Portrait of Power Embodied in a Roman Emperor - Memoirs of Hadrian

In 1982, when I first read Marguerite Yourcenar's "The Memoirs of Hadrian," I asked Arnaldo Momigliano, the great scholar of the ancient world, what he thought of the novel. Italian to the highest power, he put all five fingers of his right hand to his mouth, kissed them, and announced, "Pure masterpiece." Now, nearly 30 years later, I have reread the work and find it even better than before. A book that improves on rereading, that seems even grander the older one gets—surely, this is yet another sign of a masterpiece.

Its author was born in Belgium, wrote in French, and lived much of her adult life in Maine with her excellent translator and companion, Grace Frick. As such, Mme. Yourcenar (1903-1987) was, in effect, a writer without a country, though she was the first woman elected to the Académie Française (in 1980). She was the last aristocratic novelist of the 20th century, and not only in the sense that her father was of aristocratic descent. She did not ask in her fiction the contemporary middle-class questions of what is happiness and why have I (or my characters) not found it, concerning herself instead with something larger—the meaning of human destiny as it plays out on a historical stage.
Mme. Yourcenar wrote a good deal of fiction, but her imperishable work is "Memoirs of Hadrian," first published in French in 1951. The novel is in the form of a lengthy letter written by the aged and ill Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from A.D. 117 to 138, to the 17-year-old but already thoughtful Marcus Aurelius.
Roman emperors seem to be divided between monsters and mediocrities, with an occasional near-genius, like Hadrian, thrown in to break the monotony. Highly intelligent and cultivated, he was a Grecophile, always a good sign in the ancient world. As emperor, he attempted to pull back from the imperialist expansion of his predecessor Trajan and wanted, as the chronicler Aelius Spartianus put it, to "administer the republic [so that] it would know that the state belonged to the people and was not his property."
And yet Hadrian was also a Roman emperor, which meant living amid dangerous intrigue, wielding enormous power and being able to fulfill his erotic impulses at whim. He was, Spartianus writes, "both stern and cheerful, affable and harsh, impetuous and hesitant, mean and generous, hypocritical and straightforward, cruel and merciful, and always in all things changeable"—in short, not a god but a man.
Mme. Yourcenar has taken what we know of the life of Hadrian and from this sketchy knowledge produced an utterly convincing full-blown portrait. One feels that one is reading a remarkable historical document, an account of the intricate meanings of power by a man who has held vast power. Imagine Machiavelli's "The Prince" written not by an Italian theorist but by a true prince. Imagine, further, that he also let you in on his desires, his fears, his aesthetic, his sensuality, his feelings about death—in a manner at once haute and intimate, and in a prose any emperor would be pleased to possess.
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