When Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey debuted earlier this month, it received much praise for the quality of its world-building and story. Some historians say it also deserves high marks for its attention to historical detail in recreating ancient Greece. Notably, the game features colorfully painted statues, temples, and tombs scattered throughout the virtual city.
Yes, it’s true: Unlike all those pristine, gleaming white marble sculptures we see all the time in museums — the ones we’ve long believed defined the Western aesthetic of the Classical era — Greco-Roman art was awash with color. . Art historians have known this for a while, of course, but the knowledge hasn’t really moved beyond the confines of that rarefied world. That may change now that it’s a feature in a hugely popular game.
The 11th major installment in the hit game franchise, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey takes place in the year 431 BCE and describes a fictional history of the Peloponnesian war that Athens waged against Sparta. Ubisoft’s development team took world building so seriously that it hired a historical consultant to get the details just right.
Sure, the team took some liberties here and there, but judging by the response from historians like Emory University classic Dr. Kira Jones (an avid gamer), did a great job. As Hyperallergic points out, Dr. Jones one of the leaders of a Twitter hashtag for historians to crowdsource information about the details in the new game:
A colorful tour
Jones was particularly impressed with the way the game recreates the actual maps of Delphi and the Acropolis. “You can make your way up Mount Parnassus to Delphi, past the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia and the Tholos (which is under construction)…all the way to the Theater and Temple of Apollo,” she told me. Hyperallergic. The route is dotted with people living their lives, chatting, praying or selling their wares. In fact, many of the shrines and temples in the game have merchants selling votives — another historically accurate detail, according to Jones.
Even an engraving on an otherwise ordinary looking stone slab may have been drawn from an actual counterpart, Twitter historians concluded. Biggest complaint: The developers took some shortcuts when it came to decorating some of the more random buildings and pedestals, “rubber stamping” details of the in-game Parthenon frieze.
But it’s the brilliant colors seen everywhere that art historians rave about Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. That’s called polychromy. At least since the Renaissance, Greco-Roman sculptors have been believed to deliberately leave their works unpainted. The colors had faded over the centuries by the elements, and while some traces were still visible to the naked eye, the cleaning and restoration process mostly wiped them out.
Major excavations at the end of the 19th century revealed several clearly painted reliefs and sculptures on the Acropolis, among others, which should have solved the case. By this time, however, white marble had become a symbol of the pure neoclassical aesthetic, so the fact that polychromy was probably common in ancient Greece met considerable resistance. Over time, that resistance has weakened in the face of the sheer number of painted sculptures and other artifacts that have been unearthed.
Science has helped to gather even more evidence than what can be seen with the naked eye. For example, in 2009, conservationists at the British Museum found traces on several Parthenon figures of Egyptian blue, one of the earliest known pigments, using techniques such as infrared luminescence to examine the sculptures. (Egyptian blue absorbs visible light and re-emits infrared, which can be captured by a specially modified digital camera.)
There may be consensus among the classicists, but for the average person on the street, seeing brightly colored Greek sculptures is still quite shocking. Museums do their part to change that perception. A few years ago, for example, an exhibition of brightly colored plaster replicas called “The Gods of Color” debuted at a museum in Munich and traveled the world. But video games have the potential to have a much greater impact on popular culture and reach a much wider audience. Including all those brightly colored details in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is a good start.