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Memoirs of Hadrian (FSG Classics) Paperback – April 28, 2005
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Top Customer Reviews
The novel is beautifully written, in prose that captures the cadences of classical Roman writing. It is studded with perceptions and insights, as such a memoir would have been; I found myself underlining points as if it were an original text. The story is compelling -- how does it feel to be ruler of the world, and then to lose that which you hold most dear -- and the characters are fully developed. The novel took many years to write, and was based on exhaustive research -- Ms. Yourcenar, in an afterward, discusses what was known and what she made up, but it hangs together as a work of art. A great book, and a great pleasure to read.
Over the next three hundred pages, Hadrian describes his origins in a sleepy Spanish town. His grandfather divines that he will one day be ruler of the world and shortly thereafter he is the first of those closely connected to Hadrian to die, found dead on his farm and torn by birds of prey. Hadrian is eventually called by his distant uncle Trajan, the current emperor, to serve as a military commander in Dacia. The relationship between the two men is strained, but Hadrian performs well and retains his position. Trajan's ambition, however, leads him to folly and he decides to invade the Parthian Empire. Isolated in Mesopotamia, Trajan's health breaks down and eventually he dies, leaving Hadrian as his successor under suspicious circumstances.
Hadrian immediately withdraws from the newly won territories and makes peace with his foreign enemies, while also purging a few rivals from within the empire. Over the course of the next few decades, Hadrian brings about a level of peace and financial prosperity the empire had never previously encountered. Content to recognize men possess certain differences in attitude that cannot be changed, Hadrian allows a wide variety of opinions and faiths to flourish throughout the empire. Towards the end of his reign, this period of happiness ends. His beloved, a young man named Antinous, drowns himself in the Nile in an esoteric attempt to prolong the emperor's life. The Jews of Jerusalem and surrounding areas also rise up in revolt, and Hadrian is forced to brutally crush their rebellion. By the end, the children of Israel are exiled and their holy city is a pile of ruins.
Hadrian's health begins to break down and, after a brief flirtation with suicide, he decides to meet death with open eyes and an appreciation of what beauty the world can fleetingly offer. On the whole, the Memoirs of Hadrian is a fantastic novel that offers philosophy in a refreshing way. Rarely, if ever, have people had a leader with the intellectual repose the author gifts Hadrian with, but one would hope they at least realize once in power how puny their authority truly is. On a few occasions, the author diverges from the historical record (e.g. the permanent mystery of the circumstances of Antinous' death), but the appendix at the end of novel listing the author's resources shows she clearly did her research. Time passes quickly while reading this book, just as Hadrian would say for other aspects of our lives.