Memoirs Of Hadrian: Book Summary, Key Lessons and Best Quotes

What is it that attracts the modern thinker to works of philosophy? Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and others: it’s almost surprising how relevant their insight remains in the modern-day. As we know, some of the most profound pieces of philosophy have come from ancient Greece and Rome, and while this book might read as though it were written by a brilliant mind whose name was lost to the passing of time, one might be surprised to learn that it was written in the 20th century. 

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar is a work of historical fiction. The novel is narrated by the legendary Roman Emperor Hadrian, and is formatted as a letter to Hadrian’s successor and adopted grandson, Marcus Aurelius. The voice that’s used throughout the novel is reminiscent of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, as Hadrian reflects upon his life and reign as one of Rome’s most notable emperors. 

Remarkably, Marguerite Yourcenar began writing the masterpiece when she was twenty-one. It wasn’t until twenty years later that she would finish the work and receive international acclaim. Below are key takeaways, examples and our favorite quotes from Memoirs Of Hadrian

3 Key Takeaways from Memoirs Of Hadrian

From each art practiced in its time I derive a knowledge which compensates me in part for pleasures lost. I have supposed, and in my better moments think so still, that it would be possible in this manner to participate in the existence of everyone; such sympathy would be one of the least revocable kinds of immortality.”

— Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs Of Hadrian

Memoirs Of Hadrian is a sort of beautifully crafted hybrid of both fiction and nonfiction. The novel covers significant events in Roman history as narrated by Hadrian himself. Yourcenar also inserts philosophical thoughts and reflections that were prevalent during Hadrian’s era of rule. 

While the book is a work of fiction, there are still nuggets of wisdom found throughout. Here are three of our key takeaways from Memoirs Of Hadrian.

1) Organizing One’s Life

“The true birthplace is that wherein for the first time one looks intelligently upon oneself.”

— Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs Of Hadrian

The first chapters of Memoirs Of Hadrian depict the emperor as an old man, reflecting on his life for the benefit of young Marcus Aurelius. Hadrian regards his life as a “shapeless mass” which he wishes to put in order in the form of a letter. Hadrian recalls his early days living in Italica, a Roman city in the Iberian Peninsula. With his father being a statesman, Hadrian had access to quality education at a young age. He showed great interest in natural science and philosophy, both of which would serve him well later in life. 

So many great historical figures had mentors who guided them and helped them grow. Hadrian speaks of the same occurring throughout his early years. In fact, it was Emperor Trajan who, after seeing Hadrian’s potential as a soldier and leader, appointed the young man as his successor. Hadrian would also end up marrying Sabina, Trajan’s grandniece. The first chapter demonstrates the principle of organization by first presenting Hadrian as a reflective elderly man. In those reflections, we see how Hadrian began to organize himself from a young age, becoming a soldier, building up his own confidence, and proving himself as a potential emperor. While most of us are not training or campaigning to be an emperor, this lesson can still serve us well. It reminds us that life is chaotic—and whether we’re reflecting in old age, or striving to achieve in our youth—it is our job to bring order to it. 

2) We All Have A Golden Age

“Our great mistake is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has.”

— Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs Of Hadrian

The years which Hadrian spent in the military were among the most formative with respect to his views on foreign policy and military affairs. In war after bloody war, Hadrian became disgruntled with Rome’s insatiable desire for expansion. Emperor Trajan would die during a failed military campaign in Parthia, leaving Hadrian to take his place. Although Hadrian, exhausted by the war and in favor of diplomacy, would make peace with Parthia, he would execute his enemies and send Rome into what he called an “Age of Gold.” During this time, Hadrian instituted a number of sociopolitical reforms, including the abolition of torture, the refinement of Romes’ government systems, and the promotion of a more diverse Roman society. Hadrian also spearheaded the construction of his eponymous wall. He had fought hard for the peace Rome then thrived in, his motto being “Humanitas, Libertas, Felicitas,” or “humanity, freedom, happiness.”

It’s interesting that Memoirs Of Hadrian is written in this way, discussing old age, golden ages, and lessons learned as an emperor. The way in which Yourcenar wrote the novel shows that Hadrian’s life followed the same format as everyone else. He had moments of triumph and moments of failure. He was a young, handsome emperor in one period, and an old sickly one in his final days. This wasn’t just Hadrian’s fate—its the life we all have the privilege of living. We don’t get to decide when our golden ages are, or how soon our sickliness comes. But we do choose whether to accept the turbulence of life. 

3) Remember Thou Art Mortal

“The memory of most men is an abandoned cemetery where lie, unsung and unhonored, the dead whom they have ceased to cherish. Any lasting grief is reproof to their neglect.”

—Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs Of Hadrian

The final chapter of the novel is fittingly titled patiencia, or patience. Hadrian has lived a long life at this point. He has both won and lost wars. He has governed the people of Rome as best he could. And now, being the same age as his mother when she passed and twice as old as his father (Hadrian’s father died at the young age of forty), he acknowledges that his elder years have been a product of patience. As he’s grown older and his health has rapidly declined, death seemed more and more like a feasible solution to his discomfort:

The medicaments have no effect on me now; my limbs are more swollen than ever, and I sleep sitting up instead of reclining. One advantage of death will be to lie down again in bed. It is now my turn to console Antoninus. I remind him that death has long seemed to me the most fitting solution of my own problem; as always, my wishes are finally being fulfilled, but in a slower and more indirect way than I had expected.

The way in which Yourcenar writes of Hadrian’s final days reminds us of the guiding principle of memento mori. Imagine a man as powerful as Hadrian, wealthy beyond one’s imagination and holding more influence than most at the time. And yet, he acknowledges the inevitability of death. Much in the same way that Meditations invokes an immediate state of reflection in its readers, Memoirs Of Hadrian does the same. Hadrian’s words in the final chapter show his calmness in a situation that causes tremendous grief for those around him. There he is, staring death in the face, and Yourcenar brilliantly writes “let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again… Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes…” 

3 Favorite Examples from Memoirs Of Hadrian

“The written word has taught me to listen to the human voice, much as the great unchanging statues have taught me to appreciate bodily motions. On the other hand, but more slowly, life has thrown light for me on the meaning of books.”

— Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs Of Hadrian

Marguerite Yourcenar—had she not been a prolific essayist and novelist—could have been an extraordinary philosopher. Memoirs Of Hadrian is packed with philosophical reflections and historical examples throughout. 

Yourcenar touches on topics like how to evaluate human existence, acknowledging the scandalous love affairs that Hadrian engaged in, and even leaving her own reflections in the final sections of the books. While it’s hard to narrow down just three, here are our favorite examples from the novel. 

1) Evaluating Human Existence

“Nothing is slower than the true birth of a man.”

— Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs Of Hadrian

Early on in the novel, Hadrian says that there are only three means of evaluating human existence: The study of self, the observation of others, and the reading of books. 

The problem with books, Hadrian continues, is that they sometimes lie or exaggerate the truth. While Hadrian acknowledges that much of his growth is due to the diligent reading and studying, books are to be read with a grain of salt. The same goes for the second means of evaluating human existence, which is by observations of others. This strategy too can mislead people, as we sometimes get caught up in wanting to be like people of status and nobility rather than ethics and integrity. Not to state that the two are mutually exclusive, but we are always at risk of modeling our behavior after an individual that is better left an original. 

The best way that one can evaluate human existence, according to Hadrian, is by the study oneself. “As to self-observation, I make it a rule, if only to come to terms with that individual with whom I must live up to my last day, but an intimacy of nearly sixty years standing leaves still many chances for error

This is why we study philosophy in the first place—to better understand the complexity of our own existence. Paradoxically, in doing so we learn about human existence as well. So focus on yourself. Study yourself. Its the only way you’ll achieve the wisdom that Yourcenar beautifully describes in Hadrian’s voice.

2) Antinous The Greek

“Of all our games, love’s play is the only one which threatens to unsettle the soul…”

— Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs Of Hadrian

At the age of forty-eight, Hadrian met and fell in love with a fourteen-year-old named Antinous. Though controversial, such relationships were commonplace in Roman antiquity. Hadrian notes in the fictional memoir that he and Antinous’ romantic relations felt more genuine than his marriage with Sabina, which was tumultuous at times. Despite the love that Hadrian and the young Greek boy shared, Antinous became increasingly distressed in their relationship. Five years after Antinous had first begun his relationship with Hadrian, he began to have doubts. He feared that Hadrian was more interested in the opposite sex and, in his state of despair, committed suicide in Alexandria. The loss of Antinous weighed heavily on Hadrian, and it was a loss that undoubtedly affected the emperor for the remainder of his life.

Antinous is another interesting twist in the complicated life that was Hadrian’s. On one hand, Hadrian was regarded as an exceptional leader and promoter of peace throughout the empire. Yet, in his private life, he mistreated his wife constantly. He had many lovers outside of his marriage, and was known to lose his temper often. The imperfection of such a large historical figure is humanizing. It makes Hadrian seem more like the rest of the world rather than a divine ruler of the Roman Empire. Yourcenar captures this in the reflective tone she maintains throughout the novel. 

3) Authors Note

“I knew that good like bad becomes a routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself.”

— Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs Of Hadrian

In the postscript of Memoirs of Hadrian, Yourcenar notes that she was interested in Hadrian’s reign because it took place during a period in which Romans no longer believed in the traditional Roman gods. Since Yourcenar lived in the increasingly secular period following World War I, she noticed parallels between Hadrian’s rule and her own era. As one reads the three hundred-plus paged novel, Yourcenar’s diction can’t be described any other way than intoxicating. Every sentence eloquently straps the reader into the mind of a Roman Emperor, and sheds further light on the man behind the history books. 

What makes Memoirs Of Hadrian so remarkable is its ability to inspire readers in the same way that Meditations does. While not all of the characters and events mentioned in the novel actually took place in History, Yourcenar paints Hadrian in the most intimate way possible. He, like any other figure in antiquity, was perfectly imperfect; a man of many faults and many failures. 

One thing is for certain: Whether you pick up Memoirs Of Hadrian because you need a great read, or because you’d like even more context regarding Marcus Aurelius and his predecessors, the novel is one that should be read by all who are interested in Roman history and philosophy. 

12 Best Quotes from Memoirs Of Hadrian

“Of all our games, love’s play is the only one which threatens to unsettle the soul…”

“Our great mistake is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has.”

“The true birthplace is that wherein for the first time one looks intelligently upon oneself; my first homelands have been books, and to a lesser degree schools.”

“Nothing is slower than the true birth of a man.”

“He had reached that moment in life, different for each one of us, when a man abandons himself to his demon or to his genius, following a mysterious law which bids him either to destroy or outdo himself.”

“Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again….Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes…”

“There are books which one should not attempt before having passed the age of forty.”

“The written word has taught me to listen to the human voice, much as the great unchanging statues have taught me to appreciate bodily motions. On the other hand, but more slowly, life has thrown light for me on the meaning of books.”

“I am not sure that the discovery of love is necessarily more exquisite than the discovery of poetry.”

“The memory of most men is an abandoned cemetery where lie, unsung and unhonored, the dead whom they have ceased to cherish. Any lasting grief is reproof to their neglect.”

“The technique of a great seducer requires a facility and an indifference in passing from one object of affection to another which I could never have; however that may be, my loves have left me more often than I have left them, for I have never been able to understand how one could have enough of any beloved. The desire to count up exactly the riches which each new love brings us, and to see it change, and perhaps watch it grow old, accords ill with multiplicity of conquests.”

“I knew that good like bad becomes a routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself.”

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