How I wrote Verissimus

A Graphic Novel About the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius

Donald J. Robertson
Oct 6, 2020 · 14 min read
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Teaser poster for the graphic novel. Copyright D. Robertson.

I’ve been immersed in writing a graphic novel about the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius for the past couple of years now.

I get lots of questions about the project so I’ve decided to finally break my silence and write about the whole experience of creating Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. From what I’ve learned, people approach writing comics and graphic novels in lots of different ways. This article is about how we went about things and what our experience has been like so far.

The book will be available in roughly a year’s time, published by St. Martin’s Press. It’s going to be about 250 pages, full colour. The illustrator, Ze Nuno Fraga, has just started inking and colouring the pages. So I figured it was a good time to pause and reflect on the experience as we’ve reached a crucial stage.

We chose the working title Verissimus. At first it seemed a bit obscure and puzzled people but as the months passed I noticed that it had caught on. Everyone remembered it; so we kept it. One of the Roman histories tells us that as a child Marcus Aurelius was nicknamed Verissimus by his adoptive grandfather, the emperor Hadrian. It’s an odd nickname. Marcus’ family name was Verus, meaning “True” and Verissimus is a play on this, meaning “Most True” or “Truest”. It obviously seems, in some way, to foreshadow his wholehearted embrace of Stoic philosophy later in life, with its emphasis on truth and wisdom.

But it wasn’t just a childhood nickname… Marcus was “Verissimus the Philosopher” to the Roman people.

But it wasn’t just a childhood nickname. It seems that this name followed Marcus throughout his life, even as emperor. In a letter addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, the Christian apologist Justin Martyr refers to Marcus, in his twenties, as “Verissimus the Philosopher”. The name was also stamped on coins, such as those minted in the city of Tyras. Marcus was “Verissimus the Philosopher” to the Roman people.

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Illustration from chapter title page. Copyright D. Robertson.

An oddity about this is that his adoptive brother Lucius took the family name Verus, and served as his co-emperor, although somewhat as his junior. (Having married Marcus’ daughter, Lucius, who was nine years younger than Marcus, was viewed as more like a son-in-law than a brother.) That would make the two emperors Verus and Verissimus or “True” and “Truest” — which maybe comes across as a bit of a put-down of Lucius Verus.

I’m the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy. My most recent one, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, reached the #1 slot for philosophy sales in the US when it was released. Often people start work on a graphic novel before they have a book deal. We were lucky because I already had interest in the title from two different publishers. It was clear from the outset that this was going to be a major project. In addition to reaching a new audience, who are more into comics, we’re hoping that readers of my previous books will take a look, even if the graphic novel format isn’t normally their cup of tea.

So I’m used to writing, it’s basically my full-time job, but this is the first time I’ve ever attempted a graphic novel. Normally it takes me about a year to write a book. So it took me a while to adapt to the realization that Verissimus was going to take a lot longer. Not only do you have to write the script for a graphic novel, of course, but the illustrator needs to draw, ink, and colour all of the pages. That’s a lot of work. Halfway through the process I spoke to the illustrator for a bestselling graphic novel who told me that his book took six or seven years altogether to complete. We aimed to get ours done in a couple of years, though.

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Illustration from the back matter. Copyright D. Robertson.

This project started on 29th September 2018, at the Modern Stoicism (Stoicon) conference in London. I’d been contacted by an illustrator in Portugal, Ze Nuno Fraga, and had asked him to create three short webcomics about Marcus Aurelius. These were just a bit of fun really — I used them to promote my elearning courses, etc. I wanted to display something at the Stoicism conference, where I was speaking, and by sheer chance I stumbled across a shop in London that did Giclée printing, high-quality prints like the kind you’d display on your wall. On a whim, I emailed them some panels from the webcomic and had them turned into wall art, which we put out on display in the foyer of the University of London’s Senate House, where our conference was taking place.

It might be worth trying that this strategy of exhibiting samples at a conference if you have some artwork and want to get noticed by publishers.

What I’d forgotten was that people who work in the publishing industry often attend these events. A senior editor for a major publishing house saw the prints and came to me with the idea of doing a graphic novel. A few months later, we had a book deal. (Although in the end we went with my existing publisher, who also made an offer.) For me that happened by accident, and I don’t know if it would work for other people but, hey, it might be worth trying that this strategy of exhibiting samples at a conference if you have some artwork and want to get noticed by publishers.

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Draft illustration in pencil (not inked). Copyright D. Robertson.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is a cross-genre book that combines philosophy, psychology, and biography. It contains lots of vignettes from the life of Marcus Aurelius, used to illustrate concepts from Stoic philosophy, which I discussed in relation to modern cognitive-behavioural therapy and self-improvement psychology.

Verissimus is similar but also very different. It’s much more focused on telling the story of Marcus’ life and so there are no references to modern psychology. Instead, it tries to show how Stoic philosophy played a part in his personal journey, as he coped with various challenges along the way. So the philosophy is interwoven more carefully with biography. I’ve spent countless hours studying The Meditations as well as speeches and letters attributed to Marcus Aurelius in order to extract phrases and ideas to put in his mouth, in ways that (hopefully!) fit seamlessly into the story. So Marcus’ thoughts permeate the story, and hopefully the dialogue (though it will never be perfect) comes across as pretty authentic.

I had to pick a major theme so we decided to use the topic of anger as a way to engage with philosophy and psychology.

From the outset, I realized that it would be impossible to explain the whole of Stoic philosophy, in addition to telling the story of Marcus’ life, because it’s simply to big a subject. I had to pick a major theme so we decided to use the topic of anger as a way to engage with philosophy and psychology. Why anger? Because it plays a special role in Marcus’ biography. He tells us at the start of The Meditations that he struggled at first to manage his own temper, and he also returns to the theme of coping with anger over and over again throughout the text. There are also some great stories about anger from the ancient sources. So it was easy to see how we could use coping with anger as a way of exploring Stoic philosophy while keeping it relevant to the events of his life. Anger is also a preeminently visual emotion — it works well in comic book panels and makes for a more exciting story. Marcus wrestles with his own anger, and also has to deal with the anger and hatred of others.

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Illustration from a story told in flashback. Copyright D. Robertson.

I was already extremely familiar with the story of Marcus Aurelius’ life. So I wondered whether having it illustrated would change anything about how I perceived events. It definitely did. There were many small realizations I arrived at as I looked at the draft pages, over and over again. There are too many to mention here but I’ll pick a couple of the ones that interested me the most.

First of all, I realized that some of our scenes were turning into something resembling a horror story. That wasn’t intentional — it just emerged naturally from the source material. We can say glibly that Marcus lived through the Antonine Plague, that ravaged the empire for at least fourteen years, killed roughly 5 million people, devastated the legions, left whole towns and villages barren, and probably scarred the faces and mutilated the bodies even of survivors. Those are just words. Try visualizing that, though, as he goes about his daily business, and even has to defend the empire against invasion. Trust me: it’s a horror story. (At least, in places.) Roman warfare was also horrific. For instance, captured enemies were tortured and crucified outside the gates of besieged cities to terrorize their inhabitants into surrender. Try picturing those scenes. We tried to show the brutal reality of life in ancient Rome.

These and other details also made me realize something else. When Marcus contemplates his own mortality in The Meditations, it perhaps seems a bit abstract at times. However, for much of his life I imagine he probably woke up every morning, slightly surprised he was still alive. His own life was, I think, more continuously in peril, than modern readers tend to assume. Plague, invading armies, assassins, and his ongoing poor health in general all gave Marcus (and everyone else) reasons to feel that it would be no great surprise for the emperor to drop dead. The long catalogue of friends, colleagues, and family members who died during his lifetime also testifies to the stark consciousness Marcus must have had of his own mortality.

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Photo of the author at Carnuntum museum. Copyright D. Robertson.

I also knew before we began that this book would be controversial because there’s no way we can write a graphic novel (of this kind anyway) that presents the story of Marcus life like a scholarly biography would. We had to tell a story without pausing every few minutes to question the evidence. Where there are multiple possible interpretations of the surviving evidence, we had to pick one, and make it work as a comic book story.

So this book is not intended as a historically accurate biographical account of Marcus’ life. Nevertheless, it was based on very thorough research, and we put a huge amount of effort into making it as historically accurate as possible. A comic book script is like a screenplay for a Hollywood movie, though. It’s entertainment, not an academic treatise. Some movies are more historically accurate than others — we tried to make our version of Marcus’ life as plausible as we could.

I think a lot of people just assume we have The Meditations and nothing else but that’s completely wrong.

The first thing I should stress is that we do know quite a lot about Marcus Aurelius. Some people who reviewed How to Think Like a Roman Emperor assumed the anecdotes about his life were fiction. (Although, if they read the introduction and looked at the endnotes they’d know that it was thoroughly referenced against the ancient sources.) I think a lot of people just assume we have The Meditations and nothing else but that’s completely wrong. There are many modern biographies of Marcus Aurelius, and others about related figures such as his father Antoninus Pius, his son Commodus, and even one about his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus.

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Illustration from a dream sequence. Copyright D. Robertson.

We have three major surviving Roman histories of his life: The Historia Augusta, The Historia Romana of Cassius Dio, and Herodian’s History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus. There are also many lesser or fragmentary pieces of evidence in various other ancient texts, such as the Lives of the Sophists of Philostratus, The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, The Golden Ass of Apuleius, and so on. In addition to this we have archeological and numismatic evidence. Moreover, we have an entire cache of private letters between Marcus Cornelius Fronto, the Sophist and rhetoric tutor, and his friends and students, especially Marcus Aurelius. We also have a great deal of evidence about the Stoic philosophy itself from other sources, which shed light on obscure passages in The Meditations. We learn a great deal about the The Meditations, likewise, from modern academic commentaries, such as The Inner Citadel of Pierre Hadot.

I studied all the writings I could lay my hands on very closely and consulted with several classicists and philosophers who are experts in this field. Indeed, before I even started creating Verissimus, I’d been researching and writing about Stoicism, and the life of Marcus Aurelius, for roughly 25 years. My Greek’s pretty rusty but it’s good enough for me to be able to study the parallel texts closely and derive meaning from the original language, which sometimes leads to a more nuanced readings of The Meditations.

However, the challenge with Verissimus was to make a coherent story which could be presented in a visual format, like a movie script. (I like to joke that it only dawned on me halfway through that it kind of accidentally written a prequel to Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, but with a lot more Stoic philosophy.) So I went to stay in Carnuntum, in modern-day Austria, for a week, where Marcus was stationed when he wrote The Meditations. While there I interviewed the CEO in charge of the archeological park and the head of scientific research, to gather more information for the graphic novel.

I wanted to see the landscape of the Danube region first hand, which Ze would be drawing, and walk through buildings, such as the reconstructed Roman villa, which would play a part in our story. I’ve also spent many months living in Greece over the past couple of years. (I’m in Athens now, as I write.) I visited Sparta, Eleusis, and Delphi, and I’ve been to the Acropolis, the agora, and the museums many times, conducting research. You’ll see that Delphi and Eleusis, for instance, feature in Verissimus.

I explained to my publisher when working on the initial proposal that I wanted to avoid a graphic novel that was just a dialogue dump, with panel after panel of “old men in togas and sandals talking”. Stan Lee used to say that in his mind a great comic could almost be readable if you redacted all of the text. There’s a lot of drama and action in the life of Marcus Aurelius. So we wanted to show that as much as possible. There are some intense emotional scenes and a surprising number of large-scale (massive!) battle scenes.

I wanted to vary the appearance of pages by taking the reader on a bit of a tour of the ancient world so we’re not just in some generic building in Rome. We go to several different regions of Rome, to nearby villas, and other parts of the Italian countryside, to Carnuntum, Aquincum, Sirmium, Egypt (both rural and Alexandria), Cappadocia, Syria, Armenia, and Parthia, and even (based on a notorious fragment of historical evidence) to Han China. There are no generic “barbarians” here either. We meet the Lombards, Marcomanni, the Quadi, different Sarmatians tribes, the Egyptian Bucoli, the Parthians, and others.

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Illustrations from chapter on Marcus’ education. Copyright D. Robertson.

We also introduced variety by including several imaginary or remembered scenes, and a few dreams and visions, etc. These fit pretty seamlessly into the story. For instance, Marcus almost certainly never met Epictetus, but we can show Epictetus in scalloped panels (indicated a memory) as another Stoic teacher recounts a conversation in his school. Likewise, there are some places where historical accounts are conflicting or unreliable, and basically appear like court gossip.

Instead of ignoring these we present them as gossip in a tavern, which allows us to depict interesting scenes as something imagined, while leaving it up to the reader to decide whether they believe the story or not. For instance, did the Empress Faustina, Marcus’ wife, actually bathe in the blood of a gladiator to cure her sexual lust? Probably not but we can bring this rumour up by presenting it as gossip in the graphic novel. Even if we don’t believe the gossip, the mere fact people spread such stories arguably reveals something about the atmosphere at Rome and the way the imperial family were perceived.

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Illustration from chapter title page. Copyright D. Robertson.

I knew very little about comics when starting this project. So I went out and consulted as many people as I could who knew more than me. I started hanging around comic shops in Toronto and Athens, talking to the staff, went to a couple of conventions, and made friends with a few people in that world. There are also a surprising number of good books about writing comics and graphic novels. I read a pile of them, especially Scott McCloud’s masterful Making Comics, which became my Bible. I immersed myself in reading comics and graphic novels. I also watched countless movies about ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome, looking for ideas for the plot, ways of framing shots/panels, etc.

I wrote the script. So that’s a bit like being the Stan Lee of the process. Some scripts are mainly dialogue but ours went into quite a lot of detail about framing shots and the visual content, positioning text, etc. I read it and re-read it many times. Ze then had to draw the pages in pencil. I reviewed the drafts over and over again. They’ve also been read and checked online and in paper format by my “focus group” of helpers, including comic book fans and experts, and experts on historical details such as the design of military equipment, etc., as well as, of course, by our editor, Tim Bartlett. Then Ze inks the pages in black, which we review, before he also colours them. (Sometimes these steps are done by different people but not in our case.)

Over time, Verissimus has evolved from a series of anecdotes and vignettes into a much more rounded and unified story. Marcus Aurelius emerges as a more vivid and complex character, as do the supporting cast of Roman nobles and philosophers, who accompany him throughout life. I think his relationship with the “barbarians”, with whom he’s at war, also comes across as more complex and nuanced.

We’re still working away on what’s become a labour of love. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share more in the near future. (You can get your hands on some early Verissimus artwork samples, videos, articles, etc., from this freebie bundle I created.) I’ve definitely learned a lot more about comics or, to use the more sophisticated terminology, sequential art. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most are the opportunity to really explore the story of Marcus’ life and his reliance on Stoicism from this more visual perspective, which I really feel has deepened my own understanding both of Marcus, as a man, and of Stoic philosophy as a way of life. I’ve also had a great time working with Ze and meeting other people who are “passionate” (!) about graphic novels. I’m hoping that Verissimus will introduce Stoicism to a new audience, fingers crossed — or “fate permitting’ as Stoics like to say.

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Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Cognitive psychotherapist, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019), featured in Forge, The Guardian. http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002Q2WSPA

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Cognitive psychotherapist, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019), featured in Forge, The Guardian. http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002Q2WSPA

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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