A Classicist’s Reading of the Mass Effect Trilogy

A Classicist’s Reading of the Mass Effect Trilogy

By: Madison Abshire

As a nerd for classics and history, as well as Sci-Fi and videogames, I am always excited to see those passions intersect.  I am lucky that, in the process of effective world building within a game, templates from the past are often the starting point for studio writers. This often expedites the writing process since they can use the audience’s connotations of whatever culture they are referencing. Frequently, writers turn to the Classical Western civilizations.  This makes sense for Science Fiction games, as our local planets are named for the Roman Pantheon, and, prior to the modern convention of giving stars a number, many are named in a Roman or Greek style.  An obvious example would be in the Halo series, in which we see the Spartans, a class of genetically modified super-soldiers.  With very little exposition, the writers were able to use the popular perception of the Spartan city-state as a military powerhouse in the Classical Greek period, particularly feeding off the fame of the Battle of Thermopylae.  However, occasionally a studio will transcend the basic cultural references, and display a well-researched and keen understanding of the cultures they wish to evoke.

For me, the joy of exploring a game world is in the details, and not just the references.  Bioware’s Mass Effect series is very good at many things, but one of the aspects that I loved was that they went farther than referencing classical cultures.  With a read through the in-game Codex, or the Mass Effect Wiki, it is easy to identify the more subtle references that truly flesh out the world building.  For one with some familiarity of the classical Mediterranean world, there is a great deal to find.  In particular the alien races, the Asari and the Turians, function like highly idealized versions of (respectively) Greek or Roman society.

mass effect 1

The Asari, are the famous blue, feminine aliens, known for their long life-span, and their masterful use of Biotics (essentially the ability to manipulate forces, or “Mass Effect Fields” with neural electrical impulses).  Their home world is called Thessia, which is rather close to Thessaly, a region in northern Greece.  Thessaly had a particular reputation for being associated with witches and witchcraft, with a prominent example found in Apuleius’s 2rd century novel, The Golden Ass, where the main character, Lucius, travels to Thessaly, and encounters terrifying tales of witches, and is soon accidentally transformed into a donkey through his curiosity in experiencing magic.  The Asari aptitude with Biotics, essentially a Sci-Fi analogue to a magic system, makes this reference rather fitting.

Mass Effect Asari

In addition, the Asari government works like an idealized version of democracy in a Greek polis.  Rather than a unified government, there are a number of Asari Republics, which have close-knit trade and diplomatic relationships.  In the place of elected officials, every citizen (Asari citizenship being rather less restrictive than Greek citizenship) has a voice in deciding matters of state, and decisions are based around consensus.  The Greek governmental system during the Classical Age (prior to Alexander the Great) was also based on a number of independently governed city-states, though they were frequently in conflict.  Unlike its Roman counterpart, matters of government were handled by an assembly of all citizens (realistically, a very small portion of a city’s population), who would assemble in a Theater and discuss and vote on the matters of politics.  Considered to be the best philosophers and diplomats in the Mass Effect universe, the Asari certainly evoke many of the aspects of classical Greece.

To pair with our Greek allusion, Bioware provided the Turians as a reference to Rome.  Many Science Fiction writers use the Roman Empire in its Imperial age as a basis for a large, or rapidly expanding militaristic empire.  The Mass Effect writers used the Roman Republic, prior to the rise of Julius Caesar, as a template instead.  As with the Asari, the names used are highly indicative.  The Turian home world is called Palaven, which the Mass Effect Wiki says is a reference to Palatine Hill, the center of government in Rome.  In addition, the names of characters, like that of a supporting character, Tarquin Victus, is a dead giveaway of Latin naming conventions and Roman history. Tarquin comes from very early Roman history, as the family name of the last kings before the rise of the Republic, and Victus is a participle form of vinco, vici, meaning “to conquer” or “to overcome.”

Mass Effect Turian

The similarities continue in the structure of Turian government and society, while not being a perfect analogue.  The government is based on the Hierarchy, which has a number of levels of citizenship, with increasing levels of responsibility.  Civil and military life is perfectly integrated, with no differentiation.  Citizens are promoted through the vote of their peers and superiors.  This is parallel to the cursus honorum or the “course of offices” in Republican Rome.  When a Roman politician would start out his career, he would be expected to have completed several years of military service.  He would begin with being elected to the lower tiers of offices, such as Quaestors who dealt with finances. Eventually, if he were lucky, he would work his way up to being one of two Consuls, the highest position in Roman government.  Though many of the rules and conventions were not completely adhered to, it was still expected that each Roman political career would follow the same basic conventions.

Turians also have a version of the mos moiorum (ways, or laws, of the ancestors.) This was a very important aspect of Roman daily life, where the deeds of the ancestors conferred honor and prestige to the current generation, and it was each generation’s duty to outdo the accomplishments of their predecessors.  For Turians, the platoon history is most important, and the membership in a platoon is more or less hereditary.  They not only mimic Rome as a militaristic society, but also use the most important aspects of culture and government during the Republican period.

For whatever missteps Bioware takes, they certainly excelled at creating highly detailed versions of classical Mediterranean cultures within the Mass Effect universe.  For a history nut such as myself, seeing the blend of historical research, and the creativity of science fiction combined in well rounded and wonderfully realized world building, is a refreshing and deeply enjoyable experience. I have only begun to cover the vast amount of historical and political references interspersed throughout the Mass Effect trilogy.  It is a treat for those curious to pursue it.

About the Author:  Madison Abshire is a freshly minted graduate from the University of Washington, with a BA in History, a Minor in Latin, and an enthusiasm for Classics.  She is interested in Roman History, speculative fiction, webcomics, gaming, Celtic fiddle, and is always happy to be wrapped in a discussion about any of the above things.

Mass Effect Wiki: Asari – http://masseffect.wikia.com/wiki/Asari

Mass Effect Wiki: Turian – http://masseffect.wikia.com/wiki/Turian

Photo Source: Mass Effect Wiki – http://masseffect.wikia.com/wiki/Mass_Effect_Wiki