How Suitable is Verissimus for Children?
What's in the book and how to decide if it's appropriate reading
Our graphic novel, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, was written for adults but an increasing number of people have told me their children have been reading it. They told me that their kids saw the cover, were intrigued by the artwork, and “stole” their copy. Some teachers have also approached me, interested in purchasing copies for their classes. They think it would make a useful teaching aid.
With Christmas approaching, I’ve been asked about its suitability as a gift for young people. In this post, I’ll try to give a comprehensive answer, inspired by the review site Common Sense Media, which I think does a great job of helping adults decide for themselves what’s appropriate for their children. The short answer is that I would rate this book PG-13 but I’ll explain below the aspects of which parents and teachers should be aware, in order to decide for themselves.
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I asked my eleven year old daughter, Poppy, to whom the book is dedicated, for her opinion. She reckons it’s suitable for girls aged eleven or older, and for boys aged thirteen or fourteen plus. I asked her why the difference, although I kind of already guessed the answer. She said because there’s partial nudity on one of the splash pages — the only instance, incidentally, in the book.
Zé drew Faustina topless in his draft version. Then he covered her breasts when he coloured the page. We had a lot of discussion back and forth among our team about this page but decided to stay with the original concept. We felt we were working on a “serious” graphic novel, aimed primarily at adults. We wanted the reader to sense that we were showing Marcus Aurelius, and the others in his life, as real flesh-and-blood people, in contrast to the more abstract impression readers tend to get from prose biographies about him. It was important, we felt, to see Marcus and Faustina from a more human perspective.
Horror and Violence
Life in the 2nd century AD could be pretty brutal at the best of times, especially for soldiers, but during the rule of Marcus Aurelius, it was at its worst in some regards. The Antonine Plague, a horrifying disease, killed millions of people, and left others crippled or deformed. Marcus was engaged in warfare throughout much of his rule, although the Roman histories, fairly plausibly, portray these as wars of defense against various “barbarian” invaders.
We “leaned into the horror”, making it quite graphic, although Zé’s artwork has slightly more of a cartoon than realistic style. There are supernatural horror elements, in dreams and visions. There are several depictions of people suffering and dying from plague. There are many depictions of brutal ancient warfare, including slavery, and torture. I don’t think most teens would find these images disturbing but some young children might. Some readers have told us they really valued the inclusion of these images, which helped open their eyes to the brutal realities of Roman warfare.
There’s no offensive language in the book, as far as I’m aware. Generally the language is simple enough for a young teen to follow, although there are quite a few foreign (mostly Latin or Greek) names and phrases scattered throughout. Oaths are pre-Christian, derived from the literature of the era in which Marcus lived, e.g., “By Hercules!” or “In the name of Mithras!”
I think the ethnic composition of 2nd century imperial Rome would potentially be confusing to most modern-day Americans. For instance, sometimes ethnic groups played key roles who don’t exist anymore or are hard to identify. We tried to depict a diverse range of different ethnic groups in a way that is fairly accurate and representative of the historical era. I hope this helps readers to visualize life in ancient Rome, and on its frontiers, more realistically.
There are no individuals of Sub-Saharan African origin depicted in the book. There’s been some quite heated controversy about the depiction of “black” Roman subjects in recent years. My opinion is that although Marcus certainly knew many individuals from North Africa, such as Egyptians and Carthaginians, he would seldom have encountered individuals from the Sub-Saharan region. Marcus himself mainly interacts with Roman aristocrats and senators, none of whom were from Sub-Saharan Africa, although one of his closests friends, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, was born in modern day Algeria, reputedly of Berber descent. We have one chapter depicting the Bucolic War in Egypt, where there’s a contrast between the tribal Bucoli herdsmen and the Alexandrian ruling elites, who would have seen themselves as having strong links to Greek culture. We speculate that the Bucoli of the Nile Delta would look similar to modern-day Berbers, but our depiction of their attire, etc., is based on contemporary Roman sources.
Marcus spent most of his time in the city of Rome and surrounding Italian countryside until the Germanic tribes invaded, and he went north, around 169 CE, to lead the legions against them. From that time until his death, in 180 CE, he spent most of his time in what would sometimes be described as “foreign” regions, although provinces of the Roman empire. He dealt with many distinct Germanic tribes, most notably the Marcomanni and Quadi. However, he also waged a war against, and negotiated with, several tribes of the Sarmatian race, nomads who occupied the Eurasian Steppe, were of ancient Iranian descent, spoke an obscure language derived from the Scythians, and are described by Roman sources as predominantly tall and blonde or red-haired. One difficulty in depicting some of these tribes is that our main textual sources, which are mainly Greek and Roman, may sometimes caricature “barbarian” people as being less civilized than they actually were. In some cases, we qualify Roman accounts by depicting them as rumours about their enemies, leaving the reader to decide on their accuracy.
Ancient Rome was a sexist environment by modern standards. Women were subordinate to men, in most areas of life, although in a few instances, ancient female aristocrats did have a much greater amount of freedom, influence, and power. Agrippina the Younger, the mother of Emperor Nero, is perhaps a good example of a Roman woman who commanded exceptional wealth and power.
Marcus Aurelius’ mother, Domitia Lucilla, was an inspiring, highly educated, and powerful woman. She was actually one of the leading construction magnates of the period, having inherited important clay fields, and brick factories, from her family. A hidden source of female influence in Roman society was arguably that matriarchs would often take responsibility for choosing the tutors of their sons. We highlight the role Lucilla played in shaping Marcus’ education and speculate that she was involved in the choice of his Stoic tutors. (Marcus mentions an important letter sent to her by his main Stoic tutor, Junius Rusticus, implying that they were perhaps friends.) We also highlight the virtues that Marcus would later say he learned from his mother.
Faustina the Younger, Marcus’ wife, is a more ambiguous figure in the Roman histories. There were many stories about her infidelity, although historians are unsure how seriously to take them, and they may derive, for instance, from hostile propaganda spread by his enemies during the civil war. We focus an early chapter on Faustina and Marcus’ relationship with her.
The book contains several discussions of challenging ideas about religion and philosophy. For instance, there’s a two-page long conversation between Marcus and Fronto set in a graveyard, about the nature of death and the concept of an afterlife. Fronto feels the gods punish good and bad men equally and wants to console himself by believing a better life may await him after death. Marcus, by contrast, questions whether Fronto is right to think of divine reward and punishment in these terms, in the first place, and he rejects belief in an afterlife. Philosophical conversations like these about sensitive topics could be difficult reading for some younger children, although I think it’s appropriate for most teens.
This conversation, incidentally, is based very closely on two different sources that we chose to combine: a letter written by Fronto to Marcus, and a passage on similar themes written by Marcus decades later in the Meditations.
There’s a lot more going on in Verissimus but I hope that’s enough to give parents and teachers a representative sample of the content. So far, to be honest, my experience has been that most people find the book appropriate for their children, and I’ve genuinely been surprised to find even very young people getting into reading it — I thought it might be too “philosophical” for them but apparently not! I get the impression they’re drawn mainly to the artwork. I think Poppy, my own daughter, likes looking through the pictures, although I’m not sure she’s read all of the text, or followed the whole story. Children who are slightly older may read it cover to cover, though, especially if they’re interested in history or philosophy.
Here are some comments from reviewers:
The artwork and colors are superb. If you are studying Stoicism or Roman history then you will enjoy this book. Not for little kids! - mature story and themes - blood - death - appropriate for 11 or 12 and up. 6th graders+ — Amazon reviewer
Makes studying Stoicism come alive and more enjoyable for anyone. My elementary kids LOVE it, even. It's NEVER too early to present philosophy, and getting a grip on one's inner life, to kids. Start now... right here! Thanks to all involved in this project. It's beautiful, and a joy to experience. — Amazon reviewer
This is probably the first graphic novel that I've managed to read cover-to-cover - and I really enjoyed it. One or two "adult" images and a bit of gore (there was a lot of war in Roman times, so not for young kids. — Goodreads reviewer
I’m looking forward to donating this novel to the high school library I work to allow for students to enjoy this historical account of Aurelius’ life and the contributions he made in philosophy and as the Roman emperor. — Goodreads reviewer
If you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch. Verissimus is already available from anywhere that sells books, in either hardback or ebook format.