Context: Read this as we visited the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Inside there was a statue commissioned by Hadrian of his lover, Antinous. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let me take a photo inside.
It took Marguerite Yourcenar decades to write this book… and it only just tips the 230 page mark. Each page though shows the meticulous research and care that she took to construct this exceedingly graphic and captivating memoir.
Hadrian is dying. He has chosen Marcus Aurelius as successor and now composes his memoirs to pass on his learning, his experience and the fruits of his life. While there is a wealth of historical detail here, as well as some beautifully composed reflection on life, power, ambition and love, the first person narrative in letter form can, at times, feel a bit restricted.
What I most appreciated was the success of Yourcenar in reconstructing the person of Hadrian. It was so realistic that at times I realised I’d been considering it as if I was actually reading memoirs he had actually written. I had to remind myself that it was a reconstruction and although based on numerous historical sources (which my edition listed in an afterword), Yourcenar has used license to create the intimate musings of Hadrian.
Now, this book won’t appeal to everyone. If you have no interest in classical history and how life was lived in that period of time, you’ll probably find a lot of it tedious. And you’ll need something of an interest in military or political history of some kind really because Hadrian, as emperors are won’t to do, spent quite a bit of his time and energy focussing on those issues.
But if you’re open-minded enough to read through that, you’ll discover that even in the driest descriptions of military strategy or political plotting, there’s cutting insight into one of Europe’s premier historical figures, and this is insight that helps us understand humanity more. It’s the kind of writing that has you come away with a deeper realisation of what we’re all about.
My dear Marc, Today I went to see my physician Hermogenes, who has just returned to the Villa from a rather long journey in Asia.
Few men enjoy prolonged travel; it disrupts all habit and enlessly jolts each prejudice.
Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes…