Page 155. " All the sacred Mysteries of Asia "

Yourcenar's Hadrian refers to a number of religious cults that were in existence in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The mysteries of the "cabiri" (or "cabeiri"), for example, on Samothrace, are believed to have a pre-Greek origin, and involved dedications to deities whose names were known only to initiates. The cult of Trophonius was centered around a cave at Labadaea in Boetia, and is mentioned by Pausanias in his Description of Greece 9, 39 - Secrecy, fear and ordeal were common elements of these cults, regarded by the Romans with a mixture of fascination and suspicion.

Page 157. " Phlegon, who was a collector of stories "

Phlegon of Tralles was one of Hadrian's freedmen, whose work "On Marvels" does include a collection of ghost stories. One of these, "The Bride of Corinth," considered by some to be among the world's first vampire stories, was later adapted as a poem by Goethe. An English translation of both Goethe's poem and Phlegon's original is available at:

It tells the story of a young man tricked into a sexual union with the spirit of a dead girl.

Page 158. " I went to offer sacrifice, as in other years, on the summit of Mount Casius "

"Mount Casius" is the modern Mount Aqraa (in Turkey, close to the border with Syria). It is referred to as "Zaphon" in the Bible and was known as "Hazzi" by the Hurrians and Hittites, for whom it was sacred to the storm-god, Teshub.


Mount Aqra
Creative Commons AttributionMount Aqra - Credit: Anthiok

Page 159. " In his dread of degradation, that is to say, of growing old, he must have promised himself long ago to die at the first sign of decline "

The death of Antinous, during the course of his Egyptian journey with Hadrian, remains one of the great mysteries of the ancient world. It may have been a tragic accident, or he may have committed suicide, or he might have been murdered by someone in their entourage who was jealous of the favours granted to him by Hadrian. Yourcenar here adopts the suicide explanation. 

Page 161. " The lion was supposed to come there at dusk to drink. "

The lion-hunt undertaken by Hadrian and Antinous was described in a contemporary poem by Pancrates of Heliopolis, supsequently quoted in the Deipnosophistai of Athenaeus (XV, 677), the text of which is available, in English translation, at A fragment of what may be Pancrates's original is included in Volume 8 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri:

This is an extract of the Oxyrhynchus fragment;

…swifter than the steed of Adrastus, that once saved its master easily, when he was fleeing through the press of battle. On such a horse Antinous awaited the manslaying lion; in his left hand he held the bridle-rein, in his right a spear tipped with adamant. Hadrian was first to shoot forth his bronze spear; he wounded, but slew it not, for it was his intent to miss the animal, wishing to test to the full how straight the other aimed—he, lovely Antinous, son of the slayer of Argus [Hermes]. Stricken, the beast was yet more aroused; with his paws he tore the rough ground in anger; forth rose a cloud of dust, and dimmed the sunlight. He raged like a wave of the surging sea, when the West wind is awakened after the wind from Strymon [Boreas, the North Wind]. Lightly upon both he leapt, and scourged his haunches and sides with his tail, with his own dark whip…His eyes flashed dreadful fire beneath the brows; he sent forth a shower of foam from his ravening jaws to the ground, while his fangs gnashed within. From his massive head and shaggy neck the mane rose and quivered; from his other limbs it fell bushy as trees; on his back it was…like whetted spear points. In such guise he went against the glorious god Antinous, like Typhoeus of old against Zeus the Giant-Killer….


Page 162. " My favourite musician, Mesomodes of Crete, used the water organ to accompany the recitation of his poem "


Musicians playing the water organ (hydraulis) and trumpet (salpinx). Ceramic figure of the 1st Century BC from Alexandria, now in The Louvre.
Creative Commons AttributionMusicians playing the water organ (hydraulis) and trumpet (salpinx). Ceramic figure of the 1st Century BC from Alexandria, now in The Louvre. - Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen



Page 163. " In the midst of these pleasures the empress arrived "

It is known that, despite her estrangement from Hadrian, and the presence of Antinous, the Empress Vibia Sabina travelled with the Emperor's party on the journey through Egypt. With her was a travelling companion, the poetess Julia Balbilla, a member of the exiled royal family of Commagene (Armenia) with links to both the Seleucid and Ptolomeic royal lines. The four epigrams which make up the totality of Balbilla's surviving works were inscriped on a much earlier Egyptian statue, one of the "Colossi" of Memnon. They are written in the Aolic Greek used by Sappho eight centuries previously, and praise both Hadrian and Sabina. Balbilla's presence alongside Sabina, together with her admiration for the poetry of Sappho (evident from the metre of her own poetry) have led some to speculate on the possibility of a lesbian relationship between the two women, mirroring Hadrian's own passion for Antinous. The four epigrams are reproduced below:


Memnon the Egyptian I learnt, when warned by the rays of the sun,

Speaks from Theban stone.

When he saw Hadrian, the king of all, before rays of the sun

He greeted him - as far as he was able.

But when the Titan driving through the heavens with his steeds of white

Brought into shadow the second measure of hours,

Like ringing bronze Memnon again sent out his voice

Sharp-toned; he sent out his greeting and for a third time a mighty-roar.

The Emperor Hadrian then himself bid welcome to

Memnon and left on stone for generations to come

this inscription recounting all that he saw and all that he heard.

It was clear to all that the gods love him.



When with the August Sabina I stood before Memnon

Memnon, son of Aurors and holy Tithon,

seated before Thebes, city of Zeus,

Or Amenoth, Egyptian King, as learned

Priests recount from ancient stories,

Greetings, and singing, welcome her kindly,

The august wife of the Emperor Hadrian.

A barbarian man cut off your tongue and ears,

Impious Cambyses; but he paid the penalty,

With a wretched death struck by the same sword point

With which pitiless he slew the divine Apis.

But I do not believe that this statue of yours will perish,

I saved your immortal spirit forever with my mind.

For my parents were noble, and my grandfathers,

The wise Balbillus and Antiochus the king.




Son of Aurora, I greet you. For you addressed me kindly,

Memnon, for the sake of the Pierides, who care for me,

song-loving Demo. And bearing a pleasant gift,

my lyre will always sing of your strength, holy one.



For pious were my parents and grandfathers: Balbillus the Wise and King

Antiochus; Balbillus, the father of my mother of royal blood and king

Antiochus, the father of my father. From their line I too draw my noble

blood, and these verses are mine, pious Balbilla.



Page 163. " We visited together everything to be visited in Alexandria "

The lighthouse (or Pharos) of Alexandria was, at the time, one of the tallest man-made structures on Earth, and was one of the seven "wonders of the world." Built between 280 and 247 BC, it stood into the Middle Ages, being badly damaged by earthquakes between 956 and 1323 AD. Recent work by the French archaeologist, Jean-Yves L'Empereur, has revealed remnants of the lighthouse beneath the harbour (


Roman coins, depicting the Pharos of Alexandria.
GNU Free Documentation LicenseRoman coins, depicting the Pharos of Alexandria. - Credit: Ginolerhino
Pharos of Abusir, a funerary monument believed to have been styled on the Pharos of Alexandria
GNU Free Documentation LicensePharos of Abusir, a funerary monument believed to have been styled on the Pharos of Alexandria - Credit: Gene Poole

The Mausoleum of Alexander the Great, though certainly still visible in Hadrian's time, is now lost, as is the Mausoleum of Antony and Cleopatra (archaeologists Zahi Hawass and Kathleen Martinez were investigating a site at Taposiris Magna which they thought might be the location of the mausoleum, but these investigations have been discontinued, at least for the moment, as a result of the recent political upheavals in Egypt).

Page 170. " I crossed the river to Hermopolis "

Hermopolis is the ancient town of Khmun, sacred to the Egyptian god Thoth, renamed after Hermes, since both are gods of magic and of writing. The modern name of the town is Al-Ashmunein.

The Egyptian God, Thoth.
GNU Free Documentation LicenseThe Egyptian God, Thoth. - Credit: Hajor

Page 171. " Antinoopolis was to be born "

Little remains of Hadrian's Antinoopolis (modern Sheikh 'Ibada), which sat on the Nile, almost opposite Hermopolis.

Page 171. " with a wild motion, both mad and tender "

In her essay, "Tone and Language in Historical Fiction" (reproduced in a volume of Yourcenar's essays translated by Walter Kaiser under the title of That Mighty Sculptor, Time - Noonday Press), Marguerite Yourcenar expresses some ambiguity in relation to this passage.

"Eight words refused to be written in Greek; they could have been written a bit more easily in Latin, a language which already underscores emotions as ours does. But in which language had I imagined that Hadrian, who was bilingual, was dictating his Memoirs to me? No doubt sometimes in Latin and sometimes in Greek - which gave me a certain freedom. Yet there are moments where, inadvertently, I caused him to speak the French of my day, and these eight words seem to me, as I reread them, to constitute such a moment. The reader will ask why I do not, then, remove them. Because the impression, if not the expression, seems authentic to is right to let inexactitude play its part, and even to welcome the enrichments it may bring us. On condition, of course, that that part should be as small as possible."

Page 173. " They landed us near the Colossus "

There are, in fact, two Colossi, both statues of the Pharoah Amenhotep III (reigned either 1386-1349 BC or 1388-1350 BC), and originally part of his mortuary temple. It is on the foot of one of these statues that Julia Balbilla's poems are inscribed. The association with Memnon (an African prince who went to the aid of the besieged Trojans, and was slain by Achilles) is a later one, and may arise from the sound which was said to issue forth from one of the statues at dawn (Memnon's name means "Ruler of the Dawn"). Strabo stated that this sound was "like a blow," whilst Pausanias compared it to the song of a lyre. It may have been caused by friction between one part of a statue and another, following earthquake damage in 27 BC.


The Colossi of Memnon
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeThe Colossi of Memnon - Credit: Roweromaniak