Assassin’s Creed: Origins helped to reinvigorate Ubisoft’s historical game series when it launched back in 2017. Boasting a team of expert historical advisors and an educational “Discovery Mode” feature, AC: Originswas marketed as a window into ancient Egypt as it looked back in the 1st Century BCE. But how does the game hold up to scrutiny for historical accuracy?
The world of Assassin’s Creed: Origins is stunning and locales teem with exotic wildlife and monumental landmarks.Origins is set during the Ptolemaic period, after Egypt had been conquered by Alexander the Great and was subjected to the rule of his successors, the Ptolemaic dynasty. This period was extremely multi-cultural as Greek and Near Eastern cultures blended with Egyptian traditions in the Ptolemaic kingdom.
The game generally does a good job of portraying this. Egyptian temples and mud-brick villages stand side-by-side with Greek villas and gymnasiums.The art of Assassin’s Creed: Origins is also heavily based on surviving examples of Egyptian and Hellenistic art, and I noticed stunning attention-to-detail with everything from tapestries to statuary and mosaics.
Marble was the marker of luxury in the ancient world given the time and expense involved in quarrying and building with it. This is reflected in-game as most of the marble buildings are temples, villas, tombs, or other civic structures. One real-world Ptolemaic papyrus described the care and expense that went into the houses of the elite in Ptolemaic Egypt:
About the work in the house of Diotimos; for the portico [I undertake] to have the cornice painted with a purple border, the upper part of the wall variegated, the lower course like vetch-seed, and the pediments with circular veining; providing myself with all materials, for 30 drachmae. For the dining-room with seven couches, I will do the vault according to the pattern which you saw, and give the lower course and agreeable tint and paint the Lesbian cornice, for 20 drachmae. And for the dining-room with five couches I will paint the cornices, providing myself with all materials, for 3 drachmae. The sum total is 53 drachmae but if you provide everything it will come to 30 drachmae.Sel. Pap. I 171, cfP.Mich 38, translation from Town and Country in Ptolemaic Egypt by J. Rowlandson
Players get to visit Alexandria, Egypt’s capital city, and see the sights which set it apart in Antiquity as the greatest city of the Hellenistic period. Sites like the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Serapeum are faithfully reproduced. Luxurious gardens, libraries, and royal monuments line the streets of the Regia, or Royal Quarter of Alexandria.
However, Alexandria was more than a city of luxury and marble. The better part of the city was made of brick and mortar, hastily cobbled together buildings which were as hazardous as they were cramped by shops and residents. Most of the NPC’s who inhabit Ubisoft’s Alexandria are well-off and Greek, even though Egyptians very likely outnumbered any other ethnic group in the city and large numbers of other minorities such as Jews, Syrians, Arabs, and Aethiopians were present in the city.The game eschews the reality of the crowded, diverse city in favour of a gleaming city of spacious villas and rich citizens.
The Great Pyramids might be one of Egypt’s most iconic monuments but their appearance in-game is somewhat different from what a modern visitor to Giza might see. Most notably, the in-game Pyramids are covered in gleaming white limestone blocks, and capped with golden blocks. While I’m not sure where the developers got the idea of golden capstones from, it is true that the Pyramids would probably still have had their original limestone coverings at the time the game is set.
Alongside the famous Nile crocodiles and hippopotami are many animals which are no longer found in Egypt. For example, lions, leopards, elephants, and giraffes can be encountered in-game. While this may seem like fanciful game design, it is actually historically accurate. Climate change and human encroachment has dramatically reduced the geographic ranges of many African animals over the past 2,000 years, forcing animals which once ranged across the continent to be confined to scattered fragments of their former territories.
Bringing historical figures to a life in a way that is compelling yet faithful to history is a hard task, and one which Origins struggles with.Set between 49-47 BCE, Origins has a star-studded cast to handle, with Cleopatra and Julius Caesar taking top billing.
Cleopatra is portrayed as seductive, ruthless, and charismatic. The actual Cleopatra was certainly ambitious, and probably as cut-throat as she needed to be in the political scene of the 1st Century BCE.
The decadence and leisure of the Ptolemaic royal court is also quite well attested, with festivities often running up expenditures equivalent to a small kingdom. On the other hand, the trope of an oversexed, hedonistic Cleopatra is actually rooted in post-mortem Roman propaganda, and is generally disregarded by historians. Films and literature from 18th Century poetry to Liz Taylor’s iconic portrayal of Cleopatra have led to the historical figure being played up as a sex symbol, and her competence as a ruler being downplayed.
Ptolemy XIII, the reigning king of Egypt and adolescent brother of Cleopatra is one of the key antagonists of the game. One might question whether Ptolemy, a boy placed on the throne and manipulated by his advisors really deserves to be treated as a comic book villain. AC: Origins’ Ptolemy is sadistic and arrogant, but from a historical perspective it’s hard to blame a, roughly 13 year old, boy for the questionable decisions he made on the throne. It seems his exile of Cleopatra was more to do with her attempts to seize sole control of the country rather than ruling jointly with him as their father intended, and even then it is likely that Ptolemy’s advisors had more to do with this than the king himself.
Julius Caesar is similarly reshaped to fit into the mould of a videogame villain. Origins’ Julius Caesar is exceedingly arrogant and tyrannical. The guy calls poets “roaches” and wants to take over the world with the help of a shadowy ancient sect, for-Jove’s-sake. When confronted with the news of his rival and former son-in-law Pompey’s murder on the orders of Ptolemy XIII, Caesar reacts with casual approval. Roman accounts claim that Caesar was outraged at the Egyptians’ murder of Pompey, a Roman consul, and that he even broke into tears when presented with Pompey’s head. Regardless of his personal feelings for Pompey, poets, or foreigners, it was in Caesar’s best interest to appear as magnanimous as possible.Caesar was in many ways a heartless politician and a bloody conqueror, but he was also a shrewd demagogue who was capable of charming his most bitter enemies, a side of his personality which is only hinted at in AC: Origins. Ultimately, the famous statesman is almost unrecognizable here, buried under a villainous caricature.
Of course, most people don’t play these games expecting a totally accurate plot (I mean, not counting the aliens and Templars). But still, it would have been nice if Ubisoft could have broken the Hollywood tradition of misrepresenting Cleopatra or actually portrayed ancient politics with a bit of nuance.
The final verdict
Overall, Assassin’s Creed: Origins isan amazing look at Ptolemaic Egypt. Wrapped up in the tangled plot of the game is a breath-taking recreation of one of the most vibrant periods in history. As a lover of ancient Egypt I’ve gotta say, Origins had me coming back for more.