top of page

Writer's Reviews - Memoirs of Hadrian: Marguerite Yourcenar

Updated: 4 hours ago

The critical-literary analyses offered by WriTribe are a thousand words long. Each has been compiled with the intention of providing writers not only with a general introduction to the works presented, but also to reveal the added value inherent in each of them.

1,000 words go far beyond mere criticism or superficial praise; they are intended to point you to one or more secret elements, showing you what narrative techniques are masterfully employed by the author of the work in question.

Written with the unique perspective of an author for authors, reviews aim to point out to you what added value you can glean from twenty literary classics. With this in mind, choosing the reading best suited to your need will prove much easier.


Cover of the book Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) by Marguerite Yourcenar


Memoirs of Hadrian (1951)

Marguerite Yourcenar

The work in brief

The novel represents a fictional, yet historical reconstruction of the memoirs of the Roman emperor Hadrian, written by the now elderly and ailing emperor himself shortly before his death. The narrative takes shape through a long letter that Hadrian himself writes to the young Marcus Aurelius, who would later become his adopted nephew.

In this epistle Hadrian traces his existence and the major events that shaped his empire, his life experiences, and in which his reflections on politics, philosophy, love, and death also find their place. The book is divided into six parts, including a prologue and epilogue, and in several editions closes with a notebook of the author's written notes recounting its genesis.

Publius Aelius Trajan Hadrian was born in 76 CE and became emperor of Rome in 117 CE after the death of Trajan, his adopted uncle and predecessor. During his reign Hadrian strives to maintain and strengthen the Roman empire by protecting it from internal and external threats. Not only that, he proves to be a cultured and refined emperor, interested in Greek culture and philosophy, and often retires to his villa in Tibur (now Tivoli) to reflect on life and politics.

Indeed, the novel explores the complexity of Hadrian's character by showing him as a wise and sophisticated man, but also as a pragmatic and sometimes ruthless ruler when necessary. From Hadrian's own words, what were his personal struggles, doubts, and difficult choices he faced during his empire are revealed. There is a central episode in the novel that had greatly impressed Yourcenar since her early classical studies of the emperor: the love between Hadrian and Antinous, a young Greek man of extraordinary beauty who becomes the emperor's favorite. Antinous' untimely death causes deep grief for Hadrian, marking his life and leading him to reflect on death and love.


What you can learn from reading this work:

  1. Centrality of character

  2. The human and philosophical dimensions

  3. The novel as fictional tale and historical source

  4. Originality of the narrative structure: the epistle


The entire narrative of Memoirs of Hadrian is centered on a single voice, a single perspective: that of the emperor himself, who narrates himself through a letter. This mechanism allows for strong characterization, highlighting the deep and multifaceted figure of the Roman emperor. Yourcenar thus manages to really penetrate the psychology of her character by showing his thoughts, passions and ambitions, creating a realistic, complex and at the same time human portrait of a great protagonist of ancient history.

This shows how this level of characterization has not only opened up new perspectives in the portrayal of historical figures in literature, but that placing a powerful and complex figure at the center of the narrative gives the story itself the possibility of further enrichment. Indeed, it is from the exploration of the human dimension of Hadrian, an educated and thoughtful man, that the story leads to the investigation of universal themes such as political power and its management, philosophical thought, but also love, the sense of mortality and the meaning of existence that transpire from the emperor's own account of himself.

Yourcenar places before us a man who certainly had enormous power in the unfolding of the historical events that marked the greatness of the Roman empire, but she does so by starting precisely from his human condition, which belongs to everyone, investigating his deep desires as well as his darkest doubts, thus making him more realistic. The novel thus goes beyond a simple biography of Hadrian by becoming a profound philosophical analysis that transcends individual experience and becomes a reflection on the world.

Memoirs of Hadrian offers an extraordinary combination of historical realism (actual events) and literary imagination (expressed precisely in the epistolary form). Yourcenar managed to immerse herself in the historical character of Hadrian first of all by studying him, researching the sources, but she did not limit herself to a mere biographical reconstruction of the emperor. Her skill was precisely in blending precise historical facts with literary fiction that then takes the form of a novel.

This mechanism reveals two aspects: first, that underlying the decision to tell history and its protagonists is the need to document thoroughly, consult sources and verify them and then make them narrative through fiction and imagination as well; this same work, however, in turn becomes itself a document, narrative and historical source for later works that can draw from it.

Memoirs of Hadrian presents a peculiarity in its narrative form: it is written in epistolary form thus offering a unique perspective, that of Hadrian, who tells himself in the first person to the young Marcus Aurelius. This choice gives the novel a more intimate and personal voice, allowing the reader to get closer to the protagonist in a more direct and engaging way. The greatness of this novel would not have been such, however, without the prose of an author of the highest caliber such as Marguerite Yourcenar, whose style appears elegant, refined, and profound, and who will certainly allow the reader to hone her writing skills.



Memoirs of Hadrian has been a critically acclaimed novel and has been a remarkable success with the public, even among younger people who have become passionate about the events and thoughts of such a strong and complex character as Emperor Hadrian was. It has won numerous literary prizes, including the Grand Prix du roman of the Académie française in 1952, has been translated into numerous languages, and is now recognized as a masterpiece of historical literature whose paradigms it helped to create.

The history of ancient Rome has always aroused great interest among readers, but this work has managed to go further. The account of the Emperor Hadrian, as we have seen, is not limited to a mere chronicle but reveals deeper and more complex aspects that belong to the figure of the great politician, a wise and deeply human man, who still manages to engage and enthuse many readers and in whom Marguerite Yourcenar's talent and mastery shine in all their greatness.



Copyright WriTribe - All rights reserved

bottom of page