The Romans tended to dwell on idealized visions of history. Their major historians’ stabs at epic history tried to identify the essential threads running through the Roman character that could tie its imperial present to its dimly-recalled past. Writers like Livy, Cassius Dio, and Tacitus all attempted in their own ways to explain why the Romans of old had achieved so much… and why the fruits of those victories were so frequently disappointing and needlessly cruel. Long before imperial collapse truly began, Rome’s thinkers and historians felt like something was going wrong. Or maybe it had gone wrong but this time under a new dynasty, things would turn out differently.
Later historians tended to follow suit, most notably but Gibbon with his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and so Roman history was often treated as a colossal screen onto which the Romans and everyone who followed could and did project their own ideals and fears.
The power of those projections, and their durability in the imagination, is what most interests me about Paradox Development Studio’s Imperator: Rome. It’s their upcoming grand strategy game that will let players control just about any of the various republics, city-states, empires, and tribes in the wider Roman world.
Which means that despite its name, Imperator is not a game that’s just about Rome. Paradox games take a wider view: That's why with Imperator, you can play as anyone from a small tribe in the British Isles to a fledgling Indian empire.
“I don’t like making games where it’s just about the country. That’s not really a Paradox game. A Paradox game is about playing a country in a world,” designer Johan Andersson explains during a phone call. “That’s probably a better description. I would never make a game where you just have a Roman focus.”
But in the case of Rome, the historical record itself tends to have a Roman focus. Imperator is about history, yes, but that history itself is an ongoing negotiation between the Rome we imagine, Rome as the Romans themselves remembered it decades and centuries after the fact, and the wider and incompletely understood world in which Rome actually existed.
That makes Roman history at once fertile and challenging soil for a Paradox strategy game. On the one hand, Roman history as contemporary sources depict it might resemble a Paradox game more than any other period you could imagine: It’s history as a place of personal drama, political intrigue, and grand ambition. But on the other hand, every other Paradox game takes place in periods where we have a variety of perspectives on most of the key actors. Even when Paradox games were at their most eurocentric, they were still informed by historical experiences from across Europe. Roman-era history, we largely view through a keyhole.
When it comes to fleshing-out the wider Roman world, Andersson admits that few nations in Imperator: Rome will have as much character and detail as Rome. “Obviously when this game is released, there will obviously be more flavor for Rome than maybe like… well how much flavor will Epirus have as opposed to Sparta, or some of the other minor [powers]? Not much compared to Rome. But there’s a lot of different flavor and mechanics to pick from.”
When Andersson is talking about flavor, he’s talking about the narrative vignettes and random events that bring to life the world beyond the the number-crunching world simulation that underlies each Paradox strategy game. Paradox games can sometimes look like dry arithmetic problems, but it’s often their small details that make all those variables and systems begin to feel like they have opened a window into the past.
But again, other Paradox games have detailed national, political, religious, cultural, and economic histories that they can pull from to tell convincing stories about their world. With the Roman period, we don’t have quite as complete a picture of what the politics of a powerful Black Sea tribe, for instance, were like compared to what Roman politics were like.
To solve the problem of bringing that wider world to life, Andersson suggests that a focus on the dynamics of political systems might be one route to making players see drama and humanity in their games.
Andersson tells me a story to illustrate some of what he’s talking about. It’s a pretty typical tale of how an ancient republic chokes on its own imperial success, but it still has a cast of characters and a hero with a tragic flaw at the center of it. It also shows where the player’s control over the state collides with the foibles and weaknesses of the characters who serve it, but over whom the player’s control is not absolute.
“I was playing a game as some Italian minor power, and I didn’t care that much about loyalty because I was having my main army led by a general who was super loyal because he was the leader of the Republic,” Andersson explains.
In other words, the republic that Andersson was controlling was presently led by a brilliant general who, for as long as as he was in office, was practically Andersson’s avatar. Very l’etat c’est moi kind of stuff.
But the exact meaning of “loyalty” is important here. Imperator abstracts away a lot of the gritty details about domestic politics in favor of a loyalty system that measures characters’ allegiance to the state. Andersson was ignoring the loyalty of other characters who were filling roles in governance and administration because, with the military being controlled directly by the ruler of the republic (whose loyalty to the state he ruled was naturally maxed-out), the chance of a coup seemed nonexistent.
“Everyone else was slightly annoyed because [my ruler] was extremely uncharismatic. He had a really low oratory skill. So loyalty started dropping for people,” Andersson says. “But I didn’t really care that much because I had the army. But [other characters] started a civil war controlling two-thirds of my territory, and pretty much all my good characters and a lot of my gold.”
Now Andersson was basically on the wrong side of a civil war. His enemies had most of the power of the legitimate state, and Andersson’s ruler was now head of an elite loyalist army, a small patch of territory, and whatever meathead officers his ruler had surrounded himself with.
“[The rebels] basically raised another army quickly, and while my army was enormously experienced, I ended up in a really costly war because I had no characters I could really put in charge. Because the rebels were the most competent people in my country. And I basically had to get less competent people to do my research and handle my governors.”
Implied in this story is a game that is somewhere between Crusader Kings II’s focus on personalities and relationships, and Europa Universalis IV’s focus on the state as the critical actor on the historical stage. The exact details of domestic politics might not be spelled-out the way CK2 details its plots and character motivations, but there is still the outline of a personal drama in the saga of a brilliant but off-putting republican general whose homeland turned against him during his foreign adventures.
Republican domestic politics might be a bit more lively than what happens in monarchical systems. Andersson indicated that republics are defined by their parties, and while there’s nothing as detailed as Victoria II’s detailed sociopolitical demographics driving the action, Imperator’s republics (Roman or otherwise) still have parties of militarists, oligarchs, religionists, and populists. Depending on who is in power, some avenues of play become more costly and harder to execute while others become easier.
“So you basically have to manage your senate to make sure you get the kind of faction that favors the gameplay you want at the moment and you have important characters in power,” Andersson said.
It’s a bit less clear, at this early stage, what politics will look like for monarchies and tribal societies. Andersson admitted that politics within republics might be the most interesting right now, and so far the politics of monarchies sounds like it’s about appointing ministers and governors. T.J. Hafer’s preview over on IGN also makes it sound like there could be some really interesting gameplay around tribal cultures, emphasizing their flexibility and adaptability as well as the ways they can threaten and prey upon their more settled neighbors.
The other challenge facing Imperator is that its model for ancient societies necessarily relies on a very broad brush. In fact, its division of the world into categories of citizen, free person, local tribesperson, and slave, might be the most Roman-centric thing about Imperator. While not every society will have all these categories contained within it (most tribes don’t have citizens, for instance, because they don’t have legalistic systems where this distinction matters) this is how people are divided and defined within Imperator right now.
In Imperator, while full citizens will generate a great deal of research and trade, and most labor for the state is performed by free people, it is slaves who generate the most wealth. In the social structure that Andersson sketches out for Imperator, slavery is what allows these ancient societies to substantially escape subsistence-level economies. Which is to say that the most technologically advanced and politically institutionalized societies in Imperator will be powered in large part by slavery.
This is not really a controversial model. Leftist classicists who studied ancient economics and class relations, like M.I. Finley, tend to find the utilitarian or liberal arguments about the inefficiencies of slavery in the ancient world to be dubious ones. In a world without a large working class or much concept of wage labor, slavery filled a role that was both useful for ancient societies and profitable for those who most were most exploitative of it. With that being said, however, we should not give into the temptation to view the classical world as blind or ignorant to what they were doing, and who they were doing it do.
As Finley puts it in The Ancient Economy, “The literature of the Roman Empire is filled with doubts and qualms about slavery; fear of slaves, of being murdered by them, of possible revolts, is a recurrent (and old) theme. But this literature can be matched, passage by passage, from the American South, and in neither society was the practical conclusion drawn that slavery should be replaced by other forms of labour, should be abolished, in short.”
What this model will inevitably submerge is the different and changing meanings of slavery in these societies (especially non-Roman, non-Hellenistic), and the differences between how it was practiced in the ancient world as opposed to the insidious justifications for it in the modern. Moreover, while Andersson suggested that you will have the ability to promote members of one segment into another, it doesn’t sound like large-scale emancipation or manumission is really in the cards for most states. This a period of widespread slavery across many different cultures and societies.
That might also make this game harder-to-approach than some other of Paradox’s games, which often give you ways to avoid virtually participating in systems of oppression and violence. You don’t have to be an imperialist power in Europa Universalis, for instance, or you can at least play in ways that let you tell yourself that yours is a kinder, gentler kind of imperialism. In Stellaris you can build your dream society where there are no servants and no masters. In the classical world, exploitation is harder to escape.
If slavery is the foundation of great wealth in this world, it is not necessarily the foundation of power and progress. While citizens carry on trade and the business of progress, Imperator portrays ancient societies as being hungry for resources that will let them increase the pace and change the character of their development. The smallest unit of territory you will control is a city, and groups of cities become provinces. But it is the flow of resources between cities that determines which cities rise to become major, empire-sustaining metropolises, and what areas subsist mostly to fuel that progress.
“Every city produces its own trade goods, but every province if it produces a surplus, you get an additional bonus that stacks. So Grain gives 10 population growth, and every surplus [unit] you have gives 2 or 3 additional population growth. So if you want to really grow a city, you can import Grain or Fish or something like that. Or if you want to get a research city, you import Papyrus. A military hub? You should have access to Iron and Salt and those things.”
This spiderweb of need (or at least convenience) is one of the things that will drive states into contact and conflict with each other. And that’s one of the other features of this game: It’s trying not just to capture the parochial worldview of ancient societies, but also the vast interconnected systems that they could never quite comprehend, and of which they were only a part.
To illustrate this point, he talks about how the limits of Rome’s eastward expansion were almost always determined by Persian imperial powers like the Parthian Empire. The Parthians in particular had a great military record against the Romans, but they never really tried their hand at conquering the eastern Mediterranean. And one major reason for that is because the Parthians frequently shared an eastern border with powerful Indian imperial powers who were an even more pressing threat than the Romans ever managed to be.
But this balancing act was largely invisible to the Romans. And it is both the great challenge and great opportunity for Imperator—when it comes out next year—to suggest and evoke the politics and motivations of these distant powers who existed in the shadows of the Roman imagination. They are creating a game where the player’s exploits as rulers of barely-remembered, little-celebrated kingdoms and tribes can be as vivid and compelling as the conquest of Gaul, or the expansion-ending defeat of a Roman army in the Teutoburg Forest.
In their self-obsession, the Romans could also be extraordinary for the things they didn’t know about, or chose not to see. Yet the political and strategic dynamics of their world were significantly influenced by these people and places who remained almost unknown to them… and to us. More than the cut-and-thrust of life in the Forum, this is the stuff of a Paradox game. But getting that experience may mean letting go, just a little bit, of our fantasy of a world where all roads, or even most of them, led to Rome.