Hadrian, the enlightened pre-enlightenment leader?

level02_hadrianMarguerite Yourcenar’s wonderful novel Memoirs of Hadrian takes the form of a personal memoir written for the future Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius by the emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) as he faces death.

The book is a brilliant portrayal of a leader who seems to be shaped by enlightenment ideas although his rule predates what we generally describe as the western enlightenment by over 1,500 years. Yourcenar’s research was meticulous and she read every contemporary source she could get hold of. Nevertheless, we are clearly seeing the modernity of Hadrian’s thinking through a 20th century lens.

The section which best captures his vision and methods as a ruler is Tellus Stabilita (the stable Earth). The chapter opens as the successful military strategist Hadrian finally succeeds the emperor Trajan following a deathbed adoption. His first task is to achieve peace in Mesopotamia on the eastern edge of the empire and put an end to Trajan’s expansionism which threatens to ruin Rome.

During Trajan’s disastrous military campaign in Parthia, trade with the East has seized up and Hadrian takes great pleasure in seeing it start up again. He can see that trade is a form of ‘soft power’, promoting cultural exchange which benefits both Rome and its trading partners:

“A few months after the great crisis I had the joy of seeing the line of caravans re-form on the banks of the Orontes; the oases were again the resort of merchants exchanging news in the glow of their evening fires, each morning repacking along with their goods for transportation to lands unknown a certain number of thoughts, words and customs genuinely our own, which little by little would take possession of the globe more securely than can advancing legions. The circulation of gold and the passage of ideas (as subtle as that of vital air in the arteries) were beginning again within the world’s great body; earth’s pulse began to beat once more.”

Hadrian realises that Rome needs to adapt to survive by promoting a set of universal values; Humanitas, Libertas, Felicitas (Humanity, Liberty and happiness) as well as a transferable model of governance rather than by imposing rigid uniformity on all its provinces.

“Virtues which had sufficed for the small city of the Seven Hills would have to grow less rigid and more varied if they were to meet the needs of all the earth.”

“I promised myself to save this Rome of mine from the petrification of a Thebes, a Babylon or a Tyre. She would no longer be bound by her body of stone, but would compose for herself from the words state, citizenry and republic a surer immortality.”

He cannot imagine slavery ever being abolished but says prophetically:

“I can well imagine forms of servitude worse than our own, because more insidious, whether they transform men into stupid, complacent machines who believe themselves free just when they are most subjugated, or whether to the exclusion of leisure and pleasures essential to man they develop a passion for work as violent as the passion for war among barbarous races.”

He hasn’t got the words to advocate greater equality but takes measures to redistribute wealth:

“One part of our ills comes from the fact that too many men are shamefully rich and too many desperately poor…everything is still to be done for the intelligent reorganization of world economy.”

He bemoans the waste of rich landowners neglecting to cultivate their fields and requires any land which has not been used for 5 years to be transferred to the farmer who plans to cultivate it. He also has little time for ostentiatious philanthropy and prefers to invest in public services and community development:

“Most of our rich men make enormous gifts to the State, to public institutions and the emperor, many do this for their own interest…nearly all gain thereby in the end. I should have preferred to see their generosity take other forms than that of ostentation in alms, and to teach them to augment their possessions wisely in the interest of the community as they had done hitherto for the enrichment of their children…no one has the right to treat the earth so unproductively as the miser does his pot of gold.”

He promotes what would today be called worker co-operatives:

“I was counting most of all on the organization of the producers themselves, the vineyard owners in Gaul and the fishermen in the Black Sea (whose miserable pittance is devoured by importers of caviar and salt fish, middlemen battening on the produce of those dangerous labours). One of my best days was the one on which I persuaded a group of seamen from the Archipelago to join in a single corporation in order to deal directly with retailers in the towns.”

Yourcenar presents Hadrian as the experienced soldier who knows war and therefore prefers peace. As a result of his many visits to the empire’s military outposts he conceives a vision of the army as a kind of ‘peace corps’, well integrated in its communities. This develops into a vision of the ‘unity in diversity’ of his multicultural empire:

“There I found, in the rough, that diversity in unity which I sought for the empire as a whole…my aim was to make use of these military centres as levers of civilization, as wedges strong enough to enter in little by little just where the more delicate instruments of civil life would have been blunted.”

Yourcenar also shows us a Hadrian who see himself as a functionary rather than a Caesar. He is building a modern state which requires skilled and trustworthy functionaries; a civil service:

“One portion of my life and my travels has been passed in choosing the administrative heads of a new bureaucracy, in training them, in matching them as judiciously as I could the talents to the posts…In time of crisis these bureaus, if well organised, will go on with what must be done.”

Nevertheless, he recognises the danger of these armies of bureaucrats:

“…it can be stated in a word; the fatal increase of routine. The mechanism, wound up for centuries to come, will run awry if we do not watch out; the master must constantly regulate its movements, foreseeing and repairing the effects of wear.”

Hadrian is passionate about building cities and creating new communities and public assets and sees these as passing on a legacy as well building on tradition:

“To build is to collaborate with earth, to put a human mark upon a landscape, modifying it forever thereby..The founding of libraries was like constructing more public granaries, amassing reserves against a spiritual winter which…I see ahead.

“To reconstruct is to collaborate with time gone by, penetrating or modifying its spirit and carrying it towards a longer future.”

He feels responsible for sustaining and increasing the beauty of the world:

“I wanted the cities to be splendid, spacious and airy…I desired that the might and majesty of the Roman Peace should extend to all, insensibly present like the music of the revolving skies…in a world well ordered, the philosophers should have their place, and the dancers also.”

Recalling the words of the Spartan ideal: Strength, Justice, the Muses, Hadrian expands on them:

“Strength was the basis, discipline without which there is no beauty, and firmness without which there is no justice. Justice was the balance of the parts; that whole so harmoniously composed which no excess should be permitted to endanger. Strength and justice together were but one instrument, well-tuned, in the hands of the Muses. All forms of dire poverty and brutality were things to forbid as insults to the fair body of mankind, every injustice a false note to avoid in the harmony of the spheres.”

Tellus Stabilita is the core of this engrossing story of a very human emperor learning to rule wisely while also learning about himself. This chapter can be read as a handbook for leadership to match Macchiavelli’s The Prince, written over 400 years before. If not exactly a philosopher king, Hadrian is both philosophical and pragmatic. For Macchiavelli, he was one of the ‘five good emperors’ and Yourcenar shows his concerns pre-figuring those of today.

Hadrian’s vocabulary of values may not include all three of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, let alone ‘democracy’, but he is expressing their predecessors and laying the groundwork for their future articulation.

I recommend this chapter and, of course, the whole book.

See also:

Seneca in Corsica (August 2014)


Penguin yourcenar

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
This entry was posted in Culture, Fiction, History, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Hadrian, the enlightened pre-enlightenment leader?

  1. Ian Ashman says:

    Thanks Eddie, you’ve added to my holiday reading list!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s