports were magnificent: Babylon conquered, 
the Tigris crossed, Ctesiphon fallen. Everything, as always, 
gave way before the astonishing mastery of this man. The 
prince of Characene Arabia gave his submission, opening thus 
the entire course of the Tigris to the Roman barges. The 
emperor embarked for the port of Charax at the head of the 
Persian Gulf. He was nearing the fabled shores. My fears 
persisted, but I hid them like something criminal; to be right 
too soon is to be in the wrong. Worse still, I was beginning to 
doubt my judgment; had I been guilty of that base incredulity 
which keeps us from recognizing the grandeur of a man whom 
we know too well? I had forgotten that certain beings shift 
the boundaries of destiny and alter history thereby. I was 
consumed with anxiety at my post. If by chance the impossible 
were to take place, was I to play no part in it ? Since everything 
is always easier than to exercise common sense, the desire 
seized me to don once more the coat of mail of the Sarmatian 
wars, using Plotina’s influence to get myself recalled to the 
army. I envied the least of our soldiers their lot on the dusty 
roadways of Asia and the shock of their encounter with Persia’s . 
mailed battalions. This time the Senate voted the emperor 
the right to celebrate not one triumph but a succession of 
triumphs which would last as long as he lived. I myself did 
what the occasion demanded : I ordered festivities and went to 
offer sacrifice on the summit of Mount Casius. 


At around forty years old, while being in midst of a war he managed to join, Hadrian meditates on his death. It could be said that at this time, he starts to reconsider and ponder his life and destiny. Emperor Trijan has left him reason to believe that he shall be his successor. As he ponders death, Hadrian feels sorry for the men who die young, perhaps because he believes that a man only fully fulfils and understands his destiny close to the end of his natural life. He connects age with wisdom, which is typical of his time. His twenties and thirties were not a happy time for Hadrian, as he struggled to adjust to life in Rome. Forties, on the other hand, shall prove lucky for Hadrian. 

 I was in my fortieth year. If I were to die at that time, nothing more of me would survive than a name in a scries of  high functionaries, and an inscription in Greek in honour of an archon of Athens. Ever since that anxious period, each time that I have witnessed the disappearance of a man just at middle age.... I have recalled that at the same age I still had importance only in my own eyes, and in those of a few friends, who must sometimes have doubted my abilities as I doubted them myself. I have come to the realization that few men fulfil themselves before death, and I have judged their interrupted work with the more pity.


As Hadrian starts to reexamine his life, a desire for power is born, a desire he says comes equally from the need to serve and to free.  Should we believe him to be a credible narrator? Does he really want to serve? There are some things to suggest that, although human motivations are not easily judged. Hadrian is remembered by history as one of the few good emperors. The narrator of this novel did serve in his life, that's much is certainly true, and he is judged by history as a just ruler. However, even if he was motivated by other things besides his desire to serve....Who are we to judge him? 

This obsession with the possibility of a life frustrated immobilized my thought at one point, 
drawing everything to it like an abscess. My hunger for power  was like the craving for love, which keeps the lover from eating 
or sleeping, from thinking, or even from loving so 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. That palace of Antioch, where  I was to live some years later on in a virtual frenzy of delight, 
was for me then but a prison, and perhaps my death cell. I sent messages to the oracles, to Jupiter Ammon, to Castalia, 
and to Zeus Dolichenus.


While he contemplates power and rule, Hadrian is aware that the might indeed become an emperor, as the present emperor Trajan (alternatively spelled Traian) is sick. As he visits the ailing emperor, he feels filial towards him.  These two men were never extremely close, Trajan had his doubts about Hadrian. Nevertheless, it is still possible that Trajan decided to name Hadrian his heir, seeing how useful he has proven himself. Hadrian does have respect for Trajan, that much is always apparent, even if there has often been some mistrust between  these two men. 

Even after Trajan's death, Hadrian often things of this man fondly.  In his final days, our royal protagonist thinks of ways to glorify his predecessor and adopted father. In this novel, Trajan is depicted in accordance with the accepted historical records, that proclaim Trajan as one of the best emperors Rome ever had. Even in Western Christian tradition that is to follow, Trajan was seen as a virtuous pagan ruler. The fact that Trajan wasn't exactly friendly to early Christians, didn't stop later Christian thinkers and theologist to hold him in high esteem. Trajan's soldier role is much emphasized in this book, and indeed he was known as the soldier king. Much more is known about Trajan than about Hadrian, but this book takes the perspective of the latter. Considering that this literary memoir was written during a painful and turbulent time (World Wars), it is no wonder that Marguerite Yourcener seems to admire Hadrian's resentment of war.  Hadrian respects Trajan's military conquest, but is of a more of a pacifist view point. Seeing the ailing Trajan, Hadrian already plans to stop an end to Trajan's wars and retreat to Rome. 

I went the following morning to the emperor’s room. I felt
filial toward him, perhaps fraternal. The man who had prided himself on living and thinking in every respect like any ordinary soldier of his army was ending his life in complete solitude lying abed he continued to make up grandiose plans in which no one was any longer interested.

The emperor adopts Hadrian an thus Hadrian is to automatically become ruler after his death. Now, whether Trajan actually adopted Hadrian is something he himself is not completely sure of in this novel. Empress Plotina was with emperor Trojan at the time of his death. Hadrian himself says he prefers to believe that emperor Trajan has adopted him and named him heir, because there were reasons for him to expect that, even if Trajan was somewhat cold towards him. However, Hadrian is aware of the fact that Plotina might have acted in his favour, being the wise woman that she was. 


I like the choice of the author to cloak this part of his life in mystery, making Hadrian himself unsure of whether the emperor Trajan signed the adaptation papers of his free will and initiative or after being persuaded by his wife Plotina. There's also a possibility Plotina forged the signature. This ambiguity is welcomed in this novel. It seems somehow suitable that the new emperor of the then known world, would start his emperor career on a somewhat uncertain note, proving that he is, after all, only a man like others, even if a job that he is prepared to undertake is extremely responsible. As I said, I liked that Hadrian was humbled a bit in this way, by admitting he'll never know the truth.

And it is here, in that interval between the disembarkation 
of the invalid and the moment of his death, that occurs one 
of those series of events which will for ever be impossible for 
me to reconstruct, and upon which nevertheless my destiny 
has been built. Those few days passed by Attianus and the 
women in that merchant’s house determined my life for ever 
after, but concerning them, as later on concerning a certain 
afternoon on the Nile, I shall never know anything precisely 
because it would be of utmost importance to me to know all. 
Any idler in Rome has his views about these episodes of my 
life, but I am the least informed of men on that score. My 
enemies have accused Plotina of taking advantage of the 
emperor’s last moments to make the dying man pen the few 
words which bequeathed me the power. Calumniators more 
lurid-minded still have described a curtained bed, the uncer- 
tain gleam of a lamp, the physician Crito dictating the last 
wishes of Trajan in a voice which counterfeited that of the 
dead man. They have pointed out that the orderly Phoedimus, 
who hated me, and whose silence could not have been bought 
by my friends, very opportunely died of a malignant fever the 
day after the death of his master. There is something in those 
pictures of violence and intrigue to strike the popular imagina- 
tion, and even my own. It would not displease me that a hand- 
ful of reasonable people should have proved capable of verging 
upon crime in my behalf, nor that the devotion of the empress 
should have carried her so far. She was well aware of the 
dangers which a decision not taken portended for the State; 
I respect her enough to believe that she would have agreed to 
commit a necessary fraud if discretion, common sense, public 
interest, and friendship had all impelled her to it. Subsequently 
to these events I have seen this document, so violently contested 
by my adversaries; I am unable to pronounce either for or 
against the authenticity of this last dictation of a sick man. 
Certainly I prefer to think that Trajan himself, relinquishing 
his personal prejudices before he died, did of his own free 
will leave the empire to him whom he judged on the whole 
most worthy. But it must be admitted that the end, in this 
case, was of more concern to me than the means; the essential 
is that the man invested with power should have proved there- 
after that he deserved to wield it. 

Nevertheless, Hadian applies himself to rule of the Roman Empire. Before he returns to Rome and strengthens his position, his first act is to end the war. He assures everyone that Trajan himself wished for peace even if it is not technically true. Hadian's first actions are those of a true pacifist, but if he wants to keep the title he inherited, pacificism can't be his only choice.

Order was restored in my life, but not in the empire. The 
world which I had inherited resembled a man in the full vigour 
of maturity who was still robust, though already revealing, to a 
physician’s eyes, some barely imperceptible signs of wear, but 
who had just passed through the convulsions of a serious illness. 
Negotiations were resumed, this time openly; I let it be 
generally understood that Trajan himself had told me to do 
so before he died. With one stroke of the pen I erased all 
conquests which might have proved dangerous: not only 
Mesopotamia, where we could not have maintained ourselves, 
but Armenia, which was too far away and too removed from 
our sphere, and which I retained only as a vassal state. Two 
or three difficulties, which would have made a peace confer- 
ence drag on for years if the principals concerned had had any 
advantage in lengthening it out, were smoothed over by the 
skilful mediation of the merchant Opramoas, who was in the 
confidence of the Satraps. I tried to put into these diplomatic 
conversations the same ardour that others reserve for the field 
of battle; I forced a peace. Osroes, moreover, desired peace 
at least as much as I: the Parthians were concerned only to 
reopen their trade routes between us and India.


At any rate, Hadian is ready to be a ruler. However, he has enemies. His guardian sees to it that his enemies are killed. With the help of his friends, Hadian overcomes his enemies, but those murders will always lay on his soul. Were they much different men than he was? What will this mean for his rule? He even resents his guardian who has taken this step too hastly. Does it indicate that Hadian's rule shall not be a pacificist one? I enjoyed this moment of his doubt in the novel. Hadian revels himself as a man who thinks like an emperor but also questions himself and others with a new strictness.  When he meets with his guardian, he is touched by his care, but at the same time, he is already distanced from him- for now he is an emperor, and not a protege anymore. 

Our enemies were strengthening their positions and realigning their troops. No 
security was possible so long as we had these two men against 
us. I wrote to Attianus to act quickly. The old man struck 
like lightning. He overstepped his orders and with a single 
stroke freed me of the last of my avowed foes : on the same day, 
a few hours apart, Celsus was killed at Baiae, Palma in his 
villa at Terracina, and Nigrinus at Faventia on the threshold 
of his summer house. Quietus met his end on the road, on 
departing from a conference with his fellow conspirators, 
struck down on the step of the carriage which was bringing 
him back to the City. A wave of terror broke over Rome. 
Servianus, my aged brother-in-law, who had seemed resigned 
to my success but who was avidly anticipating my errors to 
come, must have felt an impulse of joy more nearly akin to 
ecstasy than any experience of his whole life. All the sinister 
rumours which circulated about me found credence anew. 
I received this news aboard the ship which was bringing me 
back to Italy. I was appalled. One is always content to be 
relieved of one’s adversaries, but my guardian had proceeded 
with the indifference of age for the far-reaching consequences 
of his act: he had forgotten that I should have to live with the 
after-effects of these murders for more than twenty years.


I admire the way the author manages to paint her characters with just a few strokes. Through Hadrian's pen, Marguerite describes his guardian with tenderness and care. Hadrian marvels at the love and duty this man has felt for him his whole life, stating how he did nothing to deserve it. This is not the only time that our protagonist marvels at someone's affection for him. However, Hadrian himself doesn't permit himself to be too emotional. Already, he is a ruler and must treat Attianus as one of his people, not a guardian anymore but a subject. 

Attianus had been the guardian from whom money could
be wheedled, the counsellor of my difficult days, the faithful
agent; but this was the first time that I had ever looked atten-
tively at that face with its carefully shaven jowl, at those crippled
hands tranquilly clasped over the handle of his ebony cane.
I knew well enough the different elements of his life as a
prosperous citizen: his wife, whom he loved, and whose health
was frail; his married daughters and their children, for whom
he was modest but tenacious in his ambitions, as he had been
for himself; his love of choice dishes; his decided taste for
Greek cameos and for young dancing girls. He had given me
precedence over all these things : for thirty years his first care
had been to protect me, and next to serve me. To me, who
had not yet given first place to anything except to ideas or
projects, or at the most to a future image of myself, this simple
devotion of man to man seemed prodigious and unfathomable.
No one is worthy of it, and I am still unable to account for it.
I followed his counsel : he lost his post. His faint smile showed
me that he expected to be taken at his word. He knew well
that no untimely solicitude toward an old friend would ever
keep me from adopting the more prudent course; this
politician would not have wished me otherwise. Let us not
exaggerate the extent of his disgrace: after some months of
eclipse, I succeeded in having him admitted to the Senate. It
was the greatest honour that I could offer to this man of
equestrian rank. He lived to enjoy the easy old age of a wealthy
Roman knight, much sought after for his perfect knowledge of
families and public affairs; I have often been his guest at his
villa in the Alban Hills. Nevertheless, like Alexander on the
eve of a battle, I had made a sacrifice to Fear before entering
into Rome: I sometimes count Attianus among my human
Attianus had been right in his conjectures: the virgin gold
of respect would be too soft without some alloy of fear. The
murder of four men of consular rank was received as was the
story of the forged will: the honest and pure of heart refused
to believe that I was implicated; the cynics supposed the worst,
but admired me only the more. As soon as it was known that
my resentment had suddenly come to an end, Rome grew calm;
each person’s joy in his own security caused the dead to be
promptly forgotten.

Once his position is secured and Rome grows calm, accepting the deaths of Hadrian's opponents, the new emperor  devotes himself wholeheartedly to the state. Hadrian has always had the talent or  perhaps better said the ability to devote himself wholly to the listener, and this ability comes in hand to a ruler. People profess their secrets to him, once they find him understanding. 

“Human beings betray their worst failings when they marvel to find that a world ruler is neither foolishly indolent, presumptuous, nor cruel.”

The people of the empire warm up to Hadrian quite quickly.  He stands up when receiving friends and he remains standing when he sees people, showing his respect to everyone. Unlike other emperors, Hadrian doesn't sit down while receiving people. He himself says that they overpraise their virtues. Perhaps it is because the people remember too well the cruel emperors, such as Nero and Caligula Hadrian states that he is the same man he was, but once declared an emperor, all of his virtues seem magnified. Hadrian used to receive people with kindness and visit military veterans before, yet when he became an emperor, this was seen as something exceptional. Hadrian himself prescribes it to a sort of relief people felt when they saw that the new emperor wasn't abusing his power but rather seemed eager to serve. Indeed, he does seem eager to serve. This part of the book is very clear in my memory. Hadrian describes everything he has done, and he has done much good indeed. 

There's an episode when a slave tries to kill Hadrian, yet somehow the emperor manages to defend himself. Instead of punishing the slave, he forgives him. Hadrian states that he would have done the same has he lived his life and doesn't blame the slave for being frustrated after working in the mines. Forgiveness surprises the potential murderer and he is won to Hadrian's side. There're other examples mentioned, one that stayed in my mind was that of an old woman who came to Hadrian and he didn't manage to receive her. When she complained how he cannot have the time to be an emperor if he doesn't have the time for those he rules, Hadrian actually agrees with her and finds the time to see her.

Hadrian's thoughts about slavery were particularly interesting. He sees the evil in slavery, for sure, and does what he can to lessen its horror. The author doesn't put modern words into Hadrian's mouth and that's something I appreciated. The protagonist always speaks and thinks like a Roman. His views are never alien to his time, but there's humanity in them. Who are we to judge the past centuries? In today's world, slavery is as present as ever. We use harsh words to condemn slavery, but we don't fight nearly enough to prevent it. Hadrian doesn't see abolition of slavery as an objective goal, but he tries to do what he can for the slaves. 

Indeed, our protagonist now an emperor seems to care about anyone, not just people in power, but those powerless or less powerful, like slaves and women. He makes laws that protect women against forceful marriages, calling these marriages an institutional rape. Hadrian prosecutes those who don't treat their slaves justly. A respected patrician woman is thus banished from Rome because she mistreated her elderly slaves. Hadrian is horrified at her actions, saying that it was as if she mistreated her elderly parents. He remains firm in his publishment of this woman, even when others defend her due to her rank. perhaps because he wants to make her an example. Hadrian, as a new emperor, strives for justice.


Hadrian's efforts are not in vain. The empire grows prosperous under his rule, known also as the golden years. Not just for the empire, but for Hadrian himself. He manages to find moments of solitude to enjoy himself while remaining fully devoted to his duties. Hadrian aspires to make his empire a happy one and seems happy when he manages to make it a better place to live in.

“At that period I paid as constant attention to the greater securing of my happiness, to enjoying and judging it, too, as I had always done for the smallest details of my acts; and what is the act of love, itself, if not a moment of passionate attention on the part of the body? Every bliss achieved is a masterpiece; the slightest error turns it awry, and it alters with one touch of doubt; any heaviness detracts from its charm, the least stupidity renders it dull. My own felicity is in no way responsible for those of my imprudences which shattered it later on; in so far as I have acted in harmony with it I have been wise. I think still that someone wiser than I might well have remained happy till his death.”  Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian


Hadrian examines his rule in detail, often venturing into philosophy. As I said, he directly addresses Marcus a number of times. However, as readers we feel like he's addressing also one. This book feels like Hadrian's effort to speak into eternity. 

“My ideal was contained within the word beauty, so difficult to define despite all the evidence of our senses. I felt responsible for sustaining and increasing the beauty of the world. I wanted the cities to be splendid, spacious and airy, their streets sprayed with clean water, their inhabitants all human beings whose bodies were neither degraded by marks of misery and servitude nor bloated by vulgar riches; I desired that the schoolboys should recite correctly some useful lessons; that the women presiding in their households should move with maternal dignity, expressing both vigor and calm; that the gymnasiums should be used by youths not unversed in arts and in sports; that the orchards should bear the finest fruits and the fields the richest harvests. I desired that the might and majesty of the Roman Peace should extend to all, insensibly present like the music of the revolving skies; that the most humble traveller might wander from one country, or one continent, to another without vexatious formalities, and without danger, assured everywhere of a minimum of legal protection and culture; that our soldiers should continue their eternal pyrrhic dance on the frontiers; that everything should go smoothly, whether workshops or temples; that the sea should be furrowed by brave ships, and the roads resounding to frequent carriages; that, in a world well ordered, the philosophers should have their place, and the dancers also. This ideal, modest on the whole, would be often enough approached if men would devote to it one part of the energy which they expend on stupid or cruel activities; great good fortune has allowed me a partial realization of my aims during the last quarter of a century. Arrian of Nicomedia, one of the best minds of our time, likes to recall to me the beautiful lines of ancient Terpander, defining in three words the Spartan ideal (that perfect mode of life to which Lacedaemon aspired without ever attaining it): StrengthJusticethe Muses. Strength was the basis, discipline without which there is no beauty, and firmness without which there is no justice. Justice was the balance of the parts, that whole so harmoniously composed which no excess should be permitted to endanger. Strength and justice together were but one instrument, well tuned, in the hands of the Muses. All forms of dire poverty and brutality were things to forbid as insults to the fair body of mankind, every injustice a false note to avoid in the harmony of the spheres.”


When he least expects it perhaps, love happens to Hadrian. At this point in the book, I have to admit that I started to feel, for the first time, distanced from Hadrian. Maybe my expectations were too high. The relationship between Antinous and Hadrian is somewhat shrouded in mystery, despite it being public. I expected Hadrian to write about his emotions more openly, but for some reason he doesn't. We know that he falls in love with the youth and that his feeling seem to be returned. Antinous is blindly loyal to Hadrian. However, we don't learn everything about this relationship. Hadrian writes about it, but he seems to also keep a lot for himself or at least that was my impression.


What follows seemed like a somewhat turbulent times. Hadrian the emperor travels a lot, explores, parties and speaks of strange customs, magic and rites. He stops being the modest and stoic ruler. Why? Why does this love has this effect on him? Is the effect of the love or the fear of love? Why is Hadrian so restless. Antinous is always by his side, perfectly loyal without a fault. 


As a reader, I didn't really feel that I have gotten a real insight into Antinous character. Of course we only observe him (like everyone else) through Hadrian's descriptions, but Hadrian seems to want to keep him for himself. I wanted to know more about this fascinating historical character. Hadrian describes him as a young man of virtue but the details we don't get to learn. It's obvious that Hadrian loves him, but for some reason Hadrian sometimes (perhaps even often) wrongs Antinuous. Is it because Hadrian is afraid of love? Hadrian describes love as a burden. How is it that he who was so temperate in his use of political power has failed so in his use of power of love? 

“I did not love less; indeed I loved more. But the weight of love, like that of an arm thrown tenderly across a chest, becomes little by little too heavy to bear.”


Once Antinous kills himself in hope of prolonging Hadrian's life, we see a different Hadrian, a man shaken by grief. Antinous offers himself as a human sacrifice and drowns himself. Hadrian knows that he has failed the young man. He hasn't shown him the love Antinous deserved. Hadrian tries to remedy this, proclaiming Antinous a god, and indeed his cult persists for centuries. However, everything seems a poor consolation. Hadrian experiences real grief and it changes him. Once again, he becomes a moral protagonist. During his relationship with Antinous, Hadrian really didn't behave like himself. It's only after Antinous death that he realizes the gravity of his errors. Nothing can comfort him now, but Hadrian is still determined to perform his duty.


Hadrian continues to labour for the Empire, he builds the Hadrian's wall in England, takes care of things in Rome, travels extensively and continues his diplomatic efforts. However, something in him is changed. Hadrian starts to realize there will be an end to Rome some day, but also that other Empires will follow in Rome's footsteps.

“But other hordes would come, and other false prophets. Our feeble efforts to ameliorate man’s lot would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in what is good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters; what had seemed to us wise would be pointless for them, what we had found beautiful they would abominate. Like the initiate to Mithraism the human race has need, perhaps, of a periodical bloodbath and descent into the grave. I could see the return of barbaric codes, of implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally prey to insecurity. Other sentinels menaced by arrows would patrol the walls of future cities; the stupid, cruel, and obscene game would go on, and the human species in growing older would doubtless add new refinements of horror. Our epoch, the faults and limitations of which I knew better than anyone else would perhaps be considered one day, by contrast, as one of the golden ages of man.”
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian


The novel slowly moves to its end and closes the circle by describing the sick Hadrian, now quite near his death and in quite a paint. As he is nearing his death, Hadrian remembers his beloved youth who gave his life for him, not knowing that a life without him meant torture. 

“Meditation upon death does not teach one how to die; it does not make the departure more easy, but ease is not what I seek. Beloved boy, so willful and brooding, your sacrifice will have enriched not my life but my death.

As Hadrian nears death, he suffers increasing pains and considers suicide. However, nobody is willing to assist him. Finally he realizes that it is best to face the suffering and so he does, accepting it as inevitable. Once Hadrian accepts the tortures of his illness, he seems to find peace. He meditates on a great many things and seems to find some closure as he departs the earth. Hadrian carefully prepares everything. I won't go into much detail, but he really thinks of everything, including honoring Lucian, another friend that tragically died. His final words are both poetical and touching:

“Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again....Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes...”

 I have a feeling this novel will really stay with me, it's simply mesmerizing in a way. It has already inspired me to read more about this time period. I have always found Roman history to be extremely interesting, and this book has ignited by interest even more. The only thing I didn't like was the way Hadrian seemed to have fallen once he has fallen in love and by that I mean fallen in the moral sense of the world. However, perhaps that only makes him more human. A man and an emperor- where does one start and where does the other begin? Hadrian claims that he hasn't changed since he has become and emperor but that people praise his virtues more. However, doesn't every ruler change? Doesn't this kind of power take something from one's humanity? 


I really recommend this novel to all history lovers. It's simply superbly written. Naturally, the writer had to make her own assumptions when she interpreted historical events, but it is obvious she had done immense amount of research before she finished this book. The way she was able to get into Hadrian's head is nothing short of amazing.  If you enjoy philosophical and lyrical writing, look no further. If you like books that make you think, this is a great choice. This book examines power in a number of ways. It's interesting from both historical, political and social point of view. At the same time, it's wonderfully human with its use of first person narrative. Highly recommended!

Thank you for reading and visiting!


  1. Parece un lindo libro. Me gustan tus zapatos. Te mando un beso.

  2. This story seems very interesting 😊 Beautiful outfit 😊

  3. I love novels reimagining historical characters and i think I'd really enjoy this one. I'll have to look on Abebooks and see if a cheap English copy exists.
    The pistachio jacket works beautifully with those pink shoes and the bouquet is the perfect accessory. xxx

  4. Ho letto questo libro quando andavo al Liceo (quindi in pratica non mi ricordo niente), ma dopo aver letto la tua review credo che lo andrò a cercare per rileggerlo perchè non me lo ricordavo proprio così interessante!
    Tu sei bellissima con questo look moderno ma sofisticato, quelle scarpe sono spettacolari!

    1. Grazie....purtroppo non sono molto comode!

  5. Oh, he does seem like a romantic on a different level, but perfect for his time. Thanks so much for your quotes and enrichment on this book. Such fabulous summer colors you are wearing. Thanks so much for your comments. Thaks for your fabulous post. I hope you have a beautiful July!

  6. I do find this quite intriguing. So great to know of this second part. Maybe his character grew, but still his certain standards make me feel quite earthy. Thanks for the wonderful review. You look fabulous! And I love those flowers too!

  7. Gorgeous outfit and love the heels :-D


  8. You look beautiful in this light green. I love the Shoes!

  9. The novella about Hadrian sounds really interesting. Many thanks for the great review and all the information.
    You look adorable, by the way. The combination of the purple blouse with the purple heels with the green blazer and the black skirt suits you wonderfully. A feminine and very chic look.
    And thank you very much for your dear comment :-)
    Love, Nadine

  10. What a beautiful colors. You look great dear friend. Green and also brown colors are so popular here. I got brown out fit last month. But ı love your green jacket alot. Have a wonderful week. Greetings.

  11. I feel like I really need to look up this book now after reading your glowing reviews and recommendation. It really sounds like the author really put so much work into it as well. Love your summery look. The combination of pink and green is so pretty.

  12. You look incredibly elegant in this outfit, I like the colour green and the blazer fits really well! When I studied art history I remember my favourite emperor was Hadrian, I think I'm going to have to read that book! You've piqued my curiosity!

  13. Very interesting book and I like your outfit.

  14. Sounds like an interesting book! Love your outfit and you handle that green jacket really well.


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All your comments mean a lot to me, even the criticism. Naravno da mi puno znači što ste uzeli vrijeme da nešto napišete, pa makar to bila i kritika. Per me le vostre parole sono sempre preziose anche quando si tratta di critiche.

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