March is gaming month! Peopling the Past brings you a suite of fantastic posts by scholars who incorporate video games into their teaching and research, who reflect on how games both popularize and complicate the past for us.
Like the other contributors to Peopling the Past’s gaming month, my earliest passions included video games and the ancient world, in my case specifically its plays and playwrights. I am especially interested where these intercept, and there are several immediate cases that come to mind: Rome: Total War  and its sequel  including snippets of plays on their loading screens; the Brave New World expansion  to Sid Meier’s Civilization V  incorporating Sophocles and Aristophanes as “Great Writers” of the Classical Era; Assassin’s Creed Odyssey  featuring Sophokles, Euripides, Aristophanes (and Hermippos!) as characters and missions around staging an anti-Kleon play. For this blog, however, I want to examine the game that first ignited my interest in classical Greek theater, going all the way back to the late 1990s.
Long before I’d ever translated, directed, acted, studied, or even read a Greek play, I invested countless hours into the Sierra Entertainment 1998 gem Caesar III (following Caesar in 1992 and Caesar II in 1995), one of the Impressions Games “City Building Series.” Two years later, Impressions Games released Zeus: Master of Olympus in 2000, keeping and iterating upon the same mechanics and formula but changing the setting to mytho-historical Greece. Since many of you reading may not be familiar with these titles, I want to explore these questions with you: what poets and plays are featured in these games, and how does their portrayal reflect what we know about theatrical performances of the ancient world?
As just one of the many gubernatorial concerns in Caesar III (like allocating workers, networking trade routes, and quelling the occasional riot), keeping my virtual citizens entertained and cultured provided my first experience with classical Greek theater. In this computer game, once a venue like a Theater or Amphitheater (which could also showcase gladiatorial combat) and an Actor Colony are fully staffed, a performer walks to the former from the latter, and when he arrives at his destination, a little text box reveals what play is being performed at that location. The offerings in Caesar III cycle randomly through Aeschylus’ Agamemnon [458 BCE], Sophocles’ Antigone [c. 441 BCE], and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata [411 BCE] – standards of the dramatic ‘canon.’
Provocatively, Homer’s “The Odyssey” [composed c. 750-650 BCE] and “The Crito” by Plato [c. 399 BCE] are also included in these actors’ repertoire, which is either a daring assertion by the games’ publishers about the performance of these works in Roman antiquity or just a bit of an oversight. There is strangely no mention of Euripides or Menander or – perhaps most surprisingly – any Latin playwrights like Plautus or Terence. “Theater” was evidently the sole product of the Greeks, even in a game with a Roman setting, and furthermore represented by only three poets.
Building off the same formula, Zeus not only relocated the setting to Greece but also expanded upon the reception of Greek drama in its entertainment and culture mechanics. Instead of Actor Colonies supplying Theaters or Amphitheaters, now Drama Schools train actors who stroll to Theaters to present their craft. The performed works are more representative, in one sense. Each extant Greek playwright is featured: Aeschylus with Seven Against Thebes [467 BCE], Euripides with Hippolytus [428 BCE], Aristophanes with Clouds [423 & revised 420-417 BCE], Sophocles with Oedipus Rex [c. 429 BCE; yes, I know that’s the Latin rex as opposed to the Greek tyrannos, but that’s what the game has], and Menander with The Bad-Tempered Man [317-316 BCE].
Beyond just textboxes, Caesar III and Zeus are aurally vibrant games; one’s municipalities and metropoleis murmur with residents’ conversations, clatter with industrial activity, and (of our chief concern here) resound with declamations and applause in and around the theater districts. Whereas Caesar III had generic cheering and clapping, Zeus expands by giving its demos full lines of dialogue as diegetic “background noise.” When the player centers the camera around the Drama School, an audio clip plays as transcribed below:
Female voice, sobbing.
Male voice, despondent, overlapping: Ah, build me a pyre to roast my friends upon!
Seems properly tragic, doesn’t it? My mind immediately recalls Sophocles’ Women of Trachis [c. 450-425 BCE], the anguished Herakles’ calling to his son Hyllus to end the hero’s suffering through immolation (lines 1253-1254). However, the woman crying cannot be Herakles’ wife Deianeira, who is dead at this point in the play, and this quote is not about setting the speaker on fire, but the speaker’s friends. What, then, is this source?
To my delight, I discovered (with some help via the Zeus: Master of Olympus page on TVTropes.org) that the line instead appears to be from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, line 737, when the hemi-chorus of old men threaten to burn the women occupying the Acropolis (evidently taken from “The Athenian Society” 1912 translation: “I am going to build you a pyre to roast your female friends upon”). The text is slightly different, of course, and the delivery more befits tragedy than comedy, yet it illustrates the more irreverent, winking and nudging tone Zeus takes compared to Caesar III. We see this in another, more obvious allusion to the Lysistrata, which appears in a different sound effect.
An actor, rehearsing his part, bombasts, “If only they had been invited to a Bacchic reveling, or a feast of Pan or Aphrodite…. Oh, wait, that’s one of the women’s lines. Darn it!” These are the first lines of the Lysistrata (also seemingly verbatim from “The Athenian Society” translation) and spoken by the title character no less. The actor’s dismay about memorizing “one of the women’s lines” betrays what we know about classical Greek theater conventions about casting all male actors, even for female characters.
Let’s return to the questions I raised at the start. The poets and plays highlighted in these “City Building” games are the surviving dramatists and their works. On the one hand, it is heartening to see these choices reflect the extant—if not always emblematic—plays of the five, best preserved playwrights, and that players might be introduced to the actual authors and literature of ancient Greece. On the other hand, this strikes me as an unnecessary limitation, particularly if the extent of how these plays are received is mention of their title and author. Might future games, digital or analog, incorporate fragmentary or “lost” playwrights like Phrynicus and Agathon in tragedy, or Eupolis and Cratinus in comedy? Wholly absent, too, is the satyr-play, a vital component of the City Dionysia program and tantalizingly absent from textual sources.
This is not at all to suggest that I am disappointed or let down by the reception of Greek drama in Caesar III and Zeus: Master of Olympus. Quite the opposite. Planning out the construction and staffing of venues, thinking about ancient theater as a vital and vibrant element of life, having that first exposure to actual plays and playwrights that I would later read, research, and perform myself are precisely the sort of benefits I, the other PtP contributors, and many, many others experience and hope to emulate with new generations. Theater, as I know, is often less about the text and more about the communal enjoyment and engagement from participating in embodied performance. And “play” is the perfect approach to doing just that.
Charalabopoulos, Nikos G. Platonic Drama and Its Ancient Reception. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Csapo, Eric, and William J Slater. The Context of Ancient Drama. University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Graziosi, Barbara. “The Ancient Reception of Homer” in A Companion to Classical Receptions, edited by Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray. John Wiley & Sons, 2011, pp. 55-66.
Hawkins, Tom and C.W. Marshall. “Ignorance and the Reception of Comedy in Antiquity” in Athenian Comedy in the Roman Empire, edited by Tom Hawkins and C.W. Marshall. Bloomsbury, 2015, pp. 1-23.
Panoussi, Vassiliki. “Polis and Empire: Greek Tragedy in Rome” in A Companion to Greek Tragedy, edited by Justina Gregory. John Wiley & Sons, 2005, pp. 413-427.
Joshua A Streeter is a PhD Theatre Performance, History, and Theory candidate in the Department of Theatre, Film, and Media Arts at the Ohio State University in Columbus (MA Theatre Ohio State; BA Theatre and English Education Adams State University). His scholarly and artistic interests center on translation and adaptation, pedagogy, and Classical Greek drama. He is writing his dissertation to explore restagings of fragmentary Greek comedy, including satyr plays and Old and New Comedy. Josh has previously translated and directed “Lisa’s Treaty,” a new version of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” and is working on an adaptation of the fragmentary comedy “Herakles the Theater-Producer” by Nikokhares. Check out his website or find him on Twitter @PlaidBarbarian.