This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
Last time, we had finally reached the Megarid and were ridding the territory of the Athenians. By murdering Athenian leaders and other characters, you lower the “nation power” of the region (either Athenian or Spartan). Use of the word “nation” here refers simply to a people, not to the modern notion of a nation state. In ancient texts, writers tend to refer to people rather than places: e.g. decisions are made by “the Athenians”, not “Athens”.
The ancient Greeks had a word that could be used to denote both a city and the people who lived there: polis. It’s often translated as “city” or “city-state”, but it also includes the community of people who live there. The difficulty in translating the concept means that it’s often left untranslated. Nevertheless, modern commentators often interpret the polis as “state”. But Moshe Berent, in an article published in 2000 that was based on his PhD thesis, put forward the argument that (p. 258):
the polis was not a state, but rather what the anthropologists call a stateless community. In Max Weber’s celebrated definition of the state, a stateless community is characterized by the absence of an agency or class which monopolizes the use of violence, and by the fact that the ability to use force is more or less evenly distributed among armed or potentially armed members of the community.
Berent shows that acephalous (i.e. stateless) communities studied by anthropologists are remarkably similar to ancient Greek poleis: they’re agrarian societies in which violence is normal and military skills are highly valued, and in which warfare is, if not endemic, at least a core element that informs its dominant ethos and serves to structure society, if only in an idealized way. In ancient Greece, a city was supposed to be defended by its free citizenry, but the realities of war meant that, especially during the Classical period, slaves and resident foreigners were often also recruited to fight.
Previously, I have written that the acquisition of wealth was a powerful driving force behind violence, and a motivation for mercenaries to hire themselves out. Berent writes: “One of the reasons for the primacy of violence is that, unlike the industrial world, in the agrarian world wealth can generally be acquired more easily and quickly through coercion and predation than through production” (Moshe Berent, “Anthropology and the Classics: war, violence, and the stateless polis”, The Classical Quarterly 50.1 (2000), pp. 258).
While Berent focuses on the early polis, much of what he writes also applies to the Classical period, when political power (and thereby military might) had become more centralized compared to the seventh and sixth centuries BC. Concerning the age depicted in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, he writes: “the Athenian empire demonstrated the agrarian rule that wealth could much more easily be acquired by predation rather than by farming” (p. 285). In a gameplay sense, the easiest way to get better loot is by taking it off the corpses of the enemies you’ve slain.
Seizing the Megarid
In the game, the Megarid is controlled by the Athenians, which, as I’ve explained in the previous article, wasn’t actually the case in 431 BC. Nevertheless, I dutifully scour the city of Megara and its environs and rob the Athenian leaders and their associates of their lives, as directed by the Spartans that I’m siding with at this point in the game’s story.
With my tasks complete, I return to the Spartan camp and its commander, Stentor. Stentor is an adopted son of Nikolaos, as Kassandra soon finds out, and therefore a convenient conduit to reaching the Wolf. In dialogue options, you get the choice to reveal to Stentor that you’re Nikolaos’ child, but I chose to hold my cards close to the chest for the moment.
Stentor will eventually invite you to take part in the final push to wrest control over the Megarid from the Athenians by taking part in what the game refers to as a “conquest battle”. This is one final, major battle to essentially complete the region and progress the story. I try and get killed almost instantly, so I spend some time doing side missions to level up, gain some better gear, and then return to Stentor to try again.
The conquest battle plays out very similarly to the battle of Thermopylae that served as the game’s introduction. Now, however, there are two bars along the top centre edge of the screen: a red bar symbolizing Sparta and a blue bar symbolizing Athens. As warriors get killed during battle, the bars decrease in length. Taking out officers does considerably more damage to the rival faction than does killing the regular warriors. (And by the way, since most of your opponents here use shields, it’s a good idea to unlock the Shield Removal ability.)
As with the opening battle at Thermopylae, the conquest battle here is essentially a brawl: there are small groups of men fighting each other, scattered across the battlefield. You can run around and attack whoever you wish. There’s no structure to the battle at all. This is strange, because while many of the particulars are a subject of some debate in academic circles, we do know that, for this period, armies were at least deployed in formation.
Even if they hadn’t been deployed in formation, usually some sort of structure emerges regardless: even in the Homeric epics, there is a clear distinction between the promachoi (the fighters who are out in front, engaging in conflict) and the mass of fighters behind them. It’s normal for two sides in battle to actually form two opposing lines, as demonstrated, for example, whenever there are riots, or even when hooligans of opposing football teams meet to duke it out together. (For more, see Hans van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (2004), esp. pp. 153-158, with comparisons between Homeric fighting and Papua New Guinea, and 185-191, classical phalanx.)
Of course, modelling battle mechanics accurately in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey might have been deemed too restrictive by the developers. After all, the way that the conquest battle plays out now, the player ultimately decides the outcome of the conflict by seeking out and dispatching leaders. By lowering the Athenians’ blue bar, you can cause them to rout (a nice touch, since most Classical Greek battles ended when one side routed and fled the battlefield), thereby achieving victory for the Spartans. It’s very gamey in how the conflict is resolved, in other words.
It could, of course, have been handled differently. Ryse: Son of Rome is a third-person action game set during the reign of the emperor Nero. For the most part, you run around all by your lonesome, carving up barbarians as you make your way from point A to point B.
But there are also sections in the game where you actually form up with legionaries to create a testudo, and you have to perform some manoeuvres before breaking off and attacking the enemy. While Ryse, like Odyssey, keeps its focus squarely on action, these segments at least acknowledge the fact that warfare in the ancient world was more than a free-for-all brawl in more or less open terrain.
The conquest battle also seems to feature nothing but melee fighters. There are no archers anywhere to be found, nor any cavalry. This is especially strange since we know that combatants other than hoplites took part in these pitched battles. Thucydides often pretends like the light troops (archers, javelineers, peltasts) are largely ineffectual, but there are good reasons to doubt this. As another example, Roel Konijnendijk has argued in his PhD thesis that many Classical battlefields were chosen to ensure that the enemy couldn’t field their cavalry.
No doubt, there are factors at play here that might have precluded a more accurate modelling of a Classical Greek battle. Horsemen are seen frequently as you travel the countryside in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Indeed, you use a horse yourself to quickly get from one place to the next. Likewise, there are archers elsewhere in the game (who’ll try to pick you off when they spot you from afar or on a roof), and some of the hoplites in the game actually hurl their spears at you. So these different types of combatants are represented in the game, but not included in this conquest battle for some reason.
In any event, when the conquest battle is won, Stentor seems pleased. It doesn’t take long before you get the chance to go up the hill and talk to the commander himself, the Wolf of Sparta – your father, Nikolaos. It raises an issue, though: where was Nikolaos when you were fighting the conquest battle? In ancient Greece, generals literally led from the front, so he should have been there (even though the game doesn’t model formations at all). Because commanders fought in the front rank, many of them were slain in battle, such as the Theban leader Epamonindas in 362 BC.
Of course, the total number of warriors involved in the game’s conquest battle was low. There were maybe a hundred or two hundred troops involved in the battle that I played through? During the actual Peloponnesian War, battles were routinely fought between armies thousands of men strong on each side. So perhaps we might presume that we only experienced part of the battle, and that Nikolaos was off fighting further away.
When you meet Nikolaos, it’s soon revealed that you were the child that he let fall down the mountain all those years ago. His response is suitably laconic: he is a Spartan, and he did what was expected of him. He also reveals that you’re not his biological child, and that your mother is out there somewhere. He doesn’t reveal any details about your “real” father; Kassandra is later quick to tell Barnabas that for all intents and purposes, Nikolaos was of course Kassandra’s father, as he helped raise her.
There’s also a choice to make here: you can kill Nikolaos (as per your mission directives) or let him live. I chose the latter, because vengeance will only get you so far, and in a game where you mostly progress through killing, it’s nice to advance the story without murdering someone. Regardless of which option you choose, you gain possession of Nikolaos’ helmet, so you have something to show to Elpenor, the man who instructed you to kill the Wolf in the first place.
With Elpenor’s task completed, one way or the other, I make my way back to the Adrestia. Passing through the Spartan camp, I only now notice that the ramparts facing the sea are defended by catapults. Catapults were actually not invented until 399 BC, by the engineers who worked for the Syracusan tyrant Dionysius I (ca. 432-367 BC).
Such devices made use of the principle of torsion to hurl massive arrows or (later) stones across large distances. Large stone throwers such as the ones represented in the game weren’t actually used until the second half of the fourth century BC. It’s doubtful these could be used anyway – there’s no sign anywhere of ammunition!
Back aboard ship
In any event, I make my way back to the ship and have a brief conversation with Barnabas. He suggests we head to Delphi and consult the Oracle there: she might know more about the current whereabouts of Kassandra’s mother. It’s a convenient place to go anyway, as Elpenor awaits us in his house in Kirrha (also Kirra or Latinized as Cirrha), a town in Phocis that serves as the harbour of Delphi.
We undock and set course for Phocis. That means that next time, I’ll write about Delphi and its oracle, the Pythia, who was the high priestess of the Temple of Apollo there. Where the present article focused on warfare, the next will deal more with ancient Greek religion. We’ll also run into a historical figure in Delphi that I’ll definitely have to write about, too.
This is part of the series: Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.