Before moving from the UK to Rome, my main impression of the Emperor Hadrian was ‘the one that built the wall’. But even walking along that far-flung boundary of the Roman Empire, it never occurred to me to wonder much about the then ruler of that empire, whose name lives on as a significant part of the British countryside.
On arrival in Rome, it’s hard to miss the huge drum-shaped construction by the Tiber close to the Vatican, the Castel Sant’ Angelo. Subsequently a fortress and a stronghold of the popes, this edifice was in fact constructed on the orders of Hadrian, who wanted a mausoleum to rival that of the revered Emperor Augustus, further along the river. After this glimpse of the ambitions of Hadrian, his modestly named countryside residence, the Villa Adriana / Hadrian’s Villa, comes as slightly less of a surprise.
Hadrian’s Villa was a sprawling complex in the countryside at Tivoli, not far from Rome. Complete with theatre, stadium, lakes, temples, baths and gardens, the scale of the palace is remarkable. The ruins are extensive, and the site is a popular daytrip destination from Rome.
A combination of these architectural legacies served to stimulate interest in the Emperor. What sort of a man was Hadrian?
Marguerite Yourcenar, who was herself a fascinating character, obviously felt an overwhelming curiosity and empathy that led her to write her classic ‘autobiography’ of Hadrian. Through a combination of academic research and vivid imagination, an unforgettable character emerges on the pages of ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’.
Hadrian was a soldier, adopted by an Emperor, who became ruler of the world’s mightiest empire. A thinker as well as a man of action, and capable of great sentiment as well as great deeds, an administrator with philosophical leanings.
The Hadrian given breath by Yourcenar is so credible, and so appealing, that at times it’s hard to remember that her creation is a fictional character. She blends historical fact together with convincing recreation skilfully and vividly. If Hadrian wasn’t really like the man portrayed by Yourcenar, then, one feels, he should have been.
Hadrian sites: the Villa Adriana at Tivoli, Hadrian’s huge villa built in the countryside near Rome; the Castel Sant’ Angelo in the heart of Rome, which was originally built by the Emperor as his mausoleum by the Tiber.