This post is the second 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 previous one, I examine how the game treats some key institutions critical to understanding Roman society in the early Empire: citizenship and slavery.
Where is the Slavery?
The biggest omission in The Forgotten City is slavery. The distinction between enslaved and free was the most fundamental one in Roman society. The Roman jurist Gaius began his discussion of personal legal status by stating that “all human beings are either free or enslaved” (Gaius Inst. 1.9).
Slavery was highly visible in the Roman world (Bradley 2010: 625–26). While there is considerable debate about the exact numbers of enslaved people and the extent to which Roman agriculture relied on slavery, wealthy Romans each owned dozens if not hundreds of enslaved human beings. Athenaeus is certainly exaggerating when he has a speaker claim that every (wealthy) Roman owns “tens of thousand or more slaves” (Athen. Deip. 6.104 (272d-e)). Tacitus’s report that the household of the prefect of Rome, Pedanius Secundus, included 400 enslaved people is probably more typical for wealthy senators. (Although it is worth noting that Tacitus is only describing Pedanius’ household in Rome, not the state of the considerable agricultural and business holdings that such a senator would possess.) The context for this number is the murder of Pedanius by one of those enslaved men, which according to the ancient Roman custom meant that all 400 enslaved people should be executed (Tac. Ann. 14.42-45). After all, as Tacitus has a senator say, they were all complicit because they had failed to protect their owner from the murderer’s plot:
“Who will be kept safe by the number of his slaves when four hundred have not protected Pedanius Secundus? Which of us will be rescued by his “domestics”, who, even with the dread of punishment before them, regard not our dangers?” (Tac. Ann. 14.43)
Despite public protests, the senate voted to carry out this collective punishment, which had to be enforced by the emperor because of its unpopularity. He did refuse to carry out the additional penalty suggested by one senator that the freed (formerly enslaved) members of the household should be exiled from Italy. Tacitus remarks: “This the emperor forbade, as he did not wish an ancient custom, which mercy had not relaxed, to be strained with cruel rigour.” (Tac. Ann. 14.45)
Early in the game, you can ask the city’s magistrate, Sentius: “Don’t your laws allow slave ownership?” To which he will reply:
“Of course. What else would we do with those prisoners of war who would otherwise have been executed? And besides, there are laws for their protection as well.”
While it is true that a major reason for enslavement was capture in war, that was just one of the ways by which people became enslaved in the Roman empire. The others included being born to an enslaved mother (and thus inheriting her status); being abandoned as a baby, found, and raised in slavery; being enslaved outside the empire and imported into the empire; being kidnapped by bandits or pirates and sold into slavery (Bradley 1994: 32–39). Sentius’ claim that the alternative to enslavement was death is false (there are numerous examples of defeated enemies being neither enslaved nor killed). A modern interpretation of the ideological justification of slavery holds that: “The slave becomes a person who would otherwise have died but has been spared and kept in servitude” (Patterson 1982: 5; Bradley 2010: 630; quote is from Mouritsen 2011:13–14). This idea is suggested in Roman legal writing, but it was not articulated by Roman writers in the terms Sentius uses. Much like the citizen register’s division of Roman citizens into “patricians” and “commoners”, the historical underpinnings can be seen, but the specific details are misleading and lacking nuance.
Sentius’ excuse that laws existed for the protection of enslaved people is specious. There were certainly laws against the gross mistreatment of enslaved people: those laws were usually aimed at the most egregious examples of abuse and brutality, and did not protect enslaved people from the daily physical violence and sexual abuse that they had to endure (Bradley 1994: 81–95; Mouritsen 2011: 21; Stewart 2012: 80–116; Gamauf 2016: 391–95; Kamen and Marshall 2021). Nevertheless, Sentius’ opinion probably does represent an attitude held by wealthy Roman enslavers.
A similar issue arises around gladiatorial combat. Sentius defends the practice of bloodsports by claiming that “our gladiators are almost all volunteers seeking glory, or condemned prisoners who would have been executed anyway!” Neither of those claims are true. On the first count, while some did swear themselves into slavery voluntarily to fight in the arena (Seneca, Ep.37.2; Futrell 2006: 132–38), most gladiators were enslaved and forced to fight. On the second, gladiators were highly trained professional fighters who would usually be expected to survive each show (Futrell 2006: 143–45); criminals condemned to the arena were intended as victims of those gladiators, not as competitive opponents (Futrell 1997:47, esp. n. 179, 2006: 122–25). As a former professional gladiator, the game’s Domitius was clearly good enough to win his freedom. His former enslaved status is not mentioned in the game, but this isn’t surprising as he is not the most forthcoming character.
Let’s use Galerius as an example of what Roman society considered to be the humane treatment of enslaved human beings. Galerius was a British farmer whose family was murdered by Roman soldiers and so joined Boudicca’s army — the brutality of the Roman occupation of Britain is described by Tacitus (Agr. 15).1 Galerius survived the defeat of Boudicca’s rebellion, but was enslaved and taken to Rome to be sold. He relates how “I spent a few years working for my new “master”, learning the Roman’s ways. Romanized my name, and everything.” It is unlikely that a historical Galerius would have had any control over his own name. His owner would have assigned him a new name to emphasise the destruction of his former social ties (Patterson 1982: 54–55).
Galerius does not reveal what work he was forced to perform. Since he was a farmer in Britain and a farmer in the underground city, it seems likely he was an agricultural worker. The writer of a first-century CE manual on farm management, Columella, describes how enslaved agricultural workers should be housed in cubicles (or underground if in chains) close to their animals for the convenience of their work and the farm overseer (Columella de Agr. 1.6.3, 8).
It is unsurprising that Galerius would attempt to escape these conditions. He explains that he “tried to escape a couple of times, but they always found me, and I’d just end up right back where I was.” Roman law regarded escape attempts as a notifiable “defect” in an enslaved person (Digest 21.1). Slavers were required to declare whether an enslaved person had attempted to escape. Escape attempts were harshly punished. Those who were recaptured and reenslaved were often forced to wear metal collars labelling them as escapees. The abbreviated phrase “T.M.Q.F.” (tene me quia fugivi), meaning “seize me, I’ve run away”, would be inscribed on metal collars (ILS 9454, 9455) or branded on their forehead to discourage further attempts (Parkin and Pomeroy 2007:174). Any free person who helped the enslaved to escape was criminally liable for “ruining” them; helping an escapee was seen as encouraging an unnatural desire for freedom (Digest 11.3-4). The second-century jurist Ulpian states baldly “whoever hides a runaway (fugitivus) is a thief” (Digest 11.4.1).
Galerius finally escapes again and finds himself in the underground city. As a multiple escapee, he would have most likely been immediately identified by one of the free inhabitants and reenslaved once more. Each of these recaptures and reenslavements would have involved significant physical violence. As a Roman magistrate who would certainly have owned numerous people, no doubt Sentius would consider all of this just and appropriate.
Enslaved by Trickery
The Forgotten City includes no one enslaved by any of the “normal” means. The two enslaved characters, Julia and Ulpius, are both “enslaved” by trickery after they enter the city. Both become so desperate for a way out of the city that they fall for a scheme whereby they borrow money from a wealthy character to pay a tavern owner who claims to know a way out. But the “way out” turns out to be suicide by hemlock, at which point the victim has entered into a contractual agreement with the wealthy lender to perform indentured servitude in exchange for money which they have now lost to the tavern owner’s fraudulence. According to the magistrate’s interpretation of the golden rule (see below) and the wealthy lender’s threats, resisting these contracts would doom everyone in the city to death. The magistrate rules that these contracts are legally binding despite the fraud. While the characters use the language of slavery, they are identified as subject to debt-bondage (Octavia says of Ulpius: “it’s a crime for slaves to take their own lives… and a debt bondsman isn’t far off!”) Enslavement for failure to pay one’s debts was known to the Romans, but only from their early history. The practice of debt slavery was banned by the lex Poetelia of 326 BCE, almost 400 years before the setting of the game (Mouritsen 2011:10–11; cf. Testart 2002).
(As an aside, Roman jurisprudence placed a premium on honest dealing (Domingo 2018: 215), so if a real historical victim of such a scheme was able to afford the legal representation to pursue this case, it would likely be overturned. The key factor being the wealth or connections necessary to access the legal system. Since the citizen register describes Julia as a “patrician”, in normal conditions she likely would have had such access.)
The Forgotten City is not attempting to model Roman law or practices around debt-slavery. Instead, the game uses the language of contracts to raise questions about free will, debt, unjust laws, and exploitation of these economic and legal factors by powerful actors in contemporary society. Is it right that someone could be tricked into signing their life away? Are mortgages and student loans morally equivalent to signing oneself into indentured servitude? Is it morally defensible to charge extortionate amounts for lifesaving medicine?
The Dread of Punishment
While The Forgotten City engages with certain kinds of enforced labour, it does not make slavery visible in the game. This is despite enslavement being one of the most distinctive aspects of Roman society and despite having at least three characters with a specifically noted relationship to slavery: Galerius who escaped from slavery, Domitius who won his freedom, and Desius who specifically mentions his callousness as an enslaver, presumably to emphasise his unlikable character.
In discussing how games deal with sensitive topics, game scholars Chapman and Linderoth discuss the problems that game creators can have when dealing with aspects of historical events or societies that are unacceptable in modern society (Chapman and Linderoth 2015). The context in which unacceptable behaviour occurs is critical. For example, encountering literature that accepts or praises slavery is acceptable in an academic context, but not in a political platform. Entertainment media occupies a tricky position here, and even more so for games where the player has an interactive and engaged role and might be required to wilfully embody unacceptable positions in narrative and thus become complicit in that position. For example, it is socially acceptable for a game to require the player to shoot Nazi soldiers, but is generally unacceptable for a game to have the player take the role of a SS Officer. This is doubly tricky for games because the very act of dealing with a serious issue in a game can be interpreted by some as trivialising it (Albor 2012). Historical games must walk a fine line in dealing with this kind of material between excluding it and risking accusations of erasing negative aspects of the past (Wainwright 2014: 589–91), and including it and risking accusations of trivialising or encouraging the issue. The distance between contemporary and classical society largely insulates games drawing on antiquity games from this problem, but not entirely.
Understanding the position of slavery and enslaved people in Roman society is critical to understanding that world. This challenging and difficult topic requires careful navigation and has the potential to expose the weaknesses in a narrative. Omitting it distorts the image of ancient Rome that a game presents. Unfortunately, in avoiding the challenge the developers of The Forgotten City missed a golden opportunity. The game’s philosophical discussion centres around a curse that traps the people of the city, called The Golden Rule: “The many shall suffer for the sins of the one.” If one person commits a crime, golden statues around the city will animate and kill everyone by turning them to gold. In an early opening dialogue sequence, Horatius compares the exercise of the Golden Rule to the Roman practice of decimatio (decimation): where if a military unit showed cowardice or insubordination, every 10th soldier would be killed (Goldberg 2016). However, a more apt comparison is slavery. As we see in Tacitus’ account of Pedanius Secundus’s murder and the execution of every enslaved member of his household, the enslaved people of the Roman world were never far from sanctioned and arbitrary brutality. The threat of violence that hangs over the whole underground city because of the Golden Rule is analogous to the threat of violence that hangs over an entire enslaved household. The actions of any one of them against their enslaver could bring down arbitrary violence on them all. This reading would only be enhanced by the omnipresent watching eyes of the unnamed characters upon whom that violence had been previously inflicted. These silent witnesses to everything that happens in the game, overlooked as background decoration, victims of the master’s violence and also at times the violence of the privileged residents of the city, valuable as objects not as human beings — the place of the golden statues that litter the city is not unlike that of the enslaved in the Roman world.
The Missing Stories
The Forgotten City’s dialogue choices contrast the philosophical thinking of ancient Romans with today, and its moral choices are engaged with ancient and modern philosophy, especially ideas of individual choice, crime and punishment, and the social contract. However, while the dialogue attempts to engage with well known, unpalatable aspects of Roman society, the game’s attempts to smooth over and sanitise those unpalatable aspects results in a misleading presentation. That leads to a situation where the game mostly overlooks the Roman practice of chattel slavery except when characters attempt to justify it. While I don’t think we are supposed to find Sentius’ attempted justifications convincing, the game does little to correct the perspective he gives and instead positions him as an authentic Roman giving factual information about the Romans. Galerius’ presentation of the life of an enslaved Briton highlights the victims of Roman imperialism, but presents a comparatively rosy picture of what his enslavement would have looked like.
In the end, the most authentic portrait of the attitude of a wealthy Roman towards those they enslaved is that of Desius. For this slaver and war-profiteer, the people he enslaves are nothing more than “rare and precious objects, liberated from the enemies of Rome”. When he attempts to escape the great fire, he has his “most loyal” enslaved woman push his cart to the docks before attempting to abandon her to the fire. This is all part of his characterisation as a lowlife dirtbag who will do anything for a buck. Unlike Pedanius Secundus, Desius is not murdered by someone he enslaved, but a moment of resistance at the hands of one of the women he enslaved does contribute to his death. It’s a pity The Forgotten City doesn’t make more space for her story as well.
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.
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1 Beavers (2020) compares the representation of Roman brutality in Tacitus with that in Ryse: Son of Rome (Crytek, 2013).