There were Five Good Emperors, so they say, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, and Marcus Aurelius, ruling in what is called the golden era of the Roman empire. What is interesting is that they were not related, rather, from Trajan onward they were adopted heirs.
Hadrian (Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, originally Publius Aelius Hadrianus) followed Trajan, during whose reign Rome’s empire was maybe at its largest. Where his predecessor was belligerent, Hadrian seeked a more peaceful reign, negotiated truces, and retreated from some strategically unsound places, like the Gulf of Persia.
Marguerite Yourcenar’s classic book was many years in the making. It’s an interpretation or a retelling of Hadrian’s life based on multiple sources, but mainly two: Historia Augusta and Cassius Dio’s Historia Roman.
She had the idea in her twenties, writing first drafts or passages in 1924-27, restarted 1934, worked on it until 1937. Finally, she started again 1948 and finished the book 1951. The book has a couple of passages or excerpts from 1934-7, but otherwise she wrote it anew in the last round.
Some books you cannot write young. It took her a while to find the voice (first person) and the understanding of her subject. Even her diagnosed heart condition helped to write about Hadrian’s own ailments. I think I understand Yourcenar’s old Hadrien much better now, being almost of his age when he is telling his life’s story: at this age you start to feel your own mortality. You know you don’t live forever (most certainly would like to); you start tallying your life.
In the memoirs, Hadrian recounts his life and important events to Marcus Aurelius. His childhood was spent in Spain, the he studied in Athens before moving to Rome start a career. He joins the army and battles in campaigns. With the help of Matidia, Trajan’s wife he helps gain his friendship, and finally, Trajan names Hadrien his heir (Matidia may have helped a lot). Hadrien claims himself Emperor with the help of the army, assassinates or forces the death of his enemies (you must have a ruthless side in this business), and starts governing.
He spends half his reign away from Rome. He travels and visits lots of places; meets people; plans and builds cities; builds the Hadrien Wall; designs temples; modernises legislation; enhances civic societies everywhere; reads; thinks; reflects; climbs to a mountaintops to see the rising sun; writes mediocre poems; initiating himself into mysticism; hunts; marries (no real love there and no heirs); loves, usually young men – Antinous being perhaps the love of his love, a young Bithynian boy, his companion for some years until his sudden death which may have been a suicide or a sacrifice; builds temples, erects status to the late Antinous (it’s good to be Emperor); travels more; campaigns in Judea; finally, the old age catches him and he retires to his villa in Tibur to die, reflect and reminisce.
Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien is well-researched, beautifully written, feels so real and at the same time is so sad.