Classics' Ludi Romani Games, a 20-Year Tradition, Casts Alumni as Roman Gods
Thursday, Apr. 05, 2018
Togas abound at the Ludi Romani in 2016. The role-playing game, a 20-year tradition in the Classics program, involves students in the roles of such ancient Romans as Cicero and Cleopatra and alumni and faculty as ancient gods. This year's festival is April 6.
Frances Titchener appeared as the goddess Juno in the 2016 Ludi Romani games hosted by Classics. Alumna Teri Gee portrays Venus, a role she will recreate this year as well. Juno's sacred animal was the peacock, which is reflected in Titchener’s goddess robes.
This week, in the most classic event of the year, alumni return to campus as Roman gods to influence the fate of students, who are, after all, only human.
Ludi Romani (Roman games) is a 20-year tradition in Classics, housed in the History Department in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. And while students of Latin and ancient cultures will don the togas of such earthly roles as Roman senators and generals, they’ll be attended by the likes of Jupiter, Pluto, Apollo and other gods — faculty and alumni who return regularly to celebrate their Classics education.
“We’re one of the few programs that offers deification as a benefit of graduation,” says Mark Damen, a professor of classics, who oversees the festival along with fellow classics professors Frances Titchener and Susan Shapiro. “Not many programs have that capability, but we do. And we play that card.”
The 2.5-hour long game on Friday, April 6, reenacts the 13-year period in ancient Rome that began with the stabbing of Julius Caesar (44 BC) and ended with the Battle of Actium (31 BC), in which Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra to begin a new type of Roman life that was to last four centuries: military dictatorship.
“We go back and replay that period and see if it turns out the same way it did historically,” said Damen. The question behind the laurel wreaths and battle swords is one that underlies all historical reenactments: “Is history inevitable?”
Damen laughs. Despite the department’s many years of staging the players and battles, “Never once have we reproduced the empire,” he said.
Like all history, the bloody battles make the history books, but the real action is in the hundreds of sub-dramas happening around the room. Ancient Rome, after all, was a pit of hubris, corruption and false friends.
Some 40 Classics students will replay the history of the era. Among them are generals (think Mark Antony), senators (Cicero), noble women (Livia Drusilla) and monarchs (Egypt’s Cleopatra and Ariovistus of Germania). Battles are decided by dice, but politics and ambition cloud every action.
The all-knowing and eternally squabbling couple of Jupiter and Juno are played by Damen and his real-life wife Titchener. Classics professor Susan Shapiro has traditionally and appropriately appeared as Minerva, goddess of wisdom.
Alumni of the small classics program, who began claiming their roles as early as January, will transform into such mythical deities as Ares and Venus. Diana and Apollo, gods of the seasons, control the game’s timing and progress. The more than 30 alumni attending will play the gods as endowed with the powers assigned to them by myth.
The theater of war — in this case the Sunburst Lounge in the Taggart Student Center — is patrolled by sea gods like Neptune and Amphitrite who maintain the watery boundaries of provinces like Gaul, Germania, Greece and northern Italy.
The USU game, which harkens to the ancient Roman celebration known as Ludi Romani, began in the mid-1990s with about 10 pages of rules, said Damen. Over the years, students have evolved and complicated the game’s maneuvers. Student actors with good knowledge of the rules and the gods’ super powers can now, for instance, escape death by calling on Dionysus in the moments before Pluto, god of the underworld, sweeps in to claim their soul.
Dionysus, who rescues mortals from dire circumstances, travels with a band of hippies called the bacchants, said Damen. “Dionysus can save you,” he adds. “But then you’re trapped in a hippie commune for a while.”
The roles, gods and mortals alike, are not gender specific. The roles of the vestal virgins, for instance, are all up for grabs. Vestal virgins can, if they choose, marry “and bring huge amounts of money to their husbands who can then go out and buy armies,” said Damen. He offers this caution, however: “Then you need to keep her happy because she can divorce you. Or she can do what a lot of Roman women did: poison their husbands.” Yes, this is among the official rules.
But rather than have death sideline a player, a dead person returns as a ghost with a host of new powers.
The last faction standing, so to speak, at the end of the game, determines the fate of Rome — the type of government, who gets to live within the city, and even what gods will be worshipped.
“So if a god did you ill, you can forbid its worship,” said Damen (aka Jupiter). “That has happened to me. And things have not always gone well after that.”
Events begin Friday with a luncheon-lecture at noon in Old Main room 340. Daniel Webb, a 2006 history and classics graduate who completed his doctorate in medieval studies and now teaches at Saint Louis University, will speak. (He’ll reappear later as Neptune.)
The evening’s events start at 5:30 p.m. with a banquet, followed by the game itself from 6:30 to 9 p.m. in the TSC. On Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m., a breakfast will wrap up the festivities. The breakfast, in the Center Colony Room of the TSC, allows fellowship and conversation among alumni, many of whom are now Latin teachers, said Damen.
For those who show up at the last minute to participate, Damen has roles reserved. More Roman senators, for instance, are always needed. “If you come, you have to play,” he added.
All events are free.
For more information on the game’s rules and the mortal and immortal players, visit https://history.usu.edu/classics/ludi-romani
Writer and contact: Janelle Hyatt, 435-797-0289, Janelle.firstname.lastname@example.org.