In a long letter to his successor Marcus Aurelius, the old emperor Hadrian, sick and close to death, tells the story of his life, his intense presence on Earth, over which he left traces from Scotland to Iran. Born in Spain, Hadrian is taken at a a very young age to study in Rome and Athens, where he falls in love with all things Greek. Actually he would do much to re-hellenize Rome. Then comes military life in Orient (what we call now the Middle East) and Panonia (roughly Hungary-Czech Rep.), where he acquires and comes to appreciate military values. After Hadrian is made governor of Syria, Emperor Trajan dies and appoints him as his successor. His reign begins, against his will, with the murders of four enemies. Hadrian stops Trajan reckless expansionist wars and consolidates the Empire at its highest point in wealth, power and size. Then come the happy years, when he wanders the Empire, governing and enjoying the company of his young and beloved Antinoo, who would suffer a tragic death. At an old age, he retires to his villa in Tibur, where he supposedly writes the long letter that forms this most engaging book.
This masterpiece creates a living human being, one who transmits greatness, intelligence, cultivation, sensitivity and unique statesmanship abilities (not so common these days). Hadrian is, of course, a man with a big ego (how to be Emperor of Rome and not have one?), yet he is anything but vain or naïve about himself. He does not swallow the tale about emperors' divinity: he knows himself to be mortal, vulnerable and his religiosity is vague and sober. He learns to know Man. He abhors the Coloseum carnages, but shows up because he understands their role in alleviating the people's lives.
The abundant lamentations over Antinoo are not very enticing for non-homosexual readers, but they are critical in revealing Hadrian's vulnerable side and consequently help humanize him.
Full of memorable sentences, this book runs like water. The years and years of research and meditation aren't felt, since the prose is rich, fluid and terse, which is one of the major merits of this great book.