Sarah (Presto agitato)'s Reviews > Memoirs of Hadrian

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
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Jul 15, 2014

it was amazing
bookshelves: roma-spqr, historical-fiction, favorite-books
Read from September 16 to October 05, 2012

This is a book that I don’t think I would have read if it weren’t for Goodreads. I probably would never have even heard of it. Technically, I suppose this obscure novel would be considered “historical fiction,” but that’s misleading. It is that, but it is also biography, philosophy, meditation, poetry.

Hadrian was Emperor of Rome from AD 117 to 138. Marguerite Yourcenar wrote this novel in the form of a memoir, written by Hadrian near the end of his life and addressed to then 17-year old future emperor Marcus Aurelius. Hadrian discusses his public role and his attempts to use diplomacy more than bloodshed. By the standards of the Roman Empire, his reign was considered peaceful (this in spite of a war with the Jews resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths and the banishment of the Jewish people from Jerusalem).

Most of the emperor’s recollections, however, focus on the personal, even the trivial. He reflects on moderation in diet, his love of hunting, and his admiration for Greek culture. With a reserved tone that belies his depth of feeling, he relates his love for the young Bithynian, Antinous, and his sorrow at Antinous’ death. Hadrian deals with his grief by deifying the youth and creating a cult which long outlasts them both. There must be hundreds of statues of Antinous in the world’s museums today, a testament to an emperor’s attempt to cope with a very personal sorrow.



Yourcenar seems to channel this character of antiquity, speaking with an authentic dignity and distance that is not modern in feel. Hadrian speaks to us, but not in a tell-all confessional. In her notes on the writing of the novel, Yourcenar quotes from Flaubert about the period when Hadrian lived, “Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.” Her Hadrian is a man of that age, not ours.

The mood of this book is quiet, thoughtful, and peaceful. It evokes the feeling of walking among ancient ruins, with the eerie sensation that comes when other tourists are out of view, as the warm Italian sun gleams off fragments of stone, and for a moment there is a strange perception that the ruins are whole again, with time somehow distorted.


Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli
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Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm inching closer to reading this with each lovely review I see. Thanks.

message 2: by Jonfaith (new)

Jonfaith This may just cinch it; I'm taking THIS to Chicago: grazie.

Bibliomantic This is a book that I don’t think I would have read if it weren’t for Goodreads.

I second that, and would like to be more specific by adding that it would not be on my list if not for your wonderful review.

Sarah (Presto agitato) @Jonfaith Prego. :-)

And thank you all for your comments!

message 5: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie This is on my to-read list because of Goodreads as well.

Paul This is why I love this site!

message 7: by Fionnuala (last edited Oct 08, 2012 10:15PM) (new)

Fionnuala Not only do I continually discover titles on goodreads that I wouldn't otherwise hear about but I'm also pleasantly reminded from time to time of those I read long ago as in this case. That rarely happens in the books pages of newspapers and literary reviews where the focus is mostly on new titles.

message 8: by Kalliope (last edited Oct 06, 2012 12:51AM) (new) - added it

Kalliope I have given a low rating to this book. I think I must revisit it. May be I was too young when I read it, and GR is making me aware of this.

knig An amazing book. The opening letter to Mark is probably my favourite 'section': full of lyrical reflection on the compilations of life. Great review.

Jeffrey Keeten Wonderful review Sarah. I have this on my short list.

Sarah (Presto agitato) Moonbutterfly wrote: "Oh my god you put a picture of Hadrian's Villa on your review. I seriously wish time travel existed. That is my favorite villas and one of my favorite emperors."

I love Hadrian's Villa too, though I haven't seen it in years and years. I am hoping maybe soon, though, which is part of what's got me back on my ancient Rome kick. I'm with you about time travel! :-)

message 12: by Nandakishore (new) - added it

Nandakishore Varma Terrific review. I must read this book (Sigh! My TBR pile...).

I must also make that long-awaited trip to Italy.

message 13: by Tony (new)

Tony I'm about to show my age. In its day, this was a very popular novel. It was during the time when historical fiction was the rage. Times and tastes change, but I'm glad you found this and enjoyed it. Tony.

message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

Great Job, Sarah. I have been gone for a while. Sorry I was late to show up.

Elizabeth Theiss Love your review Sarah. This is one of my favorite books of all time. You've captured it well. I have since been on a quest to understand Hadrian and his times. I walked Hadrian's Wall in the North of England, went to Rome and read everything I could find. The book still haunts me and I reread it from time to time.

message 16: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant great review - it stabs my very ventricle to hear you describe this novel as obscure, though - can it be so?

Sarah (Presto agitato) Paul wrote: "great review - it stabs my very ventricle to hear you describe this novel as obscure, though - can it be so?"

It could just be me, but I never heard of this book before Goodreads. Maybe it would be more diplomatic to call it "more obscure than it should be."

Wilson Tomba Lovely review Sarah, but I must say I rather felt the same as Paul about this novel being referred to as obscure.
I read it while I was still in my teens; I remember that my parents got it as an optional purchase with a newspaper as part of a collection of world literature.

'Aussie Rick' Great review :)

message 20: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller Lovely. I love the images. :)

Mobile Library Fine and appropriate! Summa cum Laude!

Jonathan What a lovely review Sarah. I'm going to move this up my to-read list now.

Sarah (Presto agitato) Jonathan wrote: "What a lovely review Sarah. I'm going to move this up my to-read list now."

Thank you! I hope you enjoy it!

Czarny Pies Congratulations on a great review. You clearly understood this work better than I did.

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