Marguerite Yourcenar: Memoirs of Hadrian

As subtle but as vital as breath, the passage of ideas and wonder surges with life through these pages and straight to the reader. 

Marguerite Yourcenar carves and immortalizes the many aspects of the great Roman emperor that was Hadrian, but unlike any work of history, she resuscitates his heart and offers it to us, pulsating and bleeding, as only Marguerite Yourcenar can.

Written in the form of a letter to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations endure up to this day, Memoirs of Hadrian is the introspection of a man at the end of his days, stripped away of life’s pretensions and left only with his truths. I suspect that this, too, shall endure.

“I have known men infinitely nobler and more perfect than myself… There is but one thing in which I feel superior to most men: I am freer… For my part I have sought liberty more than power, and power only because it can lead to freedom.”

It is partly an ode to Hadrian the traveler, the only emperor in the empire’s history to have traveled to almost every part of its vast realm. Of traveling, he writes, “It disrupts all habit and endlessly jolts each prejudice.”

An ode to a man who could accept with calm the vicissitudes of Rome Eternal after his time (“If ever the barbarians gain possession of the world they will be forced to adopt some of our methods; they will end resembling us”) but could not understand a resignation to ignorance; and thus promoted Greek philosophy and culture and patronized the arts, literature, music, architecture.

A man who perceived that knowledge and literature were as important as food to a civilization, and libraries, dispensaries to the soul: “The founding of libraries was like constructing more public granaries, amassing reserves against a spiritual winter which by certain signs, in spite of myself, I see ahead.”

An ode to Hadrian the builder who believed in the richness of an architecture more varied than Vitruvius’ four orders would allow (“Our great stone blocks, like our tones in music, are amenable to endless regrouping”) and thus amassed inspiration even from faraway Ctesiphon, Babylon, and Egypt, drew the plans himself, and put emphasis on building from vernacular materials.

“To build is to collaborate with the earth, to put a human mark upon a landscape, modifying it forever thereby…To reconstruct is to collaborate with time gone by, penetrating or modifying its spirit, and carrying it toward a longer future… My cities were born of encounters… Each building stone was the strange concretion of a will, a memory, and sometimes a challenge. Each structure was the chart of a dream… I have wanted to live as much as possible in the midst of this music of forms.”

“In the evenings the art of building gave way to that of music, which is architecture, too, though invisible.”

And so it is also an ode to a man who applied the laws of art and governance interchangeably: “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… 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.”

It is an ode to the man who first ventured to call Rome “eternal”; who counted desperately on the eternity of stone, as we are able to continue to witness through Hadrian’s Wall, Hadrian’s Villa, Castel Sant’Angelo, the Pantheon; a man who believed that, “Anything made by man which aspires to eternity must adapt.” And therefore it is an ode to a man who looked for and looked to eternity — and thus, he loved.

Above all, it is an ode to a man who loved. For what is eternity without it?

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