“Looking at history through the lens of a video game makes it come alive”: an interview with historian Eric Cline
A Total War Saga: TROY may now be out in the wild, but we still have lots of behind-the-scenes peeks to share!
This time, we chatted with archaeologist and historian Eric Cline, whose research and publications helped provide the TROY team with valuable insights into the real history behind the Trojan War, the city itself, and its heroes.
CA: Hi, Eric! First of all, could you please introduce yourself?
Eric Cline: Sure – I’m an archaeologist and an ancient historian specialising in the Late Bronze Age of Greece and the Near East. I teach at George Washington University (GW) in Washington DC, and have been on more than thirty seasons of excavation at various sites around the Mediterranean region. For instance, I dug at Megiddo (biblical Armageddon) for 20 years and have now been co-directing an excavation for the past fifteen years at a Canaanite site called Tel Kabri, where we have found the oldest and largest wine cellar in the ancient Near East – dating back almost four thousand years. I tell people that the wine has an “earthy” taste now…
CA: How did you become involved in the development of A Total War Saga: TROY?
Eric Cline: Actually, you could say that I got involved pretty late in the game (pardon the pun). I was teaching a freshman seminar on the Trojan War at GW last fall (2019) and one of my students told me that the game would be coming out at some point. I had heard of the Total War series and so was really thrilled to learn that there would be a version based on the Trojan War – but that was all I knew. Then, back in early June of this year, [game director] Maya Georgieva posted on Twitter about the game coming out and I left a response saying how much I was looking forward to it. Maya saw my message and told me that they had found my little purple book The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction really useful while developing the project (and, I think, maybe one of my other books, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed as well). By that point they were almost done with developing the game, but she invited me to chat with the team via Zoom, and we got to ask each other questions, which was tremendous fun. So, I guess you could say that I was involved in the development indirectly, through my writing, but only found out after! As an author and a scholar, it’s pretty cool to find out that someone is not only reading the books you write but also that they are useful in creating something like this, which will reach so many more people than my books ever will.
CA: How accurately can we know the city of Troy and its history from the sources we have available?
Eric Cline: We can know quite a bit about it because we’ve got a variety of sources. Even leaving aside the myths and legends, and even taking Homer’s story with a bit of a grain of salt as we don’t know if he is accurately describing the Bronze Age, when the Trojan War will have taken place, or his own time period during the Iron Age in the 8th century BCE (which is about 400 years later), we still have two other dependable sources. One is archaeology, from digging up the site now called Hissarlik, which is almost certainly ancient Troy (see more below). The other is contemporary texts from the Hittites, which talk about a site called Wilusa – again, almost certainly ancient Troy – including a king there named Alaksandu. To my mind, “Alaksandu of Wilusa” sounds remarkably close to “Alexander of [W]Ilios”. Alexander is the other name for Paris, as you’ll know if you read Homer closely, and of course Ilios is the other name for Troy. Ilios was initially spelled with a digamma (a “W”), which eventually dropped out, so it would originally have been Wilios, which looks a lot like Wilusa – i.e. the Hittite name for Troy. And the Hittite texts talk about four different wars being fought at Wilusa over the centuries, so I don’t think it’s a question of whether there was a Trojan War – it’s more a question of which one of them was Homer talking about?
CA: Which of these sources do you consider to be the most fascinating?
Eric Cline: Probably the archaeology, though the Hittite texts come close. As I mentioned, ancient Troy is now the modern mound known as Hissarlik. A number of different excavators have investigated the site over the past 150 years, including Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s and 1880s; Wilhelm Dörpfeld in the 1890s; Carl Blegen in the 1930s; and Manfred Korfmann from the late 1980s through about 2005. Nine different cities have been found, one on top of another, within the mound. The big question – which is still debated – is which of the nine cities is Priam’s Troy, i.e. the one that the Mycenaeans captured. It’s probably either the city known as Troy VIh or the one that came after it, which we call Troy VIIa. The first was destroyed by an earthquake, which might be represented by Homer as the Trojan Horse. The other one was clearly destroyed by humans in warfare. Both date to within the proper time period at the end of the Late Bronze Age, and it may be that Homer is describing bits and pieces of both of them.
CA: Were you already aware of the Total War games?
Eric Cline: Yes, but only peripherally. I knew there was something called Total War: ROME as my students would tell me about it, but I had never played it myself. I used to play a lot of computer and video games when I was younger, but I won’t name them because that would date me.
CA: A Total War Saga: TROY is set in the Bronze Age – what are your thoughts on there being a contemporary video game focusing on this scarcely represented time period?
Eric Cline: I think it’s fabulous – in my opinion, the Bronze Age is one of the most interesting periods from ancient history in the area of Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, but almost nobody outside of professional archaeologists and ancient historians knows about it – most people only know about later Greece or Rome. I’m hoping that a lot of people get interested in learning more about the period because of this game.
CA: What are your thoughts on how the TROY team has used history to inform the development of the game?
Eric Cline: If I understand things correctly, it sounds like they used what we know about the history of the period to flesh out the details of the game and to make it as accurate as possible, including placing it in the context of the collapse of the whole Bronze Age in this area. And that is great – I have no problem with embellishments or whatever to help with the gameplay as long as the basis is founded on the facts as we know them.
CA: What are your opinions on the TROY team using legendary and mythical material as sources?
Eric Cline: Well, as long as it is clearly understood that the material is legendary and mythical, and might not reflect the actual reality back then, I have no problem with the team using such material, especially since that’s exactly what Homer did to a certain extent. For instance, I rather doubt that the gods actually got involved in the war and yet they are central to Homer’s version of the story. And it’s the legendary and mythical material that most members of the general public will know ahead of time, including many of the people who will be drawn to this game. So, if that pulls them in and they can then also learn about some real history along the way, that’s great.
CA: Do you have a favourite part of A Total War Saga: TROY from what you’ve seen of it so far?
Eric Cline: I’ve only seen the same trailers that everyone else has seen, but I’m tickled at the level of detail in the armour, weapons, and clothing of the various warriors. I’m looking forward to downloading the game, along with everyone else, and playing – then I’ll have a better idea of what my favourite part is.
CA: Do you think there are advantages of looking at history through the lens of video games?
Eric Cline: Certainly. For one thing, it may introduce people to an era of history who wouldn’t otherwise learn about it. That’s already happened with other games, like Total War: ROME and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and I hope it will happen here too. In addition, looking at history through the lens of a video game makes it come alive in a way that you can only otherwise do in a movie or on TV.
CA: Do you any have good video game memories (or even a current favourite video game)?
Eric Cline: My fondest memories actually come from playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school and college, but I enjoyed playing Halo, especially with my son when he was younger, and some of the Assassin’s Creed games more recently. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve never played any of the Age of Empires or Civilization games, though I probably should, in addition to the Total War series. Maybe one day, when I stop digging and writing, I’ll sit down and try them all…
CA: Which of your publications would you recommend for somebody wanting to find out more about Troy?
Eric Cline: Probably the little purple book that I mentioned above – The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction. It was published by Oxford University Press back in 2013 and is available in paperback for about $10 – there’s also a Kindle version for even less. And, if you want to find out about the larger picture – i.e. the context in which the Trojan War probably took place – I’d recommend my other book that I mentioned, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which came out from Princeton University Press in 2014. That’s the story of the collapse of the Bronze Age as a whole, into which I think the Trojan War fits. I’ve been working on a revised version of that book, which should be out sometime in the early spring, but the original version is available for pretty cheap as a paperback, Kindle, or audiobook.
CA: Thank you for your time! Any final bits of advice for any budding historians out there?
Eric Cline: Go for it! History is fascinating… and really it often helps to see where we’ve been if you want to figure out where we’re going. For instance, the parallels between what is happening today and what happened to cause the Collapse of the Bronze Age is eerie, if not actually a bit worrisome!
Check out some of our other behind-the-scenes interviews here!