Book Review: Verissimus Graphic Novel
Updated: Jul 24, 2022
A couple years back, when Donald Robertson first told me about his graphic novel project with the Portuguese artist Zé Nuno Fraga, I was so excited. As I learned that the novel would walk through the life of Marcus Aurelius, I was sold. What I did not expect from reading Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius was that I would come to appreciate the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius even more than I thought possible.
The graphic novel opens with Marcus on his deathbed and then teleports us back to his childhood. From here, Donald takes on a historical journey through the recorded accounts. Even before reading Verissimus, I knew that adding illustrations to the story would add overall effectiveness. I truly underrated just how effective these illustrations proved to be. In one particular scene, it depicts Marcus Aurelius along with his co-emperor Lucius as they arrive in Rome from a military campaign. The scene places the reader at a bird's-eye-view of the glorious celebration of the the Roman Empire's victory. Then, from behind the two emperors, there are imperial servants whispering memento mori into their ears. This phrase means "Remember your mortality," and the overhead scene truly captures the strength of character of these two men within the scene. As the Stoic tenet goes, we should be wise to realize that our lives are ephemeral. The effectiveness of the illustrations is also evident in how Zé Nuno Fraga portrays military formations and techniques. For example, there is one scene that shows how the Roman engineers deployed pontoon bridges across waterways to surprise the enemy troops. Without illustrations, these events would force the reader to imagine the scene without providing the means to visual accuracy.
Another interesting aspect of Verissimus is that Donald writes scenes that take the liberty of utilizing Roman mythology to advance the story. In one scene early in the book, Donald includes the story of Hercules to show how Marcus' teachers taught lessons about temptations. There is also the story about the rumored mythos surrounding the crazed priest Alexander.
From an emotional perspective, I ended the book with these questions: "Why can't we find many exemplars of good leadership throughout history? How come this idea of a truly good Roman Emperor so foreign to me?" I realized that, in this day and age, villains receive a lot of credit in entertainment. It is so easy to formulate a biography over an unjust figure because there are so many opportunities to entertain the reader with the conflicts of the past. As one of my English professors once told me, "Only trouble is interesting." It is extremely refreshing to see a graphic novel that promotes the story of a leader who is incorruptible. I am convinced that this characteristic of Marcus Aurelius is due to his adoration of Stoic philosophy. Donald also includes many Stoic mental techniques in the text without being too preachy or overbearing.
All in all, Verissimus is definitely worth reading whether you are a Stoic practitioner or wish to have a cumulative account of Marcus Aurelius' life. As you read the book, I am sure important philosophical questions will arise for you as well. This is the true underlying purpose of all non-fiction and fictional literature.