Or “Why is Eduardo talking about digital coins?”
(Note: If the layout and pictures appear odd, just click the blog link above and go back to this post. The background should be mint green, not white)
While Obsidian Entertainment’s Fallout: New Vegas is more than a decade old, it’s still hailed as one of the best games in the long-running franchise and an exemplary role-playing game in its own right. Thanks to the rise in popularity of incredibly long YouTube retrospectives, New Vegas has received a renewed level of interest from younger audiences who might not have played it when it was originally released in 2010 (this, in turn, makes me feel absolutely ancient). If you’re unfamiliar with New Vegas, you might be asking “Why is this even a discussion in what is ostensibly a Classics blog?” Well, hypothetical reader, let me tell you of an irradiated world filled with mutated wildlife, communist-hating robots, people with their skin peeling off, atomic weaponry, and…Roman legionaries?
*SPOILERS FOR FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS*
Within the post-nuclear wasteland of Las Vegas and its environs, the player encounters a variety of peoples and factions. One in particular, however, stands outs: Caesar’s Legion. Led by the enigmatic Caesar, the Legion is a faction that emulates certain aspects of Imperial Rome. Its soldiers are dressed in American football gear to mimic the panoply of legionaries, it mints new coins featuring Latin and Caesar’s bust, worships Mars as its state religion, enslaves peoples, enforces a strict patriarchy that treats women like cattle, and purposefully avoids using advanced weaponry in favor of melee weapons or conventional firearms. Its ultimate goal, as Caesar states to the player, is to aggressively expand until it incorporates the bureaucratic structure of the rival New California Republic, effectively cementing the Legion as the New Rome of the post-apocalyptic United States through this melding of Republican infrastructure and dictatorial leadership. The player is left to decide whether they will help Caesar accomplish this goal or work against him and choose another faction. I’m not only interested in how Caesar’s Legion embodies the Roman Empire, but also how this offer to side with Caesar is structured for the player. Why help Caesar? The way I see it, the appeal to the player to join the faction is couched in a problematic term that has been used to both critique and justify the continued relevancy of the discipline of Classics: Civilization.
Many of the factions in New Vegas are not morally one-dimensional and have complicated reasons for wanting to take over the settlement of New Vegas, the almost-intact remnants of Las Vegas that were protected from the ravages of the nuclear war thanks to the defense systems built by a major character in the series, Robert House. New Vegas stands as a literal beacon in the wasteland; the player can see its lights from almost any point on the map. It’s the key to dominating the region which makes it an alluring target for several factions in the Mojave wasteland. Caesar’s Legion is one such faction. The player can encounter members out in the wasteland by wandering and exploring, but the town of Nipton serves as a major set-piece that introduces the player to the Legion. The player is able to visit the town relatively early in their game and wander its recently ravaged ruins. This is what they see when doing so:
The player first encounters the terror tactics of the Legion in a scene reminiscent of the sacking of an ancient city. The fates of the dwellers of Nipton were decided by a lottery system used by the Legion when they took over the town. Many were enslaved and the rest were put to the sword, their severed heads and crucified bodies on display for any who happen to wander into town. A lone figure approaches the player. He’s called Vulpes Inculta, a name which translates into Latin literally as “Untilled/Rough Fox” but I’m pretty sure it was meant to mean something like “Hidden Fox” since he is the leader of the frumentarii who serve as scouts and infiltrators within the Legion. This office in the Roman Empire initially began as simply managers of rations and supplies (frumentum meaning “grain”) but quickly took on duties as spies and enforcers of the emperor during the 2nd-3rd century CE. In New Vegas, they serve as the eyes, ears, and mouthpiece of Caesar. Vulpes Inculta, if not killed by the player, gives a quest to spread word of the Legion atrocities in Nipton in order to warn the dwellers and factions of the Mojave that the Legion is approaching. To any player with a reasonably stable moral compass, this scripted encounter with the Legion paints them as cruel, cold, and calculating. So why, out of all the factions in the Mojave, would the player side with them in the coming battle for the region? What possible good could they bring? This is where the game really starts to question the concept of “civilization” and the horrible things we as humans are willing to do and allow in the name of culture and progress. The nuclear wasteland is already an unforgiving place with mutated creatures, mad scientists, and human raiders who do unspeakable things; is the cruelty of Caesar’s Legion truly that alien in this environment? This echoes questions we constantly ask concerning how we view Rome and other ancient polities. Is the violence we see repeated in our ancient sources truly outstanding and indicative of hostility and bellicosity ingrained in the character of a people (say, Rome) or simply a product of a more unforgiving and inherently alien ancient world devoid of many of our modern notions of diplomatic de-escalation and human rights? Moreover, in a hostile wasteland where our civilization has been effectively nuked out of existence, how do we start over? Do we emulate the past to ensure our future?
To further examine how the game presents this complicated question and introduces moral ambiguity to a faction as cruel as the Legion, we have to examine its charismatic leader: Edward Sallow or, as he is more commonly known, Caesar. Much like the real Julius Caesar, Edward was born into a Republic, the New California Republic, but quickly became disenchanted with its bureaucracy and failings to protect its citizens from the dangers of the wasteland. After a stint in the ominously named but actually benign faction, the Followers of the Apocalypse, Caesar joined a missionary trip to the Grand Canyon where people had made “tribes” that (somewhat problematically) took inspiration from real indigenous tribes. It’s during this trip that he encountered a cache of books which included Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Julius Caesar’s Gallic War (Commentarii de Bello Gallico). He used the tactics and lessons of these books to teach the tribes how to fight and eventually united them all under this strict military structure, creating the beginnings of his Legion. Interestingly, it appears he did not share the sources for this new structure, hiding the books and claiming this system was his own invention to create an impression this was his vision and that he’s not Edward Sallow, but Caesar the Son of Mars. It’s a strict military dictatorship predicated upon expansion and assimilation with no emphasis on the civic structures of Rome (no senators or offices). To further underscore this martial aspect, the Legion only venerates Mars, the god of warfare. This drastically diminishes the diverse depth of deities the Romans worshiped who encompassed a plethora of aspects like agriculture, fertility, marriage, health, and even passages and liminality. For Caesar, that is part of the appeal since it’s emphasis on war makes the Legion more resilient to the corruption you see in a state like the New California Republic. Instead, there’s simply the Legion, its slaves, and the people that live under its umbrella (an aspect that would’ve been further fleshed out in the games if more content was added according to J.E. Sawyer, the lead designer on the game who is also a History major and whom I would love to interview). The Legion, holding a monopoly on violence, would be the sole power. But it’s precisely this structure in the face of the unstructured chaos of the wasteland that underscores the argument for joining Caesar.
It bears stressing you don’t see baths, roads, or forums, the typical accoutrements people point to when thinking of Rome and the advantages that civilization confers. Instead the player mostly encounters the structured layout of the Roman castra (camps), and the game takes pains to emphasize the brutality of the process of expansion that is typically glossed over or entirely omitted in narratives of civilization and “Romanization.” There are, however, some facets of Roman culture that extend beyond the entirely martial. One that interests me the most is currency. In the wasteland, pre-war currency has been replaced by bottle caps. The Legion, however, mints coins from silver and gold attained through raids and expansion. To be fair, the New California Republic prints paper money, but the inherent precious metal of the Legion’s currency makes them more valuable (at least the aureus). Let’s look at the two available in game.
Note the raised, uniform outer lip still gives this silver denarius the impression of being a traditional US quarter, but the following little raised bead-like circles emulate the borders of some Roman coins (Here’s an aureus of Gordian III to compare). The bust of a youthful Caesar (Sallow) is displayed on the obverse with his title of dictator. The reverse has Caesar and two of his former top officials, Joshua Graham and Bill Calhoun, who helped in his initial campaigns of unification. Scholars and general fans of the Late Republic also know the reference here to the triumviri, groups of three powerful men that dominated Roman politics for substantial periods. If you recall, the campaigns of unification were done in the Grand Canyon and we have this in Latin: Magnvm Chasma.
The gold aureus is meant to show an older Caesar that resembles the man the player encounters in 2281 CE and also the portraits of the real Caesar we see on coins (post-mortem example of Caesar portrait). We have an abbreviation here for aeternitas imperii (“eternity of rule/command/empire”) which, along with the laurel crown, shows the triumph of Caesar and its continuance into the future. On the reverse we have the bull, the symbol of the Legion that was inspired by bull used as an emblem for the Legio X Equestris, initially set up by Caesar in Spain. In Latin we have Pax per Bellvm (“Peace through War”). A phrase that once more emphasizes that the underlying structure and purpose of the Legion is a military one with their style of governance looking more like armed occupation. Sallow learned Classical Latin from the books he found during his trips and employed the language in a post-apocalyptic setting to legitimize the Legion. Commanders, troops, and slaves also show a greater understanding of Latin through its pronunciation, giving the C in Caesar a hard C sound (kae-sar). Language is a powerful tool, even in a post-apocalyptic land that has largely forgotten the “prestige” of a language like Latin. Instead of academic pedants online that bully people over pronunciation, here language is used in a military context to communicate orders and messages of war. The beautiful, honeyed Latin of the canonical “Great Authors” like Vergil and Ovid that is used to justify the study of Classics today yields to the pragmatic, simple Latin of the barracks. Its foreignness, however, still carries weight even after the bombs dropped.
Another interesting aspect to think about that’s related this usage of Latin is the difference between player knowledge, which includes material learnt outside of the lore presented in the game world, and the knowledge of non-player characters (NPCs) when it comes to antiquity. With some exceptions, the NPCs dwelling in the wasteland do not know the history of the Romans that inspired Caesar’s Legion and instead just see them as a bunch of psychopathic enslavers with some odd costuming and quirks. Contrast this with the knowledge about the Romans the player brings with them into the game; their perception of the Legion is influenced by this knowledge and it largely forms the basis for the appeal of joining this faction. In other words, the player knows of the success of the Roman Empire outside of the game world, which shares some of its history with our own, and this knowledge shapes their perception of the Legion depending on how they feel about the Romans. This is balanced by the perspective brought by the NPCs of New Vegas who just see how the Legion functions in their world as another cruel, misogynistic, enslaving force. Compare this to the actual portion from Tacitus I drew inspiration from for the title of this post, the famous speech the Roman historian wrote in his Agricola and placed in the mouth of Calgacus, the chief of the Caledonians (Tac. Agr. 30): “To plunder, decimate, ravish they [the Romans] call empire under spurious labels, and where they create a wasteland, they call it peace” (Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant). Similar to how the NPCs in New Vegas serve as a way of communicating thoughts on civilization from an outside perspective grounded in visceral reality, Graeco-Roman historians like Tacitus frequently (and problematically) appropriated the voices of “barbarians” to comment on their own societies. Much like Tacitus’ Calgacus, the NPCs serve to disenchant the allure that Rome holds and to point out the grim truths that are frequently hidden behind the veneer of “civilization.”
So, what do we make of Caesar’s Legion in Fallout: New Vegas? It’s a really interesting instance of a game injecting real history into an unreal world to ask pressing and complicated questions about the nature of civilization. Who benefits from civilization and who is excluded? How much are we willing to overlook in the name of progress? What constitutes civilization and how does its context affect its formation and appearance (i.e. the violence of the ancient world or the post-apocalyptic wasteland)? How easily does and would our past mesh with our modern values especially if we had to start back at zero after an apocalyptic event? Can we rest simply on the laurels of “tradition” and “civilization”? How often do we inadvertently fixate on the martial success of ancient polities like Rome and look over the systems it helped propagate like slavery? I’m not saying Rome was inherently evil, far from it. But it would be an erroneous and dangerous claim to state their empire, as is the case with almost all such polities throughout human history, was not attained through an immense amount of human suffering. New Vegas forces us to reflect on these multifaceted, complex aspects by plopping Rome down in a futuristic, apocalyptic setting and asking us to reexamine it in a new light. This is just one of the reasons video games are such a great medium for the examination of the ancient world beyond the superficial visuals we see being harped on continually in games like Assassin’s Creed. They are fully capable of articulating these complex conversations we are still having today regarding antiquity. There’s a lot more to sink into with Caesar’s Legion, but I think I’ve given a pretty down and dirty rundown of the essentials.
I want to end by quoting the ending text presented to the player if they chose to side with the Legion. One ending, the first, is given if the player opts to save Caesar during a procedure to remove a tumor in his brain that causes seizures (another link to the medical problems of the real Caesar) in a mission called “Et Tumor, Brute?” (I know, the pun is amazing.) The second is given if the player opts to kill Caesar and make his more violent and warlike second-in-command, Legate Lanius, the leader instead.
Caesar Ending: “Caesar entered The Strip as though it was his Triumph. The Legion pushed the NCR out of New Vegas entirely, driving them back to the Mojave Outpost. The Legion occupied all major locations, enslaving much of the population and peacefully lording over the rest. Under the Legion’s banner, civilization – unforgiving as it was – finally came to the Mojave Wasteland.”
Lanius Ending: “The Legate is crowned as the new Caesar. He entered The Strip as though it was a military target, destroying anyone who resisted him. The Legion brutally occupied all major locations, killing and enslaving a large amount of the population. Under the Legion’s banner, civilization – savage as it was – finally came to the Mojave Wasteland.”
Both endings emphasize the coming of civilization under the Legion. The first, under the slightly more peaceful Caesar, is labeled as unforgiving. In the Lanius ending, it’s called savage. Both serve as a reminder that our notion of civilization is an artificial one whose definition changes depending on your relationship with the systems of power within it. Where one sees order, another sees constraining rigidity. Where one sees progress, another sees wholesale destruction. By bringing Caesar and the Romans into the post-apocalyptic wasteland, Fallout: New Vegas asks the player to reexamine their notion of civilization. Ultimately, the player must choose between establishing a new Rome or consigning its memory to the history books.
Many thanks to Dr. Jeremiah McCall (@gamingthepast on Twitter) for his incredibly helpful notes and comments on an earlier draft of this post.
If you want to experience the amazing writing of Tacitus (easily my second favorite Roman historian) in translation, here is a slightly more modern translation of Agricola (https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/TacitusAgricola.php)
If you want to read some Tacitus in Latin (and why shouldn’t you, he’s an amazing author), check out the DCC online Agricola commentary (https://dcc.dickinson.edu/tacitus-agricola/preface)
Featured Image, titled “Lanius Planning,” is by user Herckeim on DeviantArt
Image of Procession Frieze from the National Galleries Scotland site (https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/159703/processional-frieze-great-hall-scottish-national-portrait-gallery)
All game images taken from the Fallout Fandom Wiki (https://fallout.fandom.com/wiki/Fallout_Wiki)