This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
When you start the game or load a previously saved game in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, you’ll see a loading screen, which displays various hints. Some of these hints involve the game itself (tips about certain controls or features, for example). Other hints consist of historical factoids. Some of these are correct, but others are, if not always wrong, certainly incomplete.
I think I’ve managed to collect all the hints in the game that are historical (or meant to be historical). I’ll go through each of them in turn, add some further information if necessary, and whether or not the creators of the game got their facts straight. I think it’s a useful way to learn a bit about aspects of ancient Greece that are perhaps less well known.
In ancient Greece, war provided an income for the poor, but was an expense for the rich.
If this were true, at any point in history, wars would never be fought. It is, after all, the wealthy and powerful who ultimately decide to go to war, not the poor and the downtrodden. It’s true that in ancient Greece, most warriors were expected to provide their own equipment. Especially during the Archaic period (ca. 700-500 BC), when what we now rather anachronistically refer to as “hoplites” seem to have worn a considerable amount of bronze armour, this would have been very expensive indeed.
But by the time of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the game’s setting, hoplite equipment had been largely reduced to an often simple conical helmet, a shield, and a spear. The poorest members of society, who couldn’t even afford the basic panoply, could instead be hired to work, for example, as oarsmen, as many of the landless poor – the so-called thetes – were in Classical Athens. While this did provide an income for the poorest members of society, they weren’t exactly paid top drachma.
War was a profitable endeavour, especially for those at the top, since they were the first in line when it came to dividing the spoils of war. It was customary to sack towns, raid enemy temples, and to sell a defeated population into slavery (see e.g. Hans van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (2004), pp. 26-28). The ancient Greek historian Thucydides already pointed out that no one would wage war if they didn’t think they’d gain from it (4.59). As Louis Rawlings puts it in his The Ancient Greeks at War (2007): “Ophelia (‘profit’, ‘gain’, ‘advantage’) was a commonly stated motivation for aggression. It could occur on a private and a public level” (p. 12).
Because they’re worth it! Following their victory over the Argives in the Battle of the Champions, the Spartans adopted the distinctive custom of growing their hair long.
This is correct. I’ve written about the Battle of the Champions before. It’s described in Herodotus (1.82). It supposedly took place around 550 BC. It’s an aetiological story, meant to explain why the Argives wear their hair short, while the Spartans wear theirs long. Considering the anecdotal nature of Herodotus’ account, it’s not necessarily a statement of fact.
Thermopylai and Salamis. In September of 480 CBE, King Leonidas of Sparta and Themistokles of Athens led a Greek force against the Persian army of Xerxes I.
I’m not entirely sure what the point of this hint is in a game that deals almost exclusively with the Peloponnesian War. The Battle of Thermopylae most likely happened in September, perhaps when it was full moon (because of the night operations), but other than that suggested dates range from late August to late September. Salamis – a sea battle – occurred later, but also in September of 480 BC. We have no exact date for the Battle of Salamis. The ancient Greeks’ way of reckoning dates was, of course, completely different from our own.
A heroic last stand. Leonidas, who fought with his “three hundred” Spartans at Thermopylai, was the greatest example of bravery and sacrifice made to free Greece.
This, of course, isn’t the complete story. If you want to read the primary source for the Battle of Thermopylae, check out Herodotus, specifically 7.200-239. The Spartan king Leonidas was in charge. He had marched out with 300 picked men. Contingents from other parts of Greece joined his forces, so that eventually he commanded at least 5,000 troops, maybe more. After two days of fighting, the Persians discovered a route through the mountains that they could use to outflank the Greek defenders, who had holed up in a narrow part of the pass where they could withstand the Persian assault.
Leonidas convened a council and told his Greek allies to leave. He and his Spartans would stay to hold off the Persians as long as they could (Hdt. 7.220). Now, his Spartan force must have included an unknown number of helots (Messenian serfs) who had been forced to join the war effort, but Herodotus doesn’t say much if anything about them. Of the allies, the 700 Thespians under Demophilus decide to stay. Leonidas also forced the 400 Theban troops to remain, as he feared that Thebes might have otherwise surrendered to the Persians.
Of course, we all know by now what happened on the third day of fighting: Leonidas and his troops were defeated by the Persians, killed to the last man. While modern historians and enthusiasts tend to frame the battle as a kind of moral victory for the Greeks, it was, of course, a defeat in every sense that mattered. The Persians had won one victory after another, and their victory over the Greeks at Thermopylae was just another notch on their belt.
Sea power. The Delian League began in 478 BCE to fight the Persians. It included Ionian cities and the Aegean Islands, which supplied to joint war efforts with money or supplies.
This is correct. After the Persian Wars, Athens founded the Delian League for the purpose of continuing to fight against the Persian Empire. It had a large number of members, mostly Greek cities on the Aegean islands and on the shores of the Aegean, with the treasury of the League, at least initially, located on the Cycladic island of Delos. When Pericles moved the treasury to Athens in 454 BC, he simply demonstrated that the Delian League had, in effect, become an Athenian Empire, with its members paying tribute to Athens in what amounted to a kind of security racket.
Alliances. 431 BCE saw the beginning of the Peloponnesian War between the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues.
This is inexact. There was actually a First Peloponnesian War (460-445 BC), which saw the Delian League (lead by Athens) pitted against the Peloponnesian League (headed by Sparta). The outcome of this war was far from decisive, and hostilities flared up again in 431 BC. Of course, an argument could be made that the fifth and fourth centuries BC consisted of a seemingly unending series of different wars and battles fought between individual city-states and larger alliances, until finally Philip II of Macedon swooped in and pacified (subjugated) all of Greece at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.
Misthios for hire. Mercenaries emerged during the Peloponnesian War due to social tensions and poverty. Famously, they were Kretan archers and Thrakian light soldiers looking for work.
This is outdated.
Mercenaries have been a feature of Greek society since at least the seventh century BC. For example, we hear of Greek and Carian hoplites (“men of bronze”) being hired by an Egyptian king (Hdt. 2.152), and the poet Archilochus (fl. ca. 650 BC) also seems to have served as a mercenary. Initially, many mercenaries seem to have found employment with the empires and kingdoms of the ancient Near East (see esp. N. Luraghi, “Traders, pirates, warriors: the proto-history of Greek mercenary soldiers in the eastern Mediterranean”, Phoenix 60 (2006), pp. 21–47), but we also hear of e.g. the tyrant of Samos, Polycrates (r. 538-522 BC), hiring a mercenary force of a thousand archers (Hdt. 3.39 and 3.45).
From what we can gather, the number of mercenaries hired by the Greek cities increased in the fifth century BC, but as far as we can tell most men didn’t choose the profession due to any social tensions. Financial gain was, of course, an important motivation for fighting men to sell their skills to the highest bidder. As Matthew Trundle puts it in his book Greek Mercenaries (2004): “If money was already important for naval warfare at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, it became more important for land warfare by the war’s end and was certainly extremely important in the fourth century” (p. 41).
The topic of mercenaries in Greece is complex, often with multiple factors at play. As Trundle points out, “Personal gain did not underlie all mercenary service. Complex motivations and relationships beyond kerdos [i.e. a monthly wage] worked to drive mercenary activity” (p. 42). Some, like Xenophon, joined a mercenary force because they believed in the leader and his goals. Others joined service out of friendship or loyalty.
As stated in the hint, some regions provided mercenaries that were specialists. Crete was famous for its archers, just like the island of Rhodes was famous for its slingers. The Thracians referred to in the hint were so-called peltasts: light-armed warriors on foot who fought using a crescent-shaped shield (pelte) and javelins.
Science and philosophy
It’s not flat. It was first established during the fifth century BCE that the earth was spherical and the center of a spherical universe.
By at least the fifth century BC (if not earlier), it seems that the idea that the world was spherhical was already well established.
When the idea first surfaced is unknown: it might have been obvious to a seafaring people from an early period onwards, since one would see ship’s dip beneath the horizon as they moved further away, similar to how a person might disappear from view as he topped a hill and began his descent on the opposite side. Plato and Aristotle subscribed to the idea, but further theorizing about the nature and shape of the universe were largely left to scholars of the Hellenistic age (ca. 323-31 BC).
The origins of math. What we call “mathematics” today emerged specifically in the fifth century BCE and consisted of four sciences: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmonics.
According to tradition, Pythagoras (ca. 570 to ca. 495 BC) was the first to discover the mathematical laws governing musical intervals. However, one problem with the idea that we derive our ideas about mathematics from the Greeks is that this downplays the considerable influence that scientists of the ancient Near East had on the Greeks. For example, the fact that we divide the sky and any other circular object into 360 mathematical degrees is a debt owed to the ancient Sumerians, who flourished more than 1500 years before Pythagoras was even born.
Messengers from the gods. In ancient Greece, birds could bring messages from gods or omens that were revealed through their behavior (flight, cries, altered movement, or eating).
This is correct: bird omens were important in the ancient world. The Greeks usually didn’t undertake anything without consulting the gods, either by reading omens or the entrails of sacrificed animals, or by consulting an oracle.
Opened up my eyes. By observing signs and consulting oracles, the Greeks sought counsel from the gods on family, civic, legal, military, and other matters.
This is related to the previous hint and correct. The most famous oracle was located at the panhellenic sanctuary at Delphi. Delphi and its oracle feature in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, so I’ll write about it in more detail in a future article, as I continue to play and explore the game.
May the gods bear witness. Ancient Greeks swore by the gods and called out to them to curse those who did not honor oaths or acted unreasonably.
This is correct. Zeus in particular was the deity associated with safeguarding oaths and punishing oathbreakers. Zeus was also associated with justice and good counsel. (It’s kind of ironic when you realize how frequently he cheated on his wife, Hera. Although in ancient Greece, only women were required to stay faithful!)
Gods bless you. A sneeze at a key moment was seen as an omen in ancient Greece. Since it was involuntary, the action was viewed as a sign from the gods.
This, too, is correct. There’s a brief article on the topic on Brice Jones’s website. You might also be interested in this brief exchange on the topic published on the NPR website.
Greek dreams. Dreams in ancient Greece could be interpreted as both medical prognoses and prophetic signs.
Dreams were again associated with the gods and the supernatural. It was commonly believed that divinities communicated with mortals through dreams. Of course, this didn’t prevent the gods from lying to their subjects: in Homer’s Iliad, for example, Zeus sends Agamemnon a false dream (Il. 2.5-34).
Belongs in a museum. In antiquity, the discovery of prehistoric bones were sometimes linked to mythological beings, such as the Titans, Centaurs, or Cyclopes.
This hint is also true. When faced with fossils or the bones of large, extinct animals, the ancient Greeks often interpreted these as the remains of giants, heroes, or various mytholical creatures. If you’re interested to learn more, Adrienne Mayor wrote a book about this subject, called The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths and Myth in Greek and Roman Times (2011).
A fundamental rite. Sacrifice was a common ritual performed by the ancient Greeks, allowing them to commune with gods and heroes. Oxen, goats, sheep, and pigs were popular sacrifices.
Sacrifice was one of the most basic ritual acts that the ancient Greeks engaged in as part of their religious practices. Sacrificial victims were usually led to the altar in a sacred procession. Animals were killed at the altar and slaughtered: bones and offal were wrapped in fat and burnt to honour the gods, while the rest of the meat was cooked and eaten by the community. Since meat was expensive, most people only ever got to eat during these religious occasions. (In the game, meat seems a far more normal thing to eat than was actually the case in ancient times.)
While cattle were among the most prestigious animals to be sacrificed, the bulk would have consisted of sheep and goats. Pig(let)s were favoured by Demeter and, at least in Attica, Dionysus. Ares, the god of strife, and Hecate, a goddess of the underworld, were given dogs, which generally weren’t eaten; the exception is Asia Minor, where we know that the Lydians had no taboo against eating canines. (For more, see Jan N. Bremmer, Greek Religion (1999), esp. pp. 40-43.)
Culture and society
Chicken dinner. Chickens were brought to Greece by the Persians during the Persian War.
This is false. Chickens originate from the (Far) East and so almost certainly made their way to Greece along trade routes through the Persian Empire. But they weren’t introduced by the Persians during the Persian Wars of the early fifth century BC. They already occur on Corinthian and Attic black-figure pottery earlier in the sixth century BC, when they were considered exotic and kept as pets, as well as exchanged as gifts.
As an aside, chickens appear to be very common in the game and are frequently eaten. In reality, chickens would probably have been considered fairly valuable. The typical bird kept on farms and used for meat and eggs in ancient Greece would have been the goose.
To market, to market… Food, perfume, pelts, papyrus, wood, ivory, slaves, fabric, cushions, rugs, incense, salts, sponges, cosmetics, and even cups of wine where sold in the agora.
This is correct. In an ancient Greek city, the agora was the civic heart of the community. This is where most of the important legal and political buildings were located and where markets were organized. The most famous of these is, of course, the agora of Athens, about which we are also the best informed. The American School of Classical Studies still conducts research on the site and maintains a website about their work.
The more things change. In ancient Greece, the hairdresser provided a meeting place where news and gossip were shared.
This is correct. The ancient Greek koureus (“barber”) often operated on the agora. Incidentally, women would have had their hair styled at home, most likely by a female servant or slave.
Time technology. The sundial was the standard timepiece in ancient Greece. At night, people could use “water clocks,” large jars that slowly drained specific amounts of water.
This isn’t completely correct. While sundials could obviously not be used at night, water clocks weren’t limited to just being used after dark. They became quite widespread as a means to tell time. They were also used as timers; for example, to ensure that someone didn’t speak longer than his alloted time in court. I’ve written about water clocks in an earlier article; give that a read if you want to know more.
A colorful world. Ancient Greece was more colorful than the white marble we see today. Temples and sculptures were painted with organic, mineral, and metallic pigments.
This is correct, and I’ve written on the subject before. It’s a little weird, however, that many of the marble statues in the game are actually left unpainted.
Greek hockey. A game similar to street hockey called keretizein was played in ancient Greece with a curved stick and a ball.
Perhaps surprisingly, this is correct. While the source for the name of the game (keretizein) is relatively late (namely the ever-dubious Plutarch), we do have a marble relief dated to the very end of the sixth century BC that actually features the game.
I’ve also written about ancient Greek sports in more detail in an earlier article, even though I didn’t touch on this particular sport. In keeping with the Greek emphasis on individual prowess, team sports were actually rare.
Life of a Spartan woman. Spartan girls received a state-sponsored education in gymnastics, music, dance, reading, and writing to prepare them to bear healthy sons and warriors.
“State-sponsored” is incorrect: unlike boys, girls lived at home, and not in what might be called a “state-organized” place of residence. According to the Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, attributed to Xenophon, girls were required by law to exercise their bodies (1.4), supposedly to foster their ability to bear healthy sons.
However, the hint seems to suggest that in Greece, only Spartan girls seem to have received any form of education. This wasn’t the case at all. Girls throughout Greece performed in choirs and took part in dancing; both of these activities also had religious/cultic significance.
Furthermore, girls from fairly well-to-do backgrounds would have been taught how to read and write, regardless of where they lived, even though their education was generally more limited compared to boys.
Finally, there are some hints that aren’t necessarily intended to be historical, but that I want to briefly discuss anyway.
Watch out! Bandits are roaming the world looking for victims to rob. They will attack you on sight if you meet them.
This is a gameplay hint, rather than a historical factoid, but it’s worth going over this for a moment. In the game, bandits are absolutely everywhere. While banditry and piracy were common in the ancient world, it’s downright epidemic in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Obviously, the widespread banditry in the game is to ensure that there’s always something to do or someone to fight for the player.
The Cult of Kosmos. Members of the Cult exist across the ancient Greek world. They are interwoven into society and try to control it.
I’m including this one just in case: there was, of course, no “Cult of Kosmos” in ancient Greece. This is an organization invented by the writers of the game. There’s no historical analogue for it either, though the Cult in the game seems to borrow some elements from ancient Greek “mystery” religions, which were all benign.
That’s it as far as the loading screen hints in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey are concerned. If I missed any, please contact me and I’ll update this article. All in all, most of the hints are okay; some are incomplete or misleading, while only a few are actual errors. I wonder if the developers ever had a specialist check their work. After all, it’s not like experts in ancient Greece are exactly thin on the ground!
What is strange, though, is the rather odd mix of information that the developers somehow decided to add to the game. Since the game is set during the Peloponnesian War, one would expect the hints to feature more details about this particular time period, instead of referencing e.g. the Battle of the Champions (which is totally irrelevant), or devoting a number of hints to the Persian Wars (which only relate to the opening tutorial on the Battle of Thermopylae). Why not add some further details about e.g. Thucydides and Xenophon, famous battles of the Peloponnesian Wars, achievements of the Athenians, and so on?
In any case, I think this was a useful exercise. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading the foregoing and are eager to read more about the game in future articles. If you have any special requests, don’t hesitate to get in touch.
This is part of the series: Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.