There’s a moment in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, when Kassandra enters a party at the house of Pericles, the most powerful man in Athens. She’s nervous, not being much of a social butterfly, but during her time at the party, she speaks with some of the most famous people of the time: politicians, playwrights and philosophers, many of whom are still admired today.
I’m a history nerd, and I love this aspect of Assassin’s Creed games, of being able to interact with great characters of the past. Games have the power to take us to unusual places. Hanging out at an Athenian symposium with Socrates, Aspasia and Alciabades is a genuine treat.
It’s true that previous Assassin’s Creed have often done a poor job of sliding major characters into their stories. I found Cleopatra in last year’s Origins to be a disappointing mishmash of tired tropes. But in Odyssey, the team of writers at Ubisoft Quebec have creating a network of interlinked personalities who have powerful, historically relevant perspectives.
My favorite is Alcibiades, a young man at this point in history. He prances about in a state of near-nakedness, flirting outrageously with Kassandra or her male counterpart Alexios. He’s a charming schemer, fond of pleasure and of causing trouble. When he’s crossed or disappointed, he’s a petulant sulk, most particularly when his schemes backfire.
In real life, he was a drop-dead gorgeous party animal who is said to have enjoyed a varied sex life, ranging from courtesans to philosophers. In later life, he dreamed up some of the boldest, most treacherous military moves of the Peloponnesian War, even switching sides when things didn’t work out. The game’s portrayal of him as an outrageous chancer feels accurate, and is hugely entertaining.
Also at the party is the great philosopher Socrates, who was a tutor and mentor to Alcibiades. Today, we tend to think of Socrates in his later years, an old man facing death, but in 430 BCE, he was in the prime of life.
Although said to have been an ugly man, in Odyssey, he’s portrayed as a hirsute, portly man with a friendly face, one who enjoys the company of others.
He teases Kassandra for her life choices, which mostly involve killing people who’ve done her no wrong. When she saves a man from execution, killing multiple soldiers, he wonders how she came to value the prisoner’s life over the soldiers’. She has no answer for this.
She is a down-to-earth realist who mocks his penchant for questioning a world which, to her, simply is. But she obviously enjoys his inquisitive, fearless nature and holds her own, sparring words with him.
Socrates is painted in contrast with other philosophers of the time. Protagoras is the kind of man who goes to parties and starts talking about the fundamental nature of things. Thrasymachus is a passionate, younger man who Socrates seems to enjoy trolling with circular arguments about justice and power.
In the real Athens, Socrates also served as a hoplite during the war against Sparta, something that is not mentioned in the game. Three decades after the time of Odyssey, he was executed for “impiety” and “corrupting the minds of youths,” but it’s generally accepted that his death was orchestrated by powerful political enemies who had tired of his critical analysis of their misrule.
Women do not figure prominently in histories of Greece at the time of the Peloponnesian War. In Thucydides’ account of the war, he mentions women only in passing, once recounting a tale when women stood on the roofs of their houses and bombarded soldiers with stones.
The exception is Aspasia, partner to Pericles. She is the real host of his parties, holding court among the city’s elite. She has great influence over Pericles, whose star is dimming as the fortunes of war turn against him.
In her conversations with Kassandra, it’s clear that her network is spread wide. She counts pirates and courtesans among her friends, and operates a spy network across the Greek world. Aspasia is cool under fire, and never loses control of a situation, even when she makes costly mistakes.
Odyssey covers the Spartan occupation of Athens’ farmland exterior, Attica, as well as the plague that (in real life) killed Pericles. By that time, he was a broken man, and his portrayal in the game gives him an air of grieving fatalism and bitterness about his fellow humans, something his speeches of the time touch upon.
Pericles’ rival, Cleon, is given his customary role of villain, though he’s shown to be a dynamic man who believes in the need for a change in strategy against the Spartans, rather than merely being a political opportunist. He’s convincing and charismatic in a way that contrasts with the exhausted Pericles.
The famed Spartan general of 300 fame was long dead by the 430s, but his influence plays a large part in Odyssey. The game begins with a strange little combat tutorial that shows us his defense at Thermopylae. It later becomes clear why that scene was chosen, as his descendents play a big role in the game.
He’s the archetypal Spartan, all manly vigor and unshowy super-violence. This portrayal of the ideal man of Sparta is in contrast to the state as it struggles with the war and its attempts to hold together an empire.
King Archidamos, who ruled Sparta for decades, is portrayed as a fussy old man concerned with protocol and proper religious observations, but he’s still a vigorous warrior, even if he’s a nasty piece of work.
Brasidas is remembered as a superb Spartan general, fearless and canny. In Odyssey, his role is to point out consequences to Kassandra. If she kills a certain politician, Sparta might suffer a future disruption to its food supplies. Kassandra is free to ignore these warnings. Ultimately, he’s pretty much reduced to being nice to Kassandra, in contrast to other Spartans who treat her with suspicion and contempt.
The “father of history” plays a significant role in Odyssey, accompanying Kassandra on some of her adventures and thereby acting as a witness to the significant events of the time. We see him in Athens during the plague. We see him at the Olympic games. We see him visiting the Oracle.
Herodotus wrote The Histories, which sought to chronicle earlier Greek wars against the Persians. But his work is also peppered with fanciful myths and anecdotes. Given Odyssey’s turn into myths and monsters, he’s a useful companion.
He introduces Kassandra to the leading lights of the times, including other members of what we’d describe as the arts and literary establishment.
These include a triumvirate of faintly disgraceful playwrights. Sophocles is an old man, tetchy and proud of his fame. Euripides, middle-aged, is painfully shy, until he starts drinking, when he becomes raucous and full of song. Aristophanes is the youngest, a snarky fellow given to cruel impersonations and put-downs.
It all adds up to a neat selection of personalities from a time long ago. Ubisoft has taken liberties with the facts, but the characters and personalities on display are all rooted in truth.
Greece in the 430s is a time that holds its fascination for us. Athens and Sparta both belonged to the same culture, worshiped the same gods and spoke the same language. But their social and political systems contrasted a chaotic, experimental democracy in which (elite) individuals were able to flourish, with a highly ordered system in which service to the nation counted for everything. The personalities in Odyssey help to recreate that time and place.