"Natura deficit, fortuna mutatur, deus omnia cernit." Nature fails us, fortune changes, a god beholds all things from on high: I fingered the stone of a ring on which on a day of bitter depression I had had those few sad words engraved.
Marguerite Yourcenar - Memoirs of Hadrian - Translation by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author - Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1954 - Reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000.
In 1924 Marguerite Cleenewerck de Crayencour (Yourcenar, her nom de plume, is a quasi-anagram of Crayencour), a young and rich Belgian woman in her early twenties, imbibed with classical literature, visited Villa Adriana with her father. She almost immediately decided to write a biography of Emperor Hadrian in the form of an epistolary novel mainly based on letters written by Antinous, the young lover of the emperor.
Eventually she was not satisfied with her initial draft and abandoned it in 1929. She resumed work on the book several times between 1934 and 1937. In 1939 the manuscript was left behind in Europe when she moved to the United States to escape WWII. She settled in Maine and she taught French literature and art history to earn her living. She became an America citizen in 1947.
In 1948 Yourcenar recovered a trunk containing some material she had left in Europe and she came across a forgotten fragment of her manuscript. After she read its opening sentence she felt she was now ready for narrating the life of Hadrian, but from a different perspective. She would no longer utilize fictional letters from Antinous, but would have the emperor write a long letter to Marcus Aurelius, the young man he had asked Antoninus, his designated successor, to choose as adopted son and future emperor.
Memoirs of Hadrian was published in 1951 and it granted Yourcenar immediate and lasting celebrity, which in 1980 led her to be the first woman elected to Académie Française, the highest authority on the French language. In a detailed Bibliographical Note, Yourcenar clearly stated the sources she utilized for her work, the episodes/personages of the novel which are certain, those which are likely and those which are entirely fictional.
The letter to Marcus Aurelius appears to be written from Villa Adriana, only in the last page the scene moves to the villa of Baiae near Naples, where the emperor died in 138.
It is divided into six chapters having Latin headings:
Animula Blandula Vagula is a brief introduction to the purpose of the letter; the heading is the first line of a short poem by Hadrian, which you can read in English in the last quote from the book.
Varius Multiplex Multiformis tells the life of Hadrian prior to becoming emperor; the heading is taken from a short history of Imperial Rome by Sextus Aurelius Victor where Hadrian was described as being curious about many aspects of life and having many skills.
Tellus Stabilita (Pacified Earth) covers his efforts to reach a lasting peace with the Parthians and strengthen the empire.
Saeculum Aureum (Golden Century) describes his travels and his promoting the construction of aqueducts, granaries, roads, ports, defences etc. It ends with the death of Antinous in 130.
Disciplina Augusta (Imperial Discipline) is an account of his last sad years and of the steps he took to ensure an orderly succession to the throne.
Patientia (Endurance) is a short chapter in which Hadrian discusses his imminent death.
Tellus Stabilita, Saeculum Aureum, Disciplina Augusta and Patientia (Augusti) are mottoes found on coins minted by Hadrian.
Building with Three Exedrae
In the first pages of Memoirs of Hadrian the emperor says I begin to discern the profile of my death and the book ends with him entering into death with open eyes. In order to convey the feeling of a life nearing its end, the images of Villa Adriana which illustrate this page were taken on the last day of autumn 2012 when in this part of Italy some deciduous trees have not entirely lost their foliage, but will do so in a matter of days.
Poecile (aka Poikile)
(Tellus Stabilita) The Villa was the tomb of my travels, the last encampment of the nomad, the equivalent, though in marble, of the tents and pavilions of the princes of Asia. (Disciplina Augusta) Each structure was the chart of a dream. (..) I had given each of these edifices names reminiscent of Greece: the Poecile, the Academy, the Prytaneum. I knew very well that this small valley planted with olive trees was not Tempe, but I was reaching the age when each beauteous place recalls another, fairer still, when each delight is weighted with the memory of past joys.
(Disciplina Augusta) Most important of all, in the heart of this retreat I had built for myself a refuge more private still, an islet of marble at the centre of a pool surrounded by colonnades; this gave me a room wholly apart, connected with, or rather, separated from the shore by a turning bridge so light that with one hand I could make it slide in its grooves. (..) I used to go there at the hour of siesta to sleep or to think, or to read. My dog would stretch out across the doorway, extending his paws somewhat stiff now; reflections played on the marble.
Porticoed courtyard with a fish-pond and Monte Gennaro in the background
(Disciplina Augusta) While still a private citizen I had begun to buy up and unite these lands, spread below the Sabine Hills along clear streams, with the patient tenacity of a peasant who parcel by parcel rounds out his vineyard. (..) I was coming back to it this time to end my days as reasonably as possible. Everything here was arranged to facilitate work as well as pleasure: the chancellery, the audience halls, and the court where I judged difficult cases in last appeal all saved me the tiring journeys between Tibur and Rome.
(Animula Blandula Vagula) I go but rarely to the City now; once there I try to accomplish as much as possible. The day had been disagreeably full: a session at the Senate had been followed by a session in court, and by an interminable discussion with one of the quaestors; then by a religious ceremony which could not be cut short, and upon which it steadily rained. (..) The return on horseback was one of my last trips of the kind. I reached the villa sickened and chilled as we are only when the blood actually refuses, and no longer works in our veins. (..) Retiring to my apartment I swallowed a few spoonfuls of a hot broth which I prepare myself, not out of suspicion, as is surmised, but because I thus procure for myself the luxury of being alone.
Greek Library, actually a banqueting hall
(Disciplina Augusta) The Villa was near enough completion to have my collections transported to it, my musical instruments and the several thousand books purchased here and there in the course of my travels. I gave a series of banquets where everything was assembled with care, both the menu for the repasts and the somewhat restricted list of my guests. My goal was to have all in harmony with the calm beauty of these gardens and these halls, to have fruits as exquisite as the music, and the sequence of courses as perfect as the chasing (engraving) on the silver plates.
Praetorium, one of the tallest buildings at Villa Adriana
(Tellus Stabilita) From the nights of my childhood (..) my curiosity for the world of spheres has not abated. In the watches of camp life I looked with wonder at the moon as it raced through the clouds of barbarian skies. (..) In mid-Aegean, lying flat on the deck of a ship, I have followed the slow oscillation of the mast as it moved among the stars, swaying first from the red eye of Taurus to the tears of the Pleiades, then from Pegasus to the Swan. (..) I know exactly, at the hour of this writing, what stars are passing here at Tibur above this stuccoed and painted ceiling; and elsewhere, far away, over a tomb.
(Tellus Stabilita) In my twenty years of rule I have passed twelve without fixed abode. In succession I occupied palatial homes of Asiatic merchants, sober Greek houses, handsome villas in Roman Gaul provided with baths and hot air heat, or mere huts and farms. (..) Few men enjoy prolonged travel; it disrupts all habit and endlessly jolts each prejudice. But I was striving to have no prejudices and few habits. I welcomed the delight of a soft bed, but liked also the touch and smell of bare earth. (..) I was well inured to all kinds of food, whether British gruel or African watermelon. (..) I must here admit what I have told to no one else: I have never had a feeling of belonging wholly to any one place, not even to my beloved Athens, nor even to Rome. Though a foreigner in every land, in no place did I feel myself a stranger.
Piazza d'Oro (Golden Square so named because excavations here brought rich finds)
(Disciplina Augusta) I admitted that it was indeed vain to hope for an eternity for Athens and for Rome which is accorded neither to objects nor men, and which the wisest among us deny even to the gods. (..) Our feeble efforts to ameliorate man's lot would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in what is good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters; what had seemed to us wise would be pointless for them, what we had found beautiful they would abominate. (..) I could see the return of barbaric codes, of implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally prey to insecurity. (..) Our epoch, the faults and limitations of which I knew better than anyone else, would perhaps be considered one day, by contrast, as one of the golden ages of man.
Imperial Palace and a murmuration of starlings
(Patientia) Not all our books will perish, nor our statues, if broken, lie unrepaired; other domes and other pediments will arise from our domes and pediments; some few men will think and work and feel as we have done, and I venture to count upon such continuators, placed irregularly throughout the centuries, and upon this kind of intermittent immortality.
Greek Theatre which because of its northern location in the Vale of Tempe was partially covered with frost and had already a wintry aspect
(Patientia - final paragraph) 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 ...
(1958 Reflection on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian) By an error seldom committed in Italy certain dubious "embellishments" have followed in the wake of excavations and necessary repairs. (..) Still more plaster graces the canal; casts of the garden statues found here in recent diggings have been placed on pedestals and lined up somewhat arbitrarily along its banks; the originals, fairly average Graeco-Roman work, do not deserve the honour of so conspicuous a position, but neither do they merit the indignity of being copied in such hideous material, both swollen and unsubstantial. This new décor gives to the once melancholy Canopus something of the air of a studio set, ready for a film version of "life in Imperial Rome".
Wall of Poecile
(Final Reflection on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian) Once more I have gone back to the Villa, to its garden pavilions built for privacy and for repose, to the vestiges of a luxury free of pomp, and as little imperial as possible, conceived of rather for the wealthy connoisseur who tries to combine the pleasures of art with the charms of rural life. (..) But I have ceased to feel the immediate presence of those beings, the living reality of those events; they are near me still, but of the past, neither more nor less now than the memories of my own life. Our commerce with others does not long endure; it ceases once satisfaction is obtained, the lessons learned, the service rendered, the book complete. What I could say has been said; what I could learn has been learned. Let us turn, for the time that is left to us, to other work.
The image in the background of this page is based on a statue of Antinous as Osiris from Villa Adriana at the Vatican Museums.
Other Days of Peace pages:
At the Flea Market
A Sunny Day in Villa Borghese
At the Beach
Voicing Your Views and feeling better!
A visit to Roseto di Roma
Christmas in Rome
Celebrating the Foundation of Rome
The procession of La Madonna de Noantri
Running the Marathon
Watching the Parade
Finding Solace at the Protestant Cemetery
Attending 2007 July Events
Rome's Sleepless Night
Attending Winter Ceremonies
Attending a Funeral ...and enjoying it!
Jogging at Valle delle Camene
Sailing on the River to see the Bridges of Roma
An October Outing to Marino
A Special Spring Weekend
Embassy-hunting in Parioli
Celebrating Eritrean Michaelmas in Rome
Visiting Rome at Dawn
Visiting Rome in the Moonlight
Visiting Rome on a Hop-on-Hop-off Bus
Visiting Multi-ethnic Rome
Playing in the Snow at the Janiculum
Watching the Pride Parade
Visiting the Movie Sets at Cinecittà
Looking up at the Ceilings of the Vatican Palaces
Reading Seneca at the Baths
Spending the Last Roman Day at St. John Lateran's Cloister
Reading Ovid at St. Peter's
Walking the Dog at Valle della Caffarella