Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Historical Novels of Rome

Memoirs of HadrianMemoirs of Hadrian 
by Marguerite Yourcenar

“The true birthplace is that wherein for the first time one looks intelligently upon oneself; my first homelands have been books, and to a lesser degree schools.” 

“He had reached that moment in life, different for each one of us, when a man abandons himself to his demon or to his genius, following a mysterious law which bids him either to destroy or outdo himself.”   ― Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian

In 1951 Jules Romains, commenting on the most recent work by Marguerite Yourcenar, said that she had a writing style "of near constant perfection and felicity". He was referring to her novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, and more than fifty years later all I can do is concur and add a few more superlatives to describe my reaction to Yourcenar's novel. This is an unique historical novel in the form of a memoir. It is the story of the traditions of Rome and how a great man - an historical figure and superior to many if not most of the leaders of Rome - led the empire in an era when it was near the beginning of its centuries-long decline.
She captures the spirit of one of the truly great Roman emperors. Hadrian was a builder, a dreamer and a spiritual man with a particular eye for youthful male beauty. The aesthetics of the all-powerful emperor are mirrored in Ms. Yourcenar's prose with felicitous results. She has a style that is at once aphoristic and philosophical. You are encouraged to think about the characters and their actions.
All this and more is expressed in the flawless prose of Ms. Yourcenar. With her other works, especially The Abyss, Alexis, Coup de Grace and Fires, she created an oeuvre that is a reader's delight. One of my favorite authors.

Quo VadisQuo Vadis 
by Henryk Sienkiewicz

"Life is a great treasure. I have taken the most precious jewels from that treasure, but in life there are many things which I cannot endure any longer. Do not suppose, I pray, that I am offended because thou didst kill thy mother, thy wife, and thy brother; that thou didst burn Eome and send to Erebus all the honest men in thy dominions. No, grandson of Chronos. Death is the inheritance of man; from thee other deeds could not have been expected. But to destroy one's ear for whole years with thy poetry, to see thy belly of a Domitius on slim legs whirled about in a Pyrrhic dance; to hear thy music, thy declamation, thy doggerel verses, wretched poet of the suburbs, — is a thing surpassing my power, and it has roused in me the wish to die."  ― Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis 

Near the end of Quo Vadis Petronius (Arbiter) writes a letter in reply to his nephew Vicinius who has fled Rome with his bride, Ligia. In the letter Petronius discusses his philosophy and his fate contrasting it with the Christian belief that Vicinius has accepted. He says:

"There are only two philosophers that I care about, Pyrrho and Anacreon. You know what they stand for. The rest, along with the new Greek schools and all the Roman Stoics, you can have for the price of beans. Truth lives somewhere so high that even the gods can't see it from Olympus."(QV, p. 566)

It is interesting to note that Pyrrho is noted for a philosophy of skepticism that claims the impossibility of knowledge. For him our own ignorance or doubt should induce us to withdraw into ourselves, avoiding the stress and emotion which belong to the contest of vain imaginings. This theory of the impossibility of knowledge suggests a sort of agnosticism and its ethical implications may be compared with the ideal tranquility of the Stoics and Epicureans (who were more popular among Romans). This certainly contrasts with the Christian spiritual view that emphasizes belief in the supernatural. It is a philosophy that, at least for Petronius, lets him face death unequivocally with a sort of stoicism that provides a potent example in opposition to the Christian view. It also is an example of the breadth of beliefs shown by Sienkiewicz in his portrayal of the culture and character of the Roman world.

This contrast of philosophies underlies the novel and made it more interesting to me than the simple love story that it also presents. In Quo Vadis we are presented with an historical novel of depth that shows us the corruption and depravity of Nero's Rome while it presents the worlds of aesthetics and skepticism represented by Petronius and that of the young Christian sect whose believers include Peter and Paul, of biblical fame, and Ligia, the barbarian princess who becomes the focus of young Vicinius' amour. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the nineteenth century had several writers (Bulwer-Lytton, Kingsley, and Wallace) including Sienkiewicz who reacted to the prevalence of anti-christian views among the romantics (Shelley, et. al.). This is seen in the pronounced admiration for the poor Christians and the sensational nature of the culmination of the story involving the Neronic destruction of many of the Christians in terrifically brutal games. In spite of this Sienkiewicz through vivid detail creates a believable historical setting for his love story; and overcoming his biased portrayal of the Christians and the contrast with the irrationality and evil of Nero, he succeeds in telling a moving and thoughtful portrayal of Rome in the first century A.D.

Goodreads Updates


Brian Joseph said...

These look to have been two great books to read together. Both books seem that the sort of stuff that I would really like

In particular the philosophies and contrasting thought systems in Quo Vadis sound like that book is a feast for the curious mind.

James said...

Thanks for your observations. When I read Quo Vadis I was a bit surprised I did not expect that depth of philosophical background. That made it better than the average historical novel.