Trigger Warning: This article discusses enslavement, sexual assault, and violence against enslaved peoples.
Released in 2018, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey was the second in the decades-long series of action-adventure games to take place in a time considered “ancient”. Following 2017’s Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which took place in the last years of Ptolemaic Egypt, Odyssey took the player to Greece at the height of the Peloponnesian War. Like its predecessor, the game features an RPG-inspired open world through which the main character, a mercenary named Kassandra, endures solving crimes, helping civilians, and slowly uncovering her family’s secrets (and maybe fighting a Cyclops or two).
One such quest, named “Once a Slave”, involves a character simply named “Slave Owner”, who tasks Kassandra with finding his family’s stolen heirloom: a precious vase. The Slave Owner tells Kassandra to go look for an enslaved person under his ownership, whom the game names “Slave”, and who may be of service. However, when speaking to him, the Slave asks Kassandra to lie for him and tell his owner that it was him who told the bandits where to find the vase.
The reason is one that, to both Kassandra and (one assumes) the player, sounds unbelievable: ‘With my master I have purpose, responsibilities, food and shelter’, the Slave says. As his owner wishes to soon free him, he hopes that by taking the blame for the theft he can offer his continued servitude as repayment, thus avoiding what he deems a purposeless life. Kassandra, unprompted by the player, argues with the Slave on his decision. She points out that all of those are things which the Slave can obtain as a free man, but the Slave responds that ‘[t]his life offers me the best chance of survival’.
At the end of the quest, Kassandra can decide whether to lie to the Slave Owner according to the Slave’s wishes, or tell the Slave Owner the truth: that the Slave wants to remain in his service. If the player takes the second option, Kassandra then has two further lines of possible dialogue: either she reminds the Slave that ‘[his] life is still [his] own’, despite his enslaved status, and that he should have just asked his owner to remain in his service, or that he should respect his owner’s choice to free him, and that the owner ‘maybe sees something in [him]’ that he doesn’t see himself. If the first option is taken, the Slave remains. If the second option is taken, the Slave Owner tells the Slave that ‘while [his] mind and body are still able, [he] should start [his] own life’ and allows him to leave.
Conversely, should the player choose to lie, as the Slave asked, the Slave Owner wholly rejects him, and commands him to leave ‘before [he pays] this misthios to kill [him]’. The narrative portrays the Slave as ultimately unable to make his own decisions. Either he is unable to see his own worth, and the Slave Owner must remind him of it, or Kassandra must remind him of his own bodily autonomy, all the while demonstrating how his original plan was a foolish one. Alternatively, if Kassandra chooses to follow the Slave’s plan, it is revealed to be a disaster, once more emphasising the Slave’s ineptitude.
Narratives about slaves and enslavement are nothing new to the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Freedom from oppression is a common theme. Bayek, the main character of the previous title, was fighting for the freedom of Egypt against the yoke of Roman (and Ptolemaic) oppression. A number of earlier games, mainly Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation and Assassin’s Creed – Black Flag: Freedom Cry, feature formerly-enslaved main characters fighting for their freedom and helping others escape the Transatlantic slave trade. These games are very clear about the moral alignment of enslavement: ‘But they are not even human!’ exclaims the main antagonist of Freedom Cry, the cruel and violent Governor de Faye, adding that without the discipline and guidance of ‘their masters’, enslaved people would resort to murder and violence. A few moments later, he is unceremoniously killed by Adewale, the protagonist. Those people de Faye was calling subhuman included enslaved children, drowned to try and stop Adewale’s plans. Arguments in favour of slavery have often hinged on the ideas of intellectual, moral or psychological ineptitude of enslaved people, and on the need for white people’s guidance in overcoming these failings, a so-called ‘paternalistic’ model of slavery.
This model was not new to the Antebellum American South or to the Transatlantic slave trade. Ancient Greek enslaved people were subject to very little, if any, legal protection. Chief was the lack of any legal protection for bodily autonomy: slaves could be beaten, tortured or sexually assaulted without much, if any, legal repercussions. This went hand in hand with the view of enslaved people as entirely movable property: as objects owned by their masters, they were at their complete mercy and could be sold and bought at will.
Already subhuman legally, the stereotypes surrounding them only made matters worse: in Attic comedy, slaves could fall into two categories – either they were bad (lazy, lecherous, incompetent, for whom discipline was necessary) or good (efficient, honest, close to their masters). Both of these stereotypes were, ultimately, justifications for slavery. On the one hand, there is the paternalistic approach to slavery as necessary to educate those who could not fend for themselves; the morally illiterate needing the guidance of their enslavers. On the other hand, there is the ‘flattening’ of the power relations intrinsic to systems of slavery, a fiction where the positive synergy between master and enslaved person somehow justified the practice altogether.
This is the historical grounding that makes the writing of “Once a Slave” so insidious. Assassin’s Creed has always prided itself in the accuracy of its historical reconstructions. In the game, Kassandra can climb all the way up to the Akropolis and sit at the top of the statue of Athena Nike. En route, she can hear the babble of people on the street, arguing, haggling, laughing – almost all of it in Attic Greek. The archaeological reconstructions are so minute that, with Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Ubisoft introduced a so-called ‘Discovery Mode’ to their games, where the combat is entirely removed and the players can walk around the environments, reading about the historical contexts along the way.
A historically accurate rendition of Ancient Greece cannot exist without mentioning slavery. But ancient slavery is something pop culture finds itself unable to deal with. It either emphasises it or ignores it. Sword-and-sandal classics such as Ben-Hur or Spartacus, with their rousing stories of slaves seeking freedom at any cost, gave a mythological dimension to ancient slavery, safely placing it at arm’s length from any real reflections on it. When the enslaved person is larger-than-life, their very plight becomes mythologised and therefore cannot be humane. Other works, such as Zack Snyder’s 300, completely elide the issue of slaves: the Spartan helots are never even mentioned, despite being the backbone of Sparta’s economy.
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey attempts to clumsily reconcile its supposed historical accuracy with the modern awareness of slavery as intrinsically dehumanising. There is very little reason to believe that a misthios in Ancient Greece would carry any strong opinions about the plight of enslaved people. Kassandra, however, is surprisingly forward-thinking, and is more than happy to remind the Slave of his own worth, with or without the Slave Owner. Many of the enemies in the game are cruel slave owners, or men who traffic slaves, and the game counts their owning slaves as proof of their cruelty. But Perikles, one of Kassandra’s greatest allies, also owned slaves: the game hardly mentions this.
Written By Justin Biggi
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