The Second Century AD can be seen, in many respects, as the high-tide mark of Imperial Rome. It was the point at which several centuries of aggressive territorial expansion effectively came to an end, and at which the Roman people themselves seem to have concluded that the benefits accruing from the stability of Imperial rule outweighed whatever nostalgic feelings they might previously have entertained for the days of the Republic.
The Second Century Emperors – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius – presided, in the words of the historian Edward Gibbon, over an empire "governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue." Nicolo Macchiavelli, who dubbed these rulers "the five good emperors," claimed that they "had no need of Praetorian Cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the goodwill of their subjects and the attachment of the Senate." This, of course, reflects an idealised picture of the period (96-180 AD), but it is perhaps not so very distant from the way in which the elite of the Roman world would themselves have seen things. It might have seemed to them that the principle of succession by adoption, consistently applied since the assassination of Domitian, had done away with the arbitrariness of birth without recourse to the unwanted encumbrance of democracy; that Plato's dream of the rule of "Philosopher-Princes" had finally been realised. It was a period, from the point of view of this elite, in which peace prevailed, prosperity triumphed and the arts flourished.
Marguerite Yourcenar was attracted to the period by a comment in Flaubert's correspondence: "Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone." For sure, the old gods of the Olympion pantheon were still honoured in ceremonies, but the extent to which people believed in them, as actual beings rather than personified ideals, is questionable. The historical Hadrian fully expected to be "deified" after his death, and indeed he was, but he has left us a poem, Animula, Vagula, Blandula (translated by Grace Frick at the every end of Memoirs of Hadrian) in which he makes it clear that he privately entertained little hope that he would be walking the heavens in the company of Jupiter and Minerva.
The intellectual landscape of the day was dominated by two philosophical systems that were both, in today's terms, humanistic: Epicureanism (which urged its adherents to fear neither the gods nor death, to understand that what is good is easy to get, and that what is terrible is easy to endure); and Stoicism (which emphasised the immortality of the soul - let nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases, let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own which perishes).
It is the intellectual, as much as the physical grandeur of the age, that Yourcenar seeks here to capture.