Rome, Total War: Simulating a Republic

by northernbeholder

As promised, a break from pure history for some gaming content.  Today, we’re going to talk about one of my all-time favourite strategy games, Rome: Total War.

The Total War brand belongs to a series of strategy games made by the Creative Assembly development studio, and currently spans seven titles (not counting expansions): Shogun, Medieval, Rome, Medieval 2, Empire, Napoleon, and Shogun 2. An eighth, Rome 2, is currently in the works.

Broadly speaking, all the Total War games play the same way.  The player chooses one of many nations to control. There is a turn-based campaign map covering the appropriate region for the game’s setting, on which you construct province improvements, recruit troops, maneuver armies and conduct diplomacy.  When armies clash, either in the field or when assaulting cities, the game shifts to a real-time battle map, which draws on appropriate terrain for the location and simulates formations of hundreds of men based on what units were in the armies.  Each iteration in the series represents a refinement of existing systems, experimentation with new features, and of course improved graphical fidelity. Rome: Total War was the series’ first move into a fully three-dimensional engine, but it was not an uncontroversial one.

In my opinion, Rome, and its immediate successor Medieval 2, represent the high point of the series so far.  They share many of the same underlying systems, particularly economic and battle, which I feel are superior to those that came both before and since.  Against their predecessors, these two games boast superior combat systems with faster response to input and clearer feedback.  Against their successors, they have a better province-improvement and economic system.  They are not without their flaws, of course, but while the original Medieval still has a certain je ne sais quoi about it, I personally derive the most enjoyment from the middle children of the Total War family.

The controversy, however, does not center around the mechanic aspects of Rome (although proponents of Medieval’s slower-paced battles may disagree) but with its depiction of the various civilizations available to play.  The complaints range from the appearance of certain units, to the types of units available, to the governing structures used by the factions in question, and all have the same rallying cry: “This isn’t historically accurate!”

Now, I can understand some of the Creative Assembly’s decisions.  Why go to the trouble and expense of making unique heraldry, colourations, units and AI priorities for a dozen different one-province Gallic factions who will all die out fighting each other within two years of the game start, when you can just recreate the most powerful faction and simulate the disunity of the rest by making them neutral provinces?  It’s not accurate, but it’s an incredible shortcut and lets you focus more on developing other systems or major factions elsewhere in the Mediterranean (there are twenty in total).  On the other hand, there are times the complainants are entirely in the right:  the Egyptian faction, for instance, is full of units that draw upon Hollywood’s depiction of the Pharaohs, featuring elaborate headdresses, chariot riders and kohl makeup, when in fact during the time period of the game the Ptolemaic dynasty, founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, had a fully Hellenicized army that would have been little different from that found in Greece, Macedon or the Seleukid Empire, both in tactics and equipment – not to mention chariots having largely gone out of style, militarily speaking, a few centuries prior to the game’s start.

Naturally, this has given rise to no end of modded files, large and small, meant to address these issues.  The largest and most venerable is the appropriately titled Rome Total Realism project.  However, there is one thing that every project changes and which I will continue to disagree with: How they handle Rome.

In the original game, Rome is represented by four factions. There are three powerful families (the Julii, Scipii, and Brutii), each in possession of a part of Italy, who act as normal in-game factions save for their unbreakable mutual alliance, and then there is the S.P.Q.R. (Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, “the Senate and People of Rome”) who control Rome itself with a powerful army but do not expand.  This is, of course, wildly historically inaccurate; the Roman republic was not neatly divided into the control of three powerful dynastic families, and in fact the Senate executed authority over the entirety of the state.  Rome Total Realism, and other mods, resolve this issue by condensing Rome into a single faction (typically named “Rome”).

However, while the Creative Assembly’s setup has no basis in historical fact, it accomplished something absolutely crucial, which is lost when the factions are merged into one.  Somewhat crudely, they had managed to simulate the political dynamics which allowed the Romans to expand so rapidly.

The secret to Rome’s great success (and an element in their eventual downfall) was that their society was designed to foster intense competition, allowing only the most talented and ambitious of men to rise to the top.  In this way, the Roman state was able to exploit the skills of every great potential leader that it produced, meaning that on the whole they tended to have better leadership (both political and in the field) than those opposing them, who more often than not had some variation of monarchic rule, leaving the quality of their leaders up to the random chance of genetics.  As a knock-on effect, the Roman state was extraordinarily aggressive (especially after the Second Punic War, although they typically managed to find some manner of legitimate excuse for it) because all of these talented and ambitious men wanted to use military command both to prove themselves as leaders and to enrich themselves with plunder.  Eventually, this caused the Republic to tear itself apart in a series of civil wars between those powerful and ambitious men, with a despotic empire emerging from the ashes of the plutocratic state.

By dividing the Roman faction in the game into three “great families”, and adding a few additional systems, Creative Assembly managed to simulate, after a fact, the political dynamism just discussed.  Because each faction is independently controlled, the dominion of “Rome” expands on average three times as fast as any other nation – representing the ambitious politicians aggressively using military command to garner wealth and support.  Each Roman family also has two meters they need to watch:  One shows their support with the common people, the other their support with the Senate.

The Senate faction, while militarily dormant, plays the role of assigning missions to each Roman family.  These missions tend to entail expansion of Rome and the debilitation of Rome’s enemies, and completing them leads to both immediate rewards and increased support in the Senate, which results in members of that family being more likely to be voted into the assortment of available public offices (which themselves give you certain bonuses while they are held).  On the other hand, gaining the support of the People is much more straightforward, although it offers no immediate benefit:  Simply defeat enemy armies and capture their cities.  Both groups’ support slowly degrades over time, and gaining traction with one will cause deteriorating relations with the other.

The ultimate role of the Senate/People support meters is the Roman civil war.  Once one of the Roman factions attains enough popular support, it can break the otherwise inviolate mutual alliance between it and its fellow Romans and attempt to seize Rome itself.  On the other hand, if the Senate considers your family too powerful (measured by territory and military strength), and that family’s Senate influence is low, they will demand you honourably end your life for the good of the Republic – and if you refuse, they and the other two families will declare war.  Either way, the Romans will proceed to tear each other apart in furious bloodletting until one side or another emerges the victor.

It is a fantastic emulation of late-period Republic politics, and while their way of simulating it is somewhat crude and involves a highly ahistorical three-way territory divide, I find it to be one of the absolute highlights of the game.  Playing as one of the Roman families always involves a delicate balancing act as you try to appease the Senate long enough to build up enough momentum that you can try to take on the rest of the Roman state in the name of your personal ambition, a dynamic that simply does not exist with any of the other factions in the game.  When modders merge Rome into a single faction, that fantastic feature is lost.  Their Rome does not expand any faster than any other faction.  Their Rome does not involve balancing the influence of Senate and People. Their Rome does not culminate in a civil war that tears the Republic apart as Roman kills Roman.  No, their Rome is, for all intents and purposes, just another monarchy in the game.

It’s a massive shame that, for all the good work the modders do, the one thing that Creative Assembly got absolutely, incredibly, fantastically right is always the first thing they destroy.

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