Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar – 5 questions

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar - 5 questions

Updated: June 10, 2023 by Mylene in Questions

Emperor Hadrian knew that he would soon die because he was suffering from heart disease after seeing Hermogenes, his physician. Therefore, Hadrian begins writing a letter to Marc-Aurèle, who he hopes will be his successor. He recounts his life, his reign, his passions, as well as his flaws. Hadrian is honest with himself and does not hesitate to admit his weaknesses, such as his passion for Antinoüs and the pain that his death caused him. Hadrian spent a great deal of time in Greece, which certainly helped shape his personality. He is fascinated by Greek civilization, “All the best men have said has been said in Greek.” After his accession to power, he attempted to restore peace. It does not intend to enlarge its territory, but to maintain its borders.

The use of the pronoun “I” in this story gives the impression that Hadrian is speaking, and not the author. Through the text, we forget that it is Marcus Aurelius that the emperor is addressing. We get in his intimacy. One has the impression of being transported to his time, and it is so difficult to return to reality once the book is closed.

In what follows, I propose to answer five questions to better understand Memoirs of Hadrian, a fictional autobiography of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD), written by Marguerite Yourcenar in 1951:

Who is Hadrian in Hadrian’s Memoirs?

Hadrian was born in Italy in 76. He was an emperor of the Antonine dynasty, succeeding Trajan in 117. Hadrian ruled until his death in 138.

Why did Marguerite Yourcenar choose Hadrian?

A quotation from Gustave Flaubert‘s correspondence was at the origin of his desire to rewrite this book: “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.”. Marguerite Yourcenar first chose to write this History by making Antinoüs speak. However, this version was not adopted.

Who is Plotina in Hadrian’s Memoirs?

Plotina is the wife of Trajan, the Emperor of Rome. She was an important player in the succession; she would have dictated to the emperor who was dying the lines relating to his heir, or even wrote the name of Hadrian herself. Hadrian regards Plotina as his only true friend.

How does Antinoüs die in the memoirs of Hadrian?

The great love of Hadrian, Antinoüs dies at the age of about 20, drowned in the Nile, in circumstances that remain mysterious.

What are the significant themes in Hadrian’s memoirs? 

The death 

Death is omnipresent. In the novel, Hadrian tells us about the deaths of his own family, relatives, and enemies. Furthermore, he expresses his desire to commit suicide at the end of his life. When he asks to assassinate Fuscus: The youth of Fuscus pitted me even more, he was barely 18 years old.

The divine

He feels like God, since others see him that way. Even when he hears him lamenting the end of his life, the guardian of his room believes him to be immortal. A beggar will regain her sight thanks to him, and a terrible contagion of respect will follow.

The importance of body and soul

He would like to enjoy his body for a few more years. He is looking for the link between the body and the soul. Furthermore, he will also experiment with dying animals to see if the soul will emerge from the dead body.


Hadrian’s love for Antinoüs is first a source of happiness, then a source of torture. Hadrian will also found the city Antinoé in Egypt.

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