Marguerite Yourcenar; Trans. Grace Frick

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated from the French by Grace Frick, is a work of historical fiction. The narrative unfolds in the voice of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) as he speaks to his adopted grandson and heir, Marcus Aurelius. The novel is a fascinating combination of autobiography, history, psychology, and philosophy. Hadrian offers valuable advice to his heir by meditating on the nature of good governance, and on how to live, love, and die well. He does it through the form of a story that recounts his rise to power; his struggles, failures, and successes as emperor; the monuments he erected and why he erected them; the genuine bonds he formed with servants who took care of him; his losses and his loves, especially the one true love of his life who died at the age of 20.

Hadrian emerges as a complex character, unafraid to take risks and to live life to the fullest. He implemented reforms, restored ancient sites that had fallen into ruin, built new sites and monuments, and felt more at home in the culture of Athens than that of Rome. He nurtured a strong appetite for art and literature and loved to contemplate the stars puncturing the night sky. He stabilized the borders of the Roman Empire and took great pains to establish procedures and codify reforms that would survive his death. Widely travelled, he derived pleasure from exposure to different lands and cultures, appreciating the diversity in all he saw. He recognized conquering a people through cultural assimilation is far more effective and enduring than a war that blankets their lands with bloody corpses.

Yourcenar conducted extensive research to piece together this narrative. Her Author’s Note at the back of the book, explains how she scoured texts—ancient and otherwise; read what has survived of Hadrian’s own words; and explored coinage, artifacts, and archeological sites. The depth and breadth of her research is impressive. She immersed herself in Hadrian so successfully that one can almost believe he speaks through her. The language is beautiful, the pace slow and contemplative, the meditations insightful. One of the qualities that make this work so appealing is Yourcenar’s achievement in capturing a voice for Hadrian that sounds so very authentic, intimate, and honest. It is almost as if the aging emperor, aware of his proximity to death, allows us to eavesdrop on his reflections. The effect is extraordinary.

This is a unique achievement—unlike any other work of historical fiction I have encountered. Highly recommended.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review