Just this morning, I began thinking what I might like to do if I were all-powerful and unconstrained by natural laws. It occurred to me that such expansive capabilities would open up an endless array of possibilities, options so utterly infinite that it would seem impossible to select just one. And then it hit me. If I were all-powerful and unconstrained by natural laws, I wouldn’t have to select just one thing. I could do it all. For some reason, that realization didn’t ease the tension. It seemed to exacerbate it, making my selection of the first thing I would do seem ever so important. With that as a prelude to the quandary of making my selection, here it goes: I would temporarily assume the personage of Publius Aelius Hadrianus Augustus, that is Hadrian, of Hadrian’s Wall fame. I would experience his life, up until he became chronically ill, with the aim of learning for myself what it is like to be an emperor. Included among the core objective is an interest in knowing whether writings about his life and times are accurate. I’ve often wondered whether “historical” accounts of periods of time centuries before the invention of the printing press should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.
I don’t know, or certainly don’t remember, much about Hadrian or, for that matter, his wall. I do know of him and it, of course, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. Before I become the man, I’d like to read considerably more about his experiences. I’d like to go into the process of being him with more than a cursory understanding of what I’m getting myself into. I vaguely recall that he was said to have arranged the murders (or was it state-sanctioned death sentences?) of at least two (or possibly more) senators who opposed him. I’d like to know more about that before I merge with the man’s physical and mental states. And I might like to read the English translation (the original was written in French) of Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar. Although the book is a novel, I would be curious to compare the reality of what I find during my experience as Hadrian with the book. I learned this morning that the book takes the form of letters from Hadrian to his successor, Marcus Aurelius. The book was written in the early 1950s, so I might find it hard to get my hands on a copy. But wait! I’ve forgotten that I’m all-powerful and unconstrained by natural laws! Surely I can lay my hands on a copy of the book. If not, I should be able to simply cause it to leap out of my printer, page by page.
Among the most obvious differences between life today and life during Hadrian’s time would be the lack of many of the amenities to which we have grown accustomed. Things like electricity, plumbing, refrigeration, motorized transportation, telecommunication, etc., etc., etc. I suppose I could avail myself of those amenities during my utter takeover of the man’s experience, but availing myself of such privileges would rob me of the genuine experience, wouldn’t it? Again, with my limitless range of power and freedom from natural laws, I should be able to have my cake and eat it, too, shouldn’t I? Hmm. This dilemma is a little like Schrödenger’s cat, doesn’t it? You know, the issue involving an interpretation of quantum mechanics in which the cat can be simultaneously alive and dead? Yeah, I know, this is not that, but to experience and not experience something at the same time is in theoretical kinship with the unfortunate feline. At least I think so.
Some of this wild drivel spilling from my fingers has story-telling potential. I know none of it is in finished form, but it has some potential. Maybe. Of course, if I were all-powerful and unconstrained by natural laws I could simply will it so. But that might remove the challenge from the situation, mightn’t it? Therein resides the simultaneous attraction of supernatural power and its ruinous nature. I suspect the ability to will anything to happen or to be would soon result in one’s decision to will oneself back to an existence as a simple, struggling human. But I have not way of testing that theory, as much as I’d like to have the capability of doing so.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to be in a position to communicate in advance with Hadrian so that, between the two of us, we could arrange for a switch? That is, he’d take over my experience for a time and I’d take over his. At the end of the period, we’d revert back to our original existences and, then, compare notes. I wonder how Hadrian would characterize his time as John Swinburn? And I’m curious to know how I would characterize my experience as Hadrian? Both of us would have to instantly understand a language with which we are utterly unfamiliar. I can say with certainty that Hadrian would have to become immediately fluent in modern-day English. But am I absolutely certain that Hadrian spoke Latin? Isn’t it possible the he spoke some other language, even though the official language of the empire was Latin? We have no way of knowing, at least not with certainty. I’d have to go into the transfer with faith that I’d be able to get by with my Latin.
I’d also have to know, or learn, some really fundamental stuff about Roman hygiene. What about my dependence on toilet paper? How would I cope without it? And the food…what, exactly, constituted a Roman emperor’s diet in Hadrian’s time? Lots and lots of questions. Before I make the switch, I’ll have to do quite a lot of reading.