Seniors investigate Roman Republic history with simulation game
Seniors investigate Roman Republic history with simulation game

Honors Roman Republic: Rivalries that Destroyed the Roman Republic investigates the competitive system of aristocratic politics in which aspirants to high office, and the prestige and influence that came with success, struggled with their rivals in contests of virtus (martial courage) and service to the Republic.

For centuries, the system checked excessive individual action. Climb too high on the ladder of political influence and honor, and a series of checks, counters, and challenges, consciously or unconsciously employed by oligarchic rivals, capped the excessive individual's power and kept the supply of offices and honors circulating through the senatorial aristocracy. But Roman senators in the Republic played a dangerous game. Too much competition and the senate would not address the fundamental administrative and military needs of the Republic and its empire. Too much competition and the infighting among political rivals might tear the Republic apart, as, in fact, they eventually did.

I have designed the simulation game, SPQR, a term the Romans used to refer to the political collective of the Republic, "The Roman Senate and People," to illustrate to my senior students the functioning of the competitive political system of the Republic and its connection to the spread of Roman power in the Mediterranean region. Each player guides 4 to 6 senators (represented by cards) to compete with other players' rival senators for offices and honors. They do this by playing through three critical phases each turn.

At the start of the turn, elections for the various offices are held. Players can declare any eligible senators as candidates. Each player with a candidate rolls dice to simulate the electoral assemblies. Any player can spend some of their influence tokens to raise or lower the dice roll of any candidate or play any allowable political cards to influence the elections.

Most frustratingly for the seniors, a player with a tribune card or a religious objection card can invalidate the entire election, stripping victory from a rival at the last moment. After elections, players engage in a round of additional card play where they can challenge their rivals, attempting to reduce their influence and dignitas (the former expressed as a number of tokens, the latter as a score for the player). They can also play cards that raise their own influence and dignity.

Finally, in the senate phase, the players, representing the senatorial oligarchy, decide how to deal with the military challenges facing the Republic by spending Resource Points and moving legions around the Mediterranean, first in Spain and Gaul, later in Macedonia and the Hellenistic east. All players lose if they fail to successfully manage the Republic; only one player can win, however, the one with the highest dignitas score at the end of the game. Seniors in the class go on an in-school field trip to the Grant Conference Room, spending about 7 hours (with breaks; it's an intense game) to play and then debrief on the simulation, followed by a reflective writing assignment and discussion about historical accuracy in class the next day.

An effective historical simulation game takes the systems and the decisions agents made within those systems out of the flatter and static representation of text or chart and embodies them in a set of rules and mechanics that players can immerse themselves in, make decisions within, and experience the consequences of those decisions.

The seniors wholeheartedly engaged in this task. They competed with great intensity for the paper offices and honors of the simulation, argued about strategies, and came together—sometimes—at critical moments where division might cost them the Republic. They were highly engaged, highly competitive, and highly strategic as they engaged in the competitive world of the senate. They better understood how the political system worked and they better understood the mind set of their subjects of study, the goal of any good historian. The simulation proved once again to be a highly effective foil to normal work of the class.

-Dr. Jeremiah McCall, Upper School history teacher

Click here for slideshow.