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Gamers’ Bookshelf: I, Claudius et al

September 19th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Gamer's Bookshelf, History

It’s been 30 years since the BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’ historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God was broadcast on Public Television’s Masterpiece Theatre. The series remains well-loved and stands as one of the great mini-series in a time when everyone on broadcast television was doing mini-series. The format seems to have been exiled to cable, now, where even the regular series often have limited runs.

Graves’s novels are masterworks of historical fiction. Told from the perspective of the aging Roman emperor Claudius, they trace the history of the first Imperial dynasty. Given their autobiographical nature, Claudius naturally comes off rather well. He’s not the doddering crippled fool that the ancient historians mocked; he’s a gentle and intelligent spirit who comes to the throne by accident and is appalled by the corruption that is inherent in the system. He wants to be succeeded by Nero not because he is controlled by his wife/niece, but because he thinks that allowing another lunatic to run the asylum will reveal the folly of the monarchical regime and bring about a new Republic.

Graves’ interpretation of Claudius as an intelligent, hard working and politically savvy ruler has become the historical consensus. His good works and expansion of Roman citizenship are seen as a throwback to the sound provincial management of Tiberius and forward thinking infrastructure focus of Augustus.

Derek Jacobi’s interpretation of Claudius on screen has become even more powerful; for many people in my generation (I caught the series in a rebroadcast in my high school years) Derek Jacobi is Claudius more than he is anything else. Cadfael is just Medieval Claudius. The Narrator at the beginning of Branagh’s Henry V is Claudius on Avon. And the power of the performance, accentuated by Graves’ novels, means that anyone who comes to the ancient world via I, Claudius will find the insults of Seutonius a little hard to absorb.

Livia, of course, fares much worse. In the novels and series, Augustus’ wife is the villain, a poisoning schemer who murders everyone who stands between her son Tiberius and the purple. The intelligent woman who helped Augustus make and keep an empire is now lamentably buried beneath Graves’ innuendo and Sian Phillips steely performance. Much of Graves’ first book is a catalog of crimes that one Roman committed against another, excused by the narrator as being simply what he saw at court – the imperial apple may look fine from the outside, but core was rotten and diseased.

Graves answers his critics in his preface to Claudius the God.

Some reviewers of I, Claudius…suggested that in writing it I had merely consulted Tacitus’s Annals and Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars [two notoriously scandal focused histories], run them together, and expanded the result with my own ‘vigorous fancy’. This was not so; nor is it the case here…. [Graves lists other works he used.]…Few incidents here given are wholly unsupported by historical authority of some sort or other and I hope none are historically incredible. No character is invented.

“It could have happened” is certainly a better standard than whatever is used by Conn Iggulden, whose Emperor series on the career of Julius Caesar is well beyond ludicrous in its historicity. It’s also the standard used by Colleen McCullough, whose Masters of Rome series is highly overrated but as historically plausible as the world shown us by Graves.

In any case, few historical strategy games have the kind of absorbing power that a good historical novel does.

I have no reason to doubt that people are brought to history by games like Civilization and Rome: Total War – in the days before Google and Wikipedia, I somehow became part of an internet discussion on Islamic slavery where one of my discussants was simply repeating stuff he read about Mamelukes in his Age of Kings manual.

But when I try to make a list of games that made me believe in their historical universe, it’s a pretty sad list. Sid Meier’s Pirates! for sure, but it’s about action/adventure movies. The Take Command games maybe. This is largely because historical strategy games try to reflect history more than they try to reinterpret or revisit. Which makes sense, I guess; game developers are mostly not historians. Few historical strategy games include a bibliography, and those that do tend to cite books where they found facts or concept art.

A good historical novel can, therefore, be “truer” than a good historical game even if it is less “accurate”. It will invariably take a stand on what is happening, will offer more than fancy dress combat and can offer real insight into a time and place. If interactivity is really the key to good, solid education, why is that I learn more about what it’s like to be a soldier from Killer Angels than Sid Meier’s Gettysburg? Why is Lion in Winter more Medieval than Medieval? (Though, to be fair, Crusader Kings gets the dynastic soap opera right.)

The now retired game blogger Chris Farrell wrote a great post on Avalon Hill’s Republic of Rome last year. In it, he makes the point that RoR is less nasty than other political games because the cooperation is often constructive; there’s a lot of win-win.

There is certainly scope for screwing Senators – the most blatant is through Prosecution, which is the only really overtly hostile element of the game, but you can also send them off to war with insufficient force in the hopes they’ll be killed or banish them to a long Governership in the provinces – but this sort of overt personal confrontation is a lesser part of the game. The vast majority of the time, you’re setting yourself up rather than specifically taking your opponents down.

I don’t remember the manual having any bibliography, but this interpretation of Republican politics – factional competition within certain limits – is straight out of Erich Gruen’s phenomenal Last Generation of the Roman Republic, in which he argues (among other things) that the Roman nobility were always more united than divided and that political shifts were driven by opportunism or personal animosity, not political or ideological divisions per Mommsen. You could play Republic of Rome (provided you understood the rules) and get a better sense of how Roman politics worked than you would by watching Rome or playing Rome: Total War and Pax Romana.

Maybe board games can do this because they require interaction with other people?


6 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol

    “If interactivity is really the key to good, solid education, why is that I learn more about what it’s like to be a soldier from Killer Angels than Sid Meier’s Gettysburg?”

    Just like the difference between a movie and a book, it boils down to a matter of economics. A book can go into an amazing amount of detail, detail that wouldn’t fit into a 90 minute film. Likewise, all that detail showcasing life on the front lines would make for tedious gameplay, if it could really be shown at all.

    “Maybe board games can do this because they require interaction with other people?”

    I think there’s a number of factors involved. Historical board games, because of their audience, require research to be taken seriously. Well, at least if you’re calling it a simulation and not a game, as there are several pure games on Roman politics that lean more towards simply using the theme, rather than a true representation of the era. A computer game, especially one in which you’re selling to a mass audience such as the ones you listed, only needs to be a Cliff Notes version of the history often because that’s all the players are expecting out of this. I would guess there were more people who picked up Rome: Total War based on the idea of cool 3D battles with flaming pigs, than with learning about the time period.

    Consider also the folks who design the games. In the world of board games you will encounter historical games on every manner of subject and period if you look hard enough. The world of computer gaming though restricts itself to what’s “popular” for the most part. Because of that I think most computer game designers take for granted that their audience already knows the subject matter. Take Talonsoft, for example. Their designers came from the world of board games, having done hundreds of similar games with cardboard, and much of Talonsoft’s audience were those people who played those games. So why list a bibliography when the players probably already have a shelf full of books and games on the topic already?

    And those computer game designers who do the popular, light historical stuff, probably don’t have much of a historical background. Bruce Shelley does, but I wonder how many people working beneath him really care about historical accuracy, over just making something cool?

  • Troy

    “I wonder how many people working beneath him really care about historical accuracy, over just making something cool?”

    But it’s not about historical accuracy. Republic of Rome, for example, is terribly ahistorical in how it portrays offices. Many historical novels are ahistorical because of what they imagine or choose to highlight.

    Sid Meier’s Pirates works well because it is ahistorical, but still manages to capture something interesting about the privateering age. Seven Cities of Gold is another great example of a game that revealed interesting things about a time period.

    I guess, what I’m asking, is can an historical simulation game have a point of view?

  • Scott R. Krol

    Hmm, not quite sure in the context of your examples the POV you’re looking for. Any consim will have a designer’s POV because of how they filter and interpret the information they use in designing the game, but I’m thinking that’s not what you’re talking about.

    Something more literal, like say a game on Kursk, taken from the perspective of a single German officer and how they view the campaign as unfolding?

  • Sparky

    Euge! for the “I, Claudius” mention.

    Or “I Clavdivs”, as we used to call it in high school Latin class.

  • Scott R. Krol

    I was thumbing through the Alpha Centuri manual today and thought about this post. In Brian Reynolds’ designer notes he has a section on suggested reading that helps the gamer get into the spirit of the game. While not exactly what you’re discussing, barring the lack of bibliographies in these games lists like that would probably be a nice bonus at least.

  • Scott R. Krol

    I don’t know if you’re already aware of this but Valley Games is reprinting Republic of Rome. Currently on pre-order.