September Books 5) Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar

I’d been looking forward to this for quite a long time; a fairly short book, told as Hadrian’s autobiography (in fact, a long letter to Marcus Aurelius), describing his life. I confess that what I basically knew about Hadrian was a) the Wall and b) Gibbon‘s brief description:

Under his reign, as has been already mentioned, the empire flourished in peace and prosperity. He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all his provinces in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views and the minute details of civil policy. But the ruling passions of his soul were curiosity and vanity. As they prevailed, and as they were attracted by different objects, Hadrian was, by turns, an excellent prince, a ridiculous sophist, and a jealous tyrant. The general tenor of his conduct deserved praise for its equity and moderation. Yet in the first days of his reign, he put to death four consular senators, his personal enemies and men who had been judged worthy of empire; and the tediousness of a painful illness rendered him, at last, peevish and cruel. The senate doubted whether they should pronounce him a god or a tyrant; and the honours decreed to his memory were granted to the prayers of the pious Antoninus.

The book ends up being partly a determinedly detailed and scholarly reconstruction of Hadrian’s life, based on the best classical sources (as explained in a decently brief appendix), but partly also a late 1940s reflection on the experiences of conflict and sexuality in the first half of the twentieth century.

It’s very good. It’s not just a blow-by-blow account of events, it’s an attempt to get under the skin of a man who is known only from inscriptions and a few dubiously attributable scraps. Yourcenar finds a credible voice for the aged statesman giving voice to his younger self, and explaining the big decisions that face you as a Roman emperor – the best bits are perhaps the description of putting to bed Trajan’s legacy of conflict with Persia immediately after he assumed power, and the description of Hadrian’s love for the Greek youth Antinous. (His own wife gets barely a mention; Trajan’s widow Plotina is rather more visible.) But the whole thing is worth savouring and digesting. Recommended.