Marcus Aurelius: Spoiler Alert!

How we created a graphic novel about Stoicism

He dies at the end. Actually, he dies at the beginning. We borrowed that idea from How to Think Like a Roman Emperor when writing the script for Verissimus, because it made it much easier to structure the story of Marcus Aurelius’ life by embedding it within a framing story about his death. So this is how the book begins…

Verissimus was a labor of love. Our 260-page full-color graphic novel about the life and philosophy of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, was published in July 2022. It took a small team of us about two and a half years to create — normally you’re given about one year to write a conventional prose book. The project began when I was contacted by an award-winning illustrator, from Portugal, called Zé Nuno Fraga, who had recently published the graphic novel Assemblywomen, the ancient Greek satire by Aristophanes. A couple of major publishing houses were interested and before long we had a book deal with St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan.

I’d never worked on a graphic novel before so I immediately plunged into reading books on the art of writing scripts for them, and illustrating them. The best is Scott Macleod’s fantastic Making Comics, which I read cover to cover 2-3 times — it became my Bible. I also sought advice from comic book enthusiasts who read the script and reviewed the draft illustrations. Before long I’d added Kasey Pierce, a freelance comic editor, to our team — a couple of years later we got married!

Researching Verissimus

Verissimus is one of three books in a row that I wrote about Marcus Aurelius, the others being a self-help book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, and the forthcoming Marcus Aurelius biography I wrote for Yale University Press’ Ancient Lives series, which is edited by James Romm. I also edited an edition of the Meditations for Capstone Classics and wrote the biographical introductory essay on Marcus Aurelius for that volume. For several years, I was completely immersed in Marcus’ life and philosophy.

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Some people have told me they’re surprised how much research went into Verissimus. So I thought it might be interesting to say more about how it was written. Here are some behind-the-scenes insights…

  • Near the end of the process, I realized that I’d “accidentally written the prequel to Gladiator but with a lot more philosophy” as I like to put it. Incidentally, my publisher told me that the scriptwriter for Gladiator 2 (now in the works) had read How to Think Like a Roman Emperor as part of his own research. Graphic novels take many different forms — at the bare minimum the artwork could have just been lots of stickmen with speech bubbles. We naturally went for a classic European historical epic look, with a sweeping cinematic feel, because it seemed to fit this story very nicely. It also makes it easy to imagine Verissimus being made — Fate permitting! — into an animation or live-action movie. (We’ve already had some initial interest in the movie rights.)

  • In my original pitch I said I wanted to avoid having 250 pages of “guys in togas and sandals talking about philosophy”. We wanted to create something that was much more action-oriented — like Gladiator or 300 but more historically authentic and with a lot more Stoicism! I scoured the Meditations for references to objects and events that might allow us to combine Marcus’ words with the action in plausible ways. For example, when Marcus talks in the Meditations about how to respond to treachery or deceit, it seems natural to imagine he would have said similar things about the various real-world betrayals he experienced. When he refers to events like gladiatorial contests, as a metaphor for philosophy, it’s easy to imagine him having made similar remarks while watching fighters at the Colosseum in Rome, and so on. In the few situations where long conversations took place that had no relation to Marcus’ action — borrowing a tip from Scott Macleod! — we placed Marcus in an unusual but plausible setting, such as the circus maximus or a Roman bathhouse, that allowed us to include action unfolding in parallel to, and sometimes complementing, his words.

  • I wanted people who knew nothing about Stoic philosophy to be able to read Verissimus and come away with a basic grasp both of its fundamentals and also of ways in which it could actually help them in the modern world — quite an ambitious goal! Early on I decided that in order to clearly communicate Stoic philosophy and also give people practical “takeaways”, I should focus on the problem of overcoming anger. Marcus explicitly states near the start of the Meditations that, for a time, he struggled to control his temper. The hero of a story like this typically has to go on a personal journey, otherwise he’ll seem boring and one-dimensional — we need to see Marcus changing over time, at least to some extent. We decided our Marcus should come across as a more complex human being. He is therefore shown struggling with his emotions at first and later, through Stoicism, mastering them — that’s a plausible reading of the historical evidence. My opinion, incidentally, is that anger is the best emotion for comics! It’s very interpersonal and expressive, and linked to action — it’s highly visual and dynamic by its very nature!

  • Early on in the project, we recruited an expert on Roman military reenactment who advised us throughout the process on details relating to weapons and armour, etc. During the initial draft phase, poor Zé had to go through and change many sketches after our consultant explained that Roman legionaries in this period began using the spatha, a longer sword than the conventional gladius, better suited to fighting “barbarian” horsemen. Many other details like uniforms, siege engines, and military formations, were checked for historical authenticity.

  • Some people — and this surprises me — believe that we don’t know much about the life of Marcus Aurelius. They’re wrong. We know far more about him than we do about any other Stoic, and perhaps even more than we know about any other ancient philosopher. Why? Because he was a famous emperor. The Meditations is not a normal text on philosophy but rather a series of personal reflections, almost autobiographical in nature. They tell us things about Marcus’ inner life, his character, preoccupations, and even some details about his outward life as emperor — particularly in the first chapter where he dwells at length on his relationships with his family and tutors, some of his closest friends. We also have three main historical accounts of his life, from Cassius Dio, the Historia Augusta and Herodian. We have an amazing cache of Marcus’ private letters, some alleged speeches by him, and many passing references to him in other ancient sources. The least well-known of our sources, incidentally, is the collection of references to his legislation in the Roman legal digests. We also have important inscriptions and numismatic and archeological evidence, etc. There are, moreover, many modern biographies of Marcus as well as several pieces of modern scholarship on his era and other famous figures who are part of his story, such as Hadrian and Lucius Verus. I’m surprised that biographers tend to have an insular approach, incidentally, focusing on the evidence relating to Marcus himself, whereas evidence about the lives of key people he associated with can also shed a great deal of light on the events of his life. For instance, the more we learn about the later years of Emperor Hadrian, the more we understand the early life of Marcus Aurelius — Marcus even lived in Hadrian’s villa for several months toward the end of the latter’s troubled life.

  • Verissimus is not really a work of fiction — it’s about as close as a graphic novel about the ancient world can get to being a historical biography. (Though the notorious unreliability of many ancient sources makes this claim problematic, of course.) The Roman histories provided our main source for Verissimus, supplemented by the other historical evidence mentioned above. We followed them very closely. Anyone reading the ancient sources alongside Verissimus will see that it’s a pretty faithful retelling of the story they provide although, of course, we have to create some dialogue, etc., for this medium. We were even able to do things that are tricky in a conventional prose biography, e.g., depicting gossip, dreams, memories, and stories within stories, which are also derived from our historical sources. For instance, where ancient sources label something as rumour or present it as unreliable information, we depict it as gossip between characters commenting on events, allowing the reader to decide how much trust to put in their words. This has the added bonus of allowing us to imagine what it tells us about the Romans who might have spread such stories about the emperor. Even dreams and rumours are a real, and often very important, part of the historical milieu, insofar as they can dramatically influence someone’s public image and the way they interact with those around them.

  • The script was written by me. Graphic novel scripts can be pretty simple, even just a “dialogue dump”, leaving the artist to do a lot of creative work. Our was much more detailed, like a movie script, nearly 150 pages and about 90k words long. It included many links to reference images, such as photographs I’d taken of artefacts in museums, or sculptures, and ruins or landscapes at historic locations. One day I’d like to release some more side-by-side images showing how Zé used photos of historical artefacts, etc., to inspire his illustrations.

  • I travelled to many museums and historical locations around the world, during my research. I spent about a week at Carnuntum in Austria, for instance, the archeological site of the Roman legionary fortress where Marcus stationed himself throughout much of the First Marcomannic War. We shot video and took many photographs there.

  • I also interviewed the museum director and head of archeological research at Carnuntum. In the archeological park, they have a full reconstruction of a Roman villa from the time of Marcus Aurelius, which was a huge help to us in illustrating the decor and furnishings of various rooms in our graphic novel.

  • I also spent a great deal of time in Greece, travelling to many museums there and archeological sites, such as the Agora and Stoa Poikile, Eleusis, and Delphi, which inspired scenes in our book. I don’t have much Latin but I do read a little ancient Greek and began learning to speak modern Greek. (I applied for and now have my official “permanent resident” status in Greece.)

  • It was also important to me that the dialogue in Verissimus should seem natural and believable. Here’s a tip: a good way to do that for a historical novel is by reading ancient letters, especially private ones. I made lists, for instance, of all the oaths (“By Hercules!”) and greetings (“Best of masters!”) used in Marcus Aurelius’ correspondence with his rhetoric tutor, Marcus Cornelius Fronto. Poetry also provides a good source of material for various idioms and colloquial expressions. We used this to create more authentic dialogue for our characters. Sometimes this surprises people, incidentally. They don’t expect Romans to use Greek god names, for instance, but they certainly did. Forms of address are sometimes not quite as some readers expect. Marcus was often addressed as Caesar or, especially in a military setting, as Imperator. (Some people mistakenly believe that “Caesar” was a title used to denote the emperor’s designed successor but it is more like a cognomen, also retained by the emperor in office.) In the Meditations, incidentally, Marcus actually refers to himself by his dynastic name, Antoninus, and we know others commonly referred to him in this way, especially in official contexts. His close friends called him Marcus, but we never find him simply referred to as Aurelius, his adoptive family name.

  • Zé particularly enjoyed illustrating the dreams and visions as he didn’t have to worry quite as much about historical accuracy in these scenes and was able to express his artistry more freely, by creating fantastic images.

  • Shortly after we began, I realized that some of the scenes resembled a genre I hadn’t anticipated drawing upon: horror. Kasey helped us to approach nightmares, graphic war imagery, and scenes of the devastation caused by plague, with more of a “horror aesthetic” in mind.

  • As a kid I read the British comic 2000 AD religiously. What I loved most was that there were small details in the background of the panels that I didn’t notice at first but could enjoy on rereading my favorite comic strips. I realized that adding subtle cues to the background can really add another dimension to the artwork so we carefully planned ways to do this in Verissimus, such as by including various animals — birds taking flight, dogs fighting, etc. — in the background of panels, as well as other forms of action. To avoid making the world visually monotonous we tried to show various locations and different types of buildings, as well as incorporating dreams, visions, and flashbacks. We also varied the nine-panel page layout, e.g., by using vertical or horizontal strips for panels and many full-page splash pages, which we hoped could be used to create posters.

  • I was fortunate enough to be able to consult with several classicists and scholars of ancient philosophy, who advised me on various details, from language to culture and philosophy. In particular, the classicist Robin Waterfield, was kind enough to review the entire manuscript and provide detailed feedback and advice before publication — I owe him a lot of thanks for that!

I hope that’s of interest to readers, and maybe these notes could even help other authors working on graphic novels like ours.

Verissimus has been reviewed very positively since its release and was chosen as an Amazon Editor’s pick for Best History Book. The foreign rights have already been sold for the Brazilian Portuguese edition and I hope many other translations will follow. You can already order the hardback or ebook of the English edition from Amazon or, indeed, from anywhere they sell books!

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