At long last, Relic Entertainment has announced that Age of Empires 4 is coming. Strategy gamers rejoice! I am excited – I played the first one back in ’98 (I may be dating myself here).
But the news brought me back to a common problem with many games of this type and with Age of Empires specifically: they don’t actually have any empires in them! And I am sure that some of you are a bit confused by this statement – after all, the games are full of Romans and Mongols and Persians and Assyrians and how can I say these weren’t empires? But there’s the thing – those were peoples who had empires. And it turns out that’s a pretty important distinction.
So today, we’re going to talk about what empire is, and (on a very basic level) how they work to see how games of this sort – not just AoE, but also the Civilization series and others – don’t reflect the mechanics of actual empires and why that matters.
What Is an Empire?
Let’s not bury the lede too far: an empire is a state where the core ruling population exercises control and extracts resources from a periphery which is composed of people other than the core group (linguistically/culturally/ethnically/religiously distinct). So an empire is a state where one set of people (the core) extract resources (typically by force) from another set of people (the periphery).
That definition goes back to the root of the word in Latin: imperium, literally meaning a command or control; imperium comes from the Latin verb imperio (lit: ‘to order or command’). Thus imperium was a sphere of command over others. In Roman politics, this could mean an individual had the authority to command an army or to set up courts (consuls, praetors and dictators had this sort of imperium), but the Romans understood their empire as a sort of command exercised by the Senate and People of Rome over non-Roman people, thus they called that too imperium – an imperium of the Roman people (imperium populi Romani), crucially over the non-Roman people; once cannot, after all, have imperium over one’s self. An imperium of the Roman people must be an imperium over someone else.
Contrary to the venerable Wikipedia, empire does not require a monarchy. Rome was an empire while it was still a Republic, and France continued to hold an empire after it stopped being a monarchy. Athens, famously, converted the Delian League into an Athenian Empire (the Greek word used is ἀρχή (‘arche’), pronounced ar-KHAY) while it was still, internally, a democracy. Often, when discussing the internal politics of these states (especially for Rome and France) we will distinguish between a period of ’empire’ and ‘republic’ to note the shift from a republic to a monarchy or vice-versa, but that sort of nomenclature should not be taken to disguise the fact that, for instance, the Roman Republic in 150 B.C. was very much possessed of an empire, while still functioning as a republic.
Empire, I should note, seems to be one of – if not the – dominant form of large-scale human social organization since at least the bronze age (which is to say: since as far back as our sources let us see clearly). Ideas like loose federations of states (e.g. the EU) or nation-states are relatively new; in many cases, our modern nation-states are merely the consolidated form of what were originally empires of various sizes (e.g. China, Russia, but also France (see: Crusade, Albigensian), etc.). We don’t think about them that way anymore, because the steady application of state power created the shared culture that subsequently formed the foundation for the nation (we’ll return to this – the way that how we think about these empires often disguises their nature – in a moment). In many respects, empire is normal (which, please note, does not mean it is good), whereas this modern world composed primarily of nation-states is an unusual aberration.
(As a side note, this to a degree exposes a bit of understandable but still amusing silliness in titling anything Age of Empires. There has never been an age without empires. We are certainly not living in an age without empires even now – ask the Tibetans, the Uighyrs, the Chechens how ‘ended’ imperialism is! And that doesn’t even get into the sticky question of if we might understand the United States as an empire (my own view is that it is better understood as a hegemony – but I could hardly blame a Guamanian, Puerto Rican or Navajo who begged to differ – and that, importantly, it is also not, and has never been, a nation-state, but that’s a contentious topic for another day).
Age of No Empires?
Which brings us back to Age of Empires, but also a slew of similar games which promise something they call ’empire building.’
In a typical game of Age of Empires, you begin with a small group of settlers imagined to be founding some great empire. You begin with workers harvesting local resources, which you use to build buildings which in turn produce further workers and then military units (I am, I know, moving over a lot of complexity in terms of tech-trees, age advancements, cheeky things you can do with long-distance trade, wololo and the rest – I do promise I have played these games, but I want to keep to the relevant details).
As the player expands – pursuing one of several victory conditions – they will run into other players (or the AI simulating players). The default setting is for all players to effectively be hostile to each other. Players do not conqueror the settlements of opposing players, or reduce them to tributaries (nor – since only one player or team can ‘win’ – can they settle on mutual cooperation), instead they annihilate those settlements, replacing whatever resource production they had with villager’s of the players own culture. It is striking that villagers cannot normally be captured (we’ll get to priests in a moment!), only killed.
This is, to put it bluntly, not how empires work. The entire point of establishing an empire is to access the resources and labor of a subordinate population (the periphery) – exterminating that population defeats the very purpose! The ’empires’ in Age of Empires are not empires at all, but fanatically murderous nation-states, projected backwards in history hundreds – if not thousands – of years before any such idea of a state existed. Few states have really followed this vision of conquest, but those that have – Nazi Germany is the most obvious example – are not generally well-thought of.
Now, there are three caveats on that rather scathing statement I want to address. First, that the game is to be understood as an abstraction and that we are to imagine all of the complexities of empire building taking place ‘behind the screen’ as it were – and that’s fair enough for many games of this type (it is surely what Civilization seems to want us to believe), but I don’t think it goes for Age of Empires, since the non-combatants are so clearly on screen and are not capturable by military units.
They are capturable by priests, which leads to the second caveat – that it is possible to forcibly convert, rather than annihilate, a people in Age of Empires. But that has three problems: first, that sort of cultural genocide is not something real empires usually (there were some exceptions) much cared about (because they do not care what the local customs are, generally, so long as the taxes get paid) and second, that shifting from genocide to ‘mere’ ethnic cleansing is not a great improvement. Third, it is clearly not expected that you will do this to most – or even very many – of your opponents. Priests capture one unit at a time with a long cooldown; the vast majority of humans on the map belonging to rival empires will be killed rather than captured in most games. Capture is merely a niche way to neutralize certain high value enemy units and thus turn battles – mechanically, it is not a real alternative to the war-of-annihilation.
The third, predictable and annoying argument is “stop overthinking it, it is just a game.” Which is – if you will permit me to paraphrase C.S. Lewis – an unserious ‘boy’s philosophy’ unfit for adults. Video games are cultural products, like books or films or any other – and to say that those cultural products have no impact or importance is to argue against the historically obvious, given how frequently we find such things at the roots of important political ideologies, social movements, and wars.
Real Empires Have Peripheries
Alright, so Age of Empires falls down on this account, so what?
I think the problem on this point is that Age of Empires – and cultural products like it – can distort our understanding of what empires are, and how they work and also how our own societies work (when we analogize from past ones – one of the core uses of historical reasoning). In particular, it appears in a failure to appreciate that successful empires historically were diverse by their very nature and that being a successful empire depended on managing diversity and benefiting from it.
Let’s take Rome as an example. As an ‘Empire’ in Age of Empires, the Roman player recruits Roman units, destroys their rivals and repopulates the land with Romans (this is not unique to the Romans – all factions function like this in the game). And – I want to make clear this is not a straw-man argument – I have absolutely had well-meaning people quite confidently inform me that Roman military strength was a consequence of their cultural and ethnic cohesiveness. I am not saying they learned this from video games, but rather than their vision and that of a game like Age of Empires seem to coincide and I suspect arise from the same set of misperceptions (yet another word that spellcheck defiantly insists is not a word, even though it is (I link to Websters because the OED is behind a paywall, but rest assured, misperception is there too)).
The Age of Empire version of Rome is thus always completely Roman, through and through, and never more powerful than the number of ethnic Romans on the map.
The actual Roman Empire was fantastically diverse and more importantly, its military success hinged on its diversity at every stage of its existence. In many games and cultural products, that diversity is obscured because we lose sight of ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural divisions which were very important at the time, but no longer matter to us very much. Let’s take a snapshot of Roman territory in 218 B.C. to give a sense of this.
Quite a few people look at a map like that, classify most of Rome’s territories as ‘Italian’ and assume there is a large, homogeneous ethnic core there (except, I suspect, anyone who has actually been to Italy and is aware that Italy is hardly homogeneous, even today!). But Roman Italy in 218 B.C. was nothing like that.
Peninsular Italy (which doesn’t include the Po River Valley) contained a bewildering array of cultures and peoples: at least three distinct religious systems (Roman, Etruscan, Greek), half a dozen languages (some completely unrelated to each other) and many clearly distinct cultural and ethnic groups divided into communities with strong local identities and fierce local rivalries (if you want more on this, check out Salmon, The Making of Roman Italy (1982), Fronda, Between Rome and Carthage (2010), and Keaveney, Rome and the Unification of Italy (2005)).
The Roman army was by no means entirely Roman – it was split between Roman citizens and what the Romans called the socii (lit: ‘allies’) – a polite term for the communities they had subjugated in Italy (a periphery!). Rome demanded military service – this was the resource they would extract – from these communities; the socii pretty much always made up more than half of the army. Diversity was literally the Roman strength, in terms of total military force. Without it, Rome would have remained just one city-state in Italy, and not a particularly important one besides.
(As an aside: while citizenship is extended to nearly all of Italy in the 80s B.C., by then Rome is making extensive use of non-Italian troops in its armies. by the early empire, half of the army – the auxilia – were non-Roman citizens recruited from the provinces. Roman armies were essentially never majority ‘Roman’ in any period, save possibly for the third century. And before anyone asks what about even earlier than my snapshot – it is quite clear – both archaeologically and in the Roman’s own foundation myths – that Rome was a fusion-society, culturally diverse from the city’s foundation. Indeed, sitting at the meeting point of Latin and Etruscan cultural zones as well as upland and coastal geographic zones was one of the great advantages Rome enjoyed in its early history, as near as we can tell.)
Outside of Italy, narrowly construed, the diversity only increases. Sicily’s population included Greeks, Punic (read: Carthaginian) settlers, and the truly native non-Greeks. Sardinia and Corsica had their own local culture as well. Cisalpine Gaul – the Po River Valley – was, as the name implies, mostly Gallic! As the Romans expended into Spain during the Second Punic War, they would add Iberians, Celt-Iberians, and yet more Punic settlers to their empire. And even those descriptions mask tremendous diversity – Iberians and Celt-Iberians were about as diverse among themselves as the Italians were; a quick read of Strabo reveals a wonderful array of sub-groups in all of these regions, with their own customs, languages, and so on.
Even if the Romans didn’t raise military force directly from any one of these groups, they do need to raise revenue from them – remember, the entire point of having the empire is to raise revenue from it, to make other people do the farming and mining and other labor necessary to support your society from the proceeds of their tribute. To keep that revenue flowing – revenue that, as the Roman army professionalized in the late second century B.C., increasingly paid for Roman military activity which held the empire together – you need to be good at managing those groups. Empires that are bad at handling a wide array of different cultures/religions/languages do not long remain empires.
I bring this up not because I demand utter historical accuracy in my games – I will almost certainly happily play Age of Empires IV despite this. Instead, I bring it up because I find that this overly simplified view – sometimes, depressing, held to be the truth by some – in its errors, reveals some important things about empires, which again, I should note, seem to have been the dominant very-large-scale organization system for humans generally in the historical period.
First it tends to obscure the necessarily diverse nature of empires – as we have just laid out and perhaps more to the point, it obscures the power that empires derive from being diverse. Well-run empires were able to draw on the resources, talents and particular skills of a wide variety of cultures. For instance, the Mongol lifestyle – rooted in the subsistence patterns of the steppe – produced excellence cavalry, but poor infantry and siege skills. But facing a Mongol army often meant facing cutting-edge Chinese siege technology and effective local infantry (whatever infantry the local agrarian societies produced), along with excellent Mongol cavalry. In the same way, a Roman army taking the field at the height of the empire might include not only high quality Italic (read: Roman) infantry, but also Sarmatian or Gallic heavy cavalry, Numidian or Arab light cavalry, expert composite bowmen from the east and skilled light infantrymen from all of the rough country of the empire. I am giving military examples, but the same could be true in engineering, cultural products (which might shore up imperial legitimacy) or administration.
I will say that I find even in games that do pay some lip-service to the continued existence of subordinated peoples within large empires – I think particularly of Europa Universalis, Stellaris and Imperator – the mechanics and dynamics for managing those populations in a polyethnic, polylinguistic society are often sharply underdeveloped. In many games that don’t simply erase those populations, they are instead represented by a simple malus (e.g. “Non-primary culture, -x% production/stability/manpower/whatever). As should already be apparent from the example I gave above, it was often greatly to the advantage of the imperial state to have access to diverse peoples, cultures, climates, etc.
Second, it obscures the necessary hierarchy of empire, by indulging in a fantasy whereby the expansion of an empire means an expansion of its core, rather than the subjugation of a much larger periphery to that core. Until the Constitutio Antoniniana (212 A.D.), most people in the Roman Empire were not Romans and did not enjoy Roman citizenship – they were subjects of the populus Romanus, which was itself a minority within the empire. The dominant human experience of empire is not the experience of being the imperial conqueror – it is the experience of being the subject of empire, of having taxes and resources extracted from you, in the name of a state that likely inflicts violence on you and may care little for your safety or needs.
That’s where we’ll stop this discussion for today – there’s a lot more to talk about in terms of the actual mechanics of how empires function. I have dealt here mostly with the kind of pre-modern empires, tributary empires, and not with the modern sort that we might call mercantilist empires, though the latter are no less diverse than the former (though they could be, on the whole, more brutal and less tolerant). So don’t worry – this is a topic we’ll come back to, though not right away.
But next week, we’re leaping forward – way forward – in time, and asking what the Battlestar Galactica (no, I am not kidding) could learn from the USS South Carolina (BB-26, launched in 1908, and no I am not kidding).