Representation of Roman Military Identity
and Roman Warfare in the Video-game «Ryse: Son of Rome»
Our research aims not to identify distortions or wrong assumptions about ancient military culture per se, but rather to investigate processes that shape the image of the ancient Roman military culture among modern audience. These processes are deeply intertwined in a sophisticated system of mutual influence of existing media producers and players’ expectations. We consider understanding of these processes as necessary prior to discussion of tutorial value of a historical or historically inspired video-game.
Before I begin, I should note that if there are any of my words or thoughts that might occasionally sound somewhat derogatory, they are not meant to be. We deliberately tried to avoid pejorative tone. Our aim is not to stigmatize any media product based on any alleged notions of authenticity or lack thereof.
Simply put, this article aims to understand what tools and solutions are brought by designers and developers into the game to convince a player of Ryse: Son of Rome that what he actually sees is the Roman army and to make that image aesthetically attractive. To distinguish main traits of the Roman military identity in the game Ryse: Son of Rome, this article uses following layout:
1. outline of the image of the Roman army as seen in the game
2. brief overview of the main characters
3. analysis of features that determine Roman identity by particular representations of:
- tactics and morale
- relations between politics and war
- cultural differences and extremities
4. our conclusion and hypothesis on processes involved in construction of the Roman army in the game.
1. Ryse: Son of Rome. What this game is?
It is a 3rd-person linear action-adventure with strong elements of hack and slash genre (or sometimes referred to as ‘slasher’). Game contains considerable amount of violence and belongs to M (Mature) age rating category. It has main single player storyline campaign mode with many highly cinematographic cut-scenes and secondary multiplayer mode where player assumes role of a gladiator in the arena and faces waves of enemies. This research is primarily focused on the events of main single player campaign.
Throughout the campaign player controls the Roman soldier Marius, whose ultimate aim is to avenge the emperor Nero for the murder of his family, that brings him consequently through series of military conflicts in Britain and Rome while he rises through the line of military ranks up to a general.
Notions of geographical place and historical time are blurred. The game setting rather represents historically inspired fantasy simulacrum with an array of easily recognizable names (like Nero, Commodus, Boudica). Being torn out of their historical roles according to known historical evidence, those characters are intermixed in a vivid and quaint blend. However, some of these characters still preserve features traditionally associated with them among popular audience (Nero is associated with moral decay and political negligence, Commodus performs as a fighter in the arena).
As noted by my co-author in the part on historical and stylistic context of the game, it might be said that the game cultural setting is built upon 3-layered framework where Rome represents an apex of civilization (at least in terms of art, architecture, political organization, though notions of morale are of more complex nature) while North Britain barbarians (‘horned men’) represent the opposite pole (associated with primal savagery) with Britons being somewhere in between. It is this framework that is kept in mind further during the analysis of Roman military culture.
2. Overview of the Roman army as shown in the game
First of all one should restrain from claiming of getting full comprehensive understanding of representation of the Roman army in the game. Though some features are absent and others are expressed to a various extent, we should be very cautious in making assumptions based on absence or presence of any feature of the Roman army in the game. Some features of the Roman army might be omitted only because they do not relate or do not promote the main story narrative, not because game designers were unaware of them or deliberately concealed or modified those features in order to create a particular image. Therefore, following discussion analyses the game primarily it terms of highlights put in it by the game designers.
Organisation and line of command
Roman army is portrayed as a seemingly mono-ethnic force (though there is no particular emphasis on its ethnic uniformity). Among troops only legionary heavy infantry could be seen along with archers and mechanical artillery pieces. Auxiliary (non-citizen) troops and any forms of cavalry do not feature during the game’s scenes. However, archers, scorpios and catapults (onagres) are specified in dialogues as auxiliary units.
Line of command is not shown clearly in the game. Some officers have somewhat vague duties. For instance, after taking hold of Douvre in Britain, the main character Marius is ordered to unload boats and prepare men for the march on York. However, it is necessary to note that ancient sources also occasionally mention centurions or other officers performing some duties which seem to be out of the direct area of responsibility their unit – like spying and other special operations.
Most often Roman and their opponents are shown intermingled haphazardly during the fighting, while divided on small fighting groups (1 vs 1, 1 vs many). Sometimes Roman troops are organized into linear formation, in a manner of a shield wall. At some scripted scenes player can lead troops in an organized formation, order them to form a ‘testudo’ or throw javelins in uniform manner. At those scenes pilum becomes the primary weapon of Romans.
Usually enemies shoot arrows in volleys and burning projectiles are very often used, perhaps to some extent to make their notice easier by player. There are scenes where Romans are depicted as pinned down by the enemy archers’ fire. Overall missiles are shown as the high precision and high damage weapons, often a combatant is killed by a single hit of missile weapon, which is presumably a feature inherited from movies. To some extent such high military value of missile weapons might be seen as an attempt to depict warfare mechanics in a way, familiar to a player from war movies, including movies on warfare in 20th and 21st centuries.
Roman troops are represented by a single 3D model wielding a long rectangular curved shield, a short sword, pilum, metal helmet and ‘lorica segmentata’ armour. Spears (others than pilum) are noticeably absent from the arsenal of any army in the game and statues of Roman soldiers seem to be the only figures with spears in the game. Also statues of soldiers often have the same equipment features that contemporary soldiers (mid. I century AD), not classical artistic lorica musculata type armour or other features that presumably reference more ancient times. In some scenes torsion artillery of smaller sizes (‘scorpio’) and counterweight ‘catapults’ (rather resembling medieval trebuchets) are depicted.
Possible reasons for depicting “lorica segmentata” (not a chainmail or other type of armor) as the most predominant body armour, apart from notions of visual attractiveness itself might be following:
1) evidence from Trajan’s column (as others suggested) – regardless of accuracy it is de-facto one of the most recognizable depiction of Roman soldiers;
2) tradition – segmentata appeared quite early in movies and if a movie appears to be successful – more recent media tend to follow suit;
3) in popular imagination chainmail is a something more related to Middle ages (not among everybody, but for majority – but this is my guess purely);
4) scale armour is often related for many people to ancient Near east or Sarmatians, Scythians and other people appearing in the East Europe;
5) this is going to be highly speculative – any design of plate armour among wide audience is often associated with Western warfare, so in order to depict western military culture, plate armour is a welcome guest.
For those reasons, I would say that segmentata is the best choice to portray distinctively Roman soldier. In order to emphasize “Romanness”, movie and video-game costume designers might be willing to sacrifice some historical authenticity in terms of time period, because in my opinion for them depicting easily recognizable Roman identity is more important than actual material accuracy.
Military signs and standards are present in the game, though they are modified according to the visual style of other equipment and material culture.
In opening scenes of invasion to Britain during amphibious landing Roman ships are shown as traditional antique war ships (‘trireme’) with one tier of oars on each side (but static) and sails.
Officers wear generally the same equipment but more decorated. Centurions have helmets with transverse crest, masculata armour and greaves. Main character on becoming centurion receives elaborated helmet with direct crescent.
Considering main character – he is armed with shield, sword and pilum for the whole time of the game. It is impossible to change the type of the weapon carried or discard the shield.
The most prominent thing about the Roman military equipment in the game is its uniformity (individual armour, weapons, ships) whereas for barbarians at least several different models of appearance are used.
3. Characters overview
Characters are of great importance in the game despite their presumed simplicity as they often represent virtues of civilizations or forces they belong to. For instance, main military Roman characters often represent the notions of duty and its predominance over personal matters or current political implications. Boudicca as a barbarian character, instead tends to rather passionate and steadfast ways of behaviour (which is also hinted in her fighting style). Marius, having seen that Boudica was rushing towards the imperial palace, in turn dashed to stop her. Marius does not allow Boudica to kill emperor, which actually serves his own purposes, because by killing her he gets a chance to save his homeland. This predominance of well-being of his people over his personal impulses also depicts strong associations between Roman military and patriotism. Also this Marius’ trait is developed due to strong influence of the commander Vitellion, who is another prominent Roman military figure in the game. Similar connections on the barbarian side are also present but represented in other ways.
Leontius – the father of the main character is an old experienced soldier, who values loyalty to the Empire but expresses concern about inner threats (presumably – political intrigues). Also he values openness and friendly attitude more than merely force and violence. However, he falls into a rage seeing his family (except of his son) has been murdered.
Vitellion – commander of the 14th legion always seems to be serious and takes casualties very seriously. In a speech after taking British shore he equates Rome with such abstractions as ‘civilization’, ‘order’, ‘power’. Vitellion recognizes value of military honor for the Britons and does not allow personal bitterness of Marius to overcome military considerations. Vitellion usually values military discipline and order but does not approve actions that could undermine strategical long perspective considerations, like harsh treatment of prisoners. Though both Romans and barbarians use captured bodies of the enemies and captured prisoners for cruel intimidation, he does not approve such Roman strategy. He feels some level of respect to defeated Britons and expects to give them proper treatment on their surrender. His brief confrontation with Basilius in the ending cutscene of the chapter 4 shows that his feelings of honor, military ethics and strategic considerations are prioritized higher than blind subordinance. That makes him an avatar for the code of the military ethics where professionalism, order and discipline constitute the apex.
Vitellion values life of his soldiers and officers and ready to cover the retreat of civilians and troops from York, while endangering himself. While being the legion commander he is still often depicted in full armament and fighting among his men.
Overall it might be argued that Vitellion embodies all the abstract features of the Roman patriotism, military order and ethics of military honour. It is he, who influences Marius with those ideas. Due to the lack of any personal details about Vitellion, he is perceived as the paragon of Roman military values.
Мarius – after having his family killed by barbarians, he seeks retribution and sees barbarians in a simplified light as a brutal force. In his mind barbarians blindly resist Roman civilizational efforts. His bloodlust for revenge concedes eventually at the chapters 4 and more clearly at the chapter 5, when dubious reasons for waging campaigns in Britain are revealed and after having significant number of his fellow soldiers lost to this military effort. Throughout the plot the revenge remains Marius’ primary aim.
4. Roman military culture
4.1. Military culture identity through tactics and morale
It is difficult to single out individual character of a Roman soldier. Roman army mentality mainly expressed in a collective sense. Moreover, the game occasionally emphasizes characteristic dependence of Roman warfare on cohesive collective action while individual performance of single isolated soldier almost never seems to be advantageous. In the game a Roman soldier does not constitute sovereign moral entity and very rarely – a tactical unit. Thus it is tactical behavior of groups that serves best to investigate Roman army.
There are occasional hints on Romans themselves feeling more secure when fighting in group rather than alone. In chapter 4 when Marius makes his way through forest to find the way to cross the river, enemies occasionally make short remarks on a Roman (the main character) being alone assuming his vulnerability. Similar remarks occur elsewhere throughout the game. Perhaps, it could be argued that individual initiative is suppressed by the superb discipline as a way to emphasize similarity with modern military system where cohesion and organized violence is more desirable than haphazard high-effective murder rate which causes utter slaughter with no beneficial strategic effects.
The role of discipline of Roman troops, while strongly emphasized in general, usually is seen only in the cohesion. While legionaries always follow their orders, there are no shown scenes of Roman soldier acting agressively on his own despite the orders with any form punishment following. Individual soldier’s role is to serve as a part of a greater military mechanism, officers are the only carriers of initiative. However, it is also should be added that in most of military encounters seen in the Ryse, Romans experience military disadvantage, so lack of initiative might be attributed to particular military context of a scene.
There are no clear scenes of cowardice among Roman troops expressed in an attempt to flee the battlefield. There is a scene in chapter 8 (during the defence of the Rome itself) where Roman centurion is put to shame by the Marius for suggesting the retreat and leaving his men behind to bring the message by himself. Marius, in his heroic elan, allegedly implies that course of action suggested by the centurion is inconsistent with the Roman military ethics. The scene overall prioritize perseverance and the idea of clinging to victory despite harsh tactical situation which is the same idea expressed in milder tones during the Roman re-invasion into Britain in chapter 3. These are the only explicit references to the shame associated with leaving ranks or occupied position.
Hоwever, sometimes Roman troops are shown as lacking initiative and prone to more passive behavior, seeking for a cover and remaining there, especially when there is no commander nearby to lead them.
More often they are assigned to defensive than to offensive tactical tasks (even is a strategically offensive context). The starting scenes of the chapter 8 show that Roman well-ordered infantry defensive line is almost impenetrable by the barbarians, except of special weapons like archers, high class warriors and war elephants. However, after the line breaks, Roman martial capacity deteriorates.
The inclination to the defensive mode of warfare is also suggested by huge fortifications, built by Romans in Dover and York.
While during many episodes Roman troops wage offensive warfare, in the very encounters with enemy it is more often for Romans to receive the charge of the enemy. Their offensive capability is exposed in a gradual and consistent way rather than charging headlong.
There are no indications of Romans being ever motivated by opportunities of pillage. Equally there are no scenes of pillage done by Roman troops, though admittedly most military events depicted in the game are of defensive or reactive importance for Romans
The moral value of leadership
Roman soldiers are often depicted as low-initiative and unwilling to undertake action without a leader, though not always. In scenes of low vision in Britain they appear to be frightened and only the word of the commander keeps them in place
Occasionally characters make short motivational speeches, like Marius right before landing in Britain. His speech generally follows pattern of antique pre-battle speeches and includes emphasized addressing of the soldiers (interestingly enough – “Lads!”). Marius appeals to preference of courage over cowardice and mentions that barbarians are as vulnerable as other people, which presumes that soldiers had regarded the foe as somewhat superior.
Vitallion also calls soldiers “Lads”. In his short speech he assumes after defeating barbarians Romans have no further reasons to be afraid of them more than any others peoples.
Overall, modern military verbal etiquette is ubiquitous in the Ryse. When receiving orders Romans often respond with phrases like “Yes, sir” which is a clear allusion to the modern military ethics.
4.2. Roman war and politics
During defensive events neither Vitellion nor Marius in their short speeches prior to battles never appeal to ideals of fighting in the name of the emperor or his family, but Marius appeals to defend “everything we love”, which presumably means values of Roman civilization, mentioned by him elsewhere.
Both Vitellion and Marius admit they should obey orders even received from presumably unworthy high command like in a scene of releasing of emperor’s son Commodus from captivity, what they do reluctantly. Commodus governorship in Britain allegedly was unfair which led to the unrest among locals. Killing of the king Oswald by Commodus (and perhaps his governorship as a whole) is understood as a crime, needed to be considered by the Roman senate. Vitellion is said to make an attempt to appeal to the senate on this regard but to no avail as the senate is too frightened to undertake any action against the emperor.
Though ancient sources depict a Roman society in which military and political power are densely intertwined, there is no a highlight on this issue in the game. At least both Vitellion and Marius, who are two primary military characters of the narrative, are indifferent to the political power. Their moral portraits constitute some form of embodiment of the principle of the noble warrior serving even to the mean ruler though remaining loyal due to the appreciation of the values of his state (beyond merely persona of the ruler) and the very feature of reliability, coherent with the image of a noble warrior. Ambitions of such warrior usually do not extend beyond interests of his people / homeland / state or any other social entity he belongs to and that he is fighting for. In the ending scene of the chapter 7 Vitellion prioritizes security of the Rome over the resentment for dishonest rule of the emperor and persuades Marius to overcome his personal bitterness toward the Nero. The closest historical prototype of such model is Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, who as far as our evidence suggests, was a prominent Roman commander during the Nero’s reign and who eventually committed suicide on the emperor’s demand due to emperor’s concerns on rising glory of Corbulo.
In the same manner there are no indications of the emperor (and there are very few political officials seen besides him) having any concerns of his military commanders seizing the power. His and his sons’ only fears of main characters are related to the personal revenge.
However, the father of the main character, Leontius, who is the famous but aging general and senator, is said to have been murdered by the emperor because of his intentions to return power to the Roman people and to restore old Republican system, though there are no details provided neither on intended (presumably old Republican) order, neither on the way this transformation was intended to be made. Likewise, details on his role in this political endeavor (as on his character overall) are too scarce to draw any firm conclusions on the extent to which it might resemble the military coup. Considering that Leontius’ motivations are of reforming nature and not of mere political rivalry, his character appears to follow the same framework that Vitellion and Marius do.
One distinctive link between military, politics and persona of the emperor is stated in the character of Commodus – one of the emperor’s sons. Commodus represented as a military figure – general (rank by which Vitellion and eventually Marius are referred also) and governor of the Roman Britain, whole unfair governorship had led Britons to the revolt. It might be an allusion to the Augustan and then early Principate inclination for the preservation of military power and military glory inside of the emperor’s familia. Following this idea, Commodus, (as well as the Roman emperor usually referred by this name) also manifests his martial abilities in the gladiatorial arena but during his short speech there he also refers to his previous feats of vanquishing nations opposed to Rome over the past decade and in his exaltation claims to be the best Roman general ever. In a stroke of irony, it is his conquest of the Britain that is re-enacted by Marius (his actual foe) in the Colosseum in the chapter 7 and whose military exploits have been glorified during the episode. Interestingly that military achievements of other generals (in this case Vitellion and Marius) are ascribed during this scene to Commodus, thus empowering his image of successful commander even further. The fact that Commodus’s appearance and his ethos look much more splendid in the arena comparing to previous episodes, probably fulfills primarily artistic goals to show his personal character rather than intended to hint on any aspects of the characteristic relations between personal martial prowess and military glory in imperial Roman culture.
Overall military affairs or at least those of them driven by the efforts of main positive characters remain separated from political claims and reside solely in the layer of the foreign policy. The role of personal implications is more significant in shown political affairs.
4.3. Roman army identity seen through the contrasts and extremities
Most barbarians in the game barely have any notions of distinct cultural identity or at least such characteristics do not feature prominently in the game. Overall they construct a collective image of ferocious and uncivilized barbarians from northern Europe. Contrary to Roman soldiers barbarians are often depicted as half-dressed sturdy people, more often wielding heavy axes and overall bulkier weapons. Majority of barbarian warriors do not have shields which with lack of armament suggest an approach more focused on offensive warfare. There are no clear scenes of barbarians ever assuming organized formation but still they clearly engage Romans in both conventional and unconventional warfare.
North Britain episode
“Sometimes a man must look past what he thinks he sees”
Scenes of Marius with Vitellion and Roman soldiers venturing into territories of Northern Britain are among most characteristic and vivid on Roman military mentality. Here Roman conventional way of war is opposed by the unconventional, guerilla-like fighting. Due to the rather humble scale of fighting occurring on the screen at the any taken moment, such impression is drawn not by strategy and only to a small extent by tactics. More solid picture of such type of confrontation is drawn by visual context and combatants’ feelings. It could be argued that the very nature of unconventional warfare is portrayed rather by attitudes of its participants to it, than by actual tactics.
While moving into densely overgrown forest, where vision is largely obscured by plants and fog, Roman soldiers are very cautious and express feelings of insecurity, they are constantly alert for threats and ambushes at one of which they eventually get trapped. Unwillingness to move into those areas is often mentioned. In a scene of Roman troops marching into dense forest (beginning of the chapter 5), soldiers express concerns about enemies being aware of Roman presence but still unwilling to fight in a conventional way. Perhaps such scenes could be regarded as an allusion to the insecurity felt by soldiers of the Western armies who get into hostile and harsh environment, like jungles of South-East Asia. Similar re-contextualising allusions could be found elsewhere in the popular media that depicts confrontation of the classical civilization with northern barbarians (Centurion, 2010; Eagle 2011)
Northern British barbarians (‘horned men’) in their appearance approach even more the image of wild and savage barbarians, with the animal skins, bones and skulls with horns worn over the body as the most characteristic feature, thus emphasizing their beast mentality. Their inhumane voices complete the picture. These barbarians appreciate more cunning approaches to warfare, including ambushes and imposing psychological intimidation on Romans, though their physical prowess is not to any extent inferior comparing to other barbarians. As well as other barbarians they expose bodies of defeated enemies as the means of intimidation, though at this point the amount of hung, impaled and dismembered bodies of Roman soldiers reaches maximum. Overall, both cutscenes and in-game level design emphasize more deliberate efforts of the horned men to impose intimidation by placing numerous sinister human-shaped figures and other numerous signs. The most cruel of their atrocities is executing Roman prisoners by burning them alive (with mass murder inside the wicker man being the culmination of such an execution), though it is hard to say for sure whether their motivation in this and other cultural practices should be attributed to psychological warfare or some ritual practice: perhaps to both
Image of praetorians might be described as clearly villainous, primarily due to their commitment to the main antagonist (emperor Nero). Praetorians are the major agents of Roman state oppression against civilians, both Roman citizens and barbarians alike.
Comparing, for instance with atrocities of horned men, praetorians’ ubiquitous cruelty towards population and prisoners of war acquires even more ominous tone due to the allegiance to the strongly authoritarian emperor. Vitellion assess praetorians’ harsh conduct with prisoners, captured along with the defeat of the Briton king Oswald, as a counter-productive measure in treatment of the local population in the long term.
They feature in the similar type of equipment as legionaries but more ornamented. One distinct visual characteristic is the facemask embedded in their helmets, which pushes their military uniformity almost to the extreme level. Coupled with their firm obedience it might be argued that such feature serves to show them as an inexorable tool of principal political power.
Though historical praetorian guard became notable for their intrigues and involvement in politics, in the Ryse praetorians are shown as a force always loyal to the emperor’s family and there is no indication of any sovereignty or ambition seen in their behavior. In the game praetorians follow orders with noticeable resolution and never appear in doubt considering course of their action.
There are no significant characters representing commanders of praetorian guard in the game, and the role of a praetorian prefect in relations with emperor cannot be assessed based on the game scenes which feature praetorians.
5. Conclusions on the portrayal of the Roman army
1) Modernization is easily discernible – though such superfluous notion is insufficient by itself
2) Dominance of discipline, separation of army from politics, coherence over individual initiative, nearly uniform appearance of soldiers – all emphasized features draw resemblance to modern military forces.
3) Representation of the Roman army not only aspires to depict the Roman army similar to contemporary military forces but rather it tends to approach image of military forces already established in video-games:
- predominance of “special operations” contexts;
- neutralization of tremendous amounts of enemies by few (or even single) combatants.
4) 3 layered semiotic scheme of image of the Roman army
- historical Roman army – mainly technical aspects are collected – weapons, armour. Though actual technical details are stylistically modified the distinctive appearance of the Roman armament is still easily identified as such. It is this step where main notions of distinctive ‘authentic’ appearance are implemented, though according to intended visual style.
- modern warfare influence – some features of modern warfare are re-contextualized for implementation in the ancient world. The features of the Roman army proper that are the most congruent with modern military culture receive emphasis (discipline, cohesion, attention to tactical order). Thought it is modern military etiquette which is the most predominant among representation of these features.
- influence of established image of military culture and tactical mechanics in video-games and other media – genre-specific conventions are applied to the implementation of ancient military force. This is the layer where disproportionate ratio of killing, predominance of ‘special-forces context’ and technical weapon-related exaggerations are introduced.
5) There might be also singled out 4th layer (which influence is perceived between 1st and 2nd) – visual (stylistic) influence of historical movies, games-predecessors and other popular media. But I would argue that the only considerable impact of this influence on the Ryse of Rome – is the depiction of historical martial arts as horeographical fencing with particular weapons (with a set of a one-hand weapon and a shield being the most prominent). Otherwise this artistic influence is of lesser importance due to the creation by Ryse of its own stylistic and cultural environment.
Володимир Крамський – магістр за спеціальністю «Історія та археологія», Харківський національний університет імені В. Н. Каразіна.
Зацікавлення: Репрезентація військових культур у мас-медіа, рецепція Античності та Середніх віків у популярній культурі, асиметричні військові конфлікти.
Учасник проекту популяризації історичного знання про об’єкти пам’яті Другої світової війни в Харкові – International Centre for Education and Exchange (IBB, Dortmund, Germany). Посада: розробник. Покликання на платформу (в розробці): https://dontforgetkharkiv.com.ua/
Покликання на наукові статті: https://kharkov-ua.academia.edu/VladimirKramskoy