I apologise to gamers and those who know much more than me about computer games - in parts this post will probably sound pretty ridiculous to you! I don't usually cover computer games on the blog, because I very rarely play them. For my 25th birthday I asked for a second hand Super Nintendo and apart from a Gameboy in the early 90s that's the only games console I've ever owned - I spent quite a few hours playing on my brother's Nintendo 64 and have very occasionally played on a friend's Playstation, but really, I know nothing about games and gaming and I've never even completed any version of Super Mario World.
However, years ago, when getting a new family computer, we got a copy of Caesar III free with the new PC. And I completely and utterly fell in love with it. You could choose to avoid the fighting-heavy scenarios and focus on town-building, which made it just a like Roman version of the one game I did absolutely love and spend hours playing, Sim City 2000 (and Sim Tower, but that was mostly about getting the lifts to work properly). It also had some fantastic little touches that brought it to life, including tents that citizens would pitch that gradually transformed into houses under the right conditions, and people who, when times were bad, would walk away with their head hanging low, complaining in an appoximation of a southern English accent, 'I've been thrown out of my home!'.
Because the game came free with a specific computer, I've never been able to make it work since we got rid of that PC, which died a death years ago (if anyone has any suggestions or ways to find copies of Caesar III that are compatible with new models, let me know!). But I did buy myself a copy of Caesar IV, the next version up, which is similar, though sadly the tents and the little man with no home seem to have disappeared. Gameplay is slower as well - it can be maddeningly difficult to place things where you want to place them - but presumably this is partly the fault of my graphics card. I want to talk mostly about IV, since it's been years since I played III, but a lot of the basic elements of the game apply to both.
The aim of the game is fairly simple - build successful and prosperous Roman cities - but each level has different particular requirements and provides different trade routes and raw materials (I've still never completed it, but I think you can mess around with other scenarios after you finish it and presumably you get to be Caesar eventually). You get regular requests from Rome and if you don't fulfil them or you spend too much time in debt and lose too much money, Caesar (who is, miraculously, in charge despite the fact I'm supposedly still in the era of the Republic) sends an army and kicks you out. This has happened to me a lot.
The structure of the cities is based around trade, manfacturing and the needs of the three social classes - plebeians, equites and patricians. The representation of the class system is, of course, massively over-simplified. The plebeians do mostly manual labour, which was the case at some points of Roman history but at others times some plebeians could become quite rich and influential. The equites in the game perform what we in the modern Western world might think of as middle class jobs - they are the priests, they run the bathhouses, staff the libraries and they are the actors and run the gladiator schools. Again, this is not really representative of what it meant to be an eques, a member of the equestrian order, though their running the tax offices is more accurate. The patricians don't seem to do anything other than pay tax on their villas, which is probably the closest to Roman practice of the lot, though I haven't got to the upper levels yet - maybe they get involved in politics later. Basically, the game equates the three classes with modern conceptions of what it means to be working, middle or upper class, which is fair enough for a simplified computer game - the three classes are in the right order and have the right names - but, of course, can't come close to representing the very different class system that operated in ancient Rome, and that changed frequently over the course of a millennium of history.
One Roman social class is noticeably absent from the game - there are no slaves. Even the gladiators seem to be, in game terms, equites, which is utterly ludicrous. Presumably modern gamers would not be comfortable building a slave market, trading slaves with other cities and staffing their farms, factories, mines and entertainment venues with slaves. Since the game is probably suitable for quite young children, that's probably not a bad idea - after all, no one wants their child deciding that the slave trade is really quite profitable and it would make the game rather excessively controversial. It does, however, completely destroy any chance of the game reflecting Roman society in any way, and there is an argument that not showing children how fundamentally important slaves were to the Roman economy is tantamount to lying to them to cover up the less pleasant aspects of history. The game is not an educational tool, though, and really I doubt it's intended to be any closer to reality than Sim City is, so I think overall they made the right choice - but still, considering the importance of employment and the class system in the game, leaving out the slaves does seem to be, well chickening out perhaps.
I found this image with a Google Image search and I think it's more representative of the game than the promotional images - but what's the exciting language?
When I used to play Caesar III, I remember feeling a little frustrated at the game's insistence that everything be within easy walking distance for the inhabitants (while still maintaining the desitrability of the area). This is an ancient city, I remember thinking, surely people would be used to having to walk a bit further to get to things? This seems to have been largely corrected for Caesar IV, and although it slows them down, people do seem happy to walk a bit further to get to the things they need - though they are still reluctent to walk to leisure activities, like the bathhouse, the library or the theatre. Presumably they are sending their unmentioned slaves to the markets for them. This would also explain another minor peculiarity - plebs need access to food and 'basic' goods (pottery, clothing, olive oil) but equites only need 'luxury' goods (wine, jewellery) and patricians only need 'exotic' goods (things that can only be acquired through trade like salt, perfume, spices). Either the patricians are going very hungry or their slaves are very over-worked!
The makers of the game have really taken to heart Juvenal's famous pronouncement (in a satire, one should remember) that all the people want are bread and circuses. Not only do you have to store massive amounts of food, primarily grain, to keep them from falling ill or leaving, but they are quite ridiculously obsessed with entertainment. The patricians are the worst, but the equites are pretty fussy about it as well. Now it is true that some Roman cities, like Pompeii, had several different entertainment venues, including two theatres and an amphitheatre; but when you give them an amphitheatre, a theatre and an odeum all fairly nearby and they still aren't happy, I think they may be taking things too far. In addition to the fact that permanent structures like these weren't usually built until the imperial period (the Theatre of Pompey was one of the first in Rome), 'odeums' are basically theatres, while the game commits a double crime against Juliette's Pet Peeves by not only referring to all large arenas as 'Colosseums', when the name should be reserved only for the Flavian amphitheatre in Rome itself, but spelling it 'Coliseum'. Normally, I'm fairly tolerant of international spelling differences (the game also uses 'theater', which is fine) but 'Colosseum' comes from the Latin 'colossus' - 'Coliseum' is just plain wrong!
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the game is the 'Religion' requirement. The fact that the citizens want religious buildings is fine, the bizarre part is that, if you don't build enough shrines and temples, not only will your citizens be unhappy, but Jupiter will strike your buildings with lightening! Five gods have been chosen to represent all the multiplicity of religions in ancient Rome - Jupiter, Ceres, Mercury, Mars and Bacchus. Although this leaves out some very important gods (no Hera, no Apollo, no Venus, though I think she appeared in Caesar III) it is a logical enough choice - Jupiter is there as Head God, Mars represents the military, Mercury trade, Ceres agriculture and Bacchus... I'm actually not sure, entertainment possibly. For me, he can stand for all the very many cults and gods worshipped outside the main pantheon in mystery religions and other smaller groups (Bacchus himself is Dionysus, a major Greek god, but he was the focus of mystery cults as well as more formal worship). The reason the chosen gods have to correspond so exactly to the main requirements of the game is that, if you build them enough shrines, they do you favours - Ceres makes the grain ripen unexpectedly, Jupiter stops crimes, and so on. It's fun but I do find it a little bit weird! I'm a religious person, but my faith is rather more complex than 'if I pray for something I'll get it' and as far as urban planning goes, while I'm all for keeping people happy by building religious structures, I'm not sure one can plan one's security and agriculture around it. Still, it does provide an incentive to build lots of shrines.
OK, I know what this language is! That is the structure the game calls an 'amphitheatre' - 'Coliseums' are the same, but bigger.
Of course, at this point it is necessary for me to step back and remind myself that this is a computer game, not a history lesson! It's a brilliant and utterly addictive game, though I am becoming incresingly frustrated at my inability to get past Caralis because I can't get the Prosperity level high enough - I think I need the game to be a little bit easier! (I won't tell you how long I spent trying to finish that level yesterday ready for this post - I've been stuck on it literally for years). For someone with little knowledge of ancient Rome playing the game (as I once was), the main impression you come away with is that the Romans liked religion, food and entertainment, engaged in lots of trade across the empire, and occasionally had to spend large sums of money buying off barbarian invaders. Which is probably not too bad an impression, and once more demonstrates that gladiatorial combat seems to have been Rome's best known and most perennially popular (in non-fatal, fictionalised form) gift to posterity.