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Barbarian Voices and Ventriloquisms

Questions of verisimilitude and authenticity in historical fiction, including the medium of video games, are often invoked in debates regarding attitudes and beliefs from the past and their reception in the present. There are delicate balances to be made between depicting objectionable, bigoted views as part of historical fact and the dangers of inadvertently platforming such views.

A potential case study for some of the issues that can emerge from this are the ways in which the 2004 PC strategy game Rome: Total War frames the prejudice and hostility its Roman characters display towards other ethnic groups, perhaps most especially the Gauls of north-western Europe.

Gods, I hate Gauls…my grandfather hated them too, even before they put out his eyes.”

Thus begins the narration of the campaign intro cinematic for the ‘Julii’ faction of R:TW. The clip continues in a similar vein, referring to the same group as “unwashed barbarians” and lamenting the narrator’s lot of a frontier posting, tasked to “bring Roman order to stinking Gauls”.

A common feature of pre-battle orations in-game sees Roman generals refer to the Gauls as “monsters” who are “dangerous, mad, and hairy beyond reason”.

The consistent line taken on the part of in-game Roman views of the Gauls is one of contempt, underscored by an image of them as crude, violent, and unhygienic savages.

The presence of comedic exaggeration and a somewhat villainous, or at least unsympathetic, framing of the Roman characters might indicate that the player is not intended to share in this view of the Gauls, but its ubiquity in-game is noteworthy.

Screenshot from Rome: Total War, showing Roman and Gallic soldiers fighting.
Monsters? Gallic and Roman forces in combat.

How well do the attitudes portrayed here reflect our available sources for such beliefs and perspectives in historical Roman society of the time? Anti-Gallic prejudice was certainly a feature of Roman society in the Middle and Late Republic, well evidenced in Cicero’s contemptuous asides concerning them and unflattering accounts of historical encounters in Livy et al.

However, the image espoused by R:TW’s Romans does not neatly map onto extant Latin literature. The Greek historian Polybius, in recounting the clashes between Rome and the Gauls of northern Italy, notes the latter’s seemingly simplistic way of life, but his image of the Gauls is more one of rapacious, freebooting raiders than backwoods savages, a view arguably shared by Cicero.

Caesar’s description of Gaul, given as he was in the process of conquering it, similarly offers little in the way of technological primitivism or lack of hygiene, mainly stereotyping its Gauls as overly volatile in their emotions and prone to violence due to bouts of recklessness.

If anything, R:TW’s version of Gallic stereotypes better reflect later Roman depictions of the peoples of Germania and Britannia, as offered by Tacitus or Velleius Paterculus. As such, any argument that the inclusion of such discriminatory views is merely a matter of authenticity are not well-founded.

A unit of Gallic swordsmen.
A unit of Gallic swordsmen from the game.

A major complicating factor faced here is that the Venn diagram of sources we can examine for evidence of Anti-Gallic prejudice in the Ancient World and sources for the historical narrative and cultural descriptions of the Gauls in Antiquity is almost a perfect circle. We do not have texts written by Gauls about themselves surviving to modernity to give us an alternate viewpoint.

Although ongoing advances in archaeology are continuing to expand and nuance our understandings of the world of Iron Age Europe, the historical record we are left to work with is suffused with layers of bias and potential spin. As such, any attempt to recreate a Gallic perspective risks being a kind of ventriloquism, putting words in the mouth of an otherwise silent, or in this case silenced, people.

In its attempt to give the Gauls (and other ‘barbarians’ of the north) a voice in response to that given to Roman characters, with their intro cinematic and voice clips, the game does not do much to dispel the impression of primitivism created elsewhere. The primary nuances added here come only with emphases on perceived qualities of indigeneity and simple, rugged honesty.

To the ‘barbarians’ of R:TW, the Romans are conniving thieves and greedy, godless despoilers of nature, “men of stone, and iron, and lies” with whom there can be no peace, only war.

The rousing orations given to Gallic/barbarian generals at the start of battle sequences seem to draw inspiration from Conan the Barbarian more than any historical or archaeological remains, praising their troops as “sons of the wolf and the bear” and calling for “death, death, death, and shame to our foes!”. The image we are left with in R:TWs attempts to recover is one of noble savages faced with loss of their way of life through imperial conquest, a picture of potential sympathy but limited credit.

The problem that we are left with, then, is ambiguity over the extent to which the Romans of the game-world are right in their view of the Gauls, and what that means for the perceptions of players engaging with the history of Iron Age Europe in this medium. Without easy access to scholarship deconstructing Roman stereotypes and invective rhetoric, or archaeological publications telling a different, more complex story, are their perceptions of Gaul going to be permanently coloured by an image of savagery, whether of the barbaric or noble variety?

It is a concern that I believe merits further investigation.

Ralph Moore is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Classics at Trinity College Dublin. His research looks generally at cultural interactions between the Ancient Mediterranean and north-western Europe, and is particularly focused on how Roman rule affected social hierarchy and mobility amongst the Gallic peoples of the Rhone Basin.

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