Power Embodied: Memoirs of Hadrian

Three heads of Hadrian
Three heads of Hadrian
Ellie Posner/Israel Museum

“For my part I have sought liberty more than power, and power only because it can lead to freedom. What interested me was not a philosophy of the free man … but a technique: I hoped to discover the hinge where our will meets and moves with destiny[.]” Thus reflects Hadrian in Marguerite Yourcenar’s acclaimed novel Memoirs of Hadrian. With uncanny psychological verisimilitude, the French-American author channels the inner life of the dying emperor in the form of letters to his eventual successor, Marcus Aurelius. In his description of the mental life of Rome in the second century A.D. and assessment of his life’s successes and failures, Hadrian poses questions that haunt us today: What is the relationship between power and freedom, and between freedom and will? Is love a threat to freedom?

Hadrian’s own autobiography was lost, but the extent of his power is writ in stone. The Pantheon, temples in Rome, Greece and Jerusalem, and Hadrian’s Wall are just a few of his projects that transformed the empire. With Yourcenar’s The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays, we will consider Hadrian’s enduring influence on architecture as a means of civic engagement. Piranesi’s engravings of ruins fuel the author’s vision of Hadrian’s Rome and our emotional connection with antiquity. Through slide-shows of Piranesi’s work, images of Greek and Roman architecture, and paintings of city views by artists such as Canaletto, we will explore the power of architecture in political and aesthetic contexts.

Pressed to account for her intense identification with a long-dead Roman ruler, Yourcenar said, “Every being who has gone through the adventure of living is myself.” Following her illustrious lead, prepare for a bracing journey not only back, but also inward.

To learn more, read Betty Ann’s blog post Destiny, Realpolitik, and the Will to Power.

“I desired the supreme power … that I might put my own plans into effect, try my remedies, and restore peace. I wanted it above all
in order to become my full self before I died.”

Memoirs of Hadrian


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Betty Ann Jordan is the founder of Art InSite cultural tours and an arts commentator living in Toronto. Haunted the first time she read Memoirs of Hadrian, she remains fascinated by its intimate yet grand portrait of power. And who can look at Piranesi’s engravings of decaying Roman architecture without feeling a frisson of sublime awe and horror?

Participants are required to obtain the specified edition in order to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, trans. Grace Frick
(Penguin, 1986)
ISBN-13: 978-0140087642

The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays by Marguerite Yourcenar, trans. Richard Howard
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984)
ISBN-13: 978-0374519193

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