A Shiny (and Wrong) Vision of Roman Imperialism

Expeditions: Rome tries to be accurate, but it’s all surface.

By , a historian specializing in the Roman economy and military.
A screenshot from the Expeditions: Rome videogame.
A screenshot from the Expeditions: Rome videogame.
A screenshot from the Expeditions: Rome videogame.

For the most part, people don’t get their knowledge of history from historians. Most get historical insight from popular culture—and, in turn, base assumptions about foreign policy and politics on that historical foundation. For many people under age 50, video games—from the ever-popular Assassin’s Creed series of conspiracy fantasies to the Total War series that stretches from medieval Japan to the Napoleonic wars—has been a big part of that.

From the very earliest character interactions, Expeditions: Rome goes to considerable lengths to impress a feeling of historical accuracy. The most obvious manifestation of this is the language; many terms (legatus, servus, etc.) are left untranslated and spoken according to classical Latin pronunciation (thus, ser-wus for servus and Ki-ker-oh for Cicero). The game is awash with important-sounding Roman political and military positions, and the player immediately begins running into major historical figures, such as Lucullus and, of course, Julius Caesar. A lot of attention clearly went into accurately rendering some of the most recognizable equipment, such as Roman mail armor, Corinthian helmets, and the gladius in a way that will certainly at least seem accurate to most players. This is a game that wants the player to feel its historical rootedness.

This charm offensive clearly worked to a significant degree with reviewers. Writer Robert Zak, in a piece for PC Gamer, writes, “Where Expeditions: Rome really shines is in its attention to historical detail.” Reviewer Leana Hafer, writing for IGN, calls it “one of the best historical playgrounds outside of Assassin’s Creed … [I]t goes out of its way to get a lot of small details right,” though she admits it isn’t “slavishly loyal to the sources.” Unfortunately, while Expeditions: Rome is a well-made tactical and role-playing game, it puts its historical efforts into appearing and sounding historically accurate rather than actually being historically accurate, lending its mischaracterizations an unearned patina of historical authenticity. That matches a tendency for popular culture, especially video games, to use the appearance of historical accuracy as a marketing tool without much regard to actual history. The problem with that is that, unlike pure fantasies, the audience can come away thinking they’ve learned something while actually being deeply off course.

For the most part, people don’t get their knowledge of history from historians. Most get historical insight from popular culture—and, in turn, base assumptions about foreign policy and politics on that historical foundation. For many people under age 50, video games—from the ever-popular Assassin’s Creed series of conspiracy fantasies to the Total War series that stretches from medieval Japan to the Napoleonic wars—has been a big part of that.

From the very earliest character interactions, Expeditions: Rome goes to considerable lengths to impress a feeling of historical accuracy. The most obvious manifestation of this is the language; many terms (legatus, servus, etc.) are left untranslated and spoken according to classical Latin pronunciation (thus, ser-wus for servus and Ki-ker-oh for Cicero). The game is awash with important-sounding Roman political and military positions, and the player immediately begins running into major historical figures, such as Lucullus and, of course, Julius Caesar. A lot of attention clearly went into accurately rendering some of the most recognizable equipment, such as Roman mail armor, Corinthian helmets, and the gladius in a way that will certainly at least seem accurate to most players. This is a game that wants the player to feel its historical rootedness.

This charm offensive clearly worked to a significant degree with reviewers. Writer Robert Zak, in a piece for PC Gamer, writes, “Where Expeditions: Rome really shines is in its attention to historical detail.” Reviewer Leana Hafer, writing for IGN, calls it “one of the best historical playgrounds outside of Assassin’s Creed … [I]t goes out of its way to get a lot of small details right,” though she admits it isn’t “slavishly loyal to the sources.” Unfortunately, while Expeditions: Rome is a well-made tactical and role-playing game, it puts its historical efforts into appearing and sounding historically accurate rather than actually being historically accurate, lending its mischaracterizations an unearned patina of historical authenticity. That matches a tendency for popular culture, especially video games, to use the appearance of historical accuracy as a marketing tool without much regard to actual history. The problem with that is that, unlike pure fantasies, the audience can come away thinking they’ve learned something while actually being deeply off course.

The way Expeditions: Rome treats historical equipment expresses the game’s treatment of history more generally. Much of the equipment was clearly modeled off of period artwork and surviving artifacts, so it looks historical, but each faction plays its greatest hits with little regard for the time period. Thus, the Greek opponents of the first chapter fight with heavy soldiers equipped like fourth century BC hoplites rather than the more common first century BC pike-and-shield-wielding phalangites or oval shield-carrying thureophoroi. The second act takes the error further, with Egyptian soldiers resembling the troops of the New Kingdom (1550-1077 BC), nearly a thousand years too late rather than the far more Greek-inflected armies of Egypt’s Ptolemaic era, a habit that also plagues popular strategy games like Rome: Total War, which also exoticize Ptolemaic armies. Roman and Gallic panoplies are more accurate, though the Roman equipment also features chronological fudging, with the chest plate’s pectoral showing up probably a century too late and the iconic lorica segmentata decades too early. Care was taken that the armor would look right—but not that it would be right.

Bizarrely, the game opts to leave most of its statues unpainted, even as it accurately paints most of the buildings. Historians are quite certain that Greek and Roman statues were painted, often in garish colors, but public controversy over this issue has been fierce in recent years, with members of the alt-right sending death threats to prominent ancient historians for pointing out that these statues were painted. For a game that clearly put so much effort into visual accuracy (if not chronological accuracy), this omission is both striking and worrying.

Expeditions: Rome attempts to be more careful with the touchy subjects of Roman imperialism and slavery, a welcome change from the willingness of other historically set games, such as Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, to aggressively whitewash or even erase these subjects, but it doesn’t fully succeed. Depending on the player’s choices, Roman imperialism can have negative consequences for the places you visit, but the effect can be muted. Soldiers extort and exploit locals, but the frequently stunning brutality of Roman conquest mostly occurs off-screen—when it occurs at all. That’s a contrast even with earlier games in the series; Expeditions: Conquistador generally let the player be a much nicer version of the Spanish invaders—forging alliances and making friends, even if you were berated by the king for doing so at the end—but it also forced the player to do their killing on screen—sometimes of unarmored, desperate people who were no match for the player’s soldiers. Two-side quests in the third act involve forging alliances with Gallic druids, befuddling given this is a religious practice the Romans brutally and systematically exterminated. The impact of Roman imperialism in much of the game is dependent on player choices, but since most players of these sorts of games prefer to play good characters, most players will experience a benign form of Roman imperialism, quite divorced from the brutality of the real thing.

Significant effort is made to put Roman slavery on screen; the player’s party consists of two freed persons and one enslaved man. The game’s insistence that the two freed persons, a Mauretanian man and a Scythian woman, both become legally Roman when freed is a welcome recognition of a real source of Roman diversity. Syneros, the player’s enslaved tutor and scribe, however, falls into the unfortunate trope of the loyal slave, happily serving the player character’s family and largely unbothered by his enslavement. Although enslaved people are shown as mistreated and exploited in several side quests, at the same time, some of the dialogue is quick to exonerate characters like Lucullus as good or kind masters.

Expeditions: Rome thus falls into the trap of treating Roman slavery as an institution whose character depended on the morality of the enslaver. In practice, the behavior of even so-called kind Roman enslavers was generally brutal. It is nevertheless a sad statement on the general quality of video game representations, that merely by featuring freed and enslaved people, Expeditions: Rome probably performs better than average.

By contrast, the game openly warns that it plays fast and loose with chronology, killing off a major historical figure very early on. Loading screens note that the second act contest between Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII has been accelerated by the villain’s machinations, though not just how sped up the timeline is. Following the game’s dates, the second act begins sometime in the mid-60s BC; Cleopatra, born around 69 BC, should be a toddler and her brother Ptolemy XIII, born around 62 BC, isn’t alive yet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the game also indulges in a heavily sexualized and exoticized portrait of Cleopatra, dressed in a network dress straight out of the Bronze Age rather than the Greek fashion she used, for instance, on all of her coinage.

The game also struggles to grasp the Roman Republic’s political systems, which are central to the game’s plot. A few brief examples: A character is appointed to a proconsular command years before being a consul, something that was at least profoundly irregular, though Pompey had done it in 77 BC; yet there is no hint of protest. In the final act, a trial is held for a sitting consul, a thing that was not legally possible since a consul or proconsul’s imperium shielded them from prosecution until they left office, a fact that is absolutely essential to understanding the crisis of 49 BC that led to Caesar crossing the Rubicon. The trial is held in the Senate, a body which could not, in the republic, conduct trials. Later, the Senate’s nomination of a dictator mistakes Roman procedure at almost every point.

The game’s Cicero claims that “Senators should represent the people,” which is not what senators did—that was the job of Rome’s popular assemblies—but also very much not what Cicero in particular thought they should do. In his De Re Publica, he praises the Roman system for power being concentrated among the wealthy few rather than among the common people. Senators did not have constituents to represent; they spoke for themselves out of their own authority. The Republic was not a democracy and made no pretense at being one.

Even the Latin, on which so much of the game’s impression of historical care relies, is checkered in execution. Common Roman soldiers are uniformly referred to as legionarii, but legionarius was almost never used this way in Latin; ancient writers more often used milites (“soldiers”). If legionarius was used at all, it was as an adjective to modify milites. (That is, legionarii milites or “legionary soldiers.”) The provinces are misnamed, with Asia termed Asia Minor and Africa called Africa Proconsularis, the latter decades and the former centuries before the terms were coined.

For all of that, the game is still fun and well made. As the third game in the Expeditions series, the tactics of gameplay are well honed, though the newly added strategic layer doesn’t add much depth to the game or express anything particularly accurate about Roman warfare. The player’s supporting characters and their stories are interesting, and the voice acting is well above par, especially for a smaller, independent game studio.

As a gaming experience, there is a lot to recommend in Expeditions: Rome, but as a window into the Roman world, the game fails to live up to its promises. Like many historically set games, the accuracy is mostly skin deep, a useful tool for marketing but not penetrating deeper into the story, where it could convey more useful historical truths.

Bret Devereaux is a historian specializing in the Roman economy and military.

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