Tuesday 10 December 2013

the decline and fall of Lucius Marcellus ; an essay on Rome: Total War

For years, now, Lucius Marcellus had been the rising star of the family. When he had first donned the heavy armour of a General of the Brutii, striking out on his first command, he had followed in the footsteps of his father, and of his father before him. And then, at Epirus, with the westerly wind ruffling the waves, he had held back a Greek column – undermanned, out positioned. And so, Lucius star began to rise – first, a military governorship, in the mellow southern warmth of the recently conquered Larissa. And next, with his uncle’s untimely death – not in battle, as he had dreamed, but on a pile of sweated-on sheets, days before his battle with the last bulwark of the Greek army – he had taken command, and had ousted the Greeks and thus had won their homeland. The white became green, became Brutiibecame Roman.  

And then it happened, the decline and the fall of dear, poor Lucius' battle stats. His influence began to drop. True, the war was over, but a new campaign beckoned – he was to lead fresh armies to the east. A commander, a general – even Aedile to the Senate, serving alongside his own father, the Praetor, Appius Marcellus.  But that is when, for dear Lucius, it all went to pot. 

Maybe it was the fame, the easy life away from the campaign tent. He acquired a drinking companion. That’s not a bad thing, really – a general, a Roman, should enjoy his wine, and revel across the dining table after the day’s administration is through. But for Lucius, the taste of wine became too sweet, too often. Next came the Floozy, his personal security dropping. She had bright rouged lips and a low blouse. I had wanted him to marry, and soon, to secure the Brutii line. But with a floozy and drunk in toe, could this ever happen? Would he be just another laughing stock on the senate floor – drink addled, red eyed, inelegant – un-Roman. 

But there wasn’t time to dwell on this. An uprising, to the north. The city of Bylazora had been wrested from our control. I knew I had garrisoned it too weakly. Lucius was sent, at the head of my crack troops, the veterans of Greece, to put down this nuisance – and to put it down bloodily. But poor Lucius had picked up not a few bad traits in Larissa, in the summer of his excess; his character profile listed him as a drinker, as “lewd”, even, now, an “indecisive attacker”. But he had also become a gourmand, stuffing his stomach with meat, bread and wine until his once finely fitted armour no longer clipped around his belly. 
And at Bylazora, beneath the city walls, with the far mountains rearing in the distance, we lost.  

I’m narrating this sorry story not just because I found it, later, quite amusing – but because, in Rome: Total War, I have never not been able to play like this. That is, to play through narrative – to fill the stats and towns and characters, with their metrics of positive and negative traits, with real people and relationships. Lucius could have been just a “General”, a “Governor”, a means to boost the army’s attack capacity and morale. But he was more than that; he was a human, a man. A man who was flawed, like all of us. A man who had glory, once, but failed to build on it. 

So what happened to Lucius? He survived the defeat, but, the shame faced dead weight, he could no longer show his face in Rome (aedile, indeed!). And so, poor Lucius was sent into “exile”, given a meaningless and out of the way command where, amidst the cold wind and sticky swamps, he could languish and think about the “glory days”, when he had routed armies, when he was somebody 

Games cannot just be stats and routines and hierarchies of actions and responses – for many players, like myself, it is impossible for me, for us, not to identify with the world that we are participating in. This is one of their central qualities – that they enable narrative and meaning and identification even when, in their rawness, these things are not immediately obvious. Rome is easy for this, because there are characters, with postage stamp sized portraits and names and habits. But even in other worlds, other games, I feel the same urge. 

But there was never the sense for preservation or for achieving the “right” narrative – only narrative itself, unburdened of the soft gloves of revision. If Lucius had to fail, then fail he should. However much it pained me to lose a good general, I knew that, to be the Pater Familias, to be the head of the family, I had to cut him away. I wouldn’t let him die, of course (and I have engineered a fitting “noble end” for more than one irksome, but otherwise loyal family member), because he once had hope, and promise. But I would not let him near the bright light of my future glory. There was a new star in the ascendant – Brutus Asina. Where Lucius was weak, Brutus was strong – sober, pious. A little boring perhaps, but strong. 

When I was teenager, when I played Rome and built Warhammer models and listened to too much metal, narrative became a means of knowing that I could engineer this real world toward something deeper and more significant. I recognised the banality of my ordinary life, but knew that through narrative – and, moreover, in the epic narratives of history – there was room to make tough calls, to be the decider of fates, to push not just a “button”, it was never about that, but to create effects in the world. For this to be true, that world had to be coherent and real, to be more than the sum of its parts – more than its strings of code or textures and their interactions. It had to be an enduring story, almost as if it had once really happened and I was merely repeating a history that was already done, carved in stone. I read histories of Rome, but not the modern revisionism of balanced scholars, who looked down the lens of time, but of Agricola, Suetonius, Livy. At antique book stores I brought dust thick, leather bound volumes that had, since their typesetting and printing in the 1890s or 1910s (these were my preferred treasures), sat on library shelves or in drawers and had told a deep, ancient story of morals and lives, wars and discourses that had no life left in them, only bones and the rusted slabs of ancient weapons. My Rome, when I played, became full with references to these histories, with names and peoples and places. The cities which the game generated were small and generic, but in my mind they had quarters and stench and bawdiness. And in their alleyways spies swapped intelligence, and deals were bartered or broken. Alliances were made, fates sealed. But still this lived in the Victorian translator’s diction of Rome, which was itself an illusion, a revision. But I didn’t mind. These illusions of Roman history gave force and significance to what were just textures.  

And so, Lucius’ fate was not really mine to decide, but that of a ponderous roll of history. Making the game credible meant building character and identity – a history of the self – in to the game world. The line between Lucius, the turn-based flow of Rome’s history, and the “real” history of Rome in its history books, became increasingly blurred – and happily so. 

Lucius spent his last years in a rotten outpost, guarding mud and poverty, never drawing his sword but to prise the muck from his boots. But history had been served, and now moved on to further shores. 


  1. Back in secondary school, my friend and I used to spend history lessons telling each other our narratives of Roman/Medieval conquest. A fair few years have passed since then, and we're still telling each other our war stories. The game wouldn't be the same without them, and you've put that in words. Thanks man :).

    Imperator. Imperator!

    1. thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Actually, after writing this I sat down and became lost in a six hour Rome session - more stories, more conquest!