Not Quite Total War

by frypan, last updated 20 Aug 2012 05:01


This paper looks at the gameplay in Rome: Total War and briefly compares it to a couple of accounts of battle fought during the late Republican period, as recorded in Julius Caesar’s commentaries.1The purpose is to demonstrate how the game closely parallels the concerns of at least one source, and is an instance where a game reflects quite well the strengths and limitations of our sources. Creative Assembly, by accident or design, have created in this particular version of the Total War games an accurate reflection of a least one primary source.

It should be qualified up front that Roman battle is an extremely controversial topic. As is the case with much of ancient history, the less we know, the more virulent the arguments, and the more entrenched the various opposing points of view. As such, I do not intend to give an answer on what actually happened. Instead, I would like to address broadly the effectiveness of the game in comparison to a couple of representative passages from Caesar.

It should also be noted that other sources do not show battle the same way as Caesar, and the passages chosen are just representative of Caesar’s approach, but they are a good indicator as Caesar is one of our best eyewitnesses to Roman combat. He is a good source of battlefield principles from within the Late Republican period, and therefore makes for an interesting point of comparison.

The Units: A Cohort Approach

The rest he placed between the middle and wings and they made up in number 110 cohorts. These were 45,000 men…

He had 80 cohorts posted in the line, which were 22,000 men in all…2

Rome: Total War does not attempt to accurately model unit activity more than our sources often use. Throughout the series, units with small numbers of men are created to represent much larger units as part of addressing the strategic scope of the game. However this does not mean that the underlying battlefield principles should be ignored, as in the case of this game, they reflect the general tactical structure of the Roman army.

The game primarily models activity at a cohort level, and each unit in Rome Total War, while looking roughly like a manipular formation of 80 or 160 men, is representative of a cohort of 480 men, when the total of twenty units per in-game battle is considered.

Twenty cohorts approximates to a standard mid Republican consular army of two legions, made up of 10 cohorts apiece, and is a good size for linking the strategic aspect of the game with the battlefield.3

This modelling of the game at cohort level is reflective of Caesar’s focus in his battle narratives and demonstrates how the game is actually representative of the level at which generals like Caesar viewed the battlefield. This is evident from the passages cited above, which come from the battle of Pharsalus, notable for the large number of men involved, but which neverthless shows how the game directs its examination at the same level as Caesar.

The game thus reflects the aristocratic commander's concern with cohorts, even though at a superficial level it looks like it represents the smaller maniples. In the late republic, Roman armies had moved away from the smaller maniple, to using cohorts as the main tactical unit, and the game and Caesar are thus synchronous in their concerns.

It is interesting to conjecture whether the developers would have made the men in each of their units more numerous with more computer processing power. In the case of Rome: Total War, maybe more so than the other games in the series, the unit structure reflects the primary tactical unit of the cohort, and matches our source in this regards.

The Aristocratic Motive

Caesar set out from encouraging the 10th legion to the right wing, where he saw his own men driven back, with the standards collected in one place, and that the soldiers of the twelfth legion, gathered in one place, were themselves an impediment for fighting….4)

The Total War series has adopted a variation of the standard RTS structure that is particularly suited to the Roman aristocratic perspective of war. This is evident in the above passage from a famous battle against the Nervii, a Belgic tribe who came close to beating Caesar according to his accounts. The passage illustrates the aristocratic motive, which follows Caesar’s personal presence and concerns in the battle. It is demonstrative of how the written sources were focussed on the agency of the generals and how they imposed their will and presence on the battlefield. Rome: Total War also reflects this perspective, firstly as it follows the commanders view of battle through the player who has a great deal of control over his units.5 Similarly, the game makes the general a central presence on the battlefield, reflecting the aristocratic predilection to draw attention to their ability to affect matters through their personal presence, something very evident in Caesar.

Moreover, both game and sources often reduce the agency of the men as a result, not being concerned with the experience of such men in combat. As such, the role of the men has been said to be that of mere automata, something Keegan notes in The Face of Battle. This limitation on the individuality of the men is a feature of gameplay in Rome: Total War, as the men are grouped closely with official signifiers of their unit, such as the standards.6

In this sense, the eye that follows the battlefield is the commander’s, and it is Caesar who will restore order to the legion in trouble as they will later act as a mass to his intervention. The commander’s view is central to the representation of both Caesar and game, and the modelling of the behaviour of the men limited to a very generic one in order to focus on the centrality of the leader as agent.


The game is also suitable as reflective of Caesar's works in the way the Creative Assembly depict close combat. A view of individual combat in Rome: Total War is messy and very generic, which fits with Caesar’s descriptions of close combat. Caesar often simply states something to the effect that “the matter was waged with swords” showing his general disinterest in the mechanics of hand to hand combat. It is this disinterest that is part of the reason reconstructing activity in the killing zone of Roman combat is so difficult, something evident in the passage below, taken from a battle against the Germani;

And so our men, with signal given, made a sudden attack, and the enemy rushed together so swiftly and suddenly that no distance was given for hurling pila against the enemy. With pila dropped, it was fought hand to hand with swords. But the Germani, with a phalanx made according to their own custom, swiftly took up the attack of swords. Many of our soldiers were found of the kind who jumped onto the phalanxes, tore shields from hands, and were wounding from above. When the line of enemy were beaten back on the left wing and turned to flight, with a huge number of their own men they were pressing our line strongly on the right.7

As the passage shows, actual methodology for using weapons is largely absent. We can determine that swords were used but not the manner they were employed. The anecdotal information regarding men pulling at shields is highly artistic, and the causal effect of such action difficult to determine. In this regards the game developers have rightly ignored such detail in the account, and limited their combat visuals to men fighting with their main weapons in a very generic manner. We simply do not know much about the manner they fought in close combat.8

One more passage helps to illustrate how the game’s very generic description of combat is a reflection of the limitations of our sources. The passage below comes from a battle fought against the Helvetii, and while Caesar provides a seeming wealth of information about the nature of the missile volley, he is only very general in describing what effect this has on unit integrity.

The soldiers, with pila hurled from a superior position easily broke up the phalanx of the enemy. With that broken up they made an attack against those men with drawn swords. The Gauls had a great impediment for fighting because with many of their shields transfixed and bound together by one blow of the pila, when the iron had bent itself, they were neither able to pull them out nor fight effectively enough with the left hand hindered, so that many, when they had shaken their arm for a long time opted to cast off the shield from the hand and to fight with unprotected body.9

While the passage is visually quite striking, the enemy actually took their time to retreat afterwards, and were only hampered in their combat effectiveness in a general manner. While casualties may be assumed, they are less important than the preliminary softening up. Keeping in mind these factors, game and source are quite complimentary in assigning a generic detriment to the use of such missiles. Caesar is concerned here with the clash of cultures, not the causal effects, and we can only really determine a general detriment to enemy combat effectiveness from the results of the volley. In both of the above two passages, the level of combat does not bear close inspection and has not been modelled in game.

Movement on the Battlefield

What the game does is to reflect the aspects of battle that were important to our sources, and the Total War mechanics of combat well suited to reflecting Caesar's understanding of the key factors in battle. As such, emphasis in game is on flanking or rear attacks, the integrity of units, and the mechanics of flight.10 These were concerns for the ancient commanders, and as such they are depicted as highly influential in game. The modelling of combat captures the essential elements of the fighting as they appear in the sources. The importance of flanking is evident in the passage cited below from Caesar’s invasion of Britain.

The enemy in truth, with all the shoals known, when they spied from the shore any individuals disembarking from the ships, on spurred horses attacked the encumbered men, many surrounding a few, and others threw spears against groups from the unshielded side.11

As can be seen, men seek out the flanks of their enemy, and Caesar makes very clear in the rest of the passage that this was an extremely dangerous situation. By focusing on the effects of flanking or rear attacks, the game is reflecting the concerns of the ancient general.


The game reflects the ancient sources concern with morale just as much as actual casualties, something evident in the passage below, which describes the effect on the men of the above attacks on the flank and the adverse terrain of the beach.

Terrified by such things and entirely inexperienced in this type of fighting our men did not strive with same speed and zeal which they were accustomed to use in battles on foot.12.

As can be seen, Caesar demonstrates serious concerns about such a situation where the men fight at such disadvantages, and the game is following our general understanding of features like terrain and flank attacks in this regards.

Furthermore, the game may inadvertently at times reflect Caesar’s only general concern with factors such as morale, particularly in regards to reinforcements. As anyone who played the game remembers, often it is simply enough to pile extra units into a melee. In the below case, Crassus sends men to help turn a battle around, but the manner of reinforcement is not as important as the fact the extra men turned the tide of battle.

…with a huge number of their men they were pressing our line strongly on the right wing. When young Crassus, who was commanding the cavalry, noticed this, because he was more free than those who were occupied in the fighting, he sent the third line as help to our struggling men.13

By accident or design, the passage demonstrates that the game is simply reflecting the absence of data in the sources, and modelling the battle at a level that simply accounts for the presence of reinforcements, rather than the mechanics of their use. Game and source are congruent in that the limitations of the game reflect the limited concerns of the author.


There is a lot more that could be said on this topic, however the purpose of this article has simply been an examination of Julius Caesar’s commentaries, which show some striking similarities with the modelling of combat in Rome: Total War. While it is probable that all the Total War games have a similar parallel in their respective theatres, it is clearly evident in this particular game that the model of battle and a major source have a close relationship. By looking at a couple of representative passages from Caesar’s works, it can be seen that the strengths and limitations of the game are actually reflective of our source, and the developers have not strayed too far from the evidence in representing ancient combat.

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