Would you *actually* survive in ancient Rome?

I very briefly mentioned this topic a while back, in my blog about the 10,000BC reality TV show. However, since I keep seeing this kind of thing everywhere, I felt it was time to be explicit about how these quizzes should be set out.

In their current form, these BuzzFeed-style games are a way to generate some quick and easy content which satisfies the basic curiosity of their audience, without providing much in the way of hard-hitting home truths. It’s something to post on Facebook and say ‘Look, I could survive as an ancient Greek! Could you?’ Great, but could you? As much as I love seeing portrayals of ancient Greek culture, I suspect that if I were time-transported into ancient Athens, I’d probably end up a slave within my first week.

ben-hur

I’d like to see a new, and far more brutal approach to these quizzes. Don’t undersell how hard it is to live in any given era. Sure, some of the challenges may be easy to overcome with your modern knowledge, but fewer than you think, and there will be far more difficulties to replace them.

Here’s my rundown of the kind of questions that should be featured in this type of quiz:

  • Are you male or female? This undoubtedly has an impact on whether you survive. Human selection tends to favour men, natural selection tends to favour women. The exact mix differs slightly from culture to culture.
  • How old are you? Massively important. Children and the elderly tend to lower life expectancies. This is increasingly true if you’re just going to get transported back in time with no family to support you.
  • How fluent are you in the lingo? If you can’t speak the language you’re going to really struggle to make yourself understood.
  • Good at making friends? You’re going to need them.
  • The entrepreneurial type? On top of the need to make friends, you’ll need a quick income. That ‘Atlantis’ stuff just isn’t going to happen.
  • How good are you in a brawl? I’m not saying you’ll end up in one, I’m just saying that as someone who is already on the fringes of society, you’ll need to defend yourself.
  • What about if we give the other guys a weapon? Oh yeah, if the people in charge are using any kind of armed thugs to maintain control, you’ll need to be able to handle that.
  • Can you lie through your teeth? Even if you can speak the language, you’ll need a plausible explanation for how you know things. For every yokel who believes you are sent from heaven, there will be a cynic who thinks you’re there to take advantage.
  • How much have you actually studied this era of history? I get that you will want to take advantage of your knowledge of history to put yourself in a position of power (all paradoxes aside) but do you actually remember any events where your knowledge would be helpful?
  • How much of a fussy eater are you? Your gluten-free diet is going out the window. And, frankly, you’ll be lucky to get the choice to be vegetarian.
  • If you plan on taking advantage of a technology, do you know how it works? Anyone who saw my reality TV blog will know where I’m going with this. For just one example, we live in a digital age, and most of us have no idea how computers work, so we’re already at a disadvantage.

Vikings Longboat

I have deliberately weighted this quiz against the reader. Surviving in any age is a challenge, so being transported to a different one would be a massive struggle. ‘Would you survive…’ quizzes should be more rigorous, so that the achievement feels more worthwhile. Only then can you honestly educate your audience about the reality of living in that time period. And then it will *really* be something to post to Facebook.

Things we did to history in 2015

So, another year on, and more of our past lovingly screwed with. It’s time for our annual rundown of the 12 things you most enjoyed reading about this year.

#12 Swords in films

Even in sci-fi, we cannot get away from the fact that swords are popular in Hollywood. Too popular. On the battlefields of medieval Europe the sword was a bit of a niche weapon. So why is it so popular now? I dig a little deeper!

highlander swords

#11 Men and Gods; why Greek myths rock!

I ain’t saying that Greek myths are the best stories. It’s just that, in many cases, they are. I sat down with a mixed bag of DVDs and some popcorn, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Now I want Henry Cavill to be the next Bond.

immortals-battle

#10 Time Team vs Restoration Man

When it comes to historical documentary programming, you can’t escape the fact that Channel 4 can put out a belter. With suspense, drama, and (occasionally) utter catastrophe, both Time Team and Restoration Man follow this trend. But which is better?

Time Team Vs Restoration Man

#9 A quiet word with New Byzantine designer Andrew Gould

Over in the US, there is a fantastic architectural design studio called New Byzantine. They are doing really cool things to revive colonial architecture, and give the States some style. I interview designer Andrew Gould.

otranto house
The Otranto House was what first caught my attention. Look how awesome it is!

#8 Five actors who can’t keep away from history

If you watch historical TV shows, films, and the like, you may have noticed that a few faces keep cropping up. I went through a top five regulars to look out for, and the kind of things you can catch them in.

The-Duchess

#7 Classical swag

Sometimes I just see something awesome that I have to share with you. This was one of those occasions. Red figure converse anyone?

Ancient Greek Converse

#6 Why horned helmets are the best thing to have never happened to the Vikings

Were it not for the horned helmets, Vikings would probably be best known for their love of looting monasteries. But somewhere along the line (looking at you, Wagner), someone thought they weren’t interesting enough and added some extra details. Now they are best known for something that wasn’t true.

Playmobil's Viking
Playmobil’s Viking

#5 Why Blackbeard was never the big bad

Blackbeard was a pirate captain, but he lived in an era when the best pirate captains had seats in the house of lords. I look at some better candidates for top villain of the seas. And come to the conclusion that, whoever they were, they were probably Welsh.

Blackbeard

#4 What’s wrong with Wolf Hall?

This was the year that Wolf Hall came to our screens. It was big, it was bold, it wasn’t very bright. But that’s what you get when you film by ambient candlelight. It was a good series, but there were a couple of things that need to be straightened out before we get another one.

Wolf Hall
That classic blank face we saw so much of.

#3 The Musketeers and their place in history television

We love the Musketeers. It’s so cheesy. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good. No-one important gets shanked on a whim (curse you GRRM)! Does it deserve a place in historical media though? That’s for you to decide.

BBC One Musketeers in uniform, on horseback

#2 A reality TV show set #10000BC

A weird one, Channel 5 decided to dabble in the trend for reality TV  survival shows. The premise; a mix of people would be sent to live in a prehistoric camp. Shit went down.

10000BC

#1 A quiet word with @SPQRBlues

The most popular blog this year was our interview with Carol Burrell, AKA Klio, the author and artist of the SPQR Blues webcomic. The series has just had a successful Kickstarter campaign, and should eventually be available as an IRL thing. Check it out!

SPQR Vesuvius

A Quiet Word With: Roman Webcomic Author @spqrblues

Roman Cartoon

This week we’re lucky enough to have an interview with Carol Burrell, AKA Klio, the very talented lady behind the SPQR Blues webcomic.

History Mine: Without spoiling your plotline too much, would you consider SPQR Blues to be counter-factual, or straight historical fiction?

Klio: There’s very little in it that couldn’t have happened. Occasionally people show up in places other than where they’re believed to have been at the time, but in the historical record there’s an awful lot of “his whereabouts for the next five months are unclear, but he must have been in Rome in December because he poisoned his cousin during the Saturnalia party.”

There’s a little timeline compression once our hero Felix gets to Herculaneum, so events happen over the course of a year that probably took three years in reality (if you squint, it still works out). One thing I think separates it from straight-up historical fiction is that, although most characters are based on real people, the main viewpoint is about Felix, who is entirely made up.

SPQR OldBut even he is based on an unnamed person found at Herculaneum. The really counter-factual part is the story he gives about his ancestry, and then how the historical figures react to it. Could it have happened? It gets a “plausible.” Pretenders showed up all the time, so there’s precedent. I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler!

HM: When you set your story in the shadow of Vesuvius, it’s a bit of a Chekov’s Gun. I’ve said similar things before about setting a film on the Titanic. Why did you choose this setting?

K: SUCH a big gun. Chekhov’s cannon. The fact that anything set near Vesuvius takes place in a running hourglass adds automatic urgency–when will it erupt? who will escape? will the kitten be rescued? In my early teens we studied an ancient lawsuit involving a girl named Petronia Iusta who lived in Herculaneum, and I became fascinated by how the city is a time capsule (and Pompeii too of course). We know so much about ordinary people as individuals with names and jobs and homes and comfy chairs.

It became much more interesting than the usual course of learning about emperors and assassinations and wars and epic poetry, which ignores the main substance of a culture’s life (and incidentally almost always cuts out the women’s experiences). I started tinkering with characters, and two things happened along the way: September 2001 and August 2005. I believe modern Americans and ancient Romans have a lot in common in their mindsets and motivations. It occurred to me to contrast the ancient response to a shattering disaster with the modern one. All those things rolled into one another and propelled an idea that had already been percolating.

spqr blues NewHM: I know there has been a lot of speculation about what the title refers to, and you have stated that it refers to the city watchmen, but I wondered whether it might also be a reference to NYPD Blues, The New York Police Department. Is that true?

K: Yes! I grew up surrounded by that culture through my father and his friends. Guys in blue who seemed very big and impressive (and loud-cussing, and hard-drinking, and sometimes a little crazy, and loyal). It was an easy theme to fall into. The title was an offhand joke, but ended up influencing the story a lot.

HM: Did you originally intend this to be a cop story?

K: Yes, again. A sort of a cop soap opera. Man with a secret arrives in a town with its own mystery. “Who wants to kill Petronia Iusta?” And “Will she be consigned to life as a slave?” And “Will the cop get the dame?” And then, “Whodunnit?” Noir and actiony and with lots of stabby escapades. Other elements got stirred into the plot pot (the conflict between Felix and his Jewish relatives, that new religious cult, crisscrossed love stories). Once the comic got started, it wanted to be something different than I originally thought it was going to be.

SPQR VesuviusHM: How do you research a series like this?

K: Everywhere I can! I studied Latin in high school and Greek and Classical Studies after, so I had that background in knowing where to find reliable resources. I keep up on what’s available in scholarly books through things like the Bryn Mawr Classical Review; and I go to original sources whenever possible–eyewitnesses, the poets and playwrights who wrote social commentary, early historians (taken with a grain of salt, but their spin is part of the fun).

Since Herculaneum and Pompeii are preserved, you can look at what was actually there. I’m sure I get things wrong, either from a gap in research or from eliding over details when I don’t feel like drawing all the pleats in a tunic, but when I’m revved up I’ll pull out a couple of books, look at frescoes, and study statues if I want to make sure everybody is wearing plausible sandals.

spqr blues new ladiesHM: Possibly related, where does the inspiration come from?

K: Along with the Petronia Iusta case, from my overall love of Romans, and from studying every scrap I could find about Marcus Antonius and his family. Two branches of my family are Italian, so I was already tilted in that direction. Plus, I was getting frustrated by the pop-culture “ancient Rome” being taken as how things really were by some political pundits (whose names and cable network I’ve forgotten), so I have to give them part of the credit for making me pick up a pen.

I love sword-&-sandals movies, shows like Xena, gladiator time-travel romance novels, but those are for fun. Richard Burton and Victor Mature swooning over Jean Simmons looks pretty and there’s exciting music during the chariot races–give me Cinemascope and Technicolor and I’ll be happy all day. But I wanted to create something that has more to it. Also, alas, no gladiators.

HM: Are there any Roman practices that you enjoy exposing for your readers?

K: Showing the nitty gritty of the daily grind. I have no qualms about drawing a toilet. Showing that people thousands of years ago got on with things in a kind of modern-feeling way–doing the laundry and scrubbing pans and sending birthday notes and filling out bureaucratic forms in triplicate. I wanted to show that ancient people had deep and meaningful spiritual and moral beliefs, that their religious conviction was more than fancy temples and marble statues and names in a mythology book. That women worked around the restrictions placed on them. That “Antony and Cleopatra” may not be what we think it is.

The political pundits I mentioned before were, for some weird reason, holding up Rome as an example of how western culture has never allowed gay marriage; part of the comic is about what it meant to be gay in a society that on the one hand worships “traditional” marriage, and yet on the other hand was perfectly fine with what we would consider a modern definition of homosexuality and de-facto same-sex marriage as long as people behaved otherwise “respectably.” The time period also reflects on the conflict in the Middle East–the hero’s frustration that all the awful things done there were supposed to end the problems. So…there’s a lot going on.

SPQR Trajan

HM: What’s with the bears?

K: Gotta love bears. They’re fierce, protective of their own, and deceptively cuddly-looking. Before I started SPQR Blues, I did a one-shot comic of a “police officer” in Herculaneum pondering how to get a cow down from on top of an arch. Vesuvius blows up, problem solved. I recreated the scene in SPQR Blues, and a bear seemed more likely to have made it up an arch. Readers liked the bear, asked when it would show up again, somewhere along the line it acquired a name (Sweetums), and there were many requests (stern demands) that Sweetums survive the eruption. Plus I’m so horrified by the idea of bear-baiting as entertainment that I agreed that the comic could use a bear hero who wins in the end.

Thanks very much Klio for taking the time to talk to us! Please go and check out SPQR Blues for yourselves. If you like it, please feel free to support it via Patreon.

Twisting historical realities: more harm than good?

Troy Hector Achilles duel

I  read an interesting blog the other day about Thomas More. You know, that guy in the woodcut:

This, in turn, got me thinking about the various different angles people have approached him from; particularly Wolf Hall. Many people criticised Hilary Mantell’s story as an adaptation of history, rather than the real thing. And it is, in that it only tells one story, rather than EVERYTHING. But was it a corruption of the facts? By leaving out details like Thomas Cromwell’s use of torture, was her story fundamentally flawed?

Well, if you think that’s bad, you’re really not going to like alternate histories. Assassin’s Creed is a classic example of a story that takes history and draws together threads to weave a new tapestry (if you’ll excuse the extended metaphor).

Assassin's Creed I's AltairMany would argue that the storyline is so warped from the actual course of history that it is completely useless as a source of information. But is it? Do we consume media for information or entertainment? In many cases, particularly with alternate histories, it feels like the latter. No matter how much I told myself that watching the DVD box set of ROME *was* useful exam revision, the guilt was still there. It certainly felt more like entertainment. For those of you who are interested, ROME technically was alternate history. Pullo and Vorenus were real people, mentioned only once by Caesar, but in his account they are both Centurions.

And yet, there is plenty to be learned from modern media. It can fill many gaps that academic textbooks cannot. Atmosphere is undoubtedly top of this list. And it is the world of gaming that is best at this. I’ve given games a hard time recently, but the fact remains that games are immersive. As Dara O’Briain pointed out “You cannot be bad at watching a movie. You cannot be bad at listening to an album. But you can be bad at playing a video game, and the video game will punish you, and deny you access to the rest of the video game.” Films and TV you can sit down and relax to. Games you can actually explore your universe.

I feel like I’ve strayed off the topic a bit here. My point is, yes, you will never learn the gospel truth about a topic. Actually, the gospels were not the whole factual history of how things went down either – particularly as only a handful of them even made it into the bible. Regardless of how factually accurate something pretends to be, you *have* to treat it with caution. But there’s no harm in enjoying it for its own sake.

Why historical media is the best genre at portraying death

Caesar's Assisnation HBO ROME

Pirates of the Caribbean suffered, right from the very start, from the fact that none of its characters would stay dead. One of the most successful franchises of recent years is the Avengers series. But if it has a flaw, it is that death isn’t taken seriously. Yes, one guy died in the most recent installment, but given the sheer amount of world-ending jeopardy invoked in both major films and the individual installments, the actual threat is fairly minmal. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was pretty similar. Only three significant characters died in the whole trilogy; Boromir in Fellowship, and the two kings in Return. Considering all that vague ‘one ring to rule them all’ threat, the good guys get off waaaay too lightly.

But if we’re talking about Sean Bean, one series that bucks the trend, is Game of Thrones. Major characters die ALL THE TIME in that series. In fact they do it so often that new major characters have to be introduced to keep the action going. Game of Thrones is an anomaly; most TV series will only offer one or two token deaths every so often. So much is invested in characters that their creators are reluctant to off them. GRRM has no such qualms.Ned's execution Game of Thrones

On the other hand, historical media has to confront death all the time. People, factually, are mortal. All of the historical people who have ever existed, have all died. What’s more, historical characters tend to die at the most inappropriate times – Richard III springs to mind. As a result, death is one of the major plot features that history, as a genre, focusses on. Saving Private Ryan is a classic example; that film is all about Death Vs Life. Yes, it’s ostensibly about war. But in reality, death is a lot more familiar to us. The central characters almost all die, just so that Ryan can live. And they do not go gentle into that good night. They go out kicking and screaming, in a pool of their own blood, desperate to finish their business.

Saving Private Ryan

TV is rapidly catching up. HBO’s ROME featured a large number of deaths. The two heroes Pullo and Vorenus carved their way through a hugh number of fighters without so much as a backward glance, but there were also a large number of deaths that the show spent a lot more time on.  For the sake of variety I have included a still from the death of Julia; Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife. Her death was the catalyst for the split between the two men, and it is an emotional affair. HBO’s focus on death in all it’s complexity is a major part of what saved this series from being just a blood-n-sex-fest.Julia's death HBO ROME

Video games, by comparison, have a long way to go. Enemies are dead as soon as their last health point is hacked away. They fall to the floor, and (sometimes after a few seconds) fade into invisibility – leaving you just enough time to loot their body. This totally avoids dealing with things like the twitching, gurgling enemies on the floor, who grab at your heels as you march over them, or just how tricky it is to strip armour from a corpse.

The historical genre leads the way when it comes to portraying death. It is emotional, paradigm-shifting, and very, very final. And that is how it is portrayed.

On This Day: Are Retrospective Time Jumps Useful?

A week from today will be the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. This is, apparently, a big deal. And yet, objectively, there is little difference between 18 June 2015 and ANY OTHER DAY. So why is this one day such a big deal? I appreciate that we have to celebrate centenary sometime, but… Actually, do we have to celebrate centenaries?

Scotland Forever

Because, here’s the thing, some events are more celebrated than others. The anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne has two automatic entries in my phone’s calendar, and I’m not 100% clear why. Or, another case in point, We always mark 15 March as the ‘Ides of March‘, even though that date is way off, thanks to the mismatch between Julian and Gregorian calendars. Digressing here, but the Julian Calendar was only invented in 45BC (oh, and FYI, we’re not entirely sure when that year actually happened, either), do we reckon the seer was up to date with their calendars?  ides-of-march-quad-poster

‘On this day’s have become a quick way for the media to provide us with snippets of information. But can’t they do that anyway, without having to have the date connection as the hook? After all, most interesting historical snippets are devoid of any particular date context. This is that old meta-history/micro-history debate all over again. Date links only work if you understand what the significance of the event is. Millions of eventful things happen every day, but because they are part of everyday life, they don’t make it into ‘on this day’. So can we get more of those?

The ‘Romans going beyond the wall’ trope

King Arthur, Rome, and Hadrian's Wall

In the past decade or so Hadrian’s Wall has cropped up a bunch of times in popular culture.

Hell, these films all had the same basic plot:

  • King Arthur
  • The Eagle
  • Centurion

To whit; Roman dude and his buddies go ‘beyond the wall’, do things, several of the gang die, the hero returns home worse off for the experience. If you watch Game of Thrones, Jon Snow’s storyline follows the same plot. The 2008 film Doomsday is a near-future spin on the trope.

This trailer only shows a glimpse of the wall, around the 1:10 mark.

The line ‘Open the gate, soldier’ betrays the fact that those soldiers didn’t want to open the gate. This, in turn, reflects a presumption that has gained and lost popularity over the years; that The Wall was the last bastion of civilisation before venturing into the unknown. After all, only a truly civilised culture could build such an impressive edifice, right?

If that’s the case, why do the heroes hate seeing the wall on their return? To them it, and by extension Rome, is either a symbol of betrayed trust or messed-up priorities.

When I first studied The Wall, my best parallel I came across was with the American border with Mexico. Both are designed to be crossed. The border has passport control areas, and the wall has gates every mile. There may be a power (and prosperity) difference across the wall, but it’s not as black-and-white as ‘civilised one side, barbarian on the other’.

King Arthur, Rome, and Hadrian's Wall

In each story, there is a great deal of ‘going native’: The titular Centurion goes off to shack up with a girl living north of The Wall. The hero of The Eagle turns down Roman glory, frees his slave, and decides to go into farming (actually a pretty Roman notion). And King Arthur? He marries a Briton, and becomes King. For reasons.

The real problem with each of these stories is that they are trying to capture a romantic, emotional snapshot. The reality of life in the Roman Legion, and on Hadrian’s Wall, was an entirely pragmatic one. The Wall was there to control the movement of cattle, not people. The Legions were there to maintain a balance of power.

If you want to read more on the subject, Almost Archaeology does a pretty decent analysis of the whole trope. For my own two pence, I’d like to remind the world that Hadrian’s Wall was less than 10% of a border system that stretched across Europe and Africa. I’m getting bored of misty glens and drenched, desperate Romans. Let’s get them hot and dusty instead!

Four historical outfit ideas

Hallowe’en is a little over a week away, and for those of you who would like to reference their passion for historical costumes, I thought it would be interesting to throw some ideas out there, for you to use as you see fit. I, myself, will be going to the Egyptology Live Friday event at the Ashmolean as an unspecified early archaeologist. If you can get there, I totally recommend you go too. It’s free, and awesome fun. I wanted to be Carter or Petrie, but I just can’t grow the beard in time *sheds a single tear*.

I won’t be doing any ‘sexy’ female costumes, because as far as I can tell, you just cut stuff off the standard version. Also, as I understand it, the definition of a sexy has changed significantly over the centuries. Bring back ruffs, I say. They could be hot.

First up, Cave Person. For this, go all Macklemore and get yourself a second-hand fur coat. cut the sleeves off, and use them to hide your footwear. Lash it all together with a few old belts; BAM, you are ready to fight dinosaurs… or something.

One Million Years BC poster

Next on the list, Mummy. This is a strong choice for anyone on a budget, or who didn’t prepare anything earlier. Just head into the toilet, put one end of the loo roll between your ankles swivel on the spot. Yes, you could go higher budget and buy gauze bandages, but if you’re going to do that, you’ll just look like someone with no imagination. And considering you’re already looking on a blog for ideas, frankly, you could do better.

Then, the Classical Greek. Purists may prefer a toga, but a historically-accurate toga takes a metric shit-load of material, and is confusing as hell. To do this you will need a sheet, two safety pins, and a belt. Try to avoid fitted sheets, but if you get one, cut the elastic out and straighten out the corners. Fold it in half, put safety  pins roughly where your shoulders will be, then step into it from the open side. The belt will hold everything in place. I have rocked this look myself in my uni days.

Chiton
Myself, as Helen of Troy, with friends.

Word to the wise, it’s October/November, and frankly this outfit offers no protection against the weather. Even with shorts and a vest underneath, this was still DAMN COLD. Take extra scarfs, or a coat, or something. Or just don’t go with this outfit.

Roman / other armoured individual. The crucial part of this costume is metallic duct tape. N00bs will go for tin foil, but this is a mistake. Foil will not stand up to an evening’s wear and tear. Either layer it up by taping it to a top you already own, or fix the tape back-to-back. When you finish, it will just look like a metallic top, so you’ll wanna embellish with additional decorations, heraldry, etc. Consider taking your collander along and decorating the hell out of it ’til it looks like a Roman Gallea. Job’s a good’un.

This outfit will also work for knights and their ilk. Needless to say, taping an entire outfit up can get a bit tiring, so you can mix things up with a colourful tabard. Girls! I fully support the idea of an armoured woman. If anyone asks, you’re Joan of Arc. None of this videogame armoured underwear.

And as far as I’m concerned, costumes get a lot more fabricy from here onwards. If you have any other ideas, or you actually try one of these out, please leave pictures in the comments section below. If you want more ideas about historical outfits (tasteful and tasteless) check out our clothing articles.

If you haven’t noticed, counterfactual histories are *so* hot right now

Dracula Untold

While it’s not required reading, I have previously covered some elements of this topic in my article about how knowing history can undermine the plot lines of historical stories. It might be worth reading that article before you read this one.

Dracula Untold is out in cinemas this weekend. As I have already mentioned, the film looks like it will sit somewhere between genuine history and straight-up fantasy. This makes it a prime example of a ‘counterfactual history’; a ‘what if…’ scenario where we tweak one or two facts and see what happens. ‘Dracula Untold’ asks ‘What if vampires actually existed at the time of Vlad Țepeș?’ and then draws the logical (but also bat-shit crazy) conclusion.

DraculaUntold

This new release is just the latest in a wealth of counterfactual films, games and TV shows that have come out in recent years. Now, media producers tend to tweak facts in almost every single historical story. For example, that classic Braveheart is riddled with historical inconsistencies, from the tartan kilts to the people who were present at the battles. This is done for convenience, rather than to twist the course of events, so these examples don’t really constitute counterfactual histories.

One of the early big hitters in this list is 2004’s ‘King Arthur’, which took the titular myth and twisted it to fit a Roman/Saxon theme. Arthur himself became a Roman; Guinevere was now a Briton, and Lancelot and the other knights were Sarmatian auxiliaries. The story itself was within the realms of possibility, and was definitely grounded by the manly camaraderie between the knights. The love triangle is played down, and the whole thing works pretty well. The only slightly unbelievable area is when the audience is supposed to believe that there is a peaceful transition to a Romano-British kingdom under Arthur.

It’s not as if they had Boudicca riding an elephant into the Forum Romanum.

‘Ryse: Son of Rome’ is a major counterfactual leap away from reality. In the game, Nero has two sons; ‘Basilius’ and ‘Commodus’, who incite a rebellion in Britain that sweeps all the way back to the streets of Rome. The player goes on to kill those two sons, and also Boudicca, and finally Nero. None of these things actually happened. In combat games, there is a need for boss battles. But over a limited period of time, it is hard to introduce new characters and give them a detailed back story. Ryse cuts corners here by using historical figures out of context; ultimately, the story suffers for it.

But let’s move away from Romans. Another game series that relies heavily on counterfactual history is Assassin’s Creed. The premise of that series is that Earth was previously inhabited by a race of aliens who left artefacts of immense power, which two rival secret societies are fighting over. The series then posits that several significant historical events have been used as a cover for these conflicts. As far as counterfactual histories go, this one is pretty high maintenance.

But what if we go further than that? The eminent History Behind Game of Thrones blog argues that the entire premise of Game of Thrones might be based on counterfactual questions. For example, several female leaders, from Anne Boleyn to Lucrezia Borgia, have been accused of incest. What if those rumours were actually true? What if Richard III really didn’t murder the princes in the tower? Would the Middle Ages have been a less bloody time period if chivalry hadn’t existed? Sure, Game of Thrones is a fantasy, and as the seasons progress, I suspect the dragons and white walkers will have a bigger part to play, but without those historical questions it would be a lot shorter.

Ultimately, counterfactual histories are a way to have some fun with history, to engage with it, and ask *why* things happened the way they did. If you change one detail, what subsequent events also would have been altered?