Blame the Italian Renaissance. The rediscovery of Greco-Roman sculpture in the 15th century spawned a long-held misperception that the artists of Antiquity intentionally left their work unpainted. For intellectuals of the Renaissance who pooh-poohed the idea of polychromatic sculpture because of its prevalence during the much-derided Medieval period, the use of bare marble signaled yet another achievement of the Classical era, alongside scientific and political achievements. Yet, if not for their burial, which stripped away layers of paint from artifacts and ruins, the Greco-Roman art we see today would blaze with brilliant colors. And although art historians have attempted to correct this misunderstanding, popular culture has refused to acknowledge it in most interpretations of ancient life. Until now, that is.
The latest entry into the Assassin’s Creed franchise, subtitled Odyssey, drops players into 431 BCE in Ancient Greece, at the start of the Peloponnesian War predominantly fought between Athens and Sparta. For a video game that includes bloody mercenaries, extraterrestrial beings, and time travel, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is shockingly faithful to our contemporary historical understanding of what Ancient Greece looked like during its golden age. The Ubisoft development team behind the game even hired a historical advisor to help them recreate a meticulous version of the Ancient World, one that includes hundreds of polychromatic statues, temples, and tombs.
Upon the game’s release, a handful of classics scholars debated the merits of Odyssey on Twitter using the hashtag
#ACademicOdyssey, created by Professor Hannah Čulík-Baird, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with researchers noting how a game focused on world-building had to incorporate multiple fields of study (i.e., art, history, epigraphy, architecture, archaeology, ancient languages) to create a believable setting for gamers. Such immersion also allows academics to contextualize their own specializations vis-à-vis the expertise of others.
One academic leading the discussion is Dr. Kira Jones, a former classicist who earned her PhD in Greek and Roman art history at Emory University. Her study of the use of religion, mythology, and history in self-representation and political propaganda allowed Jones to really dive into the deep end of Odyssey’s most obscure references and nuances. A longtime gamer, she previously created a series of themed gallery talks titled “From Alexander to Cleopatra” for the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory based on the previous Assassins Creed entry set in Ancient Egypt.
Even small details in Odyssey require a team of online scholars to locate and decipher. For example, Jones posted a nondescript stone slab in one of the game’s buildings that contained an engraving in Ancient Greek. She wanted to know if this was a real inscription. Ryan Baumann, a digital humanities developer at Duke University Libraries, responded that the text looked like it was taken from a real engraving, which translated as “Lyson of Hermione, a blind boy. While wide-awake he had his eyes cured by one of the dogs in the Temple and went away healed.”
Ubisoft has emphasized fidelity where possible and practical, especially for areas with definitive site plans, like Delphi and the Acropolis. “The game follows them nearly exactly,” Jones comments. “You can wind your way up Mt. Parnassus to Delphi, past the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia and the Tholos (which is in the process of being built!), the treasuries and dedications, all the way up to the Theatre and Temple of Apollo. The entire journey is peppered with Greek citizens going about their lives — making and selling votives, praying, talking, etc.”
Elsewhere, Odyssey displays a remarkable dedication to the artifacts and historical texts detailing the prominent monuments of Ancient Greece. For example, the geographer Pausanias writes from the fifth century BCE that the Acropolis’s colossal bronze Athena Promachos status could be seen from great distances beyonds Athens. He says that the tip of her spear and crest of her helmet were visible to voyagers sailing around the cape of Sounion nearly 40 miles away. Sure enough, gamers can see the statue as they sail within site of Piraeus, the port city of Attica.
In addition, small details in the game capture the average person’s life in Ancient Greece. “One of my favorites is the merchant who has a stall right outside the entrance to Delphi and sells votives,” mentions Jones. “He has a selection of higher and lower end ceramics, as well as wreaths; we know for a fact that sanctuaries often had these businesses and I haven’t found a single temple, shrine, or altar in the games without appropriate votives.” Remarkably, there is also a clear differentiation in-game between Mycenaean architecture and other styles. The Mycenaean aesthetic is characterized by large blocks, post-and-lintel doors, corbelled masonry, and frescoes.
Naturally, the development team behind Assassins Creed had to take some artistic liberties when recreating Ancient Greece ahead of its deadline. Arguably the game’s worst offense is its replication of several sections in the Parthenon frieze on random buildings and pedestals. “Rubber stamping” these scenes onto objects is a quick decorative solution, but one that can be obvious for players with some basic art historical background. This can lead to some humorous results. For example, the Sikyonian Treasury may be fantastically rendered in its precise location at Delphi, but its famous metopes are missing. Instead, developers have replaced them with the canonical images of Hercules’s labors, which belong to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. More ironically horrible is seeing frieze reliefs from the British-looted Elgin marbles scattered across the Greek countryside on various temples and pedestals.
The polychromatic painting of some of these buildings can be haphazard, with seemingly random color choices. Even the Parthenon’s famous pediment, for example, is rendered in what looks like bronze or a brown-painted marble. Actually, a May 2018 analysis of the British Museum’s pediment sculptures revealed evidence of paint, though this news may have come too late in Odyssey’s development process to implement.
Still, the consensus of
#ACademicOdyssey historians is that Odyssey captures the monumentality of objects in the Ancient World while preserving elements of the culture largely forgotten in mainstream depictions. Temples are not always sterling marble palaces, but rightly include elements of wood and metal. There is a grand sense of grandiosity in entering these holy spaces explicitly designed to entice and intimidate pilgrims.
Jones hopes that Odyssey will communicate the awe-inspiring qualities of Ancient Greece to a new generation of students. At the very least, she says she’s finding new ways to have fun in this game featuring secretive assassins, cultic syndicates, Asclepius, Pythagoras, and more. She states:
Pro-tip: You can shoot sharks from boats and throw your torch at snakes … both methods are more fun and effective than punching them. I may or may not know that from personal experience.
More information on Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is available here.