Collections: Expeditions: Rome and the Perils of Verisimilitude

This week we’re going to take a long look at Expeditions: Rome, a turn-based tactics RPG by developer Logic Artists, set in the first century BC Late Roman Republic. In particular, we’re going to look at how the game both constructs and uses its historical setting.

This is a particularly important topic to discuss because of a steady shift in how popular culture products attempt to use historical settings, a phenomenon I have taken to calling ‘historical verisimilitude.’ Put bluntly, it has become pretty clear that a veneer of historical accuracy or realism is a valuable marketing tool to set a work apart from the crowd. At the same time, the combination of cheaper CGI and easier online research has made accomplishing this through visual accuracy – making things look right – easier than it has ever been.

The result is a lot of pop-culture products that at least market themselves as rooted in history, from historically placed modern prestige products like HBO’s Rome or Netflix’s Outlaw King, to video games like, yes, Expeditions: Rome but also the Assassin’s Creed series and Age of Empires. The danger here is that the effort ends up only skin deep, historical versimilitude instead of historical accuracy, a product that looks right while being wrong.

And unfortunately, Expeditions: Rome makes an excellent case-study in the perils of historical verisimilitude.

Now I want to be clear at the beginning of this: this is an analysis of how a game (or any cultural product really – you could apply this same approach to a historically based film or book) uses its historical setting. It is not a review. For those looking for a review of the game, mine would run thusly: Expeditions: Rome is capable turn-based tactics RPG hybrid which efforts to use its historical setting to rise above its individual elements, which, though they are solidly serviceable, none are best in class. The turn-based combat here is good, but never quite matches either the depth of the XCom reboots, Battle Brothers or Warhammer 40K: Mechanicus, but also lack the simple elegance of The Banner Saga. Meanwhile the RPG elements, while still good and set with interesting characters, lack the depth or storytelling skill of Tyranny, Pillars of Eternity or Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous. That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had here: fans of both genres will find a lot to like and the technical execution here is good: the graphics work, the voice acting is uncommonly good for a title of this scale and there’s plenty enough game to be had (about 50 hours), though the last third of those hours drags terribly as the game overstays its welcome in Gaul (much like Caesar did). Expeditions: Rome is thus solidly good but not great game (though given the glut of games right now, I would perhaps not advise it at full price, especially if one has not exhausted some of the titles listed above); its aim at greatness comes from the claim of accuracy to the historical setting, which is – in my view – badly fumbled, as I’ll spend the rest of this very long post discussing.

I should also note that I played this game at release. There have been a few patches since then (mostly minor things) and a DLC for the game just dropped; I have not played the DLC. I did play through the entire campaign all the way to the end credits; it took me 49 hours according to Steam, so I think I have enough time spent here to comment. I should also note that I am not going to spare spoilers nor warn about them except here. For the sake of clarity, I have generally avoided referring to fictional characters by name, reserving that for historical characters, mostly so the descriptions here didn’t get too bogged down with names.

And with that out of the way, I hope we can move on to how Expeditions: Rome uses its historical setting and falls into the perils of verisimilitude.

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Making a Claim

Those of you who read my discussion of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla may recall that I started with the opening statement which all Assassin’s Creed games featured because I think that statement makes a claim about the game that follows and about the supposed care with which those games treat their historical inspiration. That element of a claim is important: many games make no real claim, either explicitly or in their presentation, to any sort of accuracy or care. If the latest Halo game doesn’t resemble real warfare or Stardew Valley doesn’t simulate the real economics of farming, that isn’t a problem because those games never really claimed to do that. To provide a blunt contrast, the Mount and Blade series does not claim at any point to simulate medieval fighting or society to any real degree; by contrast, Kingdom Come: Deliverance does make that claim, both at times explicitly and also implicitly in its presentation and marketing.1

And the existence of that claim to some form of historical accuracy or ‘realism’ affects how, as a historian, I am going to assess a cultural product because we assess such products largely against the degree to which they achieved their objectives (and then also the degree to which those objectives were worth striving towards). I cannot fault a game for failing at something it never tried to do.

Thus it is important to begin with this: Expeditions: Rome is making a clear claim to historical realism, on which much of its marketing and presentation rely. And that claim that the game is making to a degree of historical accuracy and thus realism is worth assessing.

A lot of the weight of this is carried by the games presentation, particularly its use of language. A lot of Latin terms, even ones with direct and uncomplicated English translations are left untranslated: servus is used instead of slave, legionarii for legionaries, legatus for legate, archers are sagittarii, helmets are galeae and on and on.2 Moreover, these terms are pronounced following the mainstream scholarly reconstruction of Classical Latin: servus is thus ser-wus, Asia Minor as Az-ee-a Mee-nor and Cicero is pronounced Ki-ker-oh rather than See-ser-oh as common in English. And I do want to note here that the pronunciation is on the mark: the developers say they had a Latin professor provide a complete pronunciation guide and I believe them. Keeping all of the voice actors on target with all of the Classical Latin pronunciation must have been hard and they do a surprisingly good job of it.

Meanwhile, especially with the Roman equipment of the early parts of the game, there is an effort for visual verisimilitude. The game’s artists were clearly working from real Roman exemplars in terms of arms and armor, rather than lamely copying ‘Hollywood Roman’ as is so often done. The oft-neglected lorica hamata (Roman mail armor) is prominent, as appropriate for the period, as are forms of the Montefortino-type helmet. Now we’ll come back to the accuracy of armor a little later, but the clear effect of this kind of work is again to impress the player with the historical realness of the game. That effort at visual verisimilitude extends to a lot of the sets and other equipment, which at least looks historical (even when it isn’t).

And of course you meet a lot of Wikipedia searchable historical figures: Lucius Licinius Lucullus, Gaius Julius Caesar, Mithridates VI, Cleopatra VII Philopater, Marcus Porcius Cato Minor (‘the Younger’), Marcus Tullius Cicero, Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) and so on. Some of these are the sort most people might vaguely remember from their history classes, but others – Lucullus in particular – are obscure enough to, I suspect, impress most people who might rush to Wiki-walk this figure they’ve never heard of to find that he was a real historical person of some note. Likewise, the three acts are modeled on three wars of the Late Roman Republic: The Third Mithridatic War (73-63), Caesar’s War in Egypt (47) and Caesar’s Gallic Wars (58-50), albeit awkwardly out of order. In short, the game features the kinds of historical details that are easy for a casual player to confirm and thus be led to suppose the rest of the history in the game is similarly accurate.

And the claim being made here isn’t simply one of silent presentation, the game’s steam page promises “a historically inspired story of political intrigue.” And the reviewers have clearly noticed! Leanna Hafer at IGN praised the game for going “out of its way to get a lot of the small details rights” while Robert Zak at PCGamer declared that “where Expeditions: Rome really shines is in its attention to historical detail.” The message of the marketing and presentation was heard, loud and clear!

The developers and their game are thus telling the players that they can trust that there is some real history going on in this game, something deeper than just the names and funny accents. And the reviewers at major outlets are reinforcing that impression. Judging by steam reviews, many players have also accepted this as a historically rooted presentation, rich with accurate details about the Roman world.

Which is why it is so unfortunate that it isn’t true.

(A quick stop before we go forward on chronology terms. This game takes place from 74-62BC; we’ll get to why I can be so accurate later. That places it squarely in the Late Republic (133-31BC); I will also occasionally reference the earlier Middle Republic (280-133BC).)

This joke, where both Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, mentioned briefly by Caesar but made famous by way of HBO’s Rome, can show up as recruitable centurions is great.


Domi et militiae (or domi militiaeque) is a common Latin phrase meaning ‘at home and in military service,’ which in practice meant ‘in peace and war’ – both a way of saying ‘everywhere’ but also a potent expression of the conceptual division the Romans imposed on their world: Romans were either at home (domi) or abroad in military service (militiae). Expeditions: Rome doesn’t name-check this idea that I could find, but it follows it in its basic structure (albeit in reverse order): the game is broken into three acts, each of which begins with a military campaign and then when that is done concludes with a short act in the city of Rome dealing with the political fallout of that campaign and setting up the next one. We thus go from the Third Mithridatic War to Rome to a war in Egypt to Rome to a war in Gaul to Rome and then the credits roll. So rather than taking the game in chronological order in all three acts it seemed reasonable to break it up by these two categories to begin with.

The campaign sections are split into essentially two parts. On the one hand, you are in control of one and later two legions which you order around the map to fight other enemy armies and on the other hand you yourself move around with your elite praetorians to do the sort of small-unit tactical fights that the Expeditions series is well-known for. Now part of the problem is here is that this isn’t actually the sort of thing praetorians got up to (or speculatores, scouts, for that matter) – Roman armies did not have ‘special forces’ in the modern sense and by the Late Republic the smallest detached unit was the cohort, not an elite body of a dozen but a chunky formation of around 480 heavy infantrymen. Still, the various adventures your main character gets up to are all quite pardonable given the genre of game we’re working with, though it really does speak to the degree to which the Expeditions format is not a good fit for Roman warfare.

The senior figures under your command in the legion make decent enough sense: you are always a legate (legatus), your direct subordinate is a centurion primus pilus and your camp has a praefectus (clearly intended to be the praefectus castrorum). As a legate, you are never commanding in your own right (in theory) but subordinate to someone else. We’ll come back to this in the next section on politics because this becomes a problem at points; in practice the prominence here of assignments as a legatus is a bit unusual. It’s not that legates were unknown in the Middle or Late Republic, but legates with the kind of command independence you enjoy were unusual (and often required special permission). When distributed command was required, it was more common to assign military tribunes or the commander’s quaestor (both figures who do not appear much in the game, though they ought to be very important and prominent figures).

From this point though, things begin to come apart. Even when you have command of two legions, they are separate units that never fight together. This is a common misconception in the public, that the ‘legion’ was essentially the Roman word for ‘army.’ It wasn’t (that word was exercitus); the legion was, by the Middle Republic, almost always a component of a larger army. Indeed the standard Roman (consular) army was two legions (each 4800 strong), plus two equivalent allied detachments (alae or wings because they formed on the flanks) of equal size; a total force of notionally 19,200. Armies could be larger (and by the Late Republic, the allies are no longer deployed in alae, but now having Roman citizenship are recruited directly into the legions); Caesar had 11 legions in Gaul by the end, for instance. Indeed, a single legion was the standard size of a foraging party for the larger army (Caes. BGall. 4.32; App. BCiv. 4.122; Plut. Luc. 17; Plut. Sert. 13.6). So the fact that you maneuver two legions independently and that they never fight together is very strange. Other games do this too (looking at you, Total War: Rome II) and it never ceases to frustrate me.

Other organizational elements are also odd. Your legions never operate with supporting allied forces despite the fact that this was fairly standard practice in this period (to be clear, I don’t mean socii, but rather allied units of non-Italians from the campaign theater or from other states allied with Rome), to the point that Roman armies in this period frequently didn’t seem to supply their own cavalry at all. Meanwhile, characters repeatedly remark that ‘service brings citizenship’ which is simply not true of the Roman army of this period and won’t be true until Augustus.3

The battles between your legions and enemy forces also fail to represent Roman warfare of this, or any, period well. You army is represented by an array of icons presumably meant to represent its component units (see the picture below) with units represented by swords, round shields, bows-and-arrows and horses. I am utterly at a loss as to what this could represent; by the Late Republic, a Roman citizen legion had at most two troop types: ‘post-Marian’ Roman heavy infantry (mail armor, the scutum rectangular or oval shield, two pila heavy javelins and a gladius) and sometimes also Roman cavalry (mail armor, the clipeus round shield, a spear and a gladius). The legion had no organic force of archers in any period and in this period no type of soldier that used a round shield on foot (earlier legions had the velites, light infantry skirmishers that used the parma small shield, but this troop-type is long extinct by the time our game takes place). And being a legion, we should have ten component elements: the cohorts. But as you can see in the picture, for some reason I have 24 units of infantry. And they’re arrayed in four lines, which is not a standard Roman formation either.

The baffling thing here is that these battle graphics are basically window-dressing. All you do is choose an attack plan in each phase (from a choice of three) and then the battle plays out until the next phase (a total of four phases); if you’ve played a space battle in Endless Space you’ve got a good sense of how it works. But precisely because this visual display is non-functional there should have been little difficulty in making it accurate!

The overall campaign map itself also doesn’t go a great job of expressing what a Roman army on campaign does very well. Your praetorians eat food, but your legion doesn’t, so while you have to have your legion forage for food, it isn’t the sort of pressing, continual regular sort of task it would be for an actual legion. You are not, as Caesar was, constantly breaking off cohorts to go deal with provocative locals or gather supplies, nor, as noted, do you concentrate several legions together for major field-battles. So not only do your legions not fight with Roman tactics, they also don’t perform Roman operations either.

There is also the matter of your camp. We are almost preposterously well-informed about the layout of Roman camps. It is good the game represents your soldiers constructing a field camp wherever they go, but the camp they build (which is also reused as the camp structure for other legions not under your command) doesn’t resemble actual Roman camps at all. The command section (the principia in which was the praetorium) isn’t centered in the camp (and oddly has a secondary vallum to defend it), the via principalis and via praetoria (or decumana) and don’t structure the camp itself and the defenses, which should be (as we’ve discussed!) an agger (earthwork rampart) and fossa (ditch) topped with a vallum (wall of stakes) is replaced with a wooden palisade. The Roman baffle-gate (the titulum and clavicula) are gone and instead the game is dug down into the earth to provide a height advantage for defenders, which is not how the Romans did their entry-point defense. Getting this right doesn’t seem like it should have been hard, though as we’ll see a lot of the ‘set’ dressing in the game is quite off.

This is not what a Roman camp would have looked like or its layout. Note that the main entrance to the camp is just off-screen to the right. Also, while we’re here, that catapult at the front left is not how Roman torsion catapults were constructed; catapults did not look or function like that in this period.

There are yet more problems in the game’s class system, since each of your praetorians has to fit into a specific RPG-class; Expeditions: Rome commandeers Roman terminology for these classes but smashes the terms to fit standard tactics classes. The princeps is your heavily armored sword-and-scutum soldier, which is good and correct. But then your triarius is a two-handed spear support trooper, which is wrong in a few ways: first in the Middle Republic when the triarii did fight with a spear, it was a one-handed spear used with the scutum (large oval shield) not a two-handed pike and second by the 70s BC when the game takes place the triarii had dropped their spear entirely and were equipped exactly the same as the princeps.

Next, is the veles class, presented as a fast, light infantry melee-damage class, wrong twice over. First, the actual velites were lightly-armored javelin skirmish troops, not shock troops and certainly not duel-wielding ‘melee dps.’ But also, by the first century the velites have vanished from our sources so your army shouldn’t have any of them at all!4 And then the last class is sagittarius. On the one hand, sagittarius is the Latin for ‘archer’ and this is the archer class, but on the other hand there were never any sagittarii in the legions at all: the Romans from the Early Republic through the High Empire seem always to have relied on non-citizen mercenaries and auxiliaries to make up their archer units (and yet it is one of the Roman-citizen-Italians in your party who has this role, not the Roman citizen from Mauretania, nor the Greek, nor the Scythian woman from a people famous for their mounted woman archers. Real missed opportunity there to make the woman archer a woman from a culture known for woman archers.).

I understand the need in a game like this to allow the player some build-diversity; a squad entirely of slower, heavily armored sword-shield-and-javelin guys (the accurate loadout for a group of Romans in this period) would have gotten boring. But there was a real missed opportunity to express something about the structure of Roman armies and their heavy reliance on non-Roman allies and auxiliaries in this period by, for instance, having all of the Romans kitted out as legionaries and filling in the other roles (spear trooper, light trooper, ranged trooper) with non-Romans serving in an auxiliary capacity. Instead, everyone except your ‘triarius’ is a Roman citizen (the party’s starting triarius is Syneros, an enslaved Greek man, which could have worked as him fighting as a phalangite if the phalangite’s pike-and-shield loadout was even possible in this game, which it isn’t) and your recruited centurions – all clearly Roman – can be any class.

Fortunately the Roman equipment is mostly fine. Everyone can wear the period-correct lorica hamata (mail armor), which for build-diversity’s sake the game divides into light, medium and heavy varieties (there’s no evidence for such a division), along with Montefortino-type helmets. The main swords and shields also look correct; frankly a lot of the equipment in the game looks to have been modeled off of real-world museum pieces and in many cases I think I may even know which ones. There are some issues here, presumably arising out of the desire to give some visual variety: the so-called lorica segmentata5 shows up several decades too early and the Roman pectoral (a plate chest-protector) shows up probably at least a half-century too late.

The same cannot be said for the equipment of your enemies: the developers fall into the trap here of ‘playing the hits’ regardless of time period. Thus the Greek match to your principes are hoplites, with Corinthian helmet, aspis and dory almost straight out of the fifth century BCE – these fellows should mostly be phalangites with pikes, the ochane-strap aspis (a loadout that is not possible in the game’s rules) and the smaller pilos or konos helmet types (which are in the game, so point there). Missing entirely are the absolutely ubiquitous Greek skirmishing infantry of the period, the thureophoros, who would have been equipped much like the Romans with an oval shield (the thureos6), a xiphos (or probably by this point, a gladius!) and possibly javelins or a dory. Some thureophoroi wore armor (our sources call them thorakitai, ‘armored ones’), but most didn’t except for a helmet. Macedonian-style phalangites, the mainstay of Hellenistic armies, don’t appear at all, as far as I could see. The lack of these fellows (there’s a picture of a thureophoros thorakites from the Siden stele below) is really striking because these fellows were absolutely everywhere in Hellenistic armies of the second and early first centuries.

What Expeditions: Rome appears to think first-century Egyptian troops looked like. Also, I feel the need to note: helmets with face masks like this were parade pieces, they were not worn in combat. Also, apparently we’re doing the dumb Hollywood thing where ancient people just really liked bracers.

All of which pales in comparison to the Rome: Total War (the first one) style disaster that is the Egyptian troops, who more resemble the troops of the Egyptian New Kingdom, 1550-1077 BC (oblong shields, loin-cloths and bare chests) than they do the troops of Hellenistic Egypt. Stunningly, some Egyptian enemies wield kopeshes, a weapon that was nearly a full millennium out of practical use by the time the Romans showed up. Historically Egypt had been conquered by Alexander and his successors two centuries earlier and they had imposed a Macedonian-style military system where much (but not all) of the manpower was itself ethnically Greek or Macedonian. Consequently while we might see some local fashion, the equipment of Egyptian troops should be quite similar to that of the Greeks: heavy phalangites with pikes and lighter thureophoroi with oval thureoi shields. To be clear on the disconnect, this is the equivalent of putting William the Conqueror’s knights and archers in a movie about the U.S. War in Afghanistan. Choosing to exoticize Egyptian armies like this is an incredibly frustrating choice and one that, as we’ll see, the game indulges in with its story and characters too.

Via Wikipedia, the soldier from the Sidon Stele (c. 350-50 BC) – more details here – what a first century Egyptian soldier actually looked like.

It’s worth remember that the Great Pyramid of Egypt was as old to Cleopatra (inexplicably in this game, see below) as Cleopatra is to us. There is an enormous chronological separation between the Bronze Age that is evoked by a lot of the visuals and the late Hellenistic period the game actually takes place in. Mercifully, for the last chapter, in Gaul, ‘the hits’ are the time period we’re in and so the equipment is mostly on target.

Finally and perhaps most unfortunately, the brutality of Roman warfare and conquest is underplayed, mostly because you as the player, are the one doing it. The game frequently gives you decisions on how to treat defeated foes and most players are going to pick the ‘nice’ answer. At no point do characters really push back on you for this; no centurion demands the customary looting, murder and rape upon the capture of a fortified city by storm, for instance (there is one centurion who keeps trying to pilfer things off of the locals, but you keep stopping him). Polybius describes the custom of how the Romans capture a city:

 When Scipio thought that a sufficient number of troops had entered he sent most of them, as is the Roman custom, against the inhabitants of the city with orders to kill all they encountered, sparing none, and not to start pillaging until the signal was given. They do this, I think, to inspire terror, so that when towns are taken by the Romans one may often see not only the corpses of human beings, but dogs cut in half, and the dismembered limbs of other animals, and on this occasion such scenes were very many owing to the numbers of those in the place. Scipio himself, with about a thousand men, proceeded to the citadel. On his approach Mago at first attempted to resist, but afterwards, when he saw that the city had undoubtedly been captured, he sent a message begging for his life and surrendered the citadel. After this, upon the signal being given, the massacre ceased and they began pillaging. (Plb. 10.15.4-8)

Likewise the mass enslavement of captives isn’t really dealt with, at least not with the sort of moral horror it ought to inspire. This ‘soft touch’ leads to oddities where, for instance, as part of the main quest line in Gaul you forge alliances with two different groups of Gallic druidic religious leaders, which is absolutely bizarre given that this is a religious practice that the actual historical Romans brutally exterminated. There is some discomforting moments of imperialism; soldiers extort locals, for instance, but for a player following the ‘good’ choices, they’re likely to have an epilogue implying that they left their conquered provinces better than when they found them, with little to no reference to the catastrophic trauma that often accompanied Roman conquest. At no point are you engaging in mass violence against civilians, despite the fact that mass violence against civilians was a clear and regular part of Roman warfare. This is a problem in a game presenting itself as historically accurate which is about Roman imperialism.

So how well does this game reflect the Roman military system of the Late Republic or – frankly – any period at all? Not very well at all. Clearly a lot of effort was put into verisimilitude – the appearance of being real or true (what for a hot second got jokingly labeled ‘truthiness’ rather than truth) – but in the actual historical details, the game fumbles almost everything else to some greater or lesser degree, from organization to leadership to equipment to the camp to battle tactics themselves.

And the worst part is…this is as good as it gets.


The situation when it comes to affairs in Rome is if anything somewhat worse. The three military campaigns you are on are tied together with a political intrigue plot that incorporates both a number of historical figures (Lucullus, Cicero, Cato and Pompey most notably) along with two villains invented for the game (indeed, the game suggests in one of its loading screens that the deviations from historical events should be attributed to the actions of these two a-historical villains, though as we’ll see there are bigger problems than this).

Expeditions: Rome’s map of Rome in the 60s BC.

And once again the signifiers of historical accuracy are present in abundance. The game provides a map of Rome with some of the major landmarks labeled in Latin and all in roughly the right place, though looking closely at the drawing of the map already we run into problems because we are actually somewhat well informed about the basic layout of Rome in this period. The wall circuit drawn on the map are the Aurelian Walls of Rome (built in the 270s AD) not the period-correct Servian Walls (which did not encompass the Campus Martius, the Janiculum, and only part of the Caelian and Aventine hills). Key landmarks aren’t really represented or represented well: the Capitoline is one big temple, but the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus which is obviously intended here did not stretch the whole hill. The Circus Maximus is entirely missing (odd, it would have been by far the largest landmark in the Rome of the Late Republic) and the visual representation of the Forum Romanum doesn’t really evoke much of the actual layout of the forum. The map is also quite flat, something that Rome is not, as anyone who has been there will attest, but this may just be a stylistic choice.

Via the Ancient World Mapping Center, a freely available map of Rome during the Late Republic from the second edition of The Romans: From Village to Empire. It does not seem like it should have been very hard to just give your artist this freely available map made by professional ancient historians at the Ancient World Mapping Center to work from to at least get things like the layout of the walls of Rome correct.

More of an issue is that while we get a lot of Latin terms again: consuls, praetors, quaestors, lictors (that is, consules, praetores, quaestores and lictores, because again these are spelled and pronounced as in Classical Latin), both the fussy details of how the Roman government works and also the more important broad principles by which it works are frequently wrong.

We can start with some of the fussy details by way of example. A trial is proposed at the end for a sitting consul and/or dictator, a thing which cannot legally happen: under Roman law, holders of imperium – the power to command armies and organize law courts (essentially the power of the king) – were immune to prosecution while they held that imperium. This is not a minor fact: it is in fact the crucial fact that motivates the January crisis of 49 that results in Caesar crossing the Rubicon and ending the Republic! And then that trial is held in the Senate, a body which could not hold trials in this period. When earlier a sitting consul runs amok everyone else looks up helplessly, despite the fact that one of the player’s allies is the other consul who could thus veto all of the actions of his colleague (failing that, surely someone could find one of the ten tribunes of the plebs who also had that power). While the game stops to open the Senate with a ritual address and a mention of the auguries, the rest of Senate procedure – particularly the speaking in seniority order – is not followed; instead very junior senators (mostly Cato the Younger, who was never very senior in the Senate but this early was fundamentally inconsequential – his first notable political event is actually December of 63) chime in right at the start. The player can suggest that they be given a pro-consular command prior to having held any magistracy. This did happen once (Pompey, naturally) but would have been extremely irregular to a degree that surely someone should have pointed out, but instead the suggestion is treated as a legitimate one.

And then there is the appointment of a dictator. In the third act (remember, I warned about spoilers!) the villain contrives to get himself appointed dictator and just about everything about the procedure is wrong. First, he dispenses with the auguries for the meeting, which would be an incredibly foolish thing to do since it would legally and religiously invalidate everything else that happens; the Romans were a religious people and they cared about this sort of thing. Then, he proposes that the Senate elects him dictator, which is – as we’ve discussed – not how the process works. Instead the Senate suggests a dictator be nominated and then it is up to the consuls to nominate one. In any event, the villain then nominates the only person he cannot nominate, himself. This was a restriction observed even by Sulla and Caesar despite their otherwise manifest lawlessness; the villain needs his co-consul to nominate him (but good luck, his colleague in office is Cicero). Then a vote to confirm the nomination is held in the Senate, a thing the Senate did not do, and the appointment is held to be permanent, a thing that was only done in 44 BC less than two months before the fool that did it was stabbed 23 times in a meeting of 60 of his closest friends.

By the way, Cato here is wrong about this too, there were no requirements for the office of dictator, except that no dictator had ever nominated themselves.

Cicero, despite being the co-consul stands by helplessly as this happens, despite the fact that he could use his power of veto to kill the motion, or his power of iustitium to shut down the Senate, or his position as both consul and an augur to declare the omens were bad, or the fact that as the other consul he could nominate literally anyone to deadlock the process thus forcing the two consuls to literally draw straws to decide who got to nominate someone. In short, Cicero has about a half-dozen ways to effortlessly shut down this sinister attempt at a coup that he knows is a sinister attempt at a coup and yet does none of them. And before anyone says it is because Cicero might be squeamish, let me remind you all that historically this was the very year Cicero had five members of Catiline’s sinister attempt at a coup strangled to death without trial and then calmly informed the people of Rome that, ‘Vixere’ – ‘they have lived.’7

We can actually date this fictional event (and the rest of the game) pretty securely. The game begins – we are told – in the consulship of Lucullus (and Cotta), which was 74 BC. The final act begins in the year of the consulship of Cicero (and the villain, who I suppose beat out Gaius Antonius Hybrida for the second slot) which was 63. There’s little wiggle-room on this second date, by the by: Cicero held his consulship (as he never ceases to remind us) in suo anno – in the first year he was eligible – and Pompey is pointedly not in the Senate for this vote (he doesn’t return to Rome from the East until 62) so we have to be somewhere between January, 63 and the winter of 62; this is a fairly narrow range we can date to. And that more or lesslines up with the very vague date-ranges we are given for the time-skips between campaigns, with some obvious fudging since the developers cannot know how fast the player will finish each campaign section.

And the larger problem there is that all of this happens amidst a Senate that, while panicked, is not being held at sword-point. Remember that, by 63, the last time a dictator was appointed voluntarily by the Senate according to the customary system was in 202; the customary dictatorship has been by this point a dead office for 139 years. That had not been a period without crises, but the Senate had gotten in the habit of responding to crises with different commands (mostly pro-consular ones). Instead, what everyone would remember is that Sulla made himself dictator at sword-point in 82 and then proceeded to butcher all of his political opponents including much of the Senate. The only other subsequent dictator would, of course, be Caesar, also appointed to the office with a knife at the neck of the Senate. The Senate of 63 would probably have assumed that any new dictator would begin by violently culling the Senate, since that is what the last dictator did. The notion that the Senate of the first century could be panicked into appointing a dictator like this is more than a little absurd and it speaks to the very historical fumble we talked about with the dictatorship: the failure to recognize the long chronological break between the customary dictatorship and the irregular one and to thus assume that the dictatorship was a ‘live’ office in the first century when it wasn’t.

Now were it only the fussy details I wouldn’t be so upset: no game I have ever played has gotten close to getting Roman politics right. But there are also some fairly major problems here where flat statements about the nature of the Republic are made which are both wrong, historically speaking, but also wildly out of character for the characters saying them. In short, the game presents the Republic as a representative democracy and it was no such thing.

Well this is a bad sign.

I first suspected we might be in for a degree of trouble when the tooltip for the Campus Martius describes it as, “Every year, the fields of Mars are host to the entire population of Rome as everyone comes together to vote for the Senate.” Almost every part of that sentence is wrong somehow. Roman elections took place (depending on the office being elected) in three assemblies, only one of which (the comitia centuriata) traditionally met on the Campus Martius; the other two (the comitia tributa and the concilium plebis) traditionally, at least, met in the comitium. The notion that ‘the entire population’ of Rome voted is also wrong: adult citizen males were the only qualified voters and moreover even a fairly casual glance at the logistics of doing in-person elections in these spaces would suggest that turnout was very low (even more so for Romans who lived outside of Rome).8 And finally and most catastrophically:

The Senate was not elected.

Not directly, anyway. Romans in those three assemblies voted for the annual magistrates (different assemblies elected different magistrates). Holding one of the senior magistracies (the quaestors and up) entitled an individual to a lifetime seat in the Senate, although this had to be actually confirmed by a pair of magistrates, the censors, who were elected once every five years and who kept the Senate rolls. A system in which anyone who manages to get elected to the quaestorship ever sits on the Senate for life is not a system in which the Senate is elected annually. Indeed, the Senate was not directly elected at all and it seems worth noting that whatever the people thought, the two censors, if they agreed could eject any senator for moral failings whether the voters wanted it or not. There is a huge difference between actually electing the Senate every year and a system where any idiot who can win one of the by-this-point-twenty quaestorships every year gets to sit in the Senate forever with effectively no way for the voters to remove them.

All of which makes it even more frustrating when, in talking to Cicero, your character hears him say this, “None but the citizens can know what’s best for them. Public servants fulfill their needs and wishes. Senators should represent [emphasis original] the people, not rule them.” I hollered at this line with sufficient volume that I startled poor Percy and my better half came to check what was wrong.

The first problem with that line is that it is incorrect about the nature of the Republic. Roman magistrates and senators were not representatives, they did not have constituents. They did not represent districts or neighborhoods nor were they expected to represent the interests of anyone in particular. They were elected by the people but once in office not beholden to them (remember, membership in the Senate is for life) and elite Roman politicians were expected to make their decisions based on their own wisdom and virtue, not to reflect or represent the will or wishes of the public. Reflecting the wishes of the public was what the assemblies were for and more often than not the assemblies and the magistrates were imagined to be opposed institutions, since the former was dominated by Rome’s landholding small-farmer class and the later by Rome’s ultra-rich magnate elite. Indeed, as Polybius expressly points out, the Senate was the aristocratic element of the Roman constitution (compared to the democratic assemblies and quasi-monarchic consuls) (Plb. 6.11.11-13). So as a description of the actual Roman political system, this statement is badly misleading.

It is even worse as an expression of Cicero‘s opinion of the structure of the Republic. Cicero wrote extensively both about the politics of his day and his notion of the ideal of Roman politics; we are very, very well informed about what Cicero believed about politics. And in Cicero’s mind, the anti-representative nature of the Roman Republic was a virtue; Cicero is open and proud about how the structure of Roman voting bodies disenfranchises the poor: he thinks that’s good because he’s a snob that thinks poor people make bad decisions. He is equally blunt about how the Senate was and was supposed to be insulated from the whims of the people. Cicero, like most Roman elites, thought democracy was bad and were open about this belief.

This joke is at least also legitimately funny for Asterix and Obelix readers.

Finally, the game’s approach to the collapse of the Republic is unsophisticated at best. When I play RPGs, I tend to bring in characters from my own pen-and-paper games and make decisions as they would; for this game I brought in a character that we might broadly classify as patriotic ‘lawful good’ and made my decisions accordingly. As a result, at the end of the game he selflessly laid down his command and prosecuted the villains in court; as a result in the ending splash screen I was informed that he later held the consulship and had effectively ‘saved the Republic.’

This isn’t the time or place to get into why the republic fell; that’s a survey-course sized question. But one point I make in my survey course treatment of that question is that the collapse of the Republic was not simply the result of the ambition of any one man. It had substantial structural factors motivating it, from military reforms that disconnected the interests of soldiers from the interests of voters to the general inability of a political system designed for a city-state of 250,000 to cope with being the government of 3.5 million Italians ruling over an empire of 50 million to the spectacular increases in inequality brought on by the virtual flood of wealth into Italy. At best the game hints that the Senate has become slow and bureaucratic (which is not quite the right way to explain the frequent political deadlocks of the Late Republic either; stubborn intransigence by an entrenched elite is not the same as bureaucratic slowness – the Roman Senate was not the Galactic Senate of Star Wars), but not much of the rest of those many causes show up. Certainly none of them – none of them at all – would be solved by beating the villain and laying down power (a point that ought to be obvious because several Romans – by their own lights – do exactly this, most notably Sulla and Pompey). But I suppose for a game that doesn’t understand the Republic very well, it can be little shock that it also doesn’t understand why it collapsed.

If there is one failing, I think, in the whole game’s approach to the historical Rome that frustrates me the most, this is it: the player of this game who assumes because of the reviews and the pretty Latin that this game expresses something real about the structure of Roman politics ends up knowing less than nothing.9 And it is more frustrating because this is an on-rails RPG (few of the choices you make matter until the ending ‘how everyone ended up’ splash screen) so it ought to have been possible to actually express some of the real complexity of the Late Republic’s political system because you don’t have to try to model the damn thing. It certainly wasn’t necessary, from a story perspective, to get it this wrong.

Buildings and Places

With the two big topics out of the way, we can move into a collection of smaller topics that, while smaller, I think also add up to bring problems. We can start with places.

The game’s rendition of the Curia Julia, which was not even yet built by this time, but also nowhere near this large or lavish.

In the design of the ‘sets’ and architecture in the game, the common trend is towards space much larger, more open and generally grander than historically accurate. In some cases, especially in areas that need to accommodate the game’s turn-based tactical battles, this is understandable to create interesting and layered combat arenas, but the approach is extended into generally non-combat areas too. The Curia Hostilia, the Senate house until it was burned down in 52 BC, features in the game and is presented as a large, lavishly decorated marble structure. But what we know about the layout of the forum suggests that the Curia Hostilia wasn’t that big and probably also wasn’t that lavishly decorated. The eventual replacement Curia, the Curia Julia (completed in 29) is the obvious inspiration for the Curia we see in the game, but even that structure is substantially smaller and more austere than the game’s version, only 25.2m by 17.6m and build in brick rather than marble. Filled with notionally six hundred senators, it would have been a very cramped space indeed, not the massive, spacious area we see in the game. The developers did absolutely nail the floor-tiling of the Curia Julia, but that bit of careful accuracy strikes me as odd because of course it belongs to a building that won’t exist for decades after the game concludes, built by a figure the game unceremoniously kills off in the introduction. Still, if they had carefully recreated the Curia Julia I wouldn’t mind so much, rather than making space that is clearly much larger and more lavish than even that later structure.

The interior of the actual Curia Julia, which again, would have been bigger and more finely decorated than the Curia Hostilia, which would have been what was available in the 60s BC.

The player’s city house (their domus) is likewise absurdly lavish, an absolutely massive structure apparently on the Velian Ridge that projects north of the Palatine in the center of the city. The house is three stories tall, occupies an entire city block, easily larger and more heavily decorated than even the preposterously lavish House of the Faun in Pompeii; it is likewise a fair bit bigger and more lavish than the Domus Augusti on the Palatine that Augustus built as emperor. Oddly, it does not follow some of the building conventions of a domus either. The front facade is colonnaded and has a large street-facing garden, which Roman city domi do not; the street-facing side of a elite domus was taken up by shop-space which could be rented. The house also exists as an island, surrounded by streets on all sides with garden spaces between it and the roads, which even elite Roman domi generally did not do; they tended to share external walls with other buildings and were in any case shaped to be flush with the streets – space was expensive in a city center (none more so than Rome) so you used all of it. The interior decoration is mostly stonework with lots of marble (including a bas-relief frieze of a cavarly battle that runs the sides of the peristylium, a fantastic over-the-top bit of decoration) rather than cheaper and far, far more common plaster with painted frescoes or mosaic. Heavy decorative stonework was generally a feature of temples, not houses. While there are elements of the standard Roman domus here, the house is hardly a good guide to what an elite Roman house would look like and it also threw me a bit for the plot: the extravagance of a mansion like this in the center of Rome really implies that the player character’s family has much, much more wealth and power than you seem to.

I could not get the entire player’s domus into a single screenshot, but here is part of it, the rear of the house in three floors off of the peristylium.

A much more frustrating problem is the game’s use of polychromy – that is, the multicolored painting of Greek and Roman statues – or more correctly, its failure in this regard. Historians and archaeologists have long known that Greek and Roman statues were almost always painted, typically very bright, bold colors. That point has become politically contentious in recent years for frankly unserious and silly (and sometimes odious) reasons but the evidence is very clear: Greek and Roman statues were painted. ‘Marble white’ was not the intended color of the figures being presented. But Expeditions: Rome opts to leave nearly all of its statues unpainted (though colored marble is occasionally used) which is just a baffling choice given the amount of attention this particular issue has received. It’s particularly frustrating because this issue dovetails with a point that other parts of the game are actually quite good with: showing the diversity of the Roman world.

::Deep inhale::


So let’s start with the good here. The player’s party has a range of individuals from all over the Mediterranean. I should at the outset that the game plays fast and loose with gender – the player character can be female and two of your party members are women. This is, to put it lightly, a stretch albeit an understandable one. The Romans did not have any ‘Molly Pitcher‘ or Hua Mulan figures. We have no evidence of women fighting in any Roman army in this or any period. But as with other games, I understand the design imperative here and the game at least signals how unusual this is, with female characters occasionally having to hide their identities. I don’t think any modern players will be meaningfully misled by this fudge and so it doesn’t bother me.

On the flip side, I am actually mostly pleased by how ethnic diversity is treated in the game. The party includes both a Mauretainian freedman and a Scythian freedwoman and in both cases notes that, having been freed by Romans, both became Roman citizens, which is accurate. The party also includes and enslaved Greek man, which would not have been at all unusual to see in the retinue of a Roman elite. Among the randomly generated centurions you can recruit, the full range of Mediterranean skin tones are represented, though the actual historical named Romans do fall into the trap of all being very fair; the problem to be clear is not that some Romans were fair-skinned but that these are Italians – you are going to have many elite Romans who are pretty darn tan, as we’ve discussed before. We ought to see a range and mostly don’t.

The game’s treatment of slavery and enslaved characters is more checkered. As I’ve said before, I have a lot of grace for any game willing to actually put historical slavery institutions on screen because so many simply erase them; Expeditions: Rome makes a real effort here. I will say I found the decision to always use servus for ‘slave’ a little grating, mostly because it seemed to take the ‘edge’ off of what is, in English, a very ugly word, but this is mere personal preference. Still, the game is not perfect in this regard either: the main trap is that it presents Roman slavery as an institution whose morality depends on the enslaver. ‘Good’ characters – like Lucullus and possibly your own character – treat their slaves ‘well’ and get love and loyalty in return. This is particularly evidence with Syneros, the player’s enslaved tutor and scribe, who ends up feeling uncomfortably like the ‘loyal slave‘ trope and willingly sacrifices himself for you towards the end. The thing is, even the behavior of moderate Roman slave-holders would shock the conscience of most modern players (there was a reason ancient elites generally considered death preferable to any form of slavery at all) and there is value to putting that on screen. At no point do any of the ‘good’ characters act dismissive or cruel towards the people they hold in bondage and that simply isn’t accurate to how slavery as a Roman institution worked (one may compare the plays of Plautus (late third/early second century BC) where even the slaves of ‘good’ masters fear beatings and even execution by torture should they make mistakes; Plautus plays this mostly for laughs).

And then there is Cleopatra. Cleopatra in this game is such a mess of problems it is hard to know where to begin. We can start with chronology. As we’ve noted, Act II, which takes place in Egypt, can’t take place any later than 64 BC; in practice the game’s internal chronology suggests it should be happening around 68. The Act is modeled in a loose way off of Caesar’s own brief campaign in Egypt to unseat Ptolemy XIII and put Cleopatra on the throne in 47 BC, so this is a fairly large chronological fudge. Assuming the best case scenario and Act II happens in 64, Cleopatra should be about five years old;10 her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes should still be alive and indeed should continue to be alive for more than another decade (he dies in 51). The fact that Vercingetorix appears in the Gaul campaign set in the 60s instead of the 50s introduces similar problems, but Cleopatra is easily the most extreme example of this chronological issue.11

And then there is the visual presentation. The game opts to show Cleopatra like this:

The decision was clearly made to lean into the pop-culture image of Cleopatra, the ‘sultry, exotic Eastern queen’ rather than actually reflect any of the things we actually know about Cleopatra. Of course they have indulged in Cleopatra the ‘sex symbol,’ but what we’re told about the actual Cleopatra is that it was less her physical beauty and more her wit and persuasiveness which Caesar and Antony found attractive (Plut. Caes. 49.3; Plut. Ant. 25.2, 27.2); here the character is flattened to her physical attributes and the richness of the historical figure is lost (she most certainly does not come across as witty or charming; her character was mostly rude and imperious in dialogue and she is never very politically clever).

Meanwhile everything about her dress and appearance here is wrong. While Cleopatra sometimes represented herself in Egyptian religious contexts as Isis in traditional Egyptian style (which was very formulaic and had remained substantially constant for centuries) we have a lot of artwork from other contexts (coins, sculpture, etc.) which reflect her as she would likely actually dress: as an elite Macedonian woman.12

Via Wikipedia, a first century BC marble bust of Cleopatra, which corresponds fairly well to her image on coins and thus may preserve the likeness of the monarch. Now part of the collection of the Antikensammlung in Berlin. Note the band over her hair – that is the Hellenistic diadem marking her as a queen.

So starting from the top and moving downward: the crown is wrong. The ‘diadem’ of Hellenistic rulers was an embroidered silk ribbon with two fringed strips that draped down, not a metal crown. Cleopatra wore her hair long, not short (though typically up in the fashionable knot or nodus hairstyle) in all of her artwork, religious and otherwise, and it was wavy, not tightly curled. Paintings of her do not include any heavy eye-shadow of this sort, but do include what is probably skin-whitening cosmetics (possibly white lead); unsurprising as fair skin was fashionable for women in the Hellenistic world as a sign of wealth (since only the very wealthy could avoid a tan). And she dressed in Greek fashion which was by modern standards quite conservative: floor length dresses often in multiple layers. What they have her in here is a ‘network’ dress, a style of elite Egyptian dress from the bronze age. No part of this costume is correct, all of it is exoticizing nonsense, chosen for and placed over a character portrait built for the male gaze.

Once again, the unwary player assuming some of this is based in history – however embellished – will come away knowing less than nothing, for they will have learned many things which are not so. This is especially true on this point, given the way that the a-historical depiction of Cleopatra reinforces popular misconceptions, deployed along side visual styling in the soldiers and architecture (Alexandria, in particular, looks very New Kingdom Egyptian when it should look quite Greek).

Less consequential is that the attire of many of the Roman civilians is also wrong. For some reason the game’s character artists seem incapable of rendering the senator’s toga virilis, repeatedly putting Roman men who ought to be togate in a variety of not-quite-a-toga mantles and cloaks. Meanwhile, and this is the nittiest of nitpicks, but that’s what we do here, Lucullus is depicted in a muscle cuirass despite the fact that we actually know from Plutarch that on this very campaign (against Mithridates beginning in 74) he wore a brilliant coat of iron scales (Plut. Luc. 28.1). I also have to say generally the character artist does not seem to have tried to nail the appearance of characters to their known historical counterparts. Cicero is given a quite lean face when we know from sculpture he was a bit rounder and fuller (he also isn’t balding and should be) and Pompey also doesn’t have his characteristic plump face nor distinctive Alexander-the-Great imitating curls.

This dialogue line is something closer to Cicero’s actual thinking but for the love of Jupiter can someone get this man a toga, he’s standing in the curia for heaven’s sake! And while you are at it, get him a tunic with the laticlavus, the broad stripe, that marked him as a Roman senator!


Even the Latin – the source of the game’s reputation for historical care – has odd flaws to it. Not in the pronunciation, mind you, which is shockingly well done (the voice acting, in general, in this game is very good, especially for a game with such a limited budget), but the actual words used and their context. The language issues come down to a difficult point, what gets called in Latin latine – an adverb meaning “in good Latin” – and in English sometimes goes by ‘Latinity.’ This is the ability to grasp not merely the formal structure but also informal usages of Classical Latin; not merely how the Romans could say something, but how they would say something. This was never my strength and yet still some of the usages in the game just stuck my ear wrong.

The example that jumped out at me first was the game’s insistence on referring to common Roman soldiers as legionarii basically all the time. You send some legionarii out to do this or detach some legionarii out to do that. But legionarius is almost never used this way in Late Republican Latin. Ancient writers will instead use milites (‘soldiers’) in basically all of these contexts and if, for some odd reason, one needed to specify legionary soldiers, it gets used as an adjective, legionairii milites, (‘legionary soldiers’), though even this is uncommon.

Likewise at several points in the game dominus or domina are used much as English would use ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ politely, even by characters of a high social status being polite to characters of a much lower social status. But dominus/domina are really charged words in Latin because their root meaning is ‘the master of a slave;’ they could be used as a term of respect but this was an extreme gesture (and more common in the imperial period). There is no universe in which Cicero is going to call a low-status Roman woman domina just to be polite (as he does in the screenshot below). Latin doesn’t really have a casual equivalent to Mr./Ms. or even really Sir/Ma’am and I’ve always been a bit frustrated by modern fictional treatments of Rome (looking at you, HBO’s Rome) importing a lot of English honorifics (which are a product of medieval and early modern social structures) into a language where they aren’t really at home.

The woman Cicero is addressing here as ‘domina’ is a poor woman effectively without family or status. Also, can we please get Cicero a toga? Can we give him her toga?
Actually, we need to stop for a moment. Julia, here – one of your party members – when in Rome wears a toga. I get that this is an effort to show how she is uncomfortable with the limiting Roman gender roles, but women wearing togas in Late Republican Rome had some awkward meanings. In particular, the ‘toga mulieribis’ (the ‘woman’s toga’) seems to have been the distinctive garb of meretrices, which is to say prostitutes, which is quite clearly not how Julia is intending to present herself.
If they wanted a ‘tom boy’ outfit for Julia, her tunic finished above the knees here actually does the job just fine without the toga and echoes the way the goddess Diana was depicted. So give the toga to Cicero and then we’re pretty much set for actual clothes actual Romans in these situations might wear.

Likewise, there’s a lot of care put into place names, but it doesn’t always go off right. The Roman province of Asia (site of Act I) is referred to as Asia Minor. This might be for clarity but the pronunciation is Latin – you can hear the italics as they say it Azz-ee-ah Mee-nor. But the name of the province was Asia, not Asia Minor and the term ‘Asia Minor’ wouldn’t be coined for another four centuries. In Act II we get the same problem with Africa Proconsularis; the name of the province in this period was Africa or occasionally Africa Vetus (‘Old Africa’). Proconsularis, ‘ruled by a proconsul,’ was only a necessary clarification in the imperial period when it came to be that some provinces were governed by proconsuls and propraetors in the traditional republican manner while others were governed by imperial legates (legati Augusti). In the context of the 60s BC, the clarification of proconsular Africa would have been nonsensical; there was no other sort of Africa to be referring to.

Again, most of the Latin is right here, but I was struck by how many of these mistakes are the sort that might be harder for a Latin philologist (that is, a language expert) to catch – though many would – but easier for a Roman historian to catch, leaving me to wonder if they consulted a philologist (good) but not a historian (bad). Perhaps they assumed, like so many people seem to, that being a historian doesn’t require any particular skills or expertise; if so, they rather proved my point that it does quite brilliantly.


And all of this apparent nitpicking (though believe it or not this is merely the highlights of my notes and there are more nits left unpicked even now) finally brings us to the point: the perils of verisimilitude. The rub here is that making a game verisimilitudinous – making it seem accurate – imposes an increasing obligation to be accurate lest you mislead your players.

If this game was merely vaguely Roman themed, the way that, say, the Elder Scrolls series uses Roman imagery to signal the Empire, I’d have few complaints. Or if this game existed in a more clearly fictionalized context: say set in the Late Republic, but about clearly fictional wars in fictional Mediterranean places. Or even, frankly, if the game had its historical setting, but made little effort to present itself as conforming to the history much at all.

But Expeditions: Rome doesn’t do that. I cannot stress this enough how much the game wants players to understand it as historically responsible storytelling, rooted in real facts about the ancient world – and to be clear, at the appearance of that, they succeeded. Scroll up to see the major reviewing outlets successfully suckered into buying the game’s self-presentation.

Early in the game, the designers make a point of introducing and then killing off Gaius Julius Caesar in a move that seems clearly intended to signal that this is the ‘butterfly event’ that ripples through the story to change the details; as noted a later loading screen suggests the presence of the made-up villains has this effect. But the things that are wrong here go way beyond that – they are structural differences embedded in centuries-old institutions, not the result of the premature death of one figure.

It places the narratives in the context of real wars (albeit two of them pulled out of chronology, but in ways that many players may not realize) and puts a lot of energy into convincing the player of its historical rootedness. The equipment is lovingly modeled (even when it is centuries out of date). The characters use lots of untranslated Latin terms pronounced in Latin. The game stops to explain the Senate, patricians, plebeians, the Republic, consuls, praetors, quaestors, lictors, the pomerium, the cursus honorum, pro-consular appointments and so on.13 The point is a player who sees this game stopping its narrative to offer a brief mini-lecture on these topics is going to assume the lecture is substantively right – why else give it?

But the result is a historical presentation that is either incompetent or irresponsible. On the one hand, if the goal here was a narrative embedded in Roman history in a real and deep way, the game exposes a grasp of Roman history on the level of a garbled undergraduate course half-remembered a decade later. Some of the details are right, but major concepts, like the structure and nature of the Republic, the structure and function of Roman armies, the nature of Roman imperialism, the appearance and ethnic identity of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the causes of the collapse of the Republic are badly wrong. These are not small points but major through-lines to understanding what actually happened in this period, far more important than getting the precise pronunciation of contubernium right. When it comes to the actual history, the game fares substantially worse than even a quite indifferent student at the end of one of my entry-level survey courses.

On the other hand, if the goal here was merely to use the appearance of historical accuracy – historical verisimilitude – as a marketing tool without ever caring very much about getting any of the details right, then the approach was evidently successful but deeply irresponsible. It creates a product almost tailor-made to mislead, to both convince the player that they are getting some real history here and then hand them a broken mess of anachronism, exoticism and simple errors. It is built to make almost all of the most common student errors worse and to amplify rather than reduce some of the most harmful common public misconceptions.

In either case, the result is a game that is just close enough to truth to be dangerous without ever getting close enough to be valuable. Again, as a tactics RPG, the game is solidly serviceable, but it was supposed to be elevated by its historical context; instead it is sunk by it. And that makes me sad because I don’t think that a more accurate game would have been any harder to make – it would have just required different decisions to be made in the writing and artwork, along with perhaps some very minor adaptations of some of the tactics gameplay. I wanted so much to like this game, to be able to have it as an example of how a narrative-driven video game could make good use of a historical setting. Alas, Fortuna did not smile on this.

And that is the peril of historical verisimilitude: the developers of Expeditions: Rome put tremendous effort into making sure the game would look accurate, but not into making sure the game would be accurate. As a result, they crafted a game weighed down rather than elevated by its historical subject matter, more likely to mislead and deceive than to inform.

  1. And some other day we can have a separate argument about how KC:D uses that claim, particularly in some of the culture-war battles it seems to be picking. Though probably no time soon. I’d have to replay the game to remember it all and KC:D‘s early game is so relentlessly miserable that the mere thought of it fills me with dread, which is unfortunate because the combat gameplay is good after you’ve slogged through several hours of getting kicked around apparently for the amusement of the developers
  2. The developers appear to have learned from experts in Rome that we sometimes leave terms untranslated. They do not appear to have learned why.
  3. And even then there are questions and complications on this point, see I. Haynes, Blood of the Provinces (2013)
  4. Mostly because the existence of the velites was as a way to allow poorer Romans to serve in an inexpensive way – the equipment was much cheaper – and by the first century equipment was state issued (or at least state paid for) and so there was no need to have a role specifically for soldiers who couldn’t afford heavy equipment.
  5. The name is modern, not ancient. We do not know what the Romans called this iconic armor.
  6. All of these oval shields, the Gallic one, the Italian scutum and the Greek thureos are related shield-types and quite similar, though the scutum is generally larger and the thureos generally smaller. All are generally assumed to be descendants of the standard early Gallic oval-shield.
  7. In an utterly bizarre twist later in the game, Cicero is the voice of ‘no, don’t just kill the bad guys, they have to be tried according to the law’ which is very much not how the actual Cicero of 63 rolled.
  8. On these sorts of questions see H. Mouritsen, Plebs and Politics in the Late Roman Republic (2001) and R. Morstein-Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (2004)
  9. Included in this is the way the game treats the distinction between patrician and plebeian as it was politically meaningful in the first century when it wasn’t and hadn’t been since the third century. Cato is presented as the ‘defender of the patricians’ which is a remarkable thing given that Cato himself is a plebeian, as is Cicero, Lucullus and Pompey! As a member of the gens Fabia, my character is just about the only patrician here!
  10. And lest there be any ‘but maybe it is a different Cleopatra’ – for one, it clearly isn’t, but also in several scenes the game helpfully labels her as Cleopatra VII Philopator, which helpfully removes any doubt.
  11. Note that the game defends itself on this point in a loading screen noting that while events may not be proceeding historically, history didn’t have the two made-up villains to speed things along…which hardly explains how Cleopatra ended up apparently two decades older than she was.
  12. At no point did the Ptolemaic royal family ever intermarry with the locals, so at least as far as we know, Cleopatra was almost entirely Macedonian, with the only exception being her great-great-great grandmother Laodice III, who had some Persian ancestry.
  13. Mind you, it gets many of these things wrong. For instance the player is made to lay down their command at the edge of Rome – the pomerium – which would have been right for the second century but not the first, since Sulla made it a legal requirement for generals with a provincial command to lay down that command before entering Italy itself (so those conversations should happen at the Rubicon, not the Tiber).

211 thoughts on “Collections: Expeditions: Rome and the Perils of Verisimilitude

  1. Thanks Bret, now I want to see your take on Ryse: Son of Rome. Thought that one has probably enough stuff wrong for a 10 part series…

    But that aside, great article as usual. When I played Expeditions: Rome I had the feeling that some things where off, but no idea how much. And I’m a historian myself (thought my field of studies where the middle ages and the 19th century). Shows how much mixing in right things (e. g. the language) can mask wrong ones.

    1. I’m a video game writer (working on a tactical RPG, as it happens) and reading this gives me nightmares of being tasked with a historically accurate game. We’re so used to just making stuff up that incorporating historical research (I don’t mean publishing in journals, just reading books) and running our stuff by a historian don’t just mean more time and money spent. They’d require a different workflow to begin with!

      It’s a little easier in the art department because looking up a good photo of a late imperial helmet or whatever can actually save time: the concept artist doesn’t need to paint one. But for game mechanics and writing, it’s a huge ask: balancing a set of combat options is difficult, but when I think of having to also make those options make sense historically – yikes! I’d have to understand how Romans actually fought! And narrative design? Designing a storyline with good decision points and their consequences in a nesting structure is one thing, but I’d have to learn how Roman politics worked and (this is the big one) actually get some kind of idea of how Romans thought! For me, clssical antiquity is reasonably appealing, so I wouldn’t find it a huge drag

      Now, I absolutely agree that advertising your game as historically accurate when it’s not is just dishonest. Bad. And I’m not saying game developers shouldn’t even try to make a historically accurate game to begin with. I’d love to see a game that nails this stuff. But me, personally, I break out in a cold sweat when I think about it. And I care enough about history to love this blog and regularly read books about the real past, which is more than most game devs.

      1. And then you get criticized by those who assume that any resemblance to a real culture, intentional or not, means it is that culture and running with it.

        Or the ones who think in cliche and declare peasants and trains incompatible.

        Or the more serious geeks who complain that elements don’t play nicely together. You can’t stop a general as soon as you have news if it takes three months for the message to reach him.

      2. Sounds to me like there’s a market for crowdfunding a few months’ of Bret’s time, since he’s both a historian and video game player; and has pointed out mistakes in other games, so he could just discuss what decision-making, political possibilities, fighting capabilities etc. need to be programmed, and then the programmers don’t have to do the research, “just” the coding like for pure fantasy games.

    2. …isn’t Ryse the one where Queen Boudica besieges Rome with war elephants?

      You might as well have the Legions fighting Thanos at that point.

  2. It seems Cleopatra is doomed to this kind of “sexy Halloween” representation. Assassin’s Creed: Origins did a much better job of showing what Ptolemaic Egypt looked like than this game, but it still had her dressed in a wig, makeup and not much else.

      1. Cleopatra was no Gail Gadot.
        Taking the images and texts together it seems Cleopatra VII was an attractive if not stunningly beautiful woman, by the standards of her time, which are not ours, who presented herself well but who blew people away with her intellect, wit and personality. The fact she was the richest and most powerful woman in the Mediterranean world didn’t hurt either.

    1. Yeah, the Cleopatra depiction thing drives me nuts, especially because it then manifests itself in stupid arguments like “Was Cleopatra Black?” There is a lively and interesting debate about the ethnic make-up of Pharaonic Egyptians but it doesn’t apply to her, because she was a Macedonian Greek, not an Egyptian. (By background. Obviously, in a literal sense, she was an Egyptian, because she was a person who lived in Egypt)

          1. This consideration applies across all North Africa. For instance, it is claimed that the Berbers used to be darker-hued than they are now (due to considerable post-Roman Arab admixture). This issue relates to the question “Was St. Augustine black?”

          2. ey81: Interesting, I’ve heard the revsrse. That berbers (and especially the tuareg) are darker-skinned today because of the trans-saharan slave trade.

        1. Some of them, probably, but Pharaohs came from a lot of places and times. It’s always a bit tricky to assume royalty looks like their subjects. (Extreme example being the Ottomans, who were by the time the empire ended only turkish to a miniscule degree, due to their particular reproductive habits)

          1. The Ottoman sultans did not marry Turkish women but reproduced with female slaves. White European women, Greeks, Circassians etc. we’re especially valued as they were considered more beautiful than Africans or even Turks.
            This every sultan was the son of a non-Turkish woman altering their ethnic makeup.

        2. The default assumption would be that the populatoin then is, broadly speaking, the same as the population now. While immigration does have an impact on population makeup, it tends to be at a minority level overall unless there is outright replacement on a massive scale, which tends to require both wholesale immigration and extermination of the native population (perhaps most obviously, in the USA).

          Cultural change is not always a clear marker in itself. For an obvious example, the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England saw an almost complete break with Romano-British culture and the vanishing of the British language across England (leaving very little trace even as a substrate in English), but the majority of the genetic makeup of the population is still pre-Saxon.

          I’m not an Egyptian-history expert but, while I know of many conquests of Egypt throughout its history (by Hyksos, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, Turks, French, British, etc.) none of these ever seemed to approach the level of wholesale population replacement needed to be able to say with confidence (without DNA studies) that the modern Egyptian population is not substantively the same as it was in antiquity.

          Does this mean there were no black pharaohs? No. Indeed, given how long Egypt lasted, and how far its empire reached, it would be surprising if there weren’t. But the hypothesis that ancient Egypt was, for the entirety of its 3000-year-odd run, a wholly or primarily black civilisation, requires a wholesale population replacement at some point since which has left no real trace on the historical record.

          And of course we have quite a lot of contemporary evidence as to what ancient Egyptians (or at least the upper echelons) looked like, in art and statuary, and while some of this is at least circumstantially supportive of the existence of “black African” pharaohs, there is also a lot which isn’t.

          So the hypothesis also requires, by necessity, a concerted cover-up by a variety of entities with no particular incentive to collaborate and for reasons which would have a lot more to do with C20-21 race relations than anything the supposed cover-uppers would have recognised. Which is getting deep into conspiracy theory territory.

          “Cleopatra was black” is the most visible, and dumbest, tip of this particular iceberg, because as Bret indicates, her ancestry is known for 300 years or so and none of it was native African, black or otherwise.

          There is a valid debate to be had about the ethnicity of Egyptian rulers, but it needs to an extent to be separated from modern concepts of race first (given that ancient Egyptians, if they cared about race at all, doubtless thought of it rather differently), and of course that’s extremely difficult, because that’s also what’s driving a lot of the interest.

          1. Modern conceptions of race may not be relevant to ancient Egyptians, but they are relevant for modern filmmakers who want to know if casting Idris Elba to play Pharaoh is historically accurate. or if they should go with someone more ‘Arabic’ instead.

          2. Well, casting Idris Elba is never going to be “accurate”, because his family is from Sierra Leone and thus a completely different ethnicity from the population (black or otherwise) in east and northeast Africa. It therefore only really makes sense if one assumes that all black African people are basically the same ethnicity-wise (problematic in itself, especially given that Africa is, I understand, the continent with most human diversity) and/or it doesn’t matter because black=black (applying modern conceptions of race in preference to any attempt at authenticity).

            But this is a difficult point to make on Twitter.

            Hence what I mean about modern understandings of race and the relatively superficial way about pop culture engages with them needing to be set aside so far as possible before it’s really possible to have an meaningful discussion on the subject.

          3. Does this mean there were no black pharaohs? No. Indeed, given how long Egypt lasted, and how far its empire reached, it would be surprising if there weren’t. But the hypothesis that ancient Egypt was, for the entirety of its 3000-year-odd run, a wholly or primarily black civilisation, requires a wholesale population replacement at some point since which has left no real trace on the historical record.

            The Twenty-Fifty Dynasty came from Kush, and so were probably black. In general, though, Egyptian art pretty clearly distinguishes native Egyptians from Sub-Saharan Africans.

          4. Well, casting Idris Elba is never going to be “accurate”, because his family is from Sierra Leone and thus a completely different ethnicity from the population (black or otherwise) in east and northeast Africa. It therefore only really makes sense if one assumes that all black African people are basically the same ethnicity-wise (problematic in itself, especially given that Africa is, I understand, the continent with most human diversity) and/or it doesn’t matter because black=black (applying modern conceptions of race in preference to any attempt at authenticity).

            There are degrees of accuracy, though. Casting an actor from Sierra Leone to play a black historical figure from another part of Africa is more accurate than casting a white or Arab actor, in the same way that (e.g.) casting Tom Hiddleston to play Julius Caesar would be more accurate than casting Idris Elba.

      1. It’s interesting to ignorant Americans who assume that there is a single black race and each of its members is a Bantu (like most African-Americans are). In reality, there was very little genetic exchange across the Sahara in Roman times because the Sahara is difficult to cross. Dark-hued people in countries like Egypt and Sudan also don’t necessarily appreciate SSAs who are still stigmatized as would-be slaves.

        1. The death rate of marching captives over the Sahara exceeded that of shipping them to the Americas.

          1. What about shipping them up the eastern coast of africa and into the red sea?

          2. I don’t know there are good sources on that. The slave trades (all of them) had appalling death rates – but the highest was in the initial capture. Slavers were interested primarily in adults and children of an age to walk, and not interested the old, the infirm, or infants. These they often killed or left to die. The are major differences in slave regimes, although that’s like choosing between very bad and awful (the West Indies was probably among the worst, the US South a bit better, the Barbary states not good, the Muslim legal regime (when observed) quite lenient, Roman or Greek mine-slavery horrible, house-slavery better, slave-soldiery could be a technical status and so on).

    2. Hello Bret, when talked abou the battles in the game, ypu said the Roman’s never had any organic (so no citizen archers) archers in any period, and I presume relied entirely on axullaries, but didn’t the late Roman army have non axullary archers by the 4th century? I don’t know as much as you so I would like to know what you think.

      1. Ah, I’ve been somewhat careful with my wording here.

        “The legion had no organic foot archers in any period.” Yes, in the Late Empire there are units of citizen archers, but they’re not in the legions (which by that point have basically ceased to exist in any event).
        “the Romans from the Early Republic through the High Empire seem always to have relied on non-citizen mercenaries and auxiliaries to make up their archer units” – The ‘through the High Empire’ here is pointedly meant to exclude the Late Empire where this is not the case.

        But to be clear, we’re talking here about a game set in the 60s BC, not the 400s AD. The Late Empire is a long way off!

      1. Accurately? Probably not. There was a depiction of her in Civilization III that didn’t go for a Sexy protrail though.
        Civ 3 leaderheads would change fashion with technological development, and divided history into Ancient, Medieval, Industrial, and Modern eras. So for Egypt you had Cleopatra as an Old Kingdom Pharaoh, Cleopatra as a Mamluk sultan, Cleopatra as Khedive of Egypt, and Cleopatra as an Egyptian president.
        The ancient one is supposed to be Cleopatra as herself, but looking at it now it’s too ancient. The medieval one is too modern. So ironically you don’t have Cleopatra as a Ptolemaic princess.

  3. Hi Bret,
    incredibly interesting post (as usual), thank you.
    One question: is there a game you WOULD consider a good example of historical accuracy? When reading the post, I was continuously thinking “wow, a tactical RPG set in an accurate historical context would be so cool”, but clearly this isn’t it, and no examples of historically-accurate games come to my mind. Any recommendations?

    1. He’s done some writeups on some other games. And while he usually has quibbles it doesen’t generally devolve into this kind of savage takedown.

    2. Have a look at the Europa Barbarorum II mod for Medieval 2: Total War. It attempts to depict the period of 272bc until 14AD as accurately as possible. It has very extensive building and unit descriptions with a lot of history in them. There are tons of historically researched units. For example: the thureoporoi are indeed rampant troughout the Hellenic world. It is fun to play. I am curious what Bret thinks about this game.

      Age of Chivalry: Hegemony is a mod for Age of Empires 2 that is worth checking out. It tries to more accurately depict the Middle Ages. Also a lot of fun.

      1. I cannot in good conscience allow someone to claim that Europa Barbarorum II is historically accurate. I’m just going to copy-paste a section from a comment to another post a couple of weeks ago, I maintain it is still on the ball.

        Someone seems to have heard that the majority of deaths in a battle occurred in the chase after a rout and conflated that with the notion that most people who routed and fled were cut down as they ran. Battles are enormously too bloody for realism, and while I don’t have records from my playing to go through it item by item, my gut sense of major battles between relatively even armies is one that ends with the winning army taking 20-25% losses and the losing army taking somewhere between 85%-100% losses.

        Battles like Cannae were famous because total wipeouts like that were very rare. And the overly bloody and decisive battles have downstream effects. You don’t get anywhere near as much frictional losses when campaigning. Some of that is because the game doesn’t really model it except for sieges, but also because campaigns are so much shorter than their historical counterparts, which is tied to the fact that one or two wins will completely eliminate your enemy’s field armies and then you can just mop up their cities most of the time.

        So while you get historically looking costumes and names for units, the actual operations and campaigning in EB2, as well as the tactics and cut and thrust of commanding armies in battle, is enormously different from historical reality.

        1. Yep, EB is actually one of the continuations of the same trends: It *looks* historicla but look under the hood and it’s nothing close. (To be fair, they are probably doing as much as they can working under the constraints of a the Total War engine)

          1. Indeed, it is not faithful in the mechanics as these are inherited from the total war engine. But the unit and building descriptions are enormously extensive and fun to read. Also how the units look is historically researched. It makes it very interesting to play.

  4. So many decisions the game made were utterly baffling to me. It’s not as if actually being authentic and accurate would have made the game worse — in fact, I think it would have been much better as a story had it tried to do things right. I can only assume that the writing team’s research didn’t extend past watching HBO’s Rome a decade ago and skimming a couple Wikipedia entries. What I would have liked to see, making minimal changes to the plot, would have been something like this:

    1) Vitellius Lurco, a populist agitator, has your father killed. You escape by seeking refuge in Lucullus’s army as a military tribune (for a male PC, having already been previously appointed to that office; for a female PC, maybe taking the place of a killed brother).
    2) You do some wetwork stuff and get command of a cohort or two. You don’t actually get a legion, at least not in a formal sense.
    3) After defeating Mithridates and making a name for yourself, you return to Rome. You’re elected quaestor and join Lucullus in Africa. After his death you take charge of his legion, raise another at your own expense, and put down a revolt. The Senate declares war against Egypt in retaliation, handwaves your assumption of command (can honestly just keep the timeline shenanigans making the Ptolemaic civil war take place earlier, I don’t mind that bit and the game actually acknowledges it) and you conquer it.
    4) Returning to Rome with your booty and glory you campaign to be elected praetor, requiring you to align yourself with senatorial factions for endorsements from either the populares or optimates camp. No, a populist cannot marry Cato the Younger. You come into more open conflict with Lurco over this and ofc he’s still been pulling strings in both Asia and Egypt, but with more of a view to increasing his wealth and prestige in Rome rather than doing generic baddy stuff with the aid of a secret society
    5) as propraetor, you’re assigned Gallia Narbonensis and two legions. at this point Lurco is consul and orchestrates Helvetic raids on Gaulish cities, which he uses as a pretext for war using you and your legions. you fight the Gallic war with Lurco trying to kill you as per usual
    6) end of the game still depends on what you do but it’s gonna involve civil war no matter what you do

  5. Would it be fair to say that the changes to Rome’s political system make it closer to an imagined idea of how modern democracy works? That is problematic if that imagined idea is presented as the essential truth about all democracies, and does not reflect the actual structural problems of any of the actual democracies we live in.

    1. It does sound like they projected modern attitudes and structures back, probably some combination of deliberately trying to make the good guys more sympathetic and just unconcious assumptions that all democracies work the same way.

      1. Thus ruling out the possibilities that your character just regards military atrocities as the way things are, beneath his notice.

        1. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. Or more concisely, the past was the worst.
          I am personally oddly detached an nonjudgmental about the horrors of our past. Possibly because I developed objectivity during my college years studying history and anthropology, possibly because I’m neuro-atypical and never react like other people.
          Of course I recognize that these things were terrible but I don’t get het up about it. Maybe I just don’t feel the need to signal my virtue.

          1. Seconded. I feel like there’s two ways to approach these things. (Assuming you agree that ancient atrocities were a bad thing. An ethical subjectivist might not go that far) One is that you accept that, by modern liberal standards, basically everyone in the pre-modern world, especially the powerful people who make it into our histories was terrible. It doesn’t mean you approve of what they did, but you stop being surprised by it.

            Or, you don’t. This may allow for a greater sensitivity to the terrible things that fill human history, but it also risks bogging down every discussion of the past in a catalogue of those same things. It can also feel rather pointless, especially if one is talking about pre-19th century or so history, because it’s not really a way of differentiating good and bad actors, since there are no good actors. For example, did the Romans enslave people and often do terrible things to them? Yes, but the only thing that differentiated them from most of their contemporaries was that they won more battles and thus had more opportunities to enslave.

          2. One approach is to figure that bad things happened for reasons, like how people were raised and the material incentives, such that if we were somehow back then, we would be doing them ourselves, or at least unable to prevent them.

            Doesn’t require you to say that bad things are good; instead you recognize that some societies and material conditions make it easier to be good.

          3. Do you think the past was really worse? The Romans did many bad things, but they didn’t firebomb cities and kill 100,000 in a day, the way Roosevelt and Churchill and Truman did. (To be clear, they were indeed the good guys.)

          4. Military-related mortality as a percentage of the total population has declined over time, so yes, the past really was worse. On this, see Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization.

          5. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

            Now, the catch is that when a foreign country tries to do in the present day the sort of things that were routinely done in the past, we are often horrified. Invading other countries for the loot, burning their cities to the ground, slaughtering all the adult men and shipping the women and children back home for probable enslavement is just Not The Done Thing these days. And there are very good reasons why it is not the done thing, and why we point and say “look at that bunch of ravening atrocious ogres” when a society chooses to behave that way.

            At the same time, it is frankly true that if we don’t at some point say “yes, we know, the past was full of people doing horrible things under the honest impression that they were normal or even laudable behavior,” then as someone else pointed out, we get bogged down. And that’s a bad thing, because it prevents us from understanding those social systems in enough detail to understand how and why the evils committed in those systems took place, which in turn leads to a profound lack of insight into why they do or do not take place today.

          6. I always think of Shogun, the James Clavell novel. There is a point at which his shipwrecked Elizabethan hero, Blackthorne, is horrified by the discovery that the Japanese, including Mariko, the woman he has fallen into illicit love with, are as he sees it “all conscienceless”.

            But a few hundred pages earlier Mariko was appalled to discover that all of Blackthornes people, even their monarch, are all, as she sees it, “entirely mercenary”.

            Clavell’s 17th century Englishmen and Japanese do not have the same moral views as each other, let alone those of his 20th and 21st century British and American readers. But so long as they do have moral views, the ones that try to keep to them can still be sympathetic. (Note that Blackthorne and Mariko are mistaking a different moral view for an absent one at the above moments.)

            I feel that is a much better way of writing historical fiction than trying to twist characters in the distant past into the shape favoured by the latest fashions. (Imagine a story about the Victorian campaign to ban women working in coal mines, for example. Who would the good guys be?)

          7. You know this is a bit off topic but if we find what people in the past did as bad today it makes me wonder how the people of the past would look at our modern day and what we value

          8. The fun part is wondering what.

            Though I am confident that they will view chemotherapy as we do blood-letting, since it is basically poisoning you and hoping the sick parts die more quickly than the healthy.

          9. Mary, Unlike blood letting chemo works. It’s not pleasant but it’s better than dying of cancer.

      2. It’s noticeable how Prof. Devereux finds some projections of modern attitudes acceptable, like a much greater range of options for women, and others not, like unpainted statues or the use of honorifics.

        1. Prof. Devereaux also points out that one is more obviously ahistorical to a lay person than the other. Even the most historically illiterate person knows that women did not have many opportunities their men had in most of the societies of the pre-modern world, whereas believing that the statuary was unpainted is widespread. I feel that the decision to give female characters more flexibility is also understandable from a gameplay point of view; I remember some of the comments on the last Fireside Friday mentioning that with games like Elden Ring or Fallout trying to tinker it based on the gender the player chooses to use in-game would be difficult to implement (as well as possibly controversial) and probably not worth it for the developer. It seems reasonable to give the team behind Expeditions: Rome a harder time for something like their statuary, which would’ve been easily fixed with a little research and recoding, over their presentations of gender roles in Ancient Rome

        2. More options for women serves an obvious purpose of increasing appeal to women (or feminist men) players. Unpainted statues and bad honorifics serve no purpose in a game that’s selling itself as reasonably historically accurate.

        3. But he spells out his reasoning for that: changes which serves the gameplay are more pardonable than changes which don’t . And changes which create a wrong view of history in the player are worse than changes which don’t. For the greater range of options for women he says:

          “But as with other games, I understand the design imperative here and the game at least signals how unusual this is, with female characters occasionally having to hide their identities. I don’t think any modern players will be meaningfully misled by this fudge and so it doesn’t bother me.”

          (And this isn’t the only change he excuses, he also accepts the foreign-to-Romans small unit combat because that is just how Expeditions-games work.)

          The unpainted statues and use of honorifics clearly aren’t the main criticism anyways, the critical failure of this game in his view is that its writing creates the wrong impression of how Roman politics and Roman war/imperialism worked.

          1. Speaking as a woman I find women’s real lives and the way they negotiated the limitations that hedged them in tremendously interesting. The misogynistic texts people get so het up about are clear evidence that women were nowhere near as submissive as men desired.

        4. I remember some of the comments on the last Fireside Friday mentioning that with games like Elden Ring or Fallout trying to tinker it based on the gender the player chooses to use in-game would be difficult to implement (as well as possibly controversial) and probably not worth it for the developer.

          That’s hard enough when you’re doing a modern/future/fantasy setting where women in the player character’s role are a reasonably expected if some degree of rare thing. Creating a game where you can be a commander of legions or you cannot be a commander of legions in which commanding legions is the key gameplay element is basically at the point of making two games. If you’re going for a single main character of selectable gender that’s basically impossible. You could potentially take your idea of commanding armies in the field and politicking in Rome and make Gaius the legate command the armies while his daughter is a Vestal who gets indirectly involved in politics in her breaks from making very sure the flame does not go out but that’s a somewhat exotic story structure for a video game and also she wouldn’t be participating in politics in the same manner.

        5. There are reasons to include people who weren’t historically included, like women or minorities—like getting them to *want* to play a factually historic game, where they can learn something about the historical period depicted.

          And I say that as someone who would be generally critical of such historical inaccuracy…except it’s a *game.* You’re trying to get people to “buy in”—and then presenting barriers to them “buying in” and doing what the game was supposed to do in the first place. So what the hell is the point of doing that, except to win some pointless point in the cultural wars?!?

          1. If you’re trying to get women to play your game, having “Look She’s A Soldier Too!” Julia dressed in a toga Just Like A Guy (that, as pointed out, marks her out as a hooker if you know vaguely anything about Roman society) gets cancelled by then going right for Sex Kitten Cleopatra with the big boobs and extravagant makeup.

          2. But that proves too much. Most Western gamers would find the game (or any simulation game relating to ancient history) unappealing if required the player to take slaves and sack cities as the ancients did. For that matter, many people would find a game unappealing if it made ancient Rome look like a current Catholic church, full of painted statues. Most of what Bret criticizes is likely designed to increase customer appeal.

          3. Thing is, this is something where you can (sort of) have your cake and eat it.

            Yes, you can have your PC hanging out with, or being, a person of marginalization who doesn’t engage in slaving and sacking, but have them presented as a major outlier when this happens, and have their (frankly anachronistic) attitudes have negative consequences in terms of how their fellows perceive them and have this have serious in-game consequences. This can even add drama to the story–for example, negotiating with a hostile city. The protagonist not only does not want to expend the time and effort needed to take the city, but also doesn’t want what they see as the inevitable atrocities on their conscience.

            (Of course, then you need some kind of explanation as to why the PC is a walking anachronism, but as long as you provide even the smallest fig leaf most people will be satisfied)

    2. I think a part of this, and of bad Roman political representation in general is the complete neglect of the assembly and Tribunate, which while falling short of what we would consider democratic, are much closer. If you complete forget the actually representative bodies and positions in favor of thinking the senate was the entire Roman government, but you do know the Roman government had democratic elements, it’s easy to conclude that the Senate must have been an elected body.

      1. I think part of the problem is that these kinds of political dramas kind of require you to know how the political institutions function, and they clearly didn’t care enough to properly check that. (the fact that they get some details right makes me think they read some kind of article about one of the institutions, missed out on the rest of the machinery and then just filled in the blanks with what they imagined)

        1. I’m honestly kind of baffled that people regularly go make things they bill as historically authentic and then don’t, like, pay a historian ten thousand dollars to talk about it.

          1. I mean, they very well might have, just not the right *kind* of historian. (also, well there’s the money bit)

            Historians can often be frighteningly specialized.

      2. One problem I think is that the idea of bodies, like the Roman Senate, that are purely deliberative and advisory, without formal legislative or executive power, is somewhat vestigial today. E.g., some non-profits have an advisory board separate and distinct from their governing board, but it is hardly a common structure. I suspect such a mechanism really only works in a society much more culturally cohesive than ours.

        1. We do have a lot of bodies that exist to advise other bodies, like the Congressional Budget Office, but the idea of them holding as much prominance as the Roman Senate does is strange to modern sensibilities.

          Though I think it’s actually more straightforward than that; the US Senate is a legislative body so people assume the Roman Senate was a legislative body.

        2. Since the Roman Senate was composed of ex-magistrates – that is the most influential men in Roman society, with large followings of clients, relatives among the current magistracy and so on – its advice carried considerable weight.

        3. It’s more that today one of the largest class of people are college educated managers, attorneys, accounts, etc. What is generally referred to as the technocracy. So our leaders don’t need a formal deliberative institution to hash out ideas. There is a near limitless supply of skilled and experienced people for modern leadership to draw up on that can do so. And, with cheap writing abound, the living exemplars aren’t a social necessity.

  6. Having characters in historical settings not take their religion seriously has long really bugged me. It’s especially odd if they actually acknowledge that taking the augeries was a thing; it’s treating them as a ceremonial detail rather than what was considered a serious attempt at gaining information that would be all the more critical in a crisis. Though I suppose our villain might want to skip them if he genuinely believed in them and that the augeries for his coup attempt would be really bad.

      1. I’m assuming here that the augeries would be good for him but bad for the Senate and he would rather not let them in on that.

    1. Also an opportunity to plug King Of Dragon Pass and Six Ages for making you take religion seriously. In those games, you see an option to conduct divinations or get an omen? Unless you’re critically short on the magic resource or your god-talkers are so incompetent you don’t trust your results you perform a divination.

      1. I want to plug them again also, as I have done before, in the social capital/feasting your neighbors discussion back when.

        1. I’ll plug in myself with a note that the games also push you into making the “uncomfortable historical” choices, with the caveat that these are fictional societies loosely modeled after actual historical ones.

          But, for instance, in my first game ever of Six Ages, I got this religous event called the “Raven Festival” (the raven spirit isn’t a god, but is one of the more important lower order of spirits and is the only one that has a dedicated priesthood devoted to it.) To properly celebrate this, you’re supposed to sneak over to a neighbor’s lands, kidnap someone at random, drag them back to your own turf, ritually blind them, and then kick them back over to their own territory.

          Doing so presents you with some practical bonuses (Raven’s favor, which can be fickle) but naturally pisses off your neighbors, who for some reason don’t appreciate their people being abducted and mutilated. I, foolishly from a ‘practical’ perspective, decided not to hold the festival. This not only brought a raven curse on me, but the people in my clan got upset. This is an important religious rite, you can’t just not hold it. What kind of sacrilegious clan ring are you?

          1. Yar, there is that one, though it’s probably the most extreme example.

            Probably the most common one you’ll run into is how marriage works; it’s a bargain between clans in which the woman joins the man’s clan* and her clan gets a bride price; for the ones you actually deal with (it is assumed generic clan members marry all the time in the background and this basically cancels out) this is usually ten-twenty cows. So you’re gonna be brokering arranged marriages for cows.

            Except the story-linked blessed super fire wizard, where a neighboring clan offers like a hundred cows and an alliance, and I tell them no because look at those stats and she’s got a bonus to Elmal Guards The Sunpath.

            *Usually; in KoDP you can do it in reverse because you’re not letting your Renowned magic Ernalda priestess with precognition go for love nor money

    2. It’s not that surprising; most of the people making and writing this stuff are either nonreligious or nominally religious, and only hang out with nonreligious or nominally religious people, so they don’t really have anything to push back against the natural tendency to project your own assumptions onto other people.

      1. And even when they are religious they often have a hard time grasping that *other people’s* religions are real and that tehy believe in them the same way they do in theirs.

        1. Also, that they are DIFFERENT.

          People who talk about the worship of different gods like Athena vs Apollo was like Methodist vs. Baptist.

        2. I’d go further than that. We, culturally downwind from the Scientific/Industrial Revolution(s), relate to things around us completely differently from people who are not. This makes discussions of their “religion” even more confused than it would ordinarily be due to the much better known factor of us also being downwind of ~ the Thirty Years’ War and the resulting (very necessary!) conceptual fence between religion and everything else.

          We are thoroughly used to the fact that theoretical understanding is easily available and practically useful. Useful because many things have been engineered from principles, and available even if this isn’t the case (e.g. reading a wikipedia article on plant physiology may or may not prove useful to backyard gardening, but even if it doesn’t, it is still *there*). Outside the Scientific/Industrial Revolution’s lee, this simply isn’t the case, and thus literally everyone, from peasants to hereditary kings, mostly didn’t have access to theoretical understanding even of the things they did every day. People mostly learned things by, basically, being shown how to do them (“legitimate peripheral participation” is the academic term) and this works well enough for most things that people do a lot. Almost invariably, however, it leads to a mixture of useful, useless and outright harmful habits, where nobody has the faintest idea which is which.

          Sailors are famous for having an awful lot of superstitions, but most of them don’t involve divine beings — and the average 21st century landlubber couldn’t tell them apart from good, sometimes lifesaving, advice. Much the same used to be true of farmers, smiths, etc. There simply wasn’t any boundary between religion, proverb-quality advice on how to do your “job”, cultural randomness (e.g. trousers vs. tunics), and non-actionable but entertaining mythology (e.g. Star Wars, Selene/Endymion). The clearest example for this sort of thing continuing to exist today is parenting advice. This is obvious but let’s list it out anyway: people are deathly afraid of their children turning out wrong; most people have very few children; individual children differ for reasons other than parenting. These are excellent conditions for naturalistic superstitions to run rampant, and they clearly do. Now imagine that everything was like this, everyone always afraid of e.g. famine due to crop failure, thus as desperate for reassurance as new parents. Mine would be the scientific studies (theoretical understanding!) pointing out that “shared environment” — which also covers other things beside parenting — generally explains somewhere between 0-10% of outcome variance, thus how they parent their children actually matters way, way less than they think.

          Incidentally, in the age of sail, work aboard ships was mostly physical and often extremely monotonous, thus sailors would chant (hence “shanties” as commonly known). So would farmers, miners (as prof. Devereaux mentioned in the iron production series) and basically every other occupation, especially if chanting served some function, notably synchronising multiple people working together at an appropriate rhythm. Logically the text of these would contain both generic entertainment and proverb-quality advice on the occupation. Since this has suddenly gone missing when mechanization happened, to such a degree that our culture mostly forgot that it was ever a thing for non-sailors, the superstitions we still have (e.g. about parenting) are changing at a historically unusual speed, at the speed of fashion, and are passed through historically unusual channels (there did not use to be magazines).

          To sum up: no, ancient people did not believe in their religions in the same way a modern believer believes, because the contrast against “non-religious” everyday behavior was completely different. Overlooking this and treating ancient religion like modern religion is why works of fiction tend to either:
          – make their practical magic work by authorial fiat (and as often as not, give characters theoretical understanding of this magic, making it a modern technology);
          – make the characters not take their religion seriously;
          – or make the characters look stupid (for believing non-functional alleged magic) by not giving a background feel that all non-religious behavior was as full of superstition as parenting.

          1. Interesting comment!

            I would note though that in principle, good theoretical understanding and good empirical testing of what works are separable things. You could do randomly controlled trials of various herbs or practices and winnow out what doesn’t work while still having no deep idea of why things do or don’t work.

            I recently watched a Townsends video on a 1700s Spanish military hospital and its practices, with the tour guide saying they practice (or inherited from the Moors) a lot of evidence-based medicine, like using silver to cover up trepanation, or glue instead of sewing after amputation. No idea of bacteria, or that silver was antibiotic, but possibly good observations of “if we do X more people survive”.

          2. Like most social big categories, ‘religion’ is a bundle of many different things. It’s not just explanation, or an avenue of social power, or nice stories; it’s also comfort, an explication of the numinous (that feeling anyone but the terminally dull have that some places/events/people are special in some way beyond the ordinary), a thick strand of collective identity and more. One difference between the moderns and the classical and medieval worlds is that the landscape and life were then saturated with reminders of religion – festivals, plays, chantry-chapels, memorial crosses, temples, shrines, blessings, prayers, charms…They didn’t ‘have’ a religion – they lived within a religion, in many and various ways.

    3. “Though I suppose our villain might want to skip them if he genuinely believed in them and that the augeries for his coup attempt would be really bad…”

      I mean, if he thinks the auguries for his coup attempt are going to be bad, that means he expects the gods to tell him his plan is bad and he shouldn’t do it. When almighty Jupiter shouts a warning, you take it.

      Conversely, the Senate should think “Wait, this idiot wants to start his tenure as dictator by getting into a pissing match with almighty Jupiter? Get him out of here we all get caught in the blast radius!”

      1. There are certainly stories of Romans ignoring auguries. Most famously, Julius Caesar’s trick with his having tripped — very bad sign.

  7. I’m so glad to read this: I enjoyed the game for what it is, but it’s a very strange beast.

    Mistakes are one thing, but the things it- presumably- deliberately fudges are bizarre.

    So with point 14- did you clock that, unless I drastically misunderstood the game, they’ve actually said that the Rubicon runs around Rome itself? All those scenes where you have to disband your army are meant to be taking place on the Rubicon- portrayed as a mighty river, not a small stream. It does make me wonder why the hell an army from Egypt or Asia is doing approaching Rome from beyond the Po River…

    Also, can we take a moment to discuss the portrayal of Lucullus? I mean, points for giving time to an unjustly obscure figure of the major republic, and it at least nods to him being a famous gourmet and indulger in teh finer things. But he’s also portrayed as a great reforming man of the people, beloved by his slaves and the common soldiers. Now, maybe I very much misunderstood the Plutarch I read as an undergraduate, but I thought that precisely none of those things were true. How do you do a campaign that’s a reimagining of Lucullus’s war against Mithridates without dealing with one of its most famous events, the apparent mutiny by Clodius (who doesn’t feature in the game at all.) I know that that took place far later (and far distant) from where the game takes place, but its never hinted at at all.

    With the diversity- generally I think the game’s heart is in the right place, but the racial diversity also serves to exoticize POCs in quite unpleasant ways. I want to put this carefully, because I may be massively off base here and I’m writing as a white guy- but there’s a lot of characters who we are told are ‘berbers’, who, er, don’t look much like Amazegh people. They’re coded as sub-saharan Africans. It’s odd, because I’d expect to see plenty of people from the Sahel in Egypt, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that the game designers apparently decided that Africans are so completely interchangeable with one another.

    But the big thing, and I think you may have missed this because the game doesn’t do a good job dealing with it- did you realise that at no point in the game is your character a Senator? Ever? Not when they’re a tribune, not during the five years after they return victorious from Asia, not when they go off to be legate in Africa, not when they run the richest province in the Empire for another five years, not when they’re appointed as right hand of the dictator, not when they lead their army back to Rome or lay down their weapons

    Seriously. At no point in the fifteen years or so of the game does your player enter the Senate. At the end, now one of the most powerful people in Rome, they can remark to Cicero that they’re considering ‘running’ for the Senate which, er, no.

    Still, the Asterix gag is a cracker- I loaded that a couple of times to see how it played out, and was delighted how much effort they’d put into it.

    1. African always seems to equal sub-Saharan African to the modern mind. In Roman times those people were ‘Ethiopians’ and existed at the edge of their world. Africa meant north Africa and its Punic population, a wealthy and in Imperial times an important province.

  8. Really interesting! One typo to mention – “Alexander” should be “Alexandria” I think. Most of my knowledge of the late Republic comes from Robert Harris’s trilogy of Cicero novels. His grasp of the functioning of the Republic is better than that shown in this game, it’s clear, but I’d be interested to know if you have read them and have any takes on those.

  9. Very interesting. I think it’s worth making shout outs to games that get these thing right as we go. So Total War Rome 2 is really good about military equipment – e.g Hellenic troops for Egypt – and Assassins’ Creed Odyssey is great about colourful statues and general aesthetics. Anyony else got some good examples?

    1. Rome 2 largely did that because for Rome 1 they did the New Kingdom stuff and were rightfully raked across the coals for it. There’s still some bits where some of the egyptian (rather than greek) troops have anachronistic gear though.

    2. Bret has written favorably about EU4 and especially Victoria 2, because these games actually try to present a theory of history: EU4 shows how the Realist school of International Relations can explain the actions of states (especially wars), and Victoria 2 shows how industrialization changes this calculation concerning the costs and benefits of wars. My suspicion is that when Victoria 3 comes out Bret will consider it the most historically accurate game so far.

      In favor of the Total War games in general I would say that they give you roughly the right idea about how pitched battles work: the goal is the break the enemies cohesion to cause a rout, and for that, you have to deliver the right morale shock at the right place and the right time.

      And on the same level, I think Crusader Kings gives you roughly the right idea of vassalage: A ruler doesn’t rule everything directly and successful rule depends on the relation to your subordinates (and superiors).

      All of the examples have a lot of potential to be refined, though.

  10. Great post, Dr. Devereaux! Your discussion of verisimilitude vs veracity here seems especially valuable.

    I’ll note for the sake of pedantry, however, that your interpretation of the role of the Hua Mulan fable isn’t quite correct. Chen Sanping, likely the Anglophone scholar who has spent the most time investigating the role of names in identity within Early Medieval China, has demonstrated that the name Mulan is not a feminine name with flowery connotations, but rather a transcription of the Xianbei Altaic word “bulān” or “buklān” which means unicorn. Hua Mulan’s origins as a folktale during the barbarian-ruled Tabgatch Wei betray its exemplification of “barbarian values” (namely the traditional agro-pastoralist social role of women in combat) not its aberration within the broader Chinese tradition.

    That’s not to say that there weren’t “aberrant” women warriors in ancient times and late antiquity. Wang Yi, Matron Lü, Sun Shangxiang, and Xun Guanniang all come to mind. But choosing Mulan is, besides choosing Lady Trieu/Zhao or the Trung sisters, one of the worst possible choices to represent the occasional female leader in cultures comparable to Rome.

  11. Shakespeare writes “For when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is thesoonest winner.” The Romans clearly didn’t believe so. Nor do the Russians under Putin. Does history have a verdict on this?

    1. History’s verdict, I’d say, is that a skilled gamemaster will know how to wield both. For taking a city, the norm through most of history was: a) if it resisted and was conquered in a siege, it would be plundered and it’s population killed or sold into slavery but also b) if it surrendered, not only would it be spared that, it might also be left with a lot of autonomy.

      This mixed strategy seems much more promising than only using one or the other. If you slaughter even the cities who surrender, what is the point of surrendering? If you treat all conquered cities with leniency, what is the downside of trying your luck at fighting and then surrendering if this doesn’t work?

      The Romans not only acted that way in sieges (customarily the window to surrender was until the first ram touches the wall), they also weren’t that repressive towards conquered people after they had been integrated into their empire. Several polities joint the Roman Empire voluntarily.

    2. That paragraph in full:

      “We would have all such offenders so cut off: and we give express charge, that in our marches through the
      country, there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.”

      Henry V would here seem to be saying that you should not steal from those you claim as subjects, and who are not in arms against you. To judge from other events in a play about the Battle of Agincourt, I think he considered it reasonable to kill the people who ARE in arms against you. Henry V is just trying to avoid making enemies of people without need.

      Advice that certain armies in the former Soviet Union might have done well to heed.

    1. Most unlikely. Macedonian Egypt was practically an apartheid state. There were clear delineations between the Macedonian citizens of Alexandria. The native Egyptians and assorted other ethnicity, including Jews, who had metic status. It is highly improbably that the royal family would make an Egyptian alliance or that the offspring of a non-macedonian mother would be an acceptable heir to the throne. At the very least such controversial and scandalous ancestry would be mentioned in the historical sources.

      1. From what I can tell scholars nowadays are questioning how much of an ‘apartheid state’ Ptolemaic Egypt really was, see for example these threads on r/AskHistorians ( ( Egyptians could legally classify as ‘Hellenes’ (or ‘Persians’) in some contexts, and it appears that intermarriage was relatively common. The same user (cleopatra_philopater) quotes in another thread from a letter wherein a soldier, Ptolemaios, writes in Greek to his friends Achilles but switches to Demotic Egyptian to describe a dream

        1. Do those contexts include the royal family is the issue. There’s no evidence of a non- Macedonian marriage for any Ptolemy and arguing from silence is risky.

          1. My comment appears to have appeared in the wrong place when it should be a response to yours, aside from being late

    2. I’m tempted to snark that not only did the Ptolemies not intermarry with Egyptians, they didn’t intermarry with anyone outside their own family…

      Comment I think off a Youtube video, accuracy unchecked: “No new DNA entered the Ptolemy family tree since Ptolemy V and Cleopatra I, and Cleopatra VII’s inbreeding coefficient is 0.359. To put that into perspective, Reddit user amacaroon calculated the inbreeding coefficient of Daenerys Targaryen at 0.375. Both are higher than Charles II “I can barely function” of Spain at 0.254.”

      The family tree is more of a family pillar.

      1. That’s not *quite* true, though there’s definitely a LOT of inbreeding: They did intermarry a couple of times with other macedonian ruling families from the other successor states.

      2. Which is kind of odd, since brother-sister marriage (and uncle-niece and so on) is more a traditional Egyptian thing than a Greek or Macedonian custom.

      3. The Ptolemies must have been genetically healthier than the Hapsburgs. If a family has the luck of not carrying a lot of damaging recessives then inbreeding may not have severe consequences.

        1. One point is that the most common effect of inbreeding tends to result in higher rates of miscarriage and infant mortality… Something which wouldn’t neccessarily be noticeable in world where infant mortality is already so tragically high.

        2. Well, the Spanish Hapsburgs, anyway. When both your parents, all four of your grandparents, all six of your great-grandparents (note: you should, as a general rule, have eight great-grandparents), and seven of your eight great-great-grandparents (as a general rule, you should have more great-great-grandparents than grandparents) are directly descended from someone whose sobriquet is “the Mad,” there are going to be some issues.

  12. I’m afraid this kind of thing is unavoidable. I’ll put it like this: science fiction isn’t science. It’s fiction that uses science (or the aesthetics of science) for the purposes of storytelling. Historical fiction isn’t history. It’s fiction that uses history (or the aesthetics of history), etc. I am extremely suspect of any piece of fiction that claims historical accuracy as one of its selling points. Such accuracy is the purview of historical nonfiction, not of a medium where the whole point is making stuff up.

    The fault is not truly with the fiction writers—the audience should know better than to take historical fiction at face value. Skepticism is a much vaunted virtue of our times, but if it cannot even be exercised against media that is going to lie to you by design, then what hope is there? Most documentaries are quite suspect as well. And on the other end of things, more than once I’ve seen someone online speak authoritatively about the past… only to cite fantasy stories. Not even stories that claim accuracy as one of their selling points (though that happens plenty; looking at you, ASoIaF), but fantasy as a gestalt.

    From an educational standpoint, the value of historical fiction is not what it teaches, but its ability to spark interest and serve as a jumping off point for further learning and conversation, as here. I got into history because I played Age of Empires 2 as a small child, and that game is hardly a paragon of historical verisimilitude. For a friend of mine, it was Total War: Shogun 2. For one of my old history professors, it was Disney’s Robin Hood movie.

    But to actually learn history, you have to read history, not historical fiction, just like you have to read science, not science fiction, if you wish to learn about science. And fine, not everyone wants to do that, but the point is that it’s audiences that need to learn not to believe everything they see on TV/PC, not fiction writes and video game developers that need to be held to the standard of a bona fide expert in the field about which they are making media.

    1. Science fiction has often been divided into “soft” and “hard”.

      For soft SF, think Star Wars or Doctor Who, where, as you say, science is mostly used as an “aesthetic”, and can be bent, broken, or invented out of whole cloth to meet the demands of the story—although it’s still poor form to break any rules you have already established.

      For hard SF, think Interstellar or Jurassic Park, where the entire conceit of the story is premised on a scientific concept, and the storyteller is obligated to do their research and play fair with the details. The Expanse doesn’t quite fit this model, but it’s a good example of what a classic space opera plot looks like if it’s written with this sensibility.

      (This is not a value judgment. A hard SF rendering of Star Wars would be grossly inferior, for instance: they’re simply different sorts of stories.)

      In neither case is it a replacement for reading a textbook, but one is more likely to discard scientific accuracy and the other is going to treat obeying the laws of physics as the rules of the game.

      I don’t consume enough historical fiction to have a good sense of what examples of “hard” and “soft” historical fiction would be, but I think distinguishing between stories that play fast and loose with historical details and primarily use the time period as a backdrop, and stories where the author is committed to getting them right even if it’s not convenient for the narrative.

      1. Absolutely. Star Trek is science fiction (no matter how squishy the science or the technobabble, they do try to keep it vaguely based on possible science – Jar Jar Abrams’ reboot is not mentioned in this house) while Star Wars is science fantasy, in the model of the old planetary romances. Two different styles, both respectable (I’m very partial to the old-school lush fantasy about dying Martian empires, for example) but not to be confused. Don’t cross the streams!

        1. I distinguish between hard and soft SF not so much based on their level of scientific accuracy as on the degree to which they implicitly ask to be judged by their scientific accuracy. Star Trek to me is a classic example of hard SF that’s just bad at being hard SF, with lots of plots clearly based on a writer’s inane misunderstanding of a scientific topic rather than deliberately making things up. Examples include that Voyager episode where they escape a black hole via a crack in the event horizon, and the numerous episodes based on teleological misunderstandings of evolution (often leading to pretty morally distasteful messages; the Enterprise episode “Dear Doctor” comes to mind).

      2. In the “hard HF” column, and among obvious candidates, I’d put The Name of the Rose, Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, and, with some trepidation pending a condemnation from Bret, Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy. Those three authors seem to be committed in those series to treating the setting as it was, and to the extent that they’re making things up, they do so within the confines of known histor; i.e. there is nothing in there which outright contradicts known history, and if it does that’s solely down to an oversight on the part of the author which would annoy them if they learned of it.

        Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series would be “soft HF”, as would a movie like Gladiator, or the Spartacus TV series. It’s kind of there-or-thereabouts in terms of the broad strokes of the setting but the story is essentially made up and doesn’t care whether it’s consistent with real history.

        Most of Bernard Cornwell’s stuff, and HBO’s Rome, would probably be towards the harder end of the soft side: an effort is made with respect to the details, but there is still a lot of invention, some of which (intentionally) ignores or overrides real history.

        It’s very rare to see “hard” HF on TV or film, in my experience.

        1. IIRC; name of the Rose has a bunch of deliberate anachronisms and literary in-jokes, it’s just that you have to be a guy like Umberto Eco to get them.

    2. My usual reaction to a piece of historical fiction is to immediately read up on the actual history, unless I’m already acquainted with it. In the latter case I’m usually grumpy at the liberties taken. One thing very difficult to get right, apparently, is authentic period detail of everyday life. Even when the broad arc of events is correct that is often annoyingly wrong.

    3. Making claims of being accurate while getting things flagrantly wrong is *not* unavoidable. It can be avoided by not making the claims. I have no problem with something that is honestly “historically inspired”; one of my own ideas for an RPG setting uses the names of the Greek gods for deities who are somewhat more benevolent and thus make a “Greek” society that doesn’t suck so much for women and slaves. If I ever ran it, I would be quite clear about using things for their evocative value but “please don’t assume you’ve learned anything about ancient Greece”.

      1. True, that isn’t unavoidable. What is unavoidable (and perhaps I should have been clearer) is people sometimes taking the fiction they consume at face value. That happens whether the fiction markets itself as historically accurate—though that does aggravate the matter—or isn’t even attempting to base itself off any particular period to begin with.

        Cue my pedantic frustration with the term “medieval fantasy,” practically never applied to anything remotely medieval and often directed at works that aren’t even trying to be. That’s a case of the audience unilaterally deciding that a certain type of fantasy is “medieval” and therefore to some extent reflective of how the Middle Ages actually were.

        And I suspect that media like this game, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, or A Song of Ice and Fire are not so much cynically marketing themselves as historically accurate, but rather the standard for historical accuracy is so much lower for a layman—even a casual enthusiast of history—that they genuinely believe their own advertisements. Even when consciously making decisions that reduce historicity, the excuse remains that these are exceptions and that the authors’ work is still “better” than media that isn’t even trying. Though if you ask me, winning a race against someone placidly sipping lemonade on a veranda is no great achievement.

        1. To be fair, “medieval fantasy” is shorter than “fantasy with swords and knights”. Which is what it really comes down to.

    4. It’s also a budget issue, which easily answers Dr Devereaux’s questions to the effect of “Why didn’t they make it more accurate even when it would cost them nothing?”

      Here, he uses “nothing” to refer to the fact that it does not cost extra effort in game-design or story-telling to get the facts correct. However, there is a big problem. It still costs research time.

      Inaccuracy is always cheaper than accuracy. For with accuracy you must take the time to find the specific configuration that was used historically. With inaccuracy you can just make it up as long as it doesn’t conflict with something else in your fiction. Or in this case, just decide when some anachronism is “close enough”.

      So even though the accurate versions would have worked well in the game mechanics and story, I pretty much know WHY the game lacks such accuracy. It’s because when the game devs were working, they were like “oh, how does this work?” then they looked it up on wikipedia for 5 minutes, checked the date, didn’t think that being off by a century was THAT big of a deal, and decided to put it into the game. The alternative is to spend more time on historical research, which COSTS MONEY.

      Literally every inaccuracy can be explained well by this model. Why do they depict archers in the citizen legions? Because the devs assumed legions were combined arms formations and didn’t bother to check, which COSTS MONEY. Why did they present misinformation about the Roman government institutions? Because the devs just assumed certain parts of Roman government were “democracies” similar to 21st century USA, and didn’t bother to check because it COSTS MONEY.

      1. Or, even more mundanely, they did do some extra historical research, or had planned to, but blew all of their money getting the Latin in the voice acting as accurate as it was.

  13. The stuff with slavery might have been a “no win” situation. If they tried to get it more accurate (including taking slaves and how they were treated), you might get a bunch of players exulting in their ability to be cruel to slaves as part of the game-play, and criticism from outside reviewers for allowing that to happen.

    The stuff about the Republic, though, is definitely pretty “yikes”. Big “projecting our political attitudes and assumptions back on to a very different society” energy.

    1. That’s a general problem. WWII games have to deal with that a lot. Either you make ignore/whitewash the issue or you make the game a Holocaust commision simulator. Neither of which is great.

      1. Honestly, I think that you could avoid both of these problems by making the side doing the Holocaust nonplayable.

    2. Yeah, I mean if we’re going to be pedants here, then the claim that Dr Devereaux is implicitly making here is that “if you follow my suggestions, you will have a more successful historical game”. And I think that claim is very dubious. The suggestion to emulate slavery mechanics and not shy away from committing war crimes is gonna be very controversial for a game and may very well sink the project. Some day I might write an entire blog post on why this blog post has the verisimilitude of “advice for historical game development”.

      1. That’s not what I’m doing here at all. That sort of commentary would be a review, whereas, “this is an analysis of how a game (or any cultural product really – you could apply this same approach to a historically based film or book) uses its historical setting. It is not a review.”

        I put it in bold!

        1. You’re right, and I was writing mostly in jest so I hope you didn’t consider it a willful mischaracterization of your post.

          That said, a more accurate way to put it would be: the reader is going to come away from this with the overall feeling that you listed a bunch of changes that you would have liked to see in a game that was advertised as “historically accurate”. Or am I wrong even about that?

          Clearly you take the constraint of the medium into account, as when you note that character build diversity in-game requires some variation in otherwise monotonous Roman legionary equipment.

          So I don’t think it would be a stretch for a reader to conclude that the other points you made are also things you’d like to see in a “historically accurate game”. Now the thing is, some of those suggestions indeed are more historically accurate, but create new problems for the project for other reasons.

        2. And to add, this is mostly because of the tone used: the post laments needless inaccuracies and notes situations where they can easily do the more historical thing that doesn’t even require reworking game mechanics or story. It really really feels like a suggestion and I would be surprised if it wasn’t intended as a suggestion to future games.

      2. I don’t think Bret is implicitly making such a claim, at all. He’s said nothing about game *success*. But if you claim your game is historically accurate, then you invite criticism from historians. GRRM fell into the same trap by making unjustified claims about the Dothraki inspirations. Bret wasn’t giving advice on writing successful blockbuster fantasy novels, he was criticizing the huge difference between the Dothraki and the alleged inspiring source cultures.

        It might be that a really accurate game of Roman culture would be too revolting (“values-dissonant”) to have much success. If so, them’s the breaks! But then don’t claim the game you do make is accurate.

  14. Didn’t they find face masks at the site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest? I thought that would indicate actual battlefield usage.

  15. Questiom regarding female characters; apparently the Scythian who is inexplicably a legionare was from a gladiator school. Were female gladiators a thing? I know Juvenal’s satires rant about how all your daughters are running off to become gladiators in between ranting about how your wife is totally screwing that eunuch poet and you can’t put guards on her because she’ll sleep with the guards, but I’m obviously unsure if that means it was an actual thing.

    1. As far as I can tell expert opinion is divided on that point. My personal opinion is that female gladiators were an occasional novelty act.
      There were socially and perhaps politically powerful and influential women in the late Republic; the infamous Clodia, the wealthy Fulvia, the notorious Servilia and the virtuous Porcia. Julia Caesaris, the dictator’s daughter, seems to have been seen by contemporaries as a vital mediator between her father and her husband, Pompey. Her death was widely mourned as a disaster for Rome. Why must we mess about with historically improbable female gladiators and legionaries?

      1. Because being a powerful/influential political player working behind the scenes isn’t as “cool” as going out and doing stabby things, at least not to your average gamer.

        1. I’d say this is partly a game design problem, not just a player preference problem. This game is a Turn-Based Tactics RPG, so the core gameplay will be combat. A game which limits the player to being a powerful political/social player based on gender choice would need core mechanics designed for that. (And I would very much like to see such a game one day.)

          1. Yeah, I’ve never seen a really satisfying mechanical structure for indirect influence. You could obviously run it as a choice-based visual novel and that could be quite interesting, but I don’t know that anyone’s come up with a very deep system for it.

        2. Witness that D&D has few spells or magic items that would be useful outside adventuring plus some politicking on the side.

        3. Eh, the original Colour Fairy books in fact suffered from the inclusion of literary variants. (And tales that are all literary with the vaguest of nods toward fairy tales.)

          1. Whoops. Please ignore this, I got lost in two wordpress windows that looked alike

      2. Because our video games are generally about warfare and/or political maneuvering in the Senate and thus our primary characters are involved in warfare or in the Senate.

    2. Some less rhetorical sources than Juvenal mention female gladiators in the Imperial period, so it probably happened occasionally. Cassius Dio mentions women fighting in the arena under Nero, Titus and Domitian (the first of these also noted by Tacitus in the Annals, and the last by Suetonius), until it was banned in Dio’s lifetime by Septimius Severus. Even stronger evidence might be that both Martial (Liber Spectaculorum) and Statius (Silvae, 1.6) describe female fighters in their praises of the Emperor, indicating it was not only slanders of immorality. There is also a marble relief found in Halicarnassus showing two fighters labelled “Amazonia” and “Achillia”

  16. Please, please do a Kingdom Come: Deliverance post — I would love to experience your misery secondhand, as I never finished the title. The developers cannot emphasize enough that they consulted historians when making the game (a point which has become a meme in my friend group) but there were several parts that set off ahistorical alarm bells in my mind.

    1. The censors would remove senators for immorality, which they could interpret quite freely (supposedly one of Sulla’s ancestors was expelled from the Senate for owning too much silver tableware). And in the time period this game takes place in a lot of senators died in civil wars and proscriptions

    2. You can’t become a quaestor until you’re old enough; suppose the minimum age is thirty (though that was imposed by Sulla, who is also the man who increased the number of quaestors from 19 to 20).

      I don’t know what the average age at death is for a Roman senator, but even with a comfortable lifestyle and the best medical care available in ancient Rome, it probably wasn’t more than seventy years. So a typical senator’s lifetime office would last about forty years.

      Hypothetically, then, the stable maximum size of the Senate would be around 800 senators, even before you count any senators who get removed for ‘immorality’ or whatever. That’s large, but it’s not unmanageable, especially since there’s nothing requiring every senator to show up to every Senate meeting.

    3. There is no number of senators you could add to the Senate annually which would prevent the Senate from reaching an equilibrium size, assuming that both annual quaestors and the lifespan of Roman elites remained roughly constant, because the lifespan of Roman elites was finite.

      Let’s say that their average age of death was 60, and that their average age when elected was 30. This means the average term length would be 30 years, and on average one-thirtieth of the current Senate would die each year. (If, say, an average of 5% of the senators died each year, the average term length would need to be 20 years, because that’s…kinda how these averages work.)

      If there were a hundred Senators, only about three would die and 20 new ones would be elected, meaning that there would be 117 senators the next year. But 1/30th of 117 is about four, so we would expect about four of those senators to die, increasing the number of new Senators by only 16 rather than 17. This population growth would slow quickly; it would take about eight years to reach 200 senators, and 16-17 to reach 300, but at least 28 to reach 400, almost 50 to reach 500, and at the end of the first century there would only be about 580 senators. The system would reach equilibrium by the end of the second century, with around 600 Senators nd an average of 20 senators would dying each year.

      Of course, this system ignores that Rome was not a spherical city in a vacuum, but the center of an expanding empire, dynamic on a good day and chaotic on a bad one. It ignores wars (plenty of senators died when wars went wrong, since they were usually chosen to lead armies), it ignores plagues, it ignores political violence. I doubt you’d get a single full century in Roman history where something didn’t kill an unusual number of senators.

      And, of course, my initial numbers are made up and probably wrong. But hopefully they demonstrate that the answer is as simple as “There were just hundreds of senators”.

  17. The Disney live-action remakes have this same problem. They’ve clearly used a lot of visual references from the real-world periods and locales in which the stories are set, but a lot of the cultural details are wrong. I’m especially annoyed with Beauty and the Beast’s 18th-century France, where most everybody hates female literacy (literacy was one of the marks of an accomplished woman — the 18th-century French versions of the story were written to help teach young girls how to read),the servants of an absolute monarch totally could’ve stood up to him about how he was raising his son, and plague doctors in bird masks come when someone dies of illness!

    1. I think the old animated movies are actually better here: They take place in an ambigious fairytale land,and that’s the point. The fact that Disney’s entire modus operandi is taking stuff and turning it into Americana actually gets *more* pronounced when they try to be specific.

      1. You may be able to world-build, but there’s no way to have a realistic analog to fairy tales in which it is normal to walk from one kingdom to the next (Russian tales, wanting to indicate a long journey, specify crossing “thrice ten kingdoms”), where soldiers can marry princesses, and miller’s daughters, princes, where princesses can run off and become scullery maids, or princes run off to become gardener’s boys, and all the rest.

        1. Sure you can. Turn the clock back to early enough in the Bronze Age, to when kingship was a comparatively recent invention, thus the size of the average polity (translated as “kingdom”) was comparable to a medieval barony or even less, down to a manor. For a moment, treat genesis 14 as the sort of thing that could have possibly happened. Obviously we have several “kingdoms” (and other polities that are not kingdoms?) within at most a few days of marching. The text says that 318 men could, in a night raid, rout the (jointly?) encamped army of multiple “kings”; what’s the scale, 3000 total, 600 per “king”?

          If anything, amateurs should write their military fiction in this setting. The distances are so short that logistics are not a thing, you plan campaigning like you plan camping. You absolutely can march to Helm’s Deep in a day. “Armies” are so small (battalion size) that if the command structure is “leader points sword and shouts” that is almost adequate at a stretch. For the same reasons, in the real world this would be total amateur hour, with hilarious bungles, thus the authors committing the same would be realistic. That the authors don’t understand how kingship worked, well, at this point kingship wasn’t a mature “technology” so to some extent real-world “kings” wouldn’t, either. However, millers don’t exist yet either.

          And maybe you can explain the “run off” as a plucky prince/princess getting away before the enemy “army”, either victorious or unchallenged in the field, mops up the “kingdom”.

          1. Then you will not have balls and tourneys held so the princes and princesses can choose someone to marry. Also, the castle will not hire you except possibly as a day worker, they have slaves for that, and as a day worker, you envy them.

          2. Also, you run off because your stepmother is cruel, or you released his prisoners. To explain the runaway as fleeing the army is leaving fairytale land.

            Lots of good retellings have done such, but they’re not set there.

          3. I vacillated on whether to mention that the protagonist could “really” be enslaved instead, and saying they “ran away” is a family-friendly lie. But now that you mention freeing palace slaves/prisoners, exile as criminal punishment existed and fits well (“you’re a relative so I don’t want to have you actually executed, and there’s something eye-for-an-eye in both the freed people and you leaving the polity”).

            In the medieval era princes/princesses also had their marriages arranged for diplomacy (or as often as not, politicking inside the kingdom). “Nube gerant alii, a tu, ferox Austria, bella” or whatever.
            + Something like balls, including some but not all religious festivals, should exist by the boatload.
            – Tourneys don’t exist without cavalry and chariot warfare is not a suitable replacement.
            + But chariot racing is.
            – Except it may not have become a formalized sport until millennia later?

            I don’t think realistic worldbuilding and fairytale storytelling necessarily conflict. As soon as a writer is not such an amateur to immediately write down their own thoughts, but keeps even a little separation, they can take into account “cynical” things like economics, realist IR, and generalized “inexploitability” in their worldbuilding, while they present to the reader only the events they want and with as moralizing a slant as they want. They can simply choose a naif for a PoV character and then not let them see/notice the things they wish to go unseen.

            For kicks, an ambitious writer could try weaving Jaynes’ bicameral mind theory into their story. Or they could make some element that is otherwise ahistorical fit in smoothly. For instance (again not fairy tale), in a scene early in the work show/describe the local funeral ritual, with the dead body/ies leaving the settlement via the gate. Then in a later scene, have the new recruits for the long-service professional army march out the gate, anvil-droppingly surrounded by the same symbolism as the dead in the funeral — certain articles of clothing, decoration around the gate, the song bystanders sing, &c. “They are removed from the society to defend it”, and this very public ritual marking them as dead serves to prevent desertion and reintegration into society.

          4. As soon as you start throwing out tropes as not realistic, you have left fairytale land. You are doing a historical fiction retelling of a fairytale.

    2. The irony is that this was to explain why everyone hates Beauty for reading. A fact that got much derision in some discussion, since all the bookworms knew that people to this day do not need a special reason to hate bookworms.

    3. I saw a persuasive and detailed Tumblr post shared around that argued that (the animated) Beauty and the Beast was actually set in the late 19th century, as evidenced by things like streetlamps, and simply in a particularly backwards small town where all the buildings were really old – they even suggested a specific candidate town that fit all the criteria.
      Admittedly, that’s almost entirely tangential to your point, since most of your complaints are *more* wrong in the 19th century. I think a lot of them are also new problems with the live action version that weren’t in the animated one.

  18. This is an interesting review, thank you for pointing out the differences between real and fiction. I hope that I can find reviews of yours that make mention of games that do follow the historical narrative more accurately.

    1. Bret has written favorably about several Paradox-titles in the past. All of these have weaknesses, but they do represent some core aspect of history well. Here are some links:

      Crusader Kings 3: Base Game, “Royal Court” DLC
      Europa Universalis 4: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
      Victoria 2: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

      The historical accuracy in these games isn’t in the narrative though, how history plays out will be different during each playthrough. Instead, there is an understanding of history built into the mechanics.

  19. ” It had substantial structural factors motivating it, from military reforms that disconnected the interests of soldiers from the interests of voters to the general inability of a political system designed for a city-state of 250,000 to cope with being the government of 3.5 million Italians ruling over an empire of 50 million to the spectacular increases in inequality brought on by the virtual flood of wealth into Italy.” — If you switch out “USA” and “Americans” for “Italy” and “Italians,” adjust a few population numbers, this pretty much sums up exactly where we are at in the USA today, and why we’re “falling.”

    1. But muh Founding Fathers!

      Honestly, reading some of the right-wing milscifi fiction milieu, I can’t hep but feel that we are seeing a cult of Constitutionism that parallels the nation myths of Sparta Dr. Deveraux discussed in another article: mythologized and deified founding figures whose law is held up as divinely sanctioned and thus inviolate.

      Strict adherence to Lycurgas’ laws was a mistake and people treating the Founding Fathers as similarly divinely sanctioned source of “Correct Law” are just as much of a disaster.

      1. Of course, the fact that, unlike Lycurgus, said Founders actually built in a mechanism to change the Constitution, and changed it themselves, kind of undermines that particular argument. If someone can’t get two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states to agree to change it, that sounds like a them problem.

        Also, kindly spare us any dramatics about how terrible today’s polarization is–the original states were even more fractious, unruly, and suspicious of each other than our current bunch. I mean, New York even wanted the right to secede written into the Constitution.

        1. I mean, shouldn’t the states have the right to secede if they have a referendum on it?
          Unless we want to change their names to provinces or something.

        1. Having read the Wealth of Nations, allow me to say that I question whether Chomsky actually understood Smith when he read him. For one thing, it’s really clear that when Smith is talking about “corporations” or “incorporations” he’s talking about something more like a guild than the modern LLC.

          1. And it’s really clear that Chomsky knows Smith isn’t talking about modern LLCs. “Adam Smith didn’t say much about them, but he did criticize the early stages of them.”

            Really, that whole last paragraph isn’t Chomsky on Smith, it’s just Chomsky talking about corporate history. So I question whether you understood Chomsky.

          2. I am aware that Chomsky is aware that Smith is not talking about the modern LLC. My contention is that Smith is not even talking about the predecessors of the modern LLC, but talking more about about local equivalents to the AMA or ABA.

  20. It may please you to know Dr. Devereaux, that this piece has been linked and shared on the Expeditions-series discord server, and at least a few of the developers appear to have read it.

  21. mindthe stalk0: RE: Ottomans

    For political reasons the ottomans tried very hard to remain “apart” from their turkish aristocrats (this is part of why they relied so heavily on slave-soldiers and slave-bureaucrats) this extended to reproduction, while actual *marriage* wasn’t that common (though it did happen) sultans usually chose the mothers of their children from the harem (which, while it also included female relatives, etc. sultans largely chose their… lovers? Sexual partners? Prospective mothers? from slaves) either purchased, or recruited in other ways. (note: The chance of actually being picked was pretty slim, the harem consisted of hundreds, if not thousands of women, a lot of who would be busy as servants or attendants for other, more high-ranking members)

    These slaves were just about never turks: They’d be either from subject peoples (greeks, bulgarians, romanians, etc.) or from outside the empire (russians, circassians prior to the migration) etc. since enslaving muslims were forbidden they came mainly from the christian portions of the empire (just like the jannissaries)

    Now, this tends to be true fora lot of royalty, but the ottomans were an extreme case, other royalty tended to at least occasionally marry native nobility to shore up internal politics, but the ottomans basically never did.

    1. I have been to topkapi palace and there’s a room where they have a portrait of every sultan. part of it is changing art styles but you can definitely see them getting whiter with time.

  22. (though given the glut of games right now, I would perhaps not advise it at full price, especially if one has not exhausted some of the titles listed above)

    I’d also recommend looking into the Fire Emblem series before getting Expeditions: Rome, if you’re interested in the hybrid of tactical battles and RPG storytelling. It mixes those elements differently than Banner Saga/Tyranny/etc, but…well, that’s kinda why I’m recommending it. And the way Fire Emblem mixes them obviously works for a lot of people—there are sixteen games and counting in the main series alone, not counting spin-offs like Warriors or Heroes.

    A lot of Latin terms, even ones with direct and uncomplicated English translations are left untranslated: servus is used instead of slave…

    My first thought is that this translation might make it easier for the writers to gloss over the fact that the nice Roman rich guys are still slave-owners. But that’s a bit of an unfair assumption for me to make without having played the—

    Still, the game is not perfect in this regard either: the main trap is that it presents Roman slavery as an institution whose morality depends on the enslaver.

    —well never mind then.

    To be clear on the disconnect, this is the equivalent of putting William the Conqueror’s knights and archers in a movie about the U.S. War in Afghanistan.

    Seriously. Ancient Egypt was ancient. The only time I can think of that any pop culture has tried to capture that sheer antiquity is Crusader Kings 2, whose description of the Great Pyramids as mysterious structures that “have always been here” makes them feel like a mysterious natural phenomenon more than anything built by ordinary humans.

    Cleopatra in this game is such a mess of problems it is hard to know where to begin.

    One day, there will be a pop culture Cleopatra that does the historical figure justice. One day.

    In short, the game presents the Republic as a representative democracy and it was no such thing.

    There is more than one kind of votey government thing? Shock! Horror! Confusion!

    But one point I make in my survey course treatment of that question is that the collapse of the Republic was not simply the result of the ambition of any one man.

    Big things aren’t the result of individual heroes and villains? Shock! Horror! Confusion!

    1. I am sure this speaks to my own gaming background more than anything else, but I am a bit confused at the repeated use of terms like RPG/tactical hybrid. I don’t see Expeditions: Rome as a hybrid, but as a straight CRPG with turn-based tactical combat. Turn-based combat was the norm for RPGs long before real-time-with-pause became a thing, all the way back to the original RPG (Dungeons & Dragons, to be clear).

      I say this because I like RPGs, and tactical turn-based happens to be my favorite kind of RPG combat, but I wouldn’t say I have any particular interest in XCOM and the like. Fire Emblem was recommended to me recently, but unfortunately I only play on PC. And this may ruffle some feathers, but why are Japanese games so goddamn ugly? Obviously it comes down to taste, but I’m perplexed this never comes up when they are discussed. Surely someone else sees what I see?

      1. “RPG” because it has the small group wandering around doing adventure-y things, where each member has a unique combination of attributes and equipment. When the group meets NPCs, a range of ways to interact from peaceful to combat.

        “Tactical” because the player is also the commander of legions in battle, moving abstract counters around a battlefield map each of which represents hundreds of soldiers who might as well be clones. Not strategic because the player has little or no involvement in weapon production, recruitment, economic policy, etc.

        As for “turn-based” that is a necessary qualification now. Yeah, when RPGs were all tabletop it would be redundant, but computer RPGs have both turn based and real time variants.

    2. The seeming lack of specificity applied to using the word ‘ancient’ is a bit of a bugbear of mine. It gets used interchangeably for Old Kingdom Egypt (2700BC) and the Aztecs (1300-1500s AD). I recently read an article talking about ‘ancient Japan’ for the Sengoku period which ended in 1615!

      We need to start using more adjectives for ‘old’ or ‘not around anymore’ I feel…

  23. The Cleopatra Problem is the general problem of female characters in video games. The general gist is that “the audience for this game is guys, and guys like boobs”. So you get the infamous battle lingerie and heels for female characters where their male counterparts have something approaching decent armour.

    I’m not particularly interested in fighting for wokeness in regards to games, but it is so common that I play male characters when I do play a game, because otherwise I’m so distracted by “Oh for the love of Heaven, you are inviting the enemy to turn you into a pincushion by wearing – or not wearing – that!”

    I also realise that the aim of a game is the playability with the plot coming in second, and historical accuracy a distant third if at all, so if big houses and marble everywhere and 21st century impeccable attitudes are what is going to work for the game, that’s what we’re going to get. Plus sex-kitten Cleopatra with big boobs shown off by her top and makeup plastered on.

  24. I was long planning to write a thing about pretty much exactly the same complaint: “they went to so much effort to make it look accurate, but didn’t really make it actually accurate” – except about the 2019 Midway film…. and then put it off because I have executive function disorder and really should be doing my taxes right not instead of posting here-

    ahem, anyway, I really appreciate your taking to time to highlight how “feels accurate but isn’t” can promulgate errors. Although I really wish you would cap that off by providing examples of how such errors might affect our understanding of issues in our contemporary context and how that can lead to harm (this is on my mind because I just watched a Knowing Better video that contextualizes it’s criticism of The Fountainhead in precisely that way).

    But of course the pitfall of contextualizing history to the contemporary is that it’s political, and would attract criticism on those grounds. I still think it’s worthwhile though, i rather feel that often people dismiss history as unimportant precise because those whose work is teaching history don’t frame it as relevant to their immediate current concerns as much as they should….

  25. “The woman Cicero is addressing here as ‘domina’ is a poor woman effectively without family or status. Also, can we please get Cicero a toga? Can we give him her toga?”
    Listen, let’s not kinkshame Cicero here. If he wants to call a woman in a toga “domina”, that’s his lookout.

  26. “Though I am confident that they will view chemotherapy as we do blood-letting, since it is basically poisoning you and hoping the sick parts die more quickly than the healthy.”

    It is that, and it’s easy to vaguely imagine a future with more targeting anti-cancer means viewing chemotherapy as crude and horrific. OTOH, it’s a crude and horrific thing that has good causal justification and which measurably often works better than just letting cancer happen, neither of which can be said about bloodletting.

    I’d note that fever, an evolved effect of the innate immune system, works on the principle of “this is bad for us but hopefully even worse for the germs.” (Some immune system cells may actually work better at the higher temperature, but it’s not great for most of our cells.)

    1. Blood letting reduces blood volume. Then it makes blood less viscous by recovering the liquid part first. Both reduce strain on the heart. Helps with TB for instance.

      1. The mechanism is different, but it also helps a lot with hemochromatosis, a relatively common genetic disorder found in Northern Europe. The disorder causes iron to not be present in large quantities in the lymph nodes, but instead get dumped straight into the blood. Too much iron in the blood is bad news, but if you drain some of it out and let the body get on with producing more, it helps quite a bit.

        Incidentally, the same iron draining in the lymph nodes makes you virtually immune to the Bubonic Plague, and there’s a sudden and massive spike in the prevalence of the genetic markers for the condition found in cadavers after the black death.

    2. I think our ancestors, particularly the ones who drank mercury to obtain immortality, would respect the idea of chemo.

  27. “Speaking as a woman I find women’s real lives and the way they negotiated the limitations that hedged them in tremendously interesting.”

    It is interesting! And for all its flaws, I think _A Song of Ice and Fire_ deserves credit for giving girls and women interesting roles and screentime, showing how they can have such even in a sexist/patriarchal society. Even just looking at the more ‘realistic’ courses of Catelyn and Sansa, we see how they can lack formal power but still have influence and agency (or the potential thereof; Sansa might be more useful as a window onto Cersei and Margery.)

    All that said, it’s at best rather challenging to turn into gameplay, and would be a rather different gameplay than the default one offered to male characters. So I don’t blame a “historical” game for having one gameplay and an excuse (if needed) for why women can be performing it.

    1. Certainly! Although GRRM probably doesn’t get how medieval societies worked, and sometimes leans uncomfortably on certain misconceptions (it is for example easy to get the sense that he genuinely believes that in medieval societies, it was perfectly common and accepted for young girls to be married away and for that marriage to be consumated as soon as they got their first period), he does a stellar job writing female characters with real agency and that effectively wields a sort of “feminine power”.

      Sansa is a very good example, as she is able to use a combination of her natural kindness and empathy with growing political savvy to influence others. Once you get over the lemon cake-pining, she’s a really interesting character in the books. Which just makes it all the more sad how D&D butchered her character from season 5 onwards of the show 🙁

      1. Yep. Martin, like a lot of people, confuses the mores and customs of the elites, and the high elites at that, (who, at the time, needed to produce heirs quickly in order to avert succession crises) with the mores and customs of the society at large. Note that the only criticism of the Hajnal line is that Hajnal put the average marriage age in Southern and Eastern Europe too young, not that he put the average in Northwestern Europe too late.

      2. Girls could be licitly married as young as twelve. Marriages before that age were subject to the consent of the partners when they reached the appropriate age, which was fourteen for boys. It definitely understood that too early childbearing was bad for the young mother and for her babies so consummation was often delayed. All this mostly applied to elite marriages. Commoners married later after the man could support a wife and the woman had saved up a dowry.

        1. Even among elites it was fairly uncommon to marry at the legal minimum though, it *happens* but it’s not the norm.

          1. Joan of Kent claimed to have contracted herself to Sir Thomas Holland at the age of twelve just before her marriage to the Earl of Salisbury. Personally I don’t believe a word of it, and neither did many of her contemporaries, but at twelve she could legally contract herself to be married and the church granted the annulment.

          2. Indeed, it’s like people today can theoretically get married at 16 (or 18, depending on your jurisdiction), but very few actually do.

  28. Hey there, this was DELIGHTFUL to read, thank you for all of it!
    One question, did you ever get through the Age of Decadence? I would love to hear your take on similar, in that..!

  29. Surprised the reviewers didn’t get suspicious about the accuracy after seeing tiddy Cleopatra. I guess that kind of thing is just standard background in a lot of video games that doesn’t even get noticed.

    1. That, and it’s also possible that they didn’t get that far. Reviewers are frequently in a time crunch, and oftentimes base their reviews on the first quarter to half of the game rather than the whole thing.

    1. Given the importance of the post and the links to the ruling dynasty can we be sure the high priests were native Egyptians? Is it possible a Macedonian was put in this key priesthood?

      1. I am not sure, but far as I know Ptah remained a mostly Egyptian deity unlike for example Isis, Serapis and Harpocrates. It does seem likely, however, that they were Hellenised Egyptians and thus legally classified as Greek

  30. A thought. Dr. Deveraux, would you consider doing a short piece on how a toga was actually put together and worn? With all the emphasis on “the Romans wore Togas” it’d help to have an idea of what exactly a toga is.

  31. You suggest filibusters weren’t a thing in Rome in this article, but isn’t Cato’s obstruction of Caesar’s triumph in 60 BCE just that?

    1. It only works because the consuls were on his side. Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer was the more important consul and a fierce optimate, while his co-consul was the politically impressive Lucius Afrianius, a partisan of Pompey. That Afrianius was not very capable is made obvious by how ineffective he is at getting anything done for Pompey that year either.

  32. Usually I’m nodding along on these takedowns but ‘facemask helmets were strictly decorative’ was a hard blow for me. I love that style in fantasy.

    1. Most military historians believe this, but by no means all. Adrian Goldsworthy for one thinks they were used in battle. Cavalry masks were found on the battlefield of the Teutoburg Forest, and Ammianus Marcellinus describes Persian cataphracts wearing them in battle:

      > All the troops were clothed in steel, in such a way that their bodies were covered with strong plates, so that the hard joints of the armour fitted every limb of their bodies; and on their heads were effigies of human faces so accurately fitted, that their whole persons being covered with metal, the only place where any missiles which fell upon them could stick, was either where there were minute openings to allow of the sight of the eyes penetrating, or where holes for breathing were left at the extremities of the nostrils.

      He’s a bit more ambiguous about Roman cavalry

      > among these were scattered cavalry with cuirasses, whom the Persians call Clibanarii, protected by coverings of iron breastplates, and girdled with belts of iron, so that you would fancy them statues polished by the hand of Praxiteles, rather than men. And the light circular plates of iron which surrounded their bodies, and covered all their limbs, were so well fitted to all their motions, that in whatever direction they had occasion to move, the joints of their iron clothing adapted themselves equally to any position.

      But the bit about mistaking them for statues does to me make more sense if they were wearing the masks.

      Of course, this evidence is from the 4th century A.D. so it doesn’t necessarily prove that the masks were worn earlier. Still, I think that at the very least you’re justified in believing that they were used then even if it can’t be fully proven.

    2. Cavalry face masks were used in battle. Arrian directly matches their use and Romans likely had no distinction of ‘parade armor’ for the troops. High ranks is a different matter (like the squirrelly subject of musculata). Moreover reconstructions don’t off severe drops in visibility for the protection afforded – the eye slots are set close to the face that obstruction isn’t too bad. There’s also some versions with teardrops cut into the eyes that apparently offer greater visibility (such as being able to look down).

      1. I remain quite skeptical. My issue isn’t vision so much as breathing. There is a hole for the mouth, of course, but it is very small compared to the structure of ‘breaths’ used for medieval helmets that we know were broadly used in battle.

        1. They have breathes actually that are fairly good, you’re forgetting they were likely sculpted to the cavalryman’s face and had breathes both on the nose and mouth. Their flaw is probably more related to expense of production, as evidently they were molded to the face of the user – yet with some of the masks being made of iron I’m pretty sure that necessitates delicate smithing to match the face of the user opposed of being able to cast copper or bronze.

  33. As someone who was rather interested in Kingdom Come: Deliverance around the time of its release, I would heartily enjoy a blog post looking at it.

    All the promotional materials and footage seemed to indicate that the game does a really excellent job of creating the sense of a real, lived-in place, but then reviews started pointing out its glaring design problems and I decided it wasn’t worth my investment. An examination of the game from somebody with more historical expertise (and patience) would be very worthwhile.

  34. Hey Bret, i love the article but just wanted to drop in to point out that the Emesa style cavalry masks were actually used in combat, or at least could be useful. Contrary to popular thought vision in them is perfectly fine by full helmet standards, the only real concern is they hug the face tight so your nose is liable to get whacked.

  35. “To be clear on the disconnect, this is the equivalent of putting William the Conqueror’s knights and archers in a movie about the U.S. War in Afghanistan.”

    They actually did that in the 2018 Robin Hood movie. Unsurprisingly, it sucked.

  36. Realistically, I think it’s rather over the top to demonize marketing claims of historical accuracy and failing to live up. Unless people can put a premium on authenticity, would they spend as much time and effort researching?

    Also, the marketing claim in this instance doesn’t necessarily have to mean that the game is informed or accurate. It can mean historically inspired in the sense that the conflict of the plot is inherent to the context of the period, which is true and distinct from things like the AC series or Ryse where even the historical inaccuracies are themselves window dressing; If you change the setting and replace some words here and there, nothing of significance would be lost.

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