Total War: Attila and the "Dark Ages"

Total War: Attila portrays the collapse of the Roman Empire as an unmitigated tragedy. How does this depiction measure up to scrutiny?

Total War: Attila and the "Dark Ages"
Total War: Attila. Source: Steam.
And I saw in his hand a book, sealed with seven seals, the first of which was broken. And behold a white horse; and he that sat on him had a bow; and he went forth to conquer.

These words are gruffly recited by the narrator of Total War: Attila towards the end of the game’s introduction. This quote paraphrases two verses from the book of Revelations which describe Conquest, the first of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, being unleashed upon the world.  Accompanying this narration is footage of a pitched battle being waged at night between a Roman and a Hunnic army. The battle ends with a dying Roman soldier looking up in horror at Attila the Hun looming over him. Astride his horse and surrounded by smoke and flame, the game’s titular character is presented as a force of nature. He looks down in judgment both at the soldier dying at his feet and, implicitly, into the camera, at the audience.

Total War: Attila portrays the fall of the Roman Empire as not just the end of an era but as an apocalyptic event. This conforms to a long-running trend in depictions of the 5th century as an era of unbridled chaos. In these narratives, the order and stability of Roman rule are swept aside and the “Dark Ages” begin, bringing with them untold savagery and devastation.

But just how much does the game's portrayal of the 5th century as the cataclysmic end of a golden era represent actual history, and how much is the game relying on an outdated interpretation of the events it depicts?

Total War: Attila. Creative Assembly.

The Tone of Total War

Released in February 2015, Total War: Attila is the 9th installment in Creative Assembly’s Total War grand strategy series. Each of the Total War games depicts an era of history and invites players to choose a civilisation and lead them through the ages. This game’s campaign begins in 395 CE, slightly before what some scholars would label as the beginning of the “Dark Ages”.

Uniquely, while most Total War games have the players start from humble beginnings and gradually gain strength and influence, Total War: Attila gives players the option of controlling the Western or Eastern Roman Empire. These two powers begin the games in control of large swathes of the map, but also in a state of anarchy. Beset both internally and externally by enemies, players are invited to bite down tenaciously and hold on to what they have. These two campaigns are focused on preventing your faction’s decline rather than overseeing their ascendancy.

Of course, players also have the option of controlling several other civilisations. Sassanid Persia presents an Empire in a more stable starting position. It’s also possible to take command of one of several tribes such as the Vandals, the Alans, or the Saxons. Many of these tribes are fleeing from the Huns into the relative safety of Roman lands.

Total War: Attila, Creative Assembly.

Of course, given that the game is called Total War: Attila, The Huns are playable. The comparisons drawn between Attila’s armies and the horseman of the apocalypse are not merely confined to the intro movie. Every faction in the game has a unique beneficial ability which grants them a bonus. The unique ability of the Huns is, somewhat unsubtly, called “Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. This ability inflicts devastating penalties on opponents while Hunnic hordes are present in their provinces, and provides beneficial effects to the Huns when they wage multiple wars at once and when they destroy cities. 

Total War: Attila introduces a new mechanic that enables factions, Hunnic or otherwise, to destroy cities. This provides the most overtly apocalyptic imagery in the game.  Rather than conquering a province, a victorious invading army can instead choose to raze it. The game does everything in its power to show the monstrous consequences of this course of action. A chorus of screams rings out and then fades to silence as a fireball spreads out from the center of the province to its margins. The land becomes blanketed in smoke and ash.  Since the Huns are exclusively nomadic, they are unable to capture cities and occupy provinces. As such, whether the Huns end up controlled by the player or by the AI, they are likely to carve their way across the map leaving a trail of smoldering ruins in their wake. The game is striving to create an apocalyptic atmosphere and it absolutely succeeds.


Total War: Attila, Creative Assembly.

The History: Gibbon

Total War: Attila’s depiction of the 5th century as a time of unmitigated horror is not an invention of the developers at Creative Assembly. This grim portrayal of the era has been the standard throughout most of history. By far the most influential account of this period is Edward Gibbon’s History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire.

An 18th century text, the scope of Gibbon’s book is massive. The book begins in the second century CE at what Gibbon believes was the height of the Roman Empire’s power and prestige. He describes the Rome of this period with glowing praise.

He writes: “In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind”. 

The book then continues charting Rome’s history, which Gibbon portrays as the gradual decline of a civilised power into debauchery and excess leading to its eventual collapse at the hands of barbarians.

Gibbon’s affectionate regard for the Romans of the second century is contrasted sharply with his condemnation of their behaviour in the fifth. In a section entitled, Total Extinction of the Western Empire, he writes: “The degenerate Romans, who converted the spoil to their own emolument, demolished, with sacrilegious hands, the labours of their ancestors.”

Something notable about Gibbon’s writing is the lack of emphasis he places on the actions of non-Romans: “The spectator who casts a mournful view over the ruins of ancient Rome, is tempted to accuse the memory of the Goths and Vandals, for the mischief which they had neither leisure, nor power, nor perhaps inclination, to perpetrate.”

Gibbon affords Goths, Vandals and other “barbarians” exceedingly little agency. The only power great enough to destroy Rome is Rome itself. The Vandals, who end up sacking the city in 455 CE, manage to do so not due to their own merit, but because of Rome’s festering corruption. The Vandals are merely a blunt tool, sweeping aside a society that has already destroyed itself.

I played Attila: Total War for a few hours and became a war-mongering Dark  Age tyrant - Polygon
Source: Polygon.

This is made clear in another passage: “If all the Barbarian conquerors had been annihilated in the same hour, their total destruction would not have restored the empire of the West: and if Rome still survived, she survived the loss of freedom, of virtue, and of honour.”

As well as minimising the agency of non-Romans, Gibbon dehumanises them through a variety of other means. He frequently describes them “infesting” areas they conquer, labels them as “savages” and describes their lives as being meaningless unless they are engaged in constant violence.

In one, particularly revealing, section, he writes: “They delight in sloth, they detest tranquillity. The languid soul, oppressed with its own weight, anxiously required some new and powerful sensation; and war and danger were the only amusements adequate to its fierce temper.”

To the writers of Total War: Attila’s credit, they do make significantly more of an effort than Gibbon to distinguish and differentiate the nuances of the game’s non-Roman factions. The Franks, Saxons, Goths, and many others are all portrayed as distinct and separate entities with their own unique cultures and customs.

The game doesn’t entirely escape Gibbon’s orbit, however. As well as borrowing from him the general sense of bleakness that enshrouds the fifth century, the portrayals of many of the “barbarian factions” are not too far from how they are described in his text.

When selected in combat, Roman soldiers calmly respond to the player’s orders in a level tone. Meanwhile, units from factions labelled as “barbarian kingdoms” or “great migrators” seemingly revel in chaos and violence. When their units are clicked on, they make frenzied war cries exclaiming violent threats such as: “Kill!”, “Let them cower before us!” and “We will pierce their hearts!” Thus while a clear effort has been made to show how each of the non-Roman factions are distinct and unique, they are ultimately still portrayed as violent savages.

Attila - Total War
Source: Total War.

The History: Modern scholarship

Gibbon’s writing about the 5th century is far from the only account describing the period. Many contemporary scholars have questioned the narrative which he laid down.

The key distinction between the writings of Gibbon and more modern scholars is how they approach the issue of identity. In Gibbon’s writing “Roman” and “Barbarian” are two distinct categories which never intersect. More recent works emphasise the vital interconnections between Romans and non-Romans. Rome had created client kingdoms on its periphery for many generations, but the declining administrative capabilities of the Roman Empire in the fifth century resulted in the appointment of client kings, drawn from non-Roman communities, to rule over more central territories. As the old Imperial system dissolved, these client kingdoms eventually became the successor states of Rome. Michael Kulikowski's 2012 work The Western Kingdoms focuses on these unique communities.

Directly confronting disaster-focused views of the fifth century, like those of Gibbon, Kulikowski writes: “A polity with which to replace imperial government, was not the goal of any fifth-century king.  It is on this point that all the catastrophic readings of the fifth century go so badly wrong.”

Kulikowski continues: “The territorial kingdoms of the late fifth and the sixth centuries were not willed into being by a process of barbarian conquest and royal aggrandisement. They were, rather, than products of failure, the failure of the mechanisms of imperial governance and the failure of various reges [kings] and reguli [rules] to find a place within that imperial structure”.

In other words, the rulers of the states that replaced Rome were not diabolical savages looking to tear the old world down and usher in a new dark age. Instead, they were pragmatic rulers, forced to adapt and forge new systems of government for themselves and their people, as the world order they once knew receded into history.

Total War Attila Announced
Source: IGN Africa.

Guy Halsall’s 2007 work Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West 376-568 also explores the theme of identity during the fall of the Roman empire.

Halsall writes: “New political identities were forged, which effectively replaced the political role of the Roman Empire, although other aspects of Roman identity were sometimes maintained”.

The new kingdoms replacing the empire, rather than seeking to erase the legacy of their predecessor, instead relied on appeals to the Roman past as a means of legitimising their new rule.

Halsall writes about how identity during this period was “endlessly fluid.” He cites the specific example of Theodehad, the Gothic ruler who became king of the new kingdom of Italy in 534.

Halsall states that Theodehad: “was a Goth but also appears to have seen himself as a Tuscan landlord and as a Roman nobleman.”

In some ways Total War: Atilla conveys the interconnected relationship of Rome and the “Barbarians”. Both the Western and Eastern Roman factions possess the trait Imperial Allegiance, which enables them to recruit units from friendly barbarian hordes which pass through their territory. This does a good job of representing the network of patron and client relationships that existed between the Romans and the kings subject to them in this period.

Similarly, the Ostrogoths possess the trait Inheritors of Rome, a reference to the Gothic kingdom of Italy which eventually succeeded Rome as the dominant power in Southern Europe. This skill enables the Ostrogoths to occupy Roman settlements without gaining instability and to recruit Roman units from military buildings in these captured cities. This emphasises a link between the Roman Empire and the kingdoms which replaced it, a rare demonstration of continuity and new beginnings in a game otherwise so obsessed with cataclysmic endings.

Total War: Attila, Creative Assembly.


In an interview with World History et cetera, the lead designer of Total War: Atilla, Janos Gaspar, described the game’s tone. He stated: “The game’s narrative is delivered from the perspective of fourth or fifth-century CE Christians, and Attila is the punishment for the Roman Empire’s sins and decadence. He is the very herald of the divine apocalypse.”

The abundance of apocalyptic imagery in Total War: Atilla was clearly a deliberate design choice and, in many ways, it is a very effective one.  The game possesses a cinematic quality that is hard to deny. The grim tone is immediately gripping, and the stakes feel truly world-shattering.

When playing as the Western Roman Empire, and attempting to cling on for dear life, Gaspar’s vision bears out. The Huns, and other tribes attacking you, really do feel like a kind of divine punishment. The only issue is that, in reality, the Huns, and all of the other “barbarian tribes” were not apocalyptic heralds or a supernatural force of evil. They were all simply people.

Total War: Atilla, spends a lot of time focusing on bloodthirsty barbarian warbands clashing with Roman regiments. The hordes migrating across the map are presented exclusively as mighty armies. The lives of non-combatants traveling in these groups, such as women, children, and the elderly, are not dwelt on at length. Perhaps this is merely a necessity of the genre. As a war game, it is not necessarily Total War: Atilla’s role to tell these stories. It would be impossible to reconcile this depiction of the “barbarians” as uncertain and vulnerable people caught in a rapidly changing world, with the game’s desire to present them as the mythical agents of Rome’s judgment.

So Total War: Atilla absolutely succeeds in its objective of creating an apocalyptic and bleak tone In doing so, however, it tells a tragically incomplete history.


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