Verisimilitude & History

I recently sprung on a Steamdeck after months of thinking about it, so I was mentally assembling a list of not-on-Apple-or-Switch games that I wanted to get (Jusant, Sable, Elden Ring…). The Egypt and Greek editions of Assassins Creed happened to be among the entries, and I went on to its subreddit to reconfirm my future intent to play the games. Then, of course, expectedly, I stumbled upon a comment that made me form a discourse in my head.

This is not the first time I encountered this discussion point. It always, always comes up whenever a historical period piece in a visual medium becomes the Main Character of the Day online. People love arguing about how historically accurate historical fiction is and should be, which is something I have no problem with — especially when it brings up enlightening information that expands our conception of what that particular history is, the kinds of people who lived in it, and how nuanced the world’s systems were.

However, there is an Open-Minded, Chill, Expansive, Pedagogical way to go about this, a Meh There Are Some Things I Wished They Stayed True With way, and a Gatekeepery, Restrictive, Almost Mindboggling one. It was the latter that I stumbled on to in the Assassins Creed subreddit that day.

“The Ancient Greece that AC portrays is Not Real. No, it’s not the Atlantean and mythological elements I’m peeved by, nor the occlusion of nudity, nor the other historical abberations. It’s the inclusion of gender/sexual nuances that reflects the complexities of human psychology and the reminders that Ancient Greece was a cosmopolitan imperial power involved in global trade that bothers me. To be reminded that Ancient Greece was not monolithic and to step away from stereotypical conservative nationalistic conceptions of the past is woke historical revisionism that I just cannot tolerate in my historical fiction/documentary.”

This is not an uncommon mentality. It makes itself known in historical areas related to and are popularly held by “boys” and “men”. Historical material that in our patriarchally-dominated society was also used to reinforce its own nationalistic PR branding. This includes Ancient Greece, the Anglosphere WASP Westerner’s favourite claim to prove their cultural legitimacy. Caesar, democracy, aesthetics, and Alexander.

Earlier this year, the Netflix documentary came out and the dudebros went into a whole rigamarole about Alexander kissing Hephaestion (yet not having an issue with how awfully bad the colour grading, historical costuming and Netflix-esque production values were, which were what me and the other real Alexanderheads were bemoaning) Doesn’t that discourse seem familiar…? Oliver Stone did not risk himself in gay-averse 2000s so he could have his OTP microwaved back into 2020s discourse.

My academic brain understands that the modern words, language and theories we use to describe gender, sexuality and racial/cultural dynamics do not necessarily 100% match up to how the ancient world would conceptualise those same things. Even though I pose myself as an advocate for Alexander & Hephaestion, and I do have my own headcanons of Alexander’s sexuality, I am actually wary of claiming that my position is the reality. I’d rather keep mine and other’s receptions of Alexander open-ended. Yeah, he’s probably not (2020s definition) gay, but he’s also not (2020s definition) straight either.

However, just because ancient people thought or spoke a different way doesn’t mean those gender, sexuality and racial/cultural complexities didn’t exist in some form or another. We live in a society, and that society is 70,000 years old. You mean to tell me that at least 10 billion people lived on this planet in total throughout all time and not one of them lived a different life? 10 billion people means 10 billion lived experiences. If an entire tapestry can be made out of the relationships and dynamics between the cast of a soap opera, imagine the world. Imagine history. Isn’t that fascinating?? Wonderful?? Expanding???

Anyway, it’s just so funny to me. As someone who writes historical fiction and makes it an entire thing to immerse myself and readership in research, I have been thinking about how I would answer if the rigamarole comes my way.

You’d think the Alexander Romance being what it is would absolve me from having to craft a future public statement. Already by interacting with Alexander through the lens of the Romance you’re dealing with every artist’s conception of who Alexander is (all 2000 years of it), to the point where the historical figure you think you’re looking at is in actuality a mirage. A verisimilitude.

From its roots, verisimilitude means basically “similarity to the truth”. Most fiction writers and filmmakers aim at some kind of verisimilitude to give their stories an air of reality. They need not show something actually true, or even very common, but simply something believable. A mass of good details in a play, novel, painting, or film may add verisimilitude. A spy novel without some verisimilitude won’t interest many readers, but a fantastical novel may not even attempt to seem true to life.

– Merriam Webster definition

The Alexander we are talking about in my comic and my blog is a specific 21st century iteration, who shares an artistic lineage with the other Alexanders and we all owe ourselves to the actual real-blood-and-flesh guy born in 356 BCE. I’d even go as far to say YOU may also have a version of Alexander in your head, and how you respond to mine depends on the rigidity, compatibility and historiography of your version and whether you care to maintain it. And in the case of Alexander Comic… if you want to let that go one day.

I put a lot of stock into research and being as well-informed as possible so I could make details seem plausible. Not necessarily accurate, but plausible. I talk a lot about how I love the mundane and the lived-in; of things that looked like they were beloved by people, that were thought of and seen. As a cultural artefact, Alexander’s image represents this and is ripe for exploration into what it means to see somebody and having to contend with the thousand other different faces of him, and which face is being used to create a message.

His complicated relationships are a part of that formulation. It’s an unavoidable aspect of him, as he’s one of the few famous people in documented history with historical non-familial legacies comparable to an actual royal bloodline. It’s not just him who ended up being a great king, but this guy who was his friend, and this other friend, and this one, and they all liked to try to claim him as family without being family. Additionally, he’s got this other guy hanging around who didn’t really seem to do much but managed to define Alexander’s final years. Of course, people would hold on to that.

To not critically examine why you’re turning away other faces is one thing, but to also resort to thought-killing words and phases to actively, intentionally block yourself from engaging in a confrontation you know you’re avoiding… that’s another thing. If you’re indeed truly a student of this historical area and of history as an epistemological activity, this type of cowardice – to refuse to read sources, engage in modern scholarship and discuss in good faith – is unbecoming. And if you say you dislike an artistic representation, say it clearly and don’t try to justify it with moral appeals related to some kind of culture war.

I don’t have my Steamdeck yet. I am looking forward to turning on explorer mode for Assassins Creed, where I can finally walk around and see the bits of life in between the video game mechanics.

Historical fiction has always been my favourite genre because it gives me something abstract enough to use as a thought exercise for the present, but is also real enough to be able to see how it still impacts today. It’s like looking at an old photograph of an ancestor. My great-great-great grandpa is far away enough from me that he is by all accounts a stranger, but his life story and his DNA formed me and his destiny is still unfolding alongside mine. I like sitting with in that liminal space, of things that were and could have been.

Hello, hello

Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.

She writes and illustrates quite a few webcomics and graphic novels. When not making books, she lulls away her time with essays on craft, life and experiences in the publishing industry. Some of her thoughts of art and life are rather unstructured and will evolve over time as this blog matures, as they should be.

Currently committed to being Alexander the Great's death doula. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.

Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur

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