Thursday, 17 October 2019

Ancient languages in Assassin’s creed: origins

Earlier this year I wrote two posts about bad Latin in movies (1, 2). In the world of video games, there’s plenty of good Latin -- and some other ancient languages too. Take for example the title music to Super smash bros. brawl (2008) and Clive Barker’s Undying (2001). They aren’t perfect -- Smash bros. has its word stresses all over the place, Undying is rather simplistic -- but they’re recognisably Latin. If there are problems, it’s not for want of trying.

You can play some games completely in Latin -- either because the publisher has added the language as an option (Minecraft) or because fans have made a full conversion (The legend of Zelda, Final fantasy III). Then there are games in an ancient setting that use authentic snippets of ancient languages, like Age of mythology (2002). One game notably gives some attention to ancient phonology, Fallout: New Vegas (2010).
You know my name. And you know how to pronounce it. (Fallout: New Vegas, 2010)
Some games just have trivial snags. In the Assassin’s creed games, assassins tell their victims ‘may s/he rest in peace’ (requiescat in pace) as though they’re talking about someone who’s somewhere else. Some games dodge problems by pretending language doesn’t exist: Ryse: son of Rome (2013) has a Roman general as its main character, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t contain any Latin at all.

And then there’s Assassin’s creed: origins (2017).

Admission time: I haven’t played the game myself. (One day, when I have the energy and money, I’ll upgrade my computer with its ageing dual-core CPU. One day ...)

Instead, I have to watch YouTube playthroughs. This is (a) not nearly as interesting as playing the game, and (b) it’s much harder to check things carefully. In particular, I haven’t been able to get a full impression of the incidental banter that you hear from people you run past in the streets.

In places like Cyrene, this banter is in Greek. And yes, it definitely is Greek! But though it’s ancient -- mostly, I think -- it’s hard to make out how authentic it is: partly because they use modern pronunciation -- which is absolutely fine, I’m just not used to it --; partly because YouTube players don’t stand still long enough for whole lines to be audible, and partly because I have only a smattering of modern Greek and I can’t tell how much of what I’m hearing is modern.

(Note on the pronunciation: it’s authentic enough. The sounds of Greek in the 40s BCE were much closer to modern pronunciation than to what you’d hear in 431 BCE Athens.)

It’s an intriguing mix. On the one hand, you can see signs of intense research. But there are a few things that stick out like a sore thumb because they are seriously half-arsed. I mean, we’re talking relying-on-Google-Translate levels of half-arsed.

Other than Googlified Latin, I don’t know what linguists Ubisoft employed or what other resources they used. But I will say that they put in an effort. The Latin and Greek are pretty bad in places, but they are Latin and Greek. According to Maxime Durand, the main historical researcher for the series, for the ancient Egyptian the game adopts a blend of linguistic elements.

What went right

The result usually carries verisimilitude. And there are loads of genuine historical allusions. The celebrities that appear in the game -- Ptolemy, Cleopatra, Potheinos/Pothinus, Caesar, Pompey -- were real people. (Lucius Septimius, not so much. The only Lucius Septimius that I know of is a 4th century writer who translated a Greek novel into Latin -- definitely not the villainous character who appears in the game.)
Edit, a few days later: I hadn’t done my research on Pompey’s death adequately. Septimius is indeed a real individual, though the praenomen ‘Lucius’ is weakly attested. See Caesar Bell. Civ. 3.104; Plut. Pompey 78; Dion Cassius 42.4.1. Appian names him ‘Sempronius’, Bell. Civ. 2.84.
There’s even a literary allusion! When Caesar and Cleopatra visit the tomb of Alexander, Caesar quotes Catullus --
Caesar. Did I tell you of the poet Catullus?
Cleopatra. I don’t believe so.
Caesar. Another cur, who made brief mention of me in his verse.
     ‘I do not study overmuch to please and court you, Caesar,
          nor do I care much to know if you be black or you be white!’
Cleopatra. Heh heh heh! Impudent man. Plato’s dislike for poets had merit.
Caesar. Heh heh heh, yes, as pretty as their words can be, they are roaches by the best measure. Annoying, but easily handled.
Cleopatra. And how did you handle this one?
Caesar. I invited him to my house for dinner and drinks.
Cleopatra. Know thy enemies as thy kin.
Caesar. And get them excessively drunk, when it needs be. [ . . . ]
[Inside the tomb]
Caesar. Rex immortalis! [ . . . ] Ever since I was a boy I’ve idolised this man.
Cleopatra. He is similar to you.
Caesar. I wept at the base of his statue in Rome. At thirty he was a god, with an empire stretching across the known world. What have I done with my five long decades here on earth? Ita me di iuvent!
Caesar’s quotation is from Catullus’ poem 93. The translation is by Humphrey Clucas (uncredited), published in a 2004 biography of the poet. Clucas’ version is wordy, but accurate. The original is:
nil nimium studeo, Caesar, tibi velle placere,
     nec scire utrum sis albus an ater homo.
Caesar actually misses an opportunity at the end of this extract: when he says ita me di iuvent, ‘May the gods help me!’, he could have quoted Catullus again -- ita me iuvent caelites!, Catullus 61.192-193.

Naturally we get to hear Caesar say ‘The die is cast.’ And, in the course of his assassination -- oops, sorry, spoiler alert -- of course he says ‘You too, my son?’ to Brutus. (Minor sigh. No ancient source believes Caesar said anything at all.) When Caesar declares the start of the Alexandrian War he channels Shakespeare, saying ‘Let havoc reign!’ -- paraphrased from Julius Caesar act 3 scene 1, ‘Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war.’

There’s an awful lot of incidental banter that you hear while walking around the streets, or in combat. Much of it is authentic. I can’t give it a complete evaluation, as I said above. But Roman soldiers will yell state! ‘Halt!’ when they want to intercept illegal activity. When they’re attacking you they may say things like et percutiamus illum! ‘And let’s run him through!’ They’re not always so authentic, though.

What didn’t go right

Apparently the main thing that irritated some fans was the combat. Fans of military history are most likely to notice that no Roman soldier in the game ever uses a pilum -- a spear that was the mainstay of Roman military equipment -- or ever fights in formation. Instead, we get Zack-Snyder-style mêlée throughout. This is taken to a ridiculous extreme in the ‘Battle of the Nile’ episode, where we see Caesar in mêlée combat with Egyptian enemies with only a couple of companions to support him.

Names can be a minor annoyance. There’s a character named ‘Felix Martialus’. Martialis is a real Roman name, Martialus absolutely is not. That isn’t just a spelling problem, it’s a noun type problem: it’s as if you counted houses by saying ‘one house, two hice’. Some Roman characters have faux-Italian names as if they’re characters in a Shakespeare play: ‘General Rufio’, ‘Legatus Tacito’. The Ptolemaic police force are called phylakes or the phylakitai, both plural Greek words, but the game uses phylakitai as singular too: ‘Gennadios the phylakitai’ is a bit like referring to ‘Commissioners Gordon’ or ‘Detectives Pikachu’.

And the incidental banter has lots of cracks. Roman soldiers will tell you to halt by saying ibi manere! They’ll give directions by saying hoc modo. They’ll taunt you with ‘You futuo!’, or a prisoner will demand to be executed by saying ‘Futuo! Just kill me already!’

With these, it’s totally obvious that someone just typed the corresponding English phrases into Google Translate. Go try it yourself with these phrases: ‘Stay there!’, ‘This way’, ‘Fuck!’ Unfortunately, Google Translate is so bad at Latin that you are better at Latin than it is even if you have never learned any Latin at all. For the record:
  • ibi manere isn’t a command.
  • hoc modo means ‘in this manner’, not ‘in this direction’.
  • futuo means ‘I am having sex.’ It doesn’t mean ‘fuck!’ in a vacuum, as an exclamation or an insult. When a soldier says ‘You futuo!’, that can only mean ‘I am currently having sex with you.’ Pretty sure that’s not what the writers intended.
Minor voice-work does a decent job with Latin pronunciation, though it’s often drowned out by environmental noise. The main actors ... well, not so much. They frequently stress the wrong syllables: ‘Venator’ becomes /veh-nah-tor/ instead of /veh-naah-toor/, imperator is /im-peh-rah-tor/ instead of /im-peh-raah-toor/, senatus is /seh-nah-tus/ instead of /seh-naah-tus/.

As for Greek, probably the major character with the most Greek is the mercenary Phoxidas. And good gods, he’s awful. His voice actor, Robbie Stevens, obviously doesn’t know a word of the language. It doesn’t help that he plays the character as a really offensive stereotype: he sounds like a Mexican bandito in a particularly racist spaghetti western. (Phoxidas is supposed to be Athenian, incidentally, but the -idas suffix shows that he’s actually West Greek: compare Doric Leonidas, Athenian Euripides. This is because the historical figure from whom the writers got the name was West Greek, either an Achaian or a Phthiote.)
Greek actors? We don’t need no steenking Greek actors!
Most of his insults are modern Greek, but there is one authentic ancient one: at one point he calls someone a μητροκοίτης, ‘motherfucker’. That would be a perfectly cromulent obscenity -- it’s in Hipponax -- but the actor manages to give it an extra syllable and get most of the vowels wrong. (For the record, standard pronunciation in the 1st century would be /mee-tro--tees/, with the /ü/ as in German Tür, French une.)

This is all incidental stuff, though. I’d like to close with two more ... striking cases where things went a bit peculiar.

‘The leisure of man-mounters’

Next to the gladiator arena in Cyrene you can find this graffito, which begins a side-quest:
Wall on north side of arena, Cyrene
μισθός! ὁ πρωτεύων τῶν ἀνδροβατῶν ὑμέτερος Πολυμνήστωρ ἀποδέδρακε. ὁμιλήσατε τῆς τῶν ἀνδροβατῶν σχολῆς.
The intended meaning of the graffito appears on screen when you interact with it:
Reward! The gladiator champion Polymestor has escaped. Talk to the Lanista at the Gladiator School.
Unfortunately, what it actually means is more like this:
Pay! The foremost of the man-mounters your Polymnestor has done off. Have intercourse of the leisure of man-mounters.
Yikes. You can see what’s happened with most words. ἀποδέδρακε ‘he has done off’ is just missing a syllable: it’s supposed to be ἀποδεδράμηκεν ‘he has run off’. σχολή is the origin of the word ‘school’, but it didn’t mean ‘school’ in ancient Greek (unlike Latin schola, which did). The word for ‘lanista’ is simply left out.

But ... ‘man-mounters’. How on earth the writers got from ‘gladiator’ to a rare word for anal sex -- that’s beyond me. There’s absolutely no ambiguity about its meaning either. It affects the flavour of ὁμιλήσατε too: in other contexts ὁμιλήσατε could well mean ‘converse with’. But in conjunction with ‘man-mounters’ ...?
ἀνδροβάτης and a related verb are attested in four ancient sources: Meleager, Palatine anthology 5.208, where the poet says he is going back to the hetero lifestyle because he’s fed up with selfish boys (‘My heart isn’t into boys any more. What joy is there in mounting men, if someone gives but doesn’t want to receive?’); two 2nd-century Christian writers, Justin Martyr, Second defence of Christians 12.5, and Aristeides the apologist, fr. 9.9, who both treat it as immoral (Aristeides puts it on a par with patricide); and the lexicographer Hesychius, π.77, who defines the even rarer word παιδοπίπας by giving ἀρσενοβάτης and ἀνδροβάτης as synonyms.
By the way, exclamation marks weren’t invented until sometime around the 12th century.

‘Of Your Works with Respect to a Gemstone Camp’

And then there’s the image at the top of this post. In the Sinai, in the expansion ‘The hidden ones’, you will pass through a Roman camp called Operum Tuorum Gemmam Castra.

This one really hurts, because the writers probably thought they were being terribly clever. You see, Sinai was the richest source of turquoise in the ancient Mediterranean. That’s why the first quest in ‘The hidden ones’ is called ‘The land of turquoise’. Also, the Bible happens to mention turquoise in a few places, notably Ezekiel 27.16. And operum tuorum gemmam are three consecutive words in the Latin Vulgate translation of that verse. Clever allusion, huh?

Well ... the original Hebrew text mentions turquoise. The Latin version, which is where the phrase comes from, does not.
Syrus negotiator tuus propter multitudinem operum tuorum: gemmam, et purpuram, et scutulata, et byssum, et sericum, et chodchod proposuerunt in mercatu tuo.

The Syrian did business with you because of the abundance of your goods: in trade with you they have exchanged gemstone, and purple, and embroidered work, and linen, and silk, and ruby.
Modern translations of the Bible are based directly on the Hebrew, so that’s why you will find ‘turquoise’ in English versions. (You’ll also find ‘Edom’ or ‘Aram’ instead of ‘the Syrian’. The Latin Syrus isn’t a mistranslation, it’s just that in antiquity ‘Syrian’ referred to a much bigger area than it does today.)

Unfortunately, whoever fetched this phrase from the Vulgate didn’t know any Latin. They didn’t spot that the Latin version just says ‘gemstone’, not ‘turquoise’ specifically. And they made the mistake of consulting an edition without any punctuation.

The camp’s name comes from Latin words in two unrelated phrases -- it’s made up of the words corresponding to ‘of your goods’ and ‘gemstone’ in my translation above. If you jam them together without any context, and without punctuation, the result is just ... weird. It means ‘Camp with respect to a gemstone of your labours’, or something like that.

I have a lot of respect for the makers of the Assassin’s creed games, I really do, and for the historical research that goes into them. In terms of authenticity, I will say that Origins seems more uneven than its follow-up, Odyssey. I still look forward to playing Origins one day, though. It looks like nothing beats Origins for the feel of walking around an ancient Egyptian or Hellenistic city. It’s just that ... a few things ring very false indeed. ‘Man-mounters’ is hilarious, and the bit about turquoise makes me cringe. But there’s also a lot that went right.


  1. Someone posted a response here correcting me about Lucius Septimius -- for some reason I can't see that reply any more. Anyway, I did want to acknowledge you, whoever you were, and thank you for the info.

  2. Great article.
    My 2 favorite points: "Unfortunately, Google Translate is so bad at Latin that you are better at Latin than it is even if you have never learned any Latin at all." and "...he plays the character as a really offensive stereotype: he sounds like a Mexican bandito in a particularly racist spaghetti western. (...we don't need no steenking Greek actors."
    Personally, I hate not being able to understand language or read signs. (I learned Japanese and Kanji for that reason.)

    I have gone through the game twice so far and would be glad to record any phrases you have missed.