The Society of The Forgotten City #1: Roman Citizens and Imperial Subjects. By Hamish Cameron

This post is the first half of a broader discussion on the game’s Roman society.

As a Roman historian, I found many things to like about The Forgotten City, but its treatment of Roman society reveal a few common misunderstandings worth exploring and explaining. In this post and the next, I examine how the game treats some key institutions critical to understanding Roman society in the early Empire: citizenship and slavery.

Citizens of The Forgotten City

The Forgotten City (Modern Storyteller, 2021) is set in a mysterious underground Roman city in 65 CE, 7 months after the famous fire of Rome under Nero. While investigating the game’s central mystery, the protagonist must explore a carefully constructed material environment and converse with a cast of Roman characters from various sectors of Roman society. Popular reception of the historical elements of the game has focused on the visible and accessible similarities between the game’s environments and famous elements of Roman art and architecture.1 The game has been praised for its narrative,2 but while that narrative is embedded in historical information about Roman society, this aspect has received little attention from popular commentators, probably because the nuances of Roman social and legal structures are less well known or as “obvious” as visual similarities.

The structure of the society of The Forgotten City is displayed quite clearly in an in-game document called the “Citizen register”. From a gameplay perspective, this provides the player with an overview of the people to find and talk to in unravelling the mystery. At a narrative level, this in-game document describes how each character fits in to the social structure of the city. For each of the 24 characters listed, the register gives a social class, a “duty” (their job), where they live, and for some a diegetic note relevant to the protagonist’s investigation.

Fig. 1. The Forgotten City‘s Citizen Register.

Rome was a status conscious society, so it is fitting that the register would choose social class as the first means of categorising the city’s inhabitants. The “register” divides all characters into three social classes: commoner, patrician, and foreigner. However, the names for these categories are anachronistic, misleading and omit the first means of distinguishing the social and legal status of humans in the Roman world: the distinction between free and enslaved. In this post, I’ll discuss what is misleading and in the next, I’ll discuss that omission.

Patricians and Plebeians

The three categories used by The Forgotten City trades on a simplistic generalisation that all pre-modern societies are divided into wealthy ruling aristocrats (here “patricians”), a mass of ordinary people defined by their non-aristocratic status (“commoners”), and people from elsewhere, defined by their foreign status (“foreigners”).

This use of “patrician” and “commoner” demonstrates the persistence of the popular idea that Roman society was divided between a hereditary political class of empowered patricians and a mass of bread-eating, circus-attending plebeians. However, by the most well-known periods of Roman history in the first centuries BCE and CE, the term “patrician” had long ceased to be equivalent to “upper class” and were just a small component of that group. The political changes of the mid-4th century BCE had produced a mixed patrician-plebeian class of “nobiles” (famous ones), defined by their family history of political office rather than by birth (Flower 2010: 35–58). Both terms continue to be used in the Roman Empire, but “patrician” refers to specific families (e.g. Tac. Ann. 3.48), while “plebeian” is used more broadly for the masses of Rome, as opposed to the combined political and social class of the senatorial and equestrian orders. For Romans at the time of Nero, a recognisable division of social class among Roman citizens would have been the senatorial and equestrian orders and the plebes, not the patricians and the commoners.

Citizens and Foreigners

Citizenship is another important category glossed over by the game. The label “citizen register” implies that all the characters in the register are citizens, but some of the people in that document are classified as foreigners, “non-citizens”. Today, citizenship is a precise legal category that bestows a certain set of rights, privileges and duties on a group of people with a certain historical relationship to a nation-state; in the ancient world, before the existence of the nation-state as a concept, citizenship usually attached to a city instead. This was originally true for a Roman citizen too, but by the first century CE, Roman citizenship had long since ceased to have any geographical basis in the city of Rome. Citizenship was one of the rewards that the expanding Roman empire had used to buy the compliance of wealthy members of conquered states, of former auxiliary soldiers who served in Rome’s armies, and of enslaved people who were freed in the correct way by Roman citizen slave owners.

The rights of a Roman citizen (civis) under the empire, included the ability to use Roman law in legal proceedings and to appeal to a governor or higher authority in cases of legal difficulty (Crook 1984: 255–58). Roman citizenship was a sought-after status that holders would advertise, especially by using a formal Roman name, the tria nomina, the system of three names that showed their citizen status. It was a criminal offense (as a kind of forgery) for non-citizens to use the tria nomina (Crook 1984: 46–48; Suet. Claud. 25.3; Digest To use a few Roman authors cited in the game as examples: Cicero’s full name was Marcus Tullius Cicero; Seneca the Younger was Lucius Annaeus Seneca and the poet Ovid was Publius Ovidius Naso. The Roman tendency to advertise their citizen status through their name helps historians identify whether someone mentioned in a historical source was a Roman citizen, especially in inscriptions or real historical documents.

Roman naming traditions mean that we can tell a lot about a historical person from just their name. For example, a funerary inscription from London reads:

Aulus Alfidius Olussa, of the Pomptine voting-tribe, aged 70, born at Athens, lies here; in accordance with his will his heir set (this) up. (RIB 9)3

We know that Aulus Alfidius Olussa was a Roman citizen because of the tria nomina, but whoever commissioned the tombstone made doubly sure that the reader would know this by including Alfidius’ voting-tribe, another marker of Roman citizenship. Note also that Alfidius’ inscription places his birth in Athens and his death in London; who knows where else his 70 years took him! Some inscriptions record just part of the tria nomina, by choice of the carver or accidents of survival of the stone. If we encountered The Forgotten City’s Rufius in an inscription that identified him as a soldier with a Syrian origin, we would most likely interpret his status as that of a Roman citizen from a family granted citizenship in the previous century since Pompey annexed Syria in 64 BCE. This aligns with his status as a “commoner” on the citizen register.

Fig. 2. Rufius in The Forgotten City.4

The category of “citizen” is opposed to that of peregrinus. The literal translation of peregrinus is “foreigner”, but in the sense of status categories it is a misleading translation. Etymologically, it means someone from beyond the fields of Rome (per + ager). It derives from that early period of Roman expansion in which Roman citizenship still had a geographical basis and was only possessed by inhabitants of the city and its hinterland. By the first century CE, peregrinus refers to anyone who was not Roman citizen, including both imperial subjects within the empire and people who live outside the empire (the latter were sometimes called barbari (barbarian), depending on the rhetorical purposes of the writer). Most subjects of the Roman emperor were not Roman citizens, they were peregrini living within the borders of the empire and were governed by ius gentium, the law of the peoples, not by ius civile, “civil law”, i.e. the law of Roman citizens (Crook 1984: 29–30). To refer to peregrini as “foreigners” within the game, implies that those characters are immigrants to the empire or in some way “not from here”, rather than historical victims of Roman conquest and present subjects of Roman imperial power.

Who’s What?

In the game, the three characters listed as “foreigners” are Hannibal, Khabash, and Lucretia. Hannibal dies before the events of the game, so we cannot speak to him directly, but Domitius says that he is a Carthaginian with “a funny accent”. This lines up with what we would have guessed from his Carthaginian name and tells us that he was a peregrinus from within the empire. The region of Carthage was annexed as the Roman province of Africa in 146 BCE. For the Romans, the term Africa referred to the province that occupied roughly the area of modern Tunisia (Pliny NH 5.23-25) and had long been part of the empire by the age of Nero. Similarly, Khabash is an Egyptian; a man from a region that had been part of the Roman empire since Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE. From a Roman perspective, the status of these two characters was no different to that of Georgius. Georgius is a Greek merchant with a Latinised version of a Greek name and no indication of citizenship. He would also have the legal status of a peregrinus.

Fig. 3. The Forgotten City‘s Georgius, a Greek merchant.

Lucretia is listed as a foreigner, but she has a Roman name, in fact, one that hints at a patrician background. As well as the famous Lucretia (Livy 1.57ff.), Plutarch reports a tradition that Numa married a woman named Lucretia (Life of Numa 21.2). While the name is most famous for its very early patrician branch, there were plebeian branches of the family. At least one branch of the family is attested in the first century CE in a graffito at Pompey which advertises a gladiatorial display put on by Decimus Lucretius Satrius Valens (CIL 4.7995; translation in Cooley and Cooley 2014: 68–69). Lucretia tells the player that “My husband and I moved to Rome from Caesarea. He embraced the Roman way more than I would have liked, and turned into an awful philanderer.” His embracing of Roman ways suggests that he was not culturally Roman to begin with. In Rome they lived in a villa and when the fire struck Rome, her husband was distracted with coins and gemstones, both implying a wealthy background.

Fig. 4. Lucretia explains the events before her arrival in the forgotten city.

The most likely story here is that Lucretia and her husband were members of prominent local families in Caesarea granted Roman citizenship in the previous century. Lucretia is probably referring to Caesarea Maritima, although the name was reasonably common. Caesarea Maritima was founded as a capital and deep-water port by Herod I of Judea in the last decades of the first century BCE. As Judea was an “allied” kingdom (i.e. subservient to Rome), there were many opportunities for important local families to obtain citizenship for services to Rome, especially families involved in trade, as Lucretia’s wealth and mobility suggests. As a black woman, Lucretia and her family might have been connected to long distance trade through the Red Sea to the horn of Africa; such trade connections often relied on cultural connections and diasporic communities (Cameron 2022a). However, Ethiopia and the Mediterranean world had been well-connected since the fifth century BCE (Kennedy 2013: 179–201) and Roman citizenship had ceased to have an ethnic or geographical basis since at least the middle-Republic, so a trade connection is not necessary to explain a black Roman citizen.

A character more likely to be an actual foreigner, a barbarus, is Vergil. He says that he grew up among the Batavians in the city of Noviomagus, modern Nijmegen (The Netherlands), an area on the very edge of Roman imperial control.

Fig. 5. Vergil discusses his background.

Nijmegen was the site of Roman military camps from the last decades of the first century BCE (Willems, Enckevort, and Broeke 2009: 17–19), but the city of Noviomagus was not founded until the first years of the second century, under the emperor Trajan, several decades after the fictional date of the events of the game (Willems, Enckevort, and Broeke 2009: 74–77). In 65 CE, the military camp was accompanied by a Batavian town known to the Romans as Oppidum Batavorum, “town of the Batavians” (Willems, Enckevort, and Broeke 2009: 21). Vergil is not specific about whether he was a member of the legionary community or born among the local Batavians, although his accent would suggest the latter. He specifically notes that the name Vergil is a pseudonym and implies that the reason for that is related to the Batavian reaction to his gay identity.

Fig. 6. Vergil reveals that his name is a pseudonym.

His centring of the Batavians in his story also suggests an origin among that tribe. All of that would lead to the conclusion that he was a peregrinus. However, he is also a well-educated architect who uses the term “barbarian” to refer to the perpetrator of a piece of destructive vandalism. Vergil’s background in the game is difficult to reconcile with a historical trajectory. If his new name were not “assumed” but was the result of patronage and the grant of citizenship (and the name of his patron that came with it), then his background among the Batavians would align more plausibly with a profession that required wealth and connections to obtain.

Cosmopolitan Rome

The point of these examinations has not been to nitpick the game’s historical accuracy, but to examine the image that the game presents of Roman society. The Forgotten City shows a simplistic view of Roman social divisions; more in keeping with a generic sense of pre-modern “nobles” and “commoners” than an accurate depiction of status as it existed in the first century CE. However, the game does an excellent job of showing the cosmopolitan and mobile nature of the Roman world. The characters in The Forgotten City represent a snapshot of the diversity of the empire. Merchants from Greece, soldiers from Syria, and workers from Palestine, Lower Germany, Africa, Egypt, and Britain all came together in the major cities of the Roman world, just as our Athenian-born, London-buried Roman citizen Alfidius did. On the other hand, it is concerning that the developers’ division between “commoner” and “foreigner” seems to reflect modern racial categories more than any authentically Roman distinction. All three of the characters labelled as “foreigners” are dark-skinned and come from or near to the northern coast of the continent of Africa. This region was as Roman as any other part of the empire — arguably more so than northern areas like Britain and Germany. The territory and people of Carthage had been subject to Roman power for as long as Greece and Spain and longer than northern Italy or most of Gaul. After the inclusion of southern Gallic senators by Claudius in 48 CE, and the wave of Spanish senators, equestrians, intellectuals, and artists like Seneca the Younger, Martial, Trajan, and Hadrian in the latter half of the first century, it was Africa that produced the next notable influx from the provinces to Rome, including the orator Fronto, the scholar Apuleius and eventually an imperial dynasty, the Severans (Birley 1971). Vergil’s story of a self-described boy from the provinces made good in the big city could have been modelled on people like Fronto and Apuleius.

Rome’s precise legal and social status distinctions are a complex subject that includes technical legal language and practice, changes over time, and was the subject of discussion and debate among Romans themselves. It is inevitable that a game aimed at a non-specialist audience will abstract some of this complexity in the interests of a better gameplay experience (Cameron 2022b). Likewise, it’s not surprising that a game for a non-specialist audience would include representations of historical material that circulate in the popular imagination despite their inaccuracy. As a historical games scholar, these distinctions are what makes a game like The Forgotten City so fascinating to study. In the next post, I’ll discuss how that applies to the game’s representation of slavery.

Hamish Cameron (@peregrinekiwi) is a Lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington. His research and teaching focuses on the history and geography of the Roman Near East, representations of imperialism in ancient Greek and Latin literature, and the reception of the ancient Mediterranean world in modern games. He has published on all of these topics, including his book Making Mesopotamia: Geography and Empire in a Romano-Iranian Borderland (Brill, 2019), a recent chapter on the ancient Silk Road, and articles on teaching with analog games. He has forthcoming chapters on Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey, Hades, and on ancient monsters in games (more publications here). He is also a publishing analog game designer.

Birley, Anthony. 1971. Septimius Severus: The African Emperor. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.

Cameron, Hamish. 2022a. “Caravan Cities in the Roman Near East: Palmyra and Petra.” In The World of the Ancient Silk Road, edited by Xinru Liu, 297–321. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

—. 2022b. “The Painful Art of Abstraction: Representing the Ancient World in Modern Games.” Edited by Gabriel Mckee and Daniela Wolin. Re-Rolling the Past: Representations and Reinterpretations of Antiquity in Analog and Digital Games, ISAW Papers, 22.

Cooley, Alison, and M. G. L. Cooley. 2014. Pompeii and Herculaneum: A Sourcebook. Second edition. Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World. London: Routledge.

Crook, J. A. 1984. Law and Life of Rome: 90 B.C. to A.D. 212. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Flower, Harriet I. 2010. Roman Republics. Princeton: University Press.

Kennedy, Rebecca Futo. 2013. Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An Anthology of Primary Sources in Translation. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Company, Inc.

Willems, W. J. H., Harry van Enckevort, and Peter van den Broeke. 2009. Vlpia Noviomagvs, Roman Nijmegen: The Batavian Capital at the Imperial Frontier. Journal of Roman Archaeology. Supplementary Series, No. 73. Portsmouth, R.I: Journal of Roman Archaeology.

1 History Hit:; Jacob Geller:

2 Among other accolades, it won the 2021 award for Excellence in Narrative at the Australian Game Developer Awards and a Pav in the “guest plate” category at the New Zealand Games Festival in July 2022.

3 Coincidentally, this inscription is included in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (Ubisoft 2020) and discussed by Vandewalle here as part of this presentation on epigraphy in Ubisoft games.

4 Seleucia on the Tigris was a Parthian capital, briefly captured by Trajan around 115 CE, but never held by Roman forces long enough to be part of a Roman province. As far as we know, no “Babylon Province” ever existed, although the geographical area of Southern Mesopotamia was known to the Greeks and Romans as Babylonia.

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