Places: Memoirs of Hadrian

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Mémoires d’Hadrien, 1951 (English translation, 1954)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: 76-138 c.e.

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Tibur (Tivoli)

*Tibur Memoirs of Hadrian (Tivoli). As Hadrian waits for death at his villa in central Italy, places haunt his thoughts. He sees his life “like dismantled rooms of a palace too vast for an impoverished owner to occupy in its entirety.” He thinks about the places that brought him joy–the Spanish forests where hunting acquainted him with suffering and death, and the Mauretanian savannas in northwest Africa where he killed lions. But he also thinks of places that caused him pain–Rome whose public debaucheries sickened him, whose delight was in moderation.


Italica. Obscure town in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, where Hadrian was born. Despite his Spanish origins, Hadrian felt that his true homeland was schools and books. Educated in Spain and, after the death of his father, in Rome, he returned to his homeland where, with the Seventh Legion in a wild region of the Pyrenees, he learned, through hunting and rough living, to judge the courage of men.


*Athens. Intellectual center of ancient Greece. Having mastered Greek in Rome, Hadrian continued his education in Athens, which seemed to him “slumbering in a haze of ideas” compared to Rome, where the world’s business was being done and undone. Athens, with its rich intellectual history, appealed to Hadrian’s scholarly side, but his appetite for power drew him back to Rome, where decisions could determine the fate of the world.

Roman Empire

Roman Empire. Before and during Trajan’s reign, Hadrian held a succession of administrative and military appointments that prepared him to become emperor. By participating in Rome’s battles with the Germanic tribes, he learned to love this northern region, which contrasted so sharply with the dry and sunny Mediterranean lands he had previously known. Though a kind of umbilical cord attached him to Rome, he liked the harsh Germanic terrain, for he had a passion for privation and discipline.

These early experiences set the pattern of his life: periodic stays in Rome (to advance his career) and extensive travels throughout the empire (to bring order to an increasingly disordered society). For Hadrian, Greece was the place where civilizers had separated themselves from the monstrous by creating rational politics and ennobling art. He thus saw his task as Hellenizing the barbaric lands and Atticizing Rome.

The empire’s eastern lands, which had troubled Rome for centuries, would also trouble Hadrian both before and after he was emperor. He compared the empire that he inherited from Trajan to a man who had survived a serious illness. For Hadrian, Rome was no longer confined to Rome, and he believed that Rome had to identify herself with her conquered countries, or be conquered by them. He restored order in Egypt, Mauretania, and Britain. He saw all these places, even those precariously held, as Romes-to-be. On all these different nations Hadrian wanted to superpose an enduring unity. In contrast, he himself never had a genuinely fixed abode in his twenty years of rule.

The dominating passion in his personal life was for Antinous, a handsome youth he had met at Nicomedia in the province of Bithynia in northwest Asia Minor. Hadrian’s love for Antinous led him to see places as he never had before. Now he delighted in the pine forests of Bithynia, the wine-rose hills of Attica, and the volcanic heights of Mount Aetna. In Phrygia, where Greece melds into Asia, he had, with Antinous, his most complete experience of happiness. However, after trips to Jerusalem and Alexandria, Antinous, in Hadrian’s absence, traveled to Canopus where, in a basin near a bend in the Nile, he killed himself to secure favor from the gods for the man he had loved and the emperor he had worshipped.

Following Antinous’s death, places that Hadrian had formerly loved he now abhorred. He commanded that a city, Antinoöpolis, be built with an encircling wall, a triumphal arch, and a tomb, but he sensed that this ideal city would soon become just another place to shelter commercial fraud, prostitution, and political corruption. He traveled through the eastern empire, but he was everywhere faced with anarchy. For example, the Jews were in rebellion against the Romans, and though Hadrian was able to pacify Judaea, he came to see this war as one of his failures.

On his return to Rome he encountered a criminality that was infecting politicians, lawyers, even ordinary people. He chose to build, away from Rome, a villa as a place of refuge, where the books that he had collected in his travels would be his source of comfort. After arranging for his successor and his mausoleum, he died at Baiae, near the sea, where he found it easier to breathe.

BibliographyFarrell, C. Frederick, Jr., and Edith R. Farrell. Marguerite Yourcenar in Counterpoint. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983. This collection of essays, written between 1978 and 1982, studies a variety of Yourcenar’s works, beginning with her very earliest publications. There is a substantial essay on Memoirs of Hadrian, concentrating on the image of Hadrian as a “good prince” and the significance of the novel in postwar Europe. Another essay is dedicated to the role of women in Yourcenar’s work, acknowledging that they are rarely central characters but defending their influence and depiction. Women are shown as being closer than men to birth and death, preeminent in their capacity for love and devotion.Horn, Pierre. Marguerite Yourcenar. Boston: Twayne, 1985. This good overview of Yourcenar’s work, written before her death, presents plots and characters of the major works. Horn notes that Yourcenar refused to be characterized as a “women’s writer” and resisted “ghettoization.” Although Horn acknowledges that Yourcenar does emphasize male homosexuality as a theme, sometimes coupled with sadistic actions toward women, he argues that she does so because she portrays characters in revolt against arbitrary moral and political restrictions. He defends her use of female characters in “important” supporting roles, if not as central characters, and points out that her central concern is the liberation of humanity as a whole. Includes a bibliography.Howard, Joan E. From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. A scholarly and well-informed study of the role played first by myth and then by sacrificial situations in seven illustrative works, including Yourcenar’s 1951 masterpiece.Savigneau, Josyane. Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life. Translated by Joan E. Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. This highly personal biography examines the life, friendships, and personality of Marguerite Yourcenar in great detail, without offering any literary analysis of her work. Savigneau does, however, consider Yourcenar’s attitude toward feminism, most particularly in relation to her election to the Académie Française. She delves deeply into Yourcenar’s longtime love relationship with her American translater, Grace Frick, and offers valuable insights on Yourcenar’s personal culture and the humanist studies from which the Memoirs of Hadrian grew. Annotated by both author and translator. No bibliography.Shurr, Georgia Hooks. Marguerite Yourcenar: A Reader’s Guide. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987. A solid general introduction to Yourcenar’s writings and creative process, occasionally marred by irrelevant personal reminiscences.Taylor, John. “Waiting for Hadrian.” Georgia Review 42 (1988): 147-151. Brief yet informative. Discusses the slow process between Yourcenar’s discovery of a good topic and its full realization in the novel.Watson-Williams, Helen. “Hadrian’s Story Recalled.” Nottingham French Studies 23 (1984): 35-48. A serious analysis of the novel’s central concerns in light of social and historical work on the second-century emperor and his time.Whatley, Janet. “Mémoires d’Hadrien: A Manual for Princes.” University of Toronto Quarterly 50, no. 2 (Winter, 1980-1981): 221-237. A profound and perceptive essay on the novel’s political themes, with special emphasis on the relationship between power and moral knowledge.
Categories: Places