How the Stoic Roman Emperor got his nickname
How the Stoic Roman Emperor got his nickname
You’ve probably heard of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. He’s the author of The Meditations, one of the most popular self-improvement classics of all time. Even if you’ve not read that book, maybe you saw Richard Harris playing him in the first act of the Russell Crowe movie Gladiator (2000).
Did you know that Marcus was also called Verissimus, though? This name means “most true” in Latin. It’s confirmed by at least three or four ancient sources. and seems to have caught on, in part, because it naturally suited his reputation as a philosopher, and a lover of wisdom.
Marcus Annius Verus
First let me explain a bit more about his original name. Roman names are notoriously confusing, especially those of emperors, which often change several times during their lives. Marcus was born into a Roman family or gens known as the Annii, more specifically to a branch called the Annii Veri. His father, who died from unknown causes when Marcus was small, perhaps four years old, was called Marcus Annius Verus. The son was given the same name as the father. So our Marcus Aurelius was actually called Marcus Annius Verus as an infant.
Marcus Aurelius is never referred to simply as “Aurelius”, his adoptive family name.
Later, when Marcus was adopted by the emperor Antoninus Pius, he was renamed Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus. When he succeeded Antoninus and was acclaimed emperor himself he became Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, having adopted the family name and cognomen of his predecessor Antoninus Pius. Today we usually just know him as Marcus Aurelius, although during his rule as emperor he would be officially addressed, normally, as Antoninus, or using his imperial titles: Imperator, Caesar, and Augustus. Hence, he writes in his notes to himself:
But my nature is rational and social, and my city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome, but so far as I am a man, it is the world. — Meditations, 6.44
Marcus Aurelius, is never referred to simply as “Aurelius”, incidentally, his adoptive family name. Scholars usually just refer to him as “Marcus”, following the convention that sovereigns are known by their first name, i.e., we don’t refer to Emperor Napoleon simply as “Bonaparte” or to Queen Elizabeth as “Windsor”.
The Origin of Verissimus
So how did Marcus come to be known as Verissimus and what does it mean? We have several sources attesting to this name but the most helpful is the Roman historian Cassius Dio. He claims that Emperor Hadrian, who knew Marcus as a boy, took a shine to him, after his father died, viewing him as a potential successor “because he was already giving indication of exceptional strength of character.” Dio adds:
This led Hadrian to apply to the young man the name Verissimus, thus playing upon the meaning of the Latin word. — Cassius Dio
This was at the time when Marcus, as a child, went by his family name Marcus Annius Verus. Hadrian, who fancied himself a poet, and enjoyed wordplay, was upgrading the name Verus, which means “true”, to Verissimus meaning “truest” or “most true”. If only we knew why he came up with this pun!
Perhaps young Marcus said something remarkably truthful and honest in the emperor’s presence. However, it can also mean “most appropriate”, so it could be, given the context, that Hadrian was hinting that he saw Marcus as the most fitting successor to the throne. Nevertheless, as we’ll see, the name certainly became associated with Marcus as a philosopher in adulthood, where it must have been interpreted as meaning that he was known for being markedly truthful, or a lover of truth.
As an aside, there’s something I find quite odd about this nickname. Modern readers tend to underestimate how important subtle wordplay was to educated Romans of this period. Hadrian lived during a cultural movement called The Second Sophistic, which celebrated the art of rhetoric. Intellectuals at Rome, of whom Hadrian considered himself one, relished good puns. Master rhetoricians were also adept (much more than we typically are today) at insinuating digs or criticisms. Although Marcus’ father was dead, his grandfather, also named Marcus Annius Verus lived on for some time, and Marcus was actually raised for a while in his household. He was one of the most senior statesmen in Rome, a triple consul, and a friend of Hadrian. By calling Verus’ grandson “Verissimus” was Hadrian implying that the young boy was truer and the elder statesman less true by comparison?
This verbal contrast between Verus and Verissimus became even more awkward once Marcus himself was acclaimed emperor. He took his adoptive brother, and son-in-law, Lucius Verus, as co-emperor. So Rome had two emperors, known as Verus and Verissimus or “True” and “Truest”. As though one ruler was good but the other was better! In taverns across the empire, surely, this must have led to jokes at Lucius’ expense. He was clearly the subordinate in this relationship, a second-rate emperor.
Marcus had a favourite son who bore his own original name Marcus Annius Verus. This child was appointed Caesar, along with his older brother Commodus, presumably with the intention that they would rule jointly. However, he died tragically, when he was around six years old, during an operation to remove a tumour growing behind his ear. The Roman historian Herodian, who lived during the rule of Commodus, says that at some point in his short life this boy Caesar was also given the nickname Verissimus, like his father, Marcus Aurelius.
A later Roman historian, in the Historia Augusta, confirms that Marcus himself bore this name by writing that after the death of his father, “Hadrian called him [Marcus] Annius Verissimus” as opposed to Marcus Annius Verus. In a subsequent passage it reiterates that Marcus was “reared under the eye of Hadrian, who called him Verissimus, as we have already related.”
Regarding his character as emperor, the Historia Augusta says of Marcus:
He did not readily accept the version of those who were partisans in any matter, but always searched long and carefully for the truth.
As we’ll see, this love of truth was an aspect of Stoic philosophy that Marcus took to heart and in his private notes, in The Meditations, we can perhaps see him musing somewhat about the meaning of his family name, Verus or True.
Truth in The Meditations
At one point, in The Meditations, he refers, albeit somewhat figuratively, to having assumed the names of certain virtues, including true.
When you have assumed these names, good, modest, true, rational, a man of equanimity, and magnanimous, take care that you do not change them; and if you should lose them, quickly return to them. — Meditations, 10.8
The word he uses here is alethes as he’s writing in Greek not Latin. Nevertheless, he clearly knew that this could be viewed as a translation of his family name, Verus.
Indeed, throughout The Meditations we can find numerous references to the love of truth. For instance:
If it is not right, do not do it: if it is not true, do not say it. — Meditations, 12.17
At one point he goes so far as to equate truth with the divine Nature of the universe:
This universal Nature is named truth, and is the prime cause of all things that are true. He then who lies intentionally is guilty of impiety, inasmuch as he acts unjustly by deceiving. And he also who lies unintentionally, inasmuch as he is at variance with the universal Nature, and inasmuch as he disturbs the order by fighting against the nature of the world. — Meditations, 9.1
In this passage, he equates truthfulness with piety, typically for a Stoic, almost turning philosophy into a kind of mystical religion.
Verissimus the Philosopher
That brings me to one final reference. Around 156 CE, during the rule of Antoninus Pius, the Christian author Justin Martyr wrote an open letter called The First Apology. Justin begins the letter by addressing the emperor as follows, using his full imperial title:
To the Emperor Titus Ælius Adrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Cæsar, and to his son Verissimus the Philosopher, and to Lucius the Philosopher, the natural son of Cæsar, and the adopted son of Pius, a lover of learning, and to the sacred Senate, with the whole People of the Romans… — Justin Martyr, First Apology
It may seem peculiar to call Lucius Verus a philosopher, but he was studying philosophy under some of the same Stoic teachers as Marcus around this time. More importantly, though, Marcus is here clearly referred to as “Verissimus the Philosopher”. In fact, Justin assumes that it’s perfectly sufficient to use this name alone in order for his own readers, the Senate, and the emperor, to know that Marcus Aurelius is intended.
So it wasn’t just a childhood nickname given to Marcus Annius Verus by Hadrian. Apart from the fact that it became well-known enough to be recorded by Roman historians, we can see from Justin’s letter that Marcus was still being addressed as Verissimus later in life, as Caesar, probably in his mid thirties.
I think Marcus thoroughly owned his childhood nickname, which become synonymous with his philosophy of life.
If you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happily. And there is no man who is able to prevent this. — Meditations, 3.12
It seems to me that this nickname became permanent, Verus became Verissimus, the true became the truest, in the eyes of the Roman people, and all subsequent generations, precisely because of this remarkable commitment to “embracing heroic truth in every word and sound you utter.”
Donald Robertson is the author of the forthcoming graphic novel Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, due for publication June 2022 by MacMillan.