Sword-and-sandal RPGs: ancient history and myth
This is a list of RPG systems and supplements that are either set in or at least vaguely inspired by “the ancient times”, broadly construed. This is, of course, a very large category, as recorded ancient history spans approximately 4000 years and encompasses all inhabited continents. While the games listed here fairly well represent all the different periods of antiquity from the Bronze Age up to the age of migrations, their geographical reach is mostly restricted to the Mediterranean Basin and the neighboring areas of Western Europe and the Near East. Unsurprisingly, this means primarily Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, since these civilizations hold the most widespread recognition.
The ancient peoples themselves had already mythologized their own distant past; subsequent epochs, including our own, produced further legends and fanciful images of life in antiquity. The ancient world thus exists for us simultaneously as the real stuff studied by academic historians and archaeologists and as an imagined past that never really existed. Accordingly, the games on the list cover the whole spectrum, from the “antiquarian” to the “Hollywood” visions of ancient history. Examples include:
- careful historical reconstructions aiming for high accuracy and realism, with only minor embellishments in the service of fun;
- settings inspired not by ancient history, but by ancient myths, often emulating the logic of the epic narratives involving demigod heroes;
- hommages to representations of antiquity in popular culture, such as the Italian “peplum films” and the projects of Ray Harryhausen;
- essentially fantasy settings with ancient trappings serving mostly decorative functions.
It is worth noting that my earlier list of sword and sorcery games is a natural complement to this one. While typical Conanesque settings are melting pots of various cultures and epochs, they most often include some broad stand-ins for ancient civilizations, and their systems usually model the type of heroic adventures that is very appropriate for ancient-era roleplaying.