From Vol. 4, Issue 9, September 2022
The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius
St. Martin’s Press, 2022.
By Donald Robertson & Ze Nuno Fraga
Reviewed by CHUCK CHAKRAPANI
Verissimus is the philosophical graphic biography of Marcus Aurelius by Donald Robertson, magnificently illustrated by Ze Nuno Fraga.
The story is then narrated by Marcus Aurelius himself. While Donald has done a lot of research to make sure that historical facts are as accurate as possible, this is essentially a Stoic biography of Marcus. Those who are familiar with Meditations and other works by Marcus Aurelius (such as his speeches, letters to Fronto as well as anecdotes about him) will be able to identify the sources.
The story of Marcus Aureliu
The book begins with the Emperor Marcus Aurelius lying in his deathbed, fulfilling his final obligations.
The story then goes back to Marcus’ childhood and, from then on, is narrated in first person by Marcus himself. Marcus is born to privilege but he chooses a simple life of a philosopher. He is fearless in his pursuit of his ideals and earns the moniker “the most truthful child”. Although Marcus was not born into the royal family, a path is created for him to become the future emperor.
Marcus gets married to Faustina, a loyal wife and mother. He has fourteen children with her but many of them die young.
We then see how Marcus is strongly influenced by his Stoic master Apollonius of Chalcedon. This paves the way for Marcus to become the future philosopherking of the Roman Empire.
Following the death of Antoninus, Marcus becomes the Emperor of Rome and he makes his brother Lucius his co-emperor.
Now the turmoil begins: Marcus Aurelius, peaceful both by inclination and conviction, is drawn into a series of crises starting with the Parthian war. This is followed by Antonine plague.
Things get much worse. Marcomanni of Bohemia cross the Danube together with the Lombards and other Germanic tribes. Soon thereafter, the Iranian Sarmatians attack between the Danube and the Theiss rivers. Marcus spends most of his later life in the battlefield defending the Empire against a series of invaders. To add to his troubles, Avidius Cassius, his general, proclaims himself the Emperor. Avidius Cassius is then killed by his own officers in Syria.
The book ends with ‘a view from above’, a reference to viewing things from a very broad perspective: “To contendedly embrace all things that happen to him as coming from the same source from which he came himself.”
The philosophy of Marcus Aurelius
Verissimus is not just a biography of Marcus Aurelius, but an articulation of his Stoic thoughts and deeds. The dialogues are stuctured in a such way that the Stoic thoughts of Marcus Aurelius find expression throughout the book. What we can find by reading Meditations and other works of Marcus Aurelius is interspersed thoughout the book in the form of diaglogues – internal and external. Marcus suffered from anger issues since his childhood and the book has quite a bit of material on how to handle anger.
Even though the graphic format does not suggest seriousness, Donald has gone to great lengths to ensure that the biography is accurate for the most part, although occasional liberties are taken to make the narrative flow better. Imaginary conversations are indicated through a different border format.
In the book’s Afterword, Donald talks about the three controversies about Marcus Aurelius. The first one has to do with Marcus Aurelius being a warmonger. This is, of course, untrue. The second one – which is far more serious – is the accusation that Marcus persecuted Christians. Again, there is no reliable evidence to support this. The third one is the appointment of Commodus, his son, as his successor. This turned out to be a disaster. This has no satisfactory answer. Because we trust Marcus Aurelius, we can only speculate about possible reasons (which Donald freely does).
A welcome addition
Donald Robertson and Ze Nuno Fraga have done a masterful job of bringing the dead Emperor to life. By interweaving Marcus’s philosophy with his life, they have made Stoicism come alive. Ze Nuno Fraga’s outstanding illustrations, Donald Robertson’s well-imagined narrative, and the popularity of graphic novels, all suggest Verissimus will attract new readers and a new audience to Stoic philosophy. This book is an excellent addition to any Stoic library.