Can You Understand History with a Graphic Novel?
The Truest of Roman Emperors
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
While many of you fine folks in the Northern hemisphere are enjoying “Labor Day” Weekend, your shivering editor is, in fact, attending a philosophy conference here in cold and wintery Argentina.
As such, in lieu of our regular Monday mailbag, we have something a bit different.
Regular readers may recall that I've done a lot of great projects with Donald Robertson, the famed author, Stoic and cognitive behavioral therapist, over the years...
From our most recent Plato’s Academy Centre conferences and past panels on the Delphic Oracle and Stoicism to his twice participation in Classical Wisdom Symposiums, it’s always been a pleasure working together.
You see, I appreciate the fact that Donald approaches both philosophy and history with the idea to make it practical. I guess it’s something I see as very much in alignment with Classical Wisdom and our goal of bringing ancient wisdom to modern minds.
So when Donald told me about his latest project, a graphic novel, I was, of course, inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But, I’ll be honest with you dear reader...comic books are not exactly my cup of tea. I have plenty of friends and family who are very much fans of the medium, but I personally have never gotten ‘into’ them.
Truth be told, I was dubious. After all, can you understand history with a graphic novel?
But... I said I would do it and that’s what friends do.... And in the end, I was very surprised.
I’ve put my thoughts below for you to read, dear reader, but I would also love to hear what you think on the matter; so please comment after the article.
And before you delve into your editor’s review of the book itself and the idea of it being a graphic novel, I have some great news.
You can actually win a copy of the book yourself!
Donald has generously offered THREE personally signed first editions copies of Verissimus to Classical Wisdom Readers located in the US or Canada. Simply email me at email@example.com with your favorite Marcus Aurelius quote and we’ll pick the best three. I’ll post the winners’ best quotes online!
Now... onto the book itself!
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Review of Verissimus, a Graphic Novel
By Anya Leonard
It’s an ambitious task to be sure, to try to convey the life, the times and the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. While many associate the Roman emperor with the Stoic philosophy he so embodied, he was first and foremost a ruler of a vast empire during a hugely tumultuous time. From war and plague to civil unrest, there was not a moment too dull during his reign... and to try to capture all that in one book is certainly a herculean effort.
And yet, Donald Robertson’s graphic novel, Verissimus, manages this both in plot and word and through the inventive means of the visual medium.
For instance, and this was something Donald himself once pointed out to me during a conversation, there is a great untapped value in the graphic novel being able to illustrate background situations.
History does not follow neatly from one event to another, moments occur within larger eras, significant developments overlap and the happenings in one spot can heavily affect what is proceeding elsewhere.
With the written word, this can be tricky to convey, and yet with the added inclusion of illustration, the reader can see the plague continuing while significant plot points take place. An insert can show simultaneously what is occurring in Parthia while in Rome... and the passing of time is effortlessly conveyed through the aging of characters. All this allows the history lover to experience the past in a multi-dimensional manner.
Another excellent take away from this graphic novel is the role of the historian. The reader views both the chain of incidents (say in a frontier battle), as well as its distorted portrayal afterwards, whether for political or personal reasons. The art of propaganda is not new, and it’s always a worthwhile reminder that our history books are filled with these altered versions of events.
The below extract is an excellent rendition of the writing of history... and how it’s not always as factual as it affects to be:
I also love how you get an insight into some of the intangible aspects of the ancient world, from dreams and their importance in being analyzed to both the sacred rituals that made up an important component of the ancients’ lives as well as the supernatural charlatans who regularly made their appearance. While it might not occur to us as strictly part of the chain of events that make up history or Marcus Aurelius’ favorite philosophy... it was certainly part and parcel of their world and hugely influential on their actions and reactions. It’s an insight we regularly forget.
But what about the Stoicism for which Marcus Aurelius is so fondly remembered?
The crux of it is that Stoicism isn't simply a philosophy you read, some specific book that you need to memorize and regurgitate. It is a way of life, a perspective on all events and an extremely useful toolkit for helping anyone (including emperors) handle the difficulties of life. It includes tactics and insights for dealing with universal problems, such as anger, fear, anxiety, jealousy and pride.
As such, you see both young Marcus’ education by the Stoics, but of equal, if not greater importance, his relying on the philosophy during pivotal moments. What Donald does beautifully is show the application of this ancient philosophy in specific moments and in response to real world situations.
We experience plague and war in our modern era just as the men and women endured them in the ancient times. We watch Marcus and his companions deal with the injustice of pestilence, in that it strikes down both good men and bad men alike....with the grief of losing a child... as well as confronting the graphic horrors of war.
It is in these moments that Marcus conjures the wisdom of his teachers, reflects on what it means to be part of nature as well as recalls the lesson of Memento Mori.
But Stoicism is not only helpful in times of trouble (for emperors and non-emperors alike). Indeed, there are many who report it was most important to them in moments of success. For instance, you see the concept of Memento Mori when Marcus Aurelius is in the depths of plague and war as well as when he is being celebrated and crowned. Both times the reminder of the inevitability of death humbles and gives the great philosopher emperor the perspective to carry on.
Philosophy aside, what you also come away with is a really amazing overview of just how complicated the era of Marcus Aurelius was. You are privy to a mere slice of the many factors and components facing the philosopher emperor: from war fronts, internal politics, inflammatory gossip and civil unrest to the constant threat of pestilence and sickness...
It strikes awe to realize Marcus Aurelius’ ability to maintain his composure, his philosophical perspective, and his dedication to acting virtuously in such trying times... and gives one an even higher appreciation of the man whose nickname, Verissimus, meant truest of them all.
One quick note to parents: Since this is a graphic novel, I can see the appeal for younger learners who would enjoy an introduction to ancient history and philosophy. I would note however, as a mother myself, to please make sure it’s age appropriate for your kid. There is a lot of graphic violence, especially involving war and torture (as well as pretty grotesque rituals). There are also depictions of disease and some nudity. Parental discretion advised.
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