Historical Accuracy of Rome: Total War

  By Invictus, Rider, Emp. Barbarossa, 8 October 2006; Revised
Contents »
At its release, Rome: Total War offered history-inspired simulation at a new level with a game engine that simulated ancient politics and rendered colorful battles, a feat not to be surpassed until the release of Rome’s successor, Medieval II. However, designed as a game for the general market an analysis on the historical accuracy of the game leads to some interesting results. For example, relative obscure details such as Armenian imitation legionnaires are included in the game, whereas the Egyptian faction is filled with blatant deviations from history, many of which were probably done to better market the game to a broad audience. Such blatant “inaccuracies” have often been decried by history-enthusiastic fans that have developed modifications to correct the errors. This article will explore various elements of the original Rome, especially its portrayal of historical simulation. 

The Campaign Map

While Rome’s campaign map offered greater precision for agents and armies to travel on the map than its predecessor, the campaign concept has a number of elements that stray from realism. First, the timescale of the campaign does not represent actual war and peace times in the ancient world. In a typical game, the player often continuously waged war against opponent factions. For a skilled player, it is possible to sweep the entire map, controlling every single province within a period of seventy years by continuously waging war. In actual history, however, warfare was often sporadic and continuous warfare was not possible to wage due to the amount of resources required. Another element of unrealism is that the travel rate of armies is not realistic.

Another key shortcoming in realism is that regional defenses and logistics are not properly implemented. In Rome: Total War, armies attacking foreign provinces suffer no actual logistical disadvantages. In actuality, conquest of foreign territory could be very slow and difficult due to supply lines natural defenses. For example, the Romans were unable to continue their conquest of Germania due to overextension logistical difficulties. In Rome: Total War, such barriers are not accurately implemented, thus allowing the player to create empires of very unusual boundaries.

Realism of the Battle Engine

While battles in Rome are nothing short of spectacular, at least for its time, they lack crucial realism in terms of army size due to technical. While it is possible to have battles with over ten thousand soldiers in custom games or multiplayer mode, most battles in single player or practical multiplayer are fought with less than six thousand men. In actual history, most battles were on the magnitude of tens of thousands of men. The reduction in the amount of men has dramatic consequences on the tactics employed in battle. In Rome: Total War, phalanx units are ubiquitous across several armies. However, due to the limitations on battle size, phalanxes are less effective because they can be easily outmaneuvered and outflanked, especially with cavalry. In actual battles, the phalanx lines could be miles long – making it much more difficult to surround. As a consequence of small unit size, players often use tactics such as placing phalanx units in a tight box, something that caught on especially well with multiplayer battles.

A second notable deviation from realism is the strength of cavalry in battles. As explained above, outflanking maneuvers are relatively easy to execute, thus already making cavalry very dangerous on the battlefield. The actual power of cavalry in combat is no less yielding, as they are capable of charging extremely well into infantry. For example, cataphract units are able to charge head in and defeat any phalanx unit other than Spartans. The strength of cavalry is also enhanced in the unit collision system. Whereas units that cluttered closely suffered combat penalty in Medieval Total War, the same is not true in Rome. Thus, it has been common for players, especially online players, to “stack” cavalry units on top and charge as a single “blob.” Due to the charge-collision system, stacked cavalry can cause extremely high kill rates on the moment of impact and is extremely difficult to defend against with anything but the best infantry. In addition, the actual maneuverability appears to be greatly exaggerated, as even the heaviest cavalry can stop, turn, and accelerate for the charge in a very short amount of time.

While players in single player can chose whatever army “style” to use, the strength of cavalry could most easily be seen in more competitive multiplayer battles in which the cavalry almost always plays the dominant role, while infantry takes on a supporting role. Cavalry strength is toned down in Rome: Total War’s expansion, Barbarian Invasions, and in fan modifications such as Rome Total Realism.

Finally, it has often been noted that battles in Rome are too “fast” in that armies can be routed in a matter of minutes.

Factions and Units in Rome: Total War

Roman factons – Julii, Brutii and Scipii

First and foremost, the Republic was a unified structure and definitely cannot be divided into three separately factions that could act relatively independently. The three faction system is entirely inaccurate in their role in the game. The portrayal of the three factions system is one of the most irritating inaccuracies to players who care a bit about history.

Their territorial boundaries, which together make up the boundaries of the Romans is also exaggerated. Rome at that time controlled only Central Italy and had not yet fully incorporated southern Italy into its republic. Some locations on the map, especially provinces, have names written in incorrect Latin. For example, “Sicilia Romanus,” the name given to the Roman portion of Sicily, should be written as “Sicilia Romana” to form a correct Latin adjective-noun pair.

In the game, the Julii control northern Italy. The Julii are based off of the important noble Roman clan (gens) Julia, of which Gaius Julius Caesar was a member. Their role in the game is to take over Gaul, Germania, Sardinia, Iberia, Britannia, and Illyria. However, even though the Julii became important rules of Rome, they did not control northern Italy during the start game in the game. The Julii were not even considered among the five most important families (the maiores gens) of the republic. Thus, the obvious reason for the inclusion of the Julii (or the entire three factions system for that matter) is that the name has become Julius very recognizable in the modern world, due to the role of Julius Caesar.

The “Brutii” are depicted as the antagonists of the Greeks, whom the Brutii must conquer as directed by the senate. The “Brutii” faction is most likely inspired by Marcus Junius Brutus, who was among the senators who murdered Caesar. The inclusion of the Brutii is thus obviously driven by the need to present names familiar to most casual gamers, who can relate to the three-faction concept with Caesar’s civil war. Most interestingly, the name “Brutii” is not a clan (gens) like the Julii but a subdivision of the gens called Junii. As you can see, Junius is the second term in Brutus’ name, just like “Julius” in Caesar’s name. 

The third faction, the “Scipii” are set to be the destroyers of Carthage, a task that must accomplish to appease the Senate. Their position in the game is obvious a reference to the Punic wars led by Publius Cornelius Scipio. As in the case of the “Brutus,” the term “Scipio” is a family name rather than a clan name like Julius. Furthermore, the correct Latin plural of “Scipio” is “Scipiones,” which means that “Scipii is an incorrect Latin word. However, unlike the other two Roman clans, the Scipiones were part of the Cornelius clan, which was among the five most senior clans. In the Italian version of Rome: Total War, the Scipii are more correctly called the Cornelii. Finally, their territorial procession of Messina is also very inaccurate.

Continuing onto the units, there are several fantastical deviations from accuracy. For example, the Roman Urban cohorts are depicted as the most elite infantry units in the game for the Romans but were actually police units stationed in cities. The Praetorian infantry unit, depicted as the second most elite Roman infantry, should not be in the timeframe of the game, since they were not established until the founding of the empire. The same can be said of the Praetorian cavalry unit in the game. Besides mainstream military units, the gladiators as battlefield is very ahistorical, since no Roman army used gladiators in their army. Similarly, the “Arcani” as a battlefield unit also lacks historical basis.

Despite being set during the Republican period, the more advanced and robust-looking Post-Marian units are strongly emphasized. The Marian Reforms (107 BC in history), which allows the player to train Marian legionaries often occur too early. After the Marian reforms the player can even train imperial age Roman units carrying segmented armor!

Greek Cities

There are a few issues with the Greek Cities faction in RTW. The largest of these is the depiction of culturally different Greek city-states under the name Greek Cities. This is historically very inaccurate as there never existed a ’Greek’ kingdom in the 3rd century BC.

Militarily, the Greeks are depicted with traditional Greek hoplites with heavy armor and shorter spears as opposed to the Macedonian style Phalanxes who carry longer spears (the sarrisa). In the timeframe of the game (270 B.C. forward), this representation is incorrect. Half a century earlier, the Macedonian phalanx had already proved itself superior to the Greek phalanx at Chaerona where Alexander and Philips defeated a Greek Hoplite army. Subsequent armies in Greece generally adopted the long sarrisa-armed phalanx of the Macedonians. Epirus, depicted in the game as a Greek city, fought in Macedonian style. Even the Hellenistic era Spartans fought with sarissas rather than traditional hoplite weaponry, as in the battle of Sellasia in 220 B.C.

Even though the traditional Greek hoplite had lost its prime during the game’s timeframe it is obvious that the developers included them for the sake of popularity. Especially interesting is that the high end hoplites of the Greek Cities, the armored and the Spartan hoplites, are more powerful than the elite Macedonian phalanxes who bested them in actual history. In the game, Spartan and armored hoplites are able to easily squeeze past the longer sarissa lines to bring the fighting up close. This fact presents an irony that in actual history, the Greek Phalanx evolved into the Macedonian Phalanx, whereas the opposite is true in Rome. On the other hand, the prominence of such hoplite units serve to satisfy the taste of many Greek History enthusiasts who prefer to read about Greek history before the Macedonian era.


Macedon, representing the Antigonid Empire, starts with a nice amount of territory in northern Greece. In actual gameplay, the Macedonians can overpower the Greek Cities to their south to gain a significant financial advantage. The game’s depiction of the Macedonian provides them with a wide range of units, including Phalanxes and companion cavalry. However, a more detailed selection is lacking. Macedon lacks proper elite infantry units. The hypaspists, strangely named as “Royal Pikemen” is incorrectly depicted as a phalanx-type unit. An Asthetairoi unit is also lacking as Macedon does not have an elite phalangite unit in the game to match the Seleucid Silver Shields.

A peculiarity is that the Macedon sports a banner with the Lambda symbol. The lambda was associated with the Lakedaimonians (Spartans), not with Macedon.

Seleucid Empire

In history, the Seleucid Empire was the largest kingdom to span the region covered in the game. However, in the actual game, the Seleucids get less than a third of their historical territory and only a fraction of their historical military power. Particularly, a huge amount of the Seleucid’s western territories have been given to the Parthians. This unfortunate and very inaccurate portrayal on the map makes the Seleucids a rather interesting faction from a gameplay perspective, as it forces the player to fight on all sides, especially against their historical rivals Egypt. In fan modifications that strive for accuracy, the Seleucids are given their full historical territorial and military power and are consequently the most powerful on the map.

In Rome: Total War, the Seleucids are given the most diverse army of any faction in the game, with units including phalanxes, legionaries, elephants, companions, cataphracts, and scythed chariots. The Seleucid’s historical elite phalanx, the Silver Shields (Argyriaspids) are included, both in phalanx and legionnaire form. The Silver Shield phalanx, as well as other sarissa phalanxes, is conspicuously underequppted for late Macedonian infantry, which was more heavily armored than the earlier infantry of Alexander the Great. The “legionnaire” version of the Silver Shields is more inaccurate. While part of the Silver Shields did adopt the more flexible Roman-style equipment after the defeat at Magnesia, they did not wear segmented Imperial Roman armor, which did not appear until three centuries after the creation of the Silver Shield Legionnaires. A more accurate representation of Silver Shield Legionaires would be something like the Roman Principes. An interesting observation is that when playing as the Seleucids, it is possible to build Silver Shield Legionnaires before the Romans have access to their own proper, post-Marian legionnaires.

The Selecuids are given companion cavalry, cataphracts, scythed chariots, and armored war elephants, all of these are mentioned in historical text. The Seleucid cataphract in Rome: Total War, identical in appearance and combat to those of Armenia and Parthia, is actually based off a well-known wall drawing in Dura Europos drawn a few centuries after the timeframe of the game. Whether this depiction of a Seleucid cataphract is correct is difficult to determine due to the scarcity of evidence.    


As the famed opponent of Rome, Carthage is naturally an important part of Rome: Total War. The Carthaginians have a diverse set of attack strategies as opponents are abundant in the area. Likewise, the Carthaginian army is given a good selection of units ranging from phalanxes to Sacred Band cavalry, to armored elephants. Since the game offers an abundance of mercenaries to hire, the Carthaginian player can fill his ranks with diverse-looking mercenaries from the Mediterranean and Europe, including the famous Baeleric slingers, Numidian cavalry and Iberian javelinmen which Carthage employed against Rome.  

The Carthaginians get the fully array of armored and unarmored elephants at their service. While it is expected that their elephants should be emphasized due to their use in the historical Punic Wars, the elephants depicted in the game appear to be of a species much larger rather than the rather small and now-extinct North African elephants that they mostly used. Besides elephants, the Carthaginian can field infantry and cavalry from their elite “Sacred Band” units.


The desert people of Numidia are worthy opponents for Carthage. In history, they played an important role in the Punic roles by providing their famous light cavalry to Carthaginians, and at times, also the Romans. Numidian light cavalry is present in the game, although spear- and sword- armed light cavalry is seriously lacking in combat power compared to heavy cavalry, which the Numidians don’t have.

A curious unit available to the Numidians is the “Numidian Legionnaires” which represents Numidian attempt to copy Roman-style warfare. There is some historical basis for the use of imitation legionnaires by the Numidians. The Numidian army under Juba is described by Suetonius to have contained ten “legions” distinguished from other light infantrymen troops. The use of legion here implies infantry of rather heavy equipment. Tacitus also describes a much later Numidian (Moorish) army of Tacfarinas containing “picked men who were armed in Roman fashion” (Annals, 2.50).


In Rome: Total War, the Parthians start with a much larger amount of territory than they historically had in 270 B.C. In fact, if the map were drawn correctly for the Parthians, they would not have any territory at all on the Rome’s Map. However, in Rome, the Parthians do get three provinces in the east, two of which at the expense of the Seleucids who in history still held on to most of their land in the east. Parthia is also given a land in the upper-right corner called “Campus Sakae.” This province is in reference to the Parthian connection with the Saka, but inclusion of it into actual Parthian-ruled territory has absolutely no historical basis.

The Parthian army in Rome emphasizes cavalry as it did historically. The Parthians rely on their elite horse archer, named “Persian Cavalry” and their shock cataphract cavalry. The in-game design of cataphract cavalry, as mentioned earlier, is largely modeled after third-century the graffito found in Dura Europos, which may or may not be representative of cataphracts of earlier times. “Persian Cavalry” appears to be another generic unit name given by the developers for a lack of a better term. The most unique Parthian unit, however, is the cataphract camel. While camels did take part in war, it is unclear what role the heavily-armored camels had in the Parthia army.

Historically, the Parthian army had a very small standing army belonging to the king that was reinforced in wartime by the troops of his noble vassals. No detail description of the Parthian army exists until the battle of Carrhae, which would be near the end of the period depicted in the game. At the battle of Carrhae, besides cataphracts and horse archers, Cassius Dio writes that the Parthians had very weak infantry who were all archers. In the game, the Parthians receive weak hand-to-hand infantry who are often relegated to garrison roles.


Like the other eastern factions, Armenia boasts very strong cavalry, including the cataphract and an additional archer variation of the cataphract. However, compared to Parthia and Scythia, Armenia has much better infantry units: heavy spearmen and Armenian Legionnaires. The heavy spearman, a phalanx unit with a shield, pike, and eastern armor, is likely based on the descriptions of the battle of Tigranocerta (69 B.C.) between Roman and Armenians written by Plutarch and Appian. In describing the battle, Plutarch’s that the Armenian army had “phalanxes of heavy infantry” (Lucellus.26) and in another paragraph, that the heavy infantry were formed in both cohorts and phalanxes. The reference to cohorts implies infantry similarly equipped as Roman legionnaires. Imitation legionnaires are also mentioned by Appian, who wrote that after the Armenian defeat, the Armenian King divided his men “into companies and cohorts as nearly as possible according to the Italian system.” (Mitridatic War, 87)

The distinct style of the Armenian infantry and powerful cataphract cavalry makes it one of the most colorful in the game, despite that they were considered a minor faction and had to be unlocked manually by modification. Surrounded by enemies, Armenia is also one of the more challenging factions to play on the campaign map.


Historically, Pontus was a diverse region that represented a fusion of Eastern, Hellenistic, and steppe culture. Their army in Rome is equally diverse, with Phalanxes, chariots, javelin cavalry, and heavy cavalry. Such units are also present in Plutarch’s Life of Sulla which includes a description of the Battle of Chaerona, 89 B.C. Scythed chariots are heavily emphasizes in this account, as well as Appian’s account of the battle. Plutarch also mentions the Chalkaspides (Bronze Shields), which makes appearance in the game as the elite Phalanx of Pontus, equal in combat effectiveness to the Siler Shield phalanx of the Seleucids.


Without doubt, Egypt is one of the most historically inaccurate factions in the game. It is probable that since Egypt is a well-known civilization, the developers wanted to portray them as uniquely “Egyptian” as possible, even though by the game’s timeframe, Egypt had been conquered by the Macedonians and adopted a large amount of Hellenistic culture, especially in its military. Egypt, more correctly known as the Ptolemaic Empire, for the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled it, also had a number of territories in Asia minor and the Eastern Mediterranean missing in the actual game.

The portrayal of Egypt’s army is highly inaccurate. Instead of having units equipped in Macedonian gear, Egypt’s army in the game resembles an Egyptian army centuries before the depicted time period. Units such as chariots, desert cavalry, and axemen are all anachronistic. Chariots had largely fallen out of favor since the Macedonian conquest and were replaced by cavalry. The Pharaoh’s guard and bowmen are both inaccurate units designed to look more like pre-Macedonian warriors rather than proper Ptolemaic units. The depiction of the Egyptian army is so inaccurate that it is hard to find anything that is correct, other than perhaps slingers and the use of phalanx formation. 

The wealth of Egypt is well materialized in the game. Even though the Egyptians start off with fewer provinces than they had historically, the ones they do hold at the beginning are enormous in resources. Due to their wealth, Egypt often dominates the eastern Mediterranean in single player games.


The Scythian faction is inaccurate from the very start. Historically the Sarmatians had already conquered Scythia by 270 B.C., which means that it was not the faction should be more correctly named “Sarmatia” rather than “Scythia.” In fan modifications, Scythia is correctly renamed as “Sarmatia,” but it is unclear why this blatant error was included in the original game.

The “Scythians” in the game have a good selection of cavalry, including heavily armored lancers and armored horse archers. They also can build “head hunting maidens” which are of obvious reference to the presence of women warriors in steppe cultures. Infantry-wise, the Scythians are lacking compared to the other barbarian factions, although they do have the powerful “chosen archer” unit on foot. In single player campaign games, Scythia is very free to expand its territory to potentially develop into a powerful empire on the steppes.


In Rome: Total War, Gaul is represented as a united country. This is very far from the true, historical Gaul. Gaul was the landmass that occupies modern day France and Belgium comprised of a variety of different tribes. Even in the time of Vercingetorix, when a large number of Gauls allied against the Romans, there were many Gallic tribes that were allied with the invading Romans. Of the many tribes that inhabited Gaul include the Parisii (from whom Paris is named), the Belgae (from whom the name Belgium derives), and the Sequani. In Rome: Total War, the Gauls also own Celtiberia, a region inhabited by Celtic peoples related to those in proper Gaul. Though the people of Celtiberia were related to the Celtic peoples in Gaul, the people were of Iberian stock, and the province would be much more accurately owned by Spain.

Gallic units are mostly generic barbarian troops classified by equipment. A unit of particular inaccuracy is the druids, which are portrayed as warrior-priests. In actuality, druids did not have a combat role in battles.


Like Gaul, Britannia is inaccurately portrayed in Rome: Total War as a single faction, although due to gameplay limitations, this united approach was probably the only one practical. Britannia was under a tribal system and there was never a long-term union between the tribes. There was a small union of many tribes under Boudicca,but this was only a union short in length during a time of war, and cannot be considered a full union of the peoples of Britannia. Curiously, Britannia is given land in continential Europe, probably based on gameplay reasons rather than any historical basis.


Just like how Egypt’s is depicted as that of the more familiar ancient Egypt, Germania is strongly portrayed with “barbarian” stereotypes. While the less-organized barbarian armies are naturally open to artistic interpretation, it is clear that the portrayal of the Germania heavily deviate from historical evidence. The axe, a popular symbol of barbarianism, is strongly emphasized in the game’s portrayal of Germania: it appears in Germania’s military banner and also in the form of the “Chosen Axemen” unit. While axes were in use in northern Europe, the spear was far more predominant and two-handed axes were rare in any culture in any time period. The screeching women unit is also a unit added out of pure artistic license.

A more serious error lies in the “Gothic cavalry” unit available to Germania. While such a unit would be appropriate for a game set during the late Roman Empire (as in Rome’s expansion pack), the unit is heavily out of place for the game’s period. The Germanians the Romans fought in the Republic did not contain such impressive cavalry. 

In the single player game, Germania starts with an economically difficult position and must conquer territory to keep their funding afloat. In multiplayer, the exceptional strength of their Gothic cavalry makes Germania the only barbarian faction other than Scythia that can compete with civilized factions in most standard battles.

Dacia and Thrace

Dacia is the landmass that basically occupies modern day Romania. Dacia, in history, belonged to Thracian peoples. Therefore, their two provinces, Tribus Iazyges and Dacia, should more accurately be given to the Thracians


The first inaccuracy in Rome: Total War is the very name, Spain. The area covered by Spain was not referred to as Spain by the Romans, or by any other ancient people, but rather, as Iberia. Iberia refers to modern day Spain and Portugal, since there was no division between the two in ancient times.