Ancient admirals in Civilization VI

The Civilization franchise is one of the most popular in PC gaming. It engages deeply with the ancient world. This article looks at three ancient admirals featured in the sixth instalment.

Joshua R. Hall

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, and its expansion Rise and Fall, form the latest installment of a gaming franchise that stretches back to the first game’s release in September of 1991. The original game was published by MicroProse, a company co-founded by the creator of Civilization, Sid Meier. The more recent games have been developed by Firaxis Games (also co-founded by Meier) and published by 2K Games.

For those unfamiliar with the Civilization series, it is a turn-based strategy game which revolves around the player(s)’ creation of a “civilization” from the Stone Age through to technological periods beyond modern. In video game lingo, it’s a “4X” type game, with the Xs referring to the game’s four basic goals: explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. In Civilization VI, players start off with one settler unit and one warrior unit, which allows them to found their first city and to explore.

From there, players have to forge their own path to victory. This can be through exploring early, settling cities in the most strategic places, gobbling up all of the resources, or through subtler means, such as building fewer towns but filling them with cultural and scientific buildings. The possibilities are almost endless, bound only by the types of buildings and units available in the game.

There are many tools that you can use on your way to a scientific, cultural, domination, religious, or points victory. Within this toolkit are “Great People”, special units earned through the accumulation of Great Person Points of various types. There are artists and musicians, writers and generals. Their number also includes admirals.

Ancient admirals in Civilization VI

Amongst the “Great Admirals” available to be claimed in Civilization VI are three from the ancient world: Artemisia, Gaius Duilius, and Themistocles.

While there are perhaps others that the game’s designers could have chosen, these three do make sense. Artemisia is the best-known female naval-commander from Mediterranean history. Duilius was a well-known and decorated consul in the First Punic War. Themistocles was, of course, the great Athenian strategist and tactician during the Persian Wars.

Are their in-game characters faithful to the historical tradition?

We’ll start with Artemisia. The in-game “Civilopedia” entry provides players with a good background, although there are some things to note. It opens by saying that she was “named after the sister of Apollo.” Unfortunately, the Civilopedia doesn’t spell out that this sister is the goddess Artemis, one of the most revered of the Hellenic pantheon. I fear that this deprives a powerful female figure from ancient mythology of her proper place in this story.

The entry goes on to say that:

c. 500 BC, just prior to the Ionian revolt that triggered the Persian invasion of Greece, she married the king of Halicarnassus. When he died a few years later, she took the throne.

This stretches what we really know of her. She was married to the tyrant of Halicarnassus, although we don’t know when their marriage happened nor when exactly he died (Hdt. 7.99). It is possible that her father, Lygdamis, had been the ruler of the city, though I do not believe that has been confirmed for sure.

Besides this minor issue, the rest of the entry is a fairly standard summary of what we know of Artemisia. The game’s designers (or whoever assembled the Civilopedia) note her actions at Salamis, including the famous line supposedly uttered by Xerxes: “my men have become women, and my women men.” (See also Josho’s recent article on Artemisia.)

Each “Great Admiral” has a “retire ability” that allows the player to sacrifice the unit in order to gain a specific benefit. That given by Artemisia is to grant one promotion level to a military naval unit. In game terms, this is a relatively simple ability, but it does seem to match up with her historical figure. She was known for her cunning and competency in battle, thus in the game she is training a naval unit’s crew with her tactical genius.

Our second Great Admiral is Gaius Duilius. Those with a background knowledge of Roman history will recognize his name as one of the notable Roman admirals during the First Punic War. We know very little about him and his family, although it is evident that he did not come from the aristocracy and could be considered a novus homo, as noted in his Civilopedia entry.

However, I find it excessive to write that “he did manage to somehow get himself elected consul in 260 BC.” Clearly there was a reason that he was elected, and without knowing more about him and his background this is a deceptive statement.

His entry in the Civilopedia goes on to say that he “was given the command of the Roman ‘rear’ fleet, where it was expected he could stay out of trouble.” But this is not what we find in Polybius. In our best source for the First Punic War, we hear that Duilius was the commander of the land forces, and indeed he celebrated a triumph for both his land victories as well as his victory at sea (Polyb. 1.22; see J. F. Lazenby, The First Punic War (1996), p. 67). Zonaras’ notice that Duilius had initially been placed in command of a fleet probably reflects that upon which he and his army sailed to Sicily, and should not be seen as a “rear fleet” (Zonaras 8.10-11).

Also problematic with his biography provided in Civilization VI is that it notes “he invented the corvus.” This was the famed boarding-bridge. These were supposedly instrumental in his victory at Mylae. Polybius, however, does not say that the consul came up with this idea, but rather that some unknown person suggested the concept (Polyb. 1.22). Other sources, such as Frontinus (Strat. 2.3.24) do credit the consul with its invention, though the tradition by that point had changed, and these were no longer “boarding-bridges” in the historical narrative, and instead were something like a grappling hook. In this situation, it seems best to trust Polybius’ version. It is also worth noting that nothing of the corvus, or any invention for that matter, is mentioned in the possibly fake inscription that commemorated Duilius’ victory (CIL 12.25).

In general, though, the nature of Gaius Duilius’ exploits are captured by the Civilopedia entry. Looking at his in-game power, it also is historically appropriate. By consuming the admiral, a player may form “a fleet out of a military naval unit.” In the terms of Civilization VI’s game play, this means that a player can essentially add another ship to an existing ship and allow them to remain on the same tile, as a single unit. This is important because in the game, as in previous installments, military units cannot stack on the same tile.

The final ancient Great Admiral in the game is Themistocles, the famous Athenian leader who defeated the Persian fleet at Salamis. He is a popular character in modern media, and is the Hellenic protagonist of the movie 300: Rise of an Empire. John Hale dramatically underlines his importance in history: “all the glory of Athens-the Parthenon, Plato’s Academy, the immortal tragedies, even the revolutionary experiment in democracy-can be traced back to one public meeting, one obstinate citizen, and a speech about silver and ships” (J.R. Hale, Lords of the Sea (2009), p. 3). That citizen being Themistocles.

Overall, his Civilopedia entry is quite good. It gives a clear picture of a man dedicated to protecting his home city and seeing that its fate was intertwined with the sea. In this instance, it is his in-game power that perhaps betrays the historical Themistocles.

When a player “retires” the Themistocles unit in-game, one of two things happens, depending on which version of Civilization VI they are playing. In the pre-expansion game (known colloquially as “vanilla”), he creates a quadrireme unit for that player. The obvious problem with this is that the quadrireme is a technology from a generation (or more) later than Themistocles’ (sometime in the fourth century BC). This is actually conceded in the Civilopedia entry for the quadrireme unit.

Presumably noting that this was an error (though I have no confirmation of this), with the expansion Rise and Fall, game designers changed Themistocles’ power to grant “+2 loyalty per turn” for the city in which it is used. This power is, perhaps, more fitting, as he never lost his loyalty to Athens during what was a difficult war. Rumours, however, did run rampant in its wake that he was plotting with the Persians, which may cast doubt as to whether or not this power is suitable. These rumours, and Themistocles’ personality, drove the great admiral into exile in the Persian Empire.


The Civilization franchise of video games has done a great service over the years of exposing players to parts of history that they may otherwise never have encountered. As they are playing for fun, rather than being told to do it, I have a feeling that this helps people connect better to these elements than they would in a classroom setting.

As I have pointed out above with a look at three “Great Admirals” from the latest edition of the game, there are some problems with the historical information provided in-game. Despite these issues, the game designers have done a good job of integrating the historical world into their product.

Certainly, I wish to encourage game-creators to include historically-inspired content in their works, difficult as it may be. It is important that the ancient world is kept in the modern imagination through contemporary types of media, one of the most popular being video games.

Naturally, there are other aspects of the game that connect to the ancient world: I will write further articles in the near future to explore these elements.