Assassin’s Creed: Origins comes out on October 27. Before you play the game, it is worth reviewing the history of Ancient Egypt, the period in which the game is set. Origins is set during an explosive moment in history, with plenty of drama in the wars to come. Ancient Egypt is a fascinating – and bloody – stage for a video game.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is set in 49 BC during the life of Egypt’s most famous queen, Cleopatra. We might remember Cleopatra best for her tragic romances in Shakespeare plays, but she was more than a lovesick beauty. She was a savvy politician that made great opportunities for herself in a difficult era. Ultimately, however, she failed, and Rome conquered her kingdom.
It is worth noting that to the characters of Assassin’s Creed Origins, Egypt is a mythical and ancient place. Even Ancient Rome is but a new upstart compared to this old land. In 49 BC, the Great Pyramid is already 2,500 years old. Also, you should understand that the Egypt of the Pharaohs that we imagine in popular culture had fallen centuries before this time. The Land of the Nile had since been occupied by Nubians, Assyrians, Persians, and finally the Greeks under Alexander the Great. After Alexander died in 323, his general Ptolemy I took the country for himself and founded Ancient Egypt’s last dynasty. Greeks rule Egypt, not Egyptians.
Your fictional hero, Bayek is a native Egyptian fighting right at the time that this final dynasty falls. He is a Medjay, an ancient class of warriors who served the native Pharaohs. In actual history, the Medjays disappeared with the New Kingdom of Egypt about 1000 years before Origins. This makes Bayek an anachronism. Yet he heroically continues his task of fighting for the Egyptian people long after his time should have ended.
By 49 BC, the old Ptolemaic rule was weak and divided. Over the centuries the dynasty had broken down with petty squabbles and incest. Queen Cleopatra starts Origins fighting a war with her little brother (and husband), Ptolemy XIII. In this civil war, Ubisoft embellishes the details. They have made Ptolemy a tool of an ancient proto-Templar conspiracy called the Order of the Ancients. That obviously did not really exist. Ptolemy in actual history was just a weak teenager way over his head.
Cleopatra, meanwhile, has “gone native.” She’s the first member of her family to break out of their Greek bubble in Alexandria and actually learn the Egyptian language. Cleopatra even compares herself to the native goddess Isis to win natives to her cause. Bayek’s wife Aya is one of those supporters won over by the queen.
The rivalry in the Ptolemy family couldn’t come at a worse time for Egypt. Rome is at their doorstep. No army in the world can beat the Romans in 47 BC — except other Romans. The only thing holding the Romans back are their own civil wars that are killing their beloved Republic government. Origins takes place right as the Roman Republic is violently transformed into the Roman Empire. Egypt will be dragged into that bloody transition.
Alexandria finds itself the last free port left in the Mediterranean. But now the greatest Roman general, Julius Caesar is sailing into town. Caesar has just won the latest Roman Civil War, beating his rival Pompey the Great. Pompey escapes to Egypt, opening the country up to the deadly game of Roman politics. Cleopatra and Ptolemy both know that whoever wins Caesar as an ally will certainly win Egypt. But can Egypt survive a friend like Caesar? (Spoilers: It can’t.)
History in World Design
The world design of Assassin’s Creed Origins reflects the divisions between Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures. Ubisoft has exhaustively researched all three worlds that are so important to this game. It’s impressive to see places like Alexandria and Memphis authentically brought to life.
Alexandria was founded by none other than Alexander the Great to be a Greek colony at the mouth of the Nile. The city has no hint of Egyptian culture. It instead has a Greek theater, Greek Pantheons, and the famous Library. It’s the Greek-speaking elites that control the country. Egyptians are second-class in the capital of their own country and live in the slums. Also while I haven’t seen this in marketing material yet, Alexandria also has a large and important Jewish population. They will hopefully play some kind of role in Origins.
The Greek world ends at the gates of Alexandria. Down river, Egypt looks much the same as it has for thousands of years. Invaders may come and go, but Egyptian culture has so far survived them all intact. Cities like Memphis and Giza are home to ancient monuments like the Pyramids and the Sphinx. The people worship their native gods. In the countryside, farmers work the fertile banks of the Nile as they have for millennia.
Meanwhile, the Roman future has come in the city of Cyrene out in Libya. In 96 BC, Egypt had to surrender this territory to the Romans. And Romans never just visit. Once they take a territory, they make it Roman forever. The opulent city has been rapidly Romanized with villas, a Gladiatorial arena, and a chariot racing stadium. This is the cultural tide that no character in Origins will be able to stop.
Events to Come
If you know your history, you can speculate where Assassin’s Creed Origins is going. The war between Ptolemy and Cleopatra is just the first act of 20 years of warfare. During those coming years, every leader we’ve mentioned so far will either be murdered or commit suicide. Factions will change rapidly. Origins so far has shown that it will cover at least the first few years. But we know the story continues. The next round of fighting will see Caesar’s successors, Mark Antony and Augustus, drag Egypt into the final battle.
Bayek is going to get a lot of work as an assassin in the last years of Ptolemaic Egypt. Alexandria will be the site of bloody street battles between Roman legionaries and Greek-Egyptians. The trailers also show us a naval battle, possibly the decisive Battle of the Nile. With sides changing so quickly in this era, allies may become villains. Cleopatra seems like an ally, but she very well could be the final boss. Julius Caesar is going to be the target of the most famous assassination in world history. I can’t imagine Assassin’s Creed missing that.
Is Origins going to be stretched across all these events, or is Ubisoft already planning sequels? We’ll just have to wait and see how much history Ubisoft can cram into Assassin’s Creed Origins in a few weeks.