A "Dave" of All Trades
A senior graduating in global communication with five additional minors receives two prestigious college awards.
USU Alum Professor Charles Oughton (BYU Provo) directs players during the final Battle of Actium
By Evan Rasmussen, CHaSS Communications Editor
Upon entering the Utah State University Fieldhouse, the stench of imminent betrayal mingled with echoes of laughter and the clinking of forks on plates. A dozen tables set up across the floor bristled with banners bearing names of regions surrounding Ancient Rome connected by lines of blue painter’s tape. Fully costumed participants – some brandishing bidents and swords – perused a table covered in sacks full of wooden tokens and labeled with an array of both familiar and strange ancient names: Dionysus, Gaius Vibius Pansa, Ops, Apollo. A creeping sense of excitement and disquiet could be felt worming its way into the faces of all in attendance as every player knew one thing: the Ludi Romani was about to begin again.
A longtime staple of USU’s classics program, the Ludi Romani (Latin for Roman games) is an immersive roleplaying game featuring tabletop elements which attempts to reenact the years leading up to the Fall of the Roman Republic. Participants roleplay as various figures in Greek and Roman mythology and history while they build up armies, shift political policies to benefit their factions, and curry favor with the gods through a mix of subterfuge, bribes, and alliances in a desperate bid to secure their factions’ success at the final Battle of Actium.
At first glance, players may be intimidated by the sheer size of the rulebook. However, in action, the event plays like an intense mix of Musical Chairs and Risk which – when there are more than 100 participants – can get quite rambunctious.
There are two general phases of gameplay: movement, and seasons split between summer and winter. During the movement phase, players shuffle between regions as travel-themed pop and rock blasts over the speaker systems. When the music ends, the movement period is over, and players must find a seat at a nearby region lest they fall under the influence of the various sea gods patrolling the floor.
After the movement phase, the seasons begin to change. This section plays out in wildly different ways depending on the individual competitor's character powers and location. During this time, Ludi Romani players will face death at the hands of false allies and resurrection at the hands of outwardly benevolent gods; friendships will blossom and fade; senators in Rome will chant for the extermination of a rival faction while gods gather followers full of the dead and dying.
All in all, there’s too much to talk about than can be properly discussed in writing. The game, which is played annually at USU, has been continually refined and added to since its inception. Simply put: the Ludi Romani is reenactment on a massive scale, and it can’t be experienced anywhere on this scale but at USU.
This year’s Ludi Romani had a particularly electrifying atmosphere as the group met for the first time in two years due to cancellations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. For most classics students in attendance, it was the first time they had been able to participate in the program’s annual event.
“In high school, I took concurrent enrollment Latin through USU and really wanted to come to the Ludi Romani which we were promised we could,” said Marie Boase, a freshman majoring in psychology with classics minors. “I’m glad I could finally do it. “
In the rare moments when the floor wasn’t scrambling with aquatic travelers and perhaps too-relatable plagues were dropped on Rome, there was a palpable feeling of delight. The mood among players was that – as fun as the game was – they were simply glad to be back among their classics peers.
For Brad Littler, IT professional and USU alum, it was an exciting return to the game he’s played since graduating in 2008. “It’s always really fun to interact with new people, talk with them while we’re playing the game and figure out why they do this and why they’re here,” said Littler.
As the night progressed, it quickly became obvious that the unity of the classics extends beyond physical and generational boundaries. Thom Manning, a Latin teacher from Copper Hills High School in West Jordan, UT, brought six of his concurrent enrollment Latin students along with him to experience the game at USU. Manning – dressed in flowing robes to represent his role as Pluto – explained that the students were able to participate as a reward for all their hard work throughout the year.
“I have had students point out that this was the highlight of their year, that it was a pinnacle of their senior year.” Manning said. “We’re a little family by now.”
Before the game even began, one of Manning’s students, Isabelle Baker, talked excitedly about the sense of community she felt with everyone there.
“It’s so nice to make a joke or reference and have an instant community of people who get it,” said Baker. “Not even just between generations, between people I’ve never met, I can say ‘Divided into three parts,’ and they can say ‘Ah! Julius Caesar!’ and it’s wonderful.”
The feeling of camaraderie amongst participants was profound to begin with, and it only became more apparent as the night progressed. Many returning players had brought their children along – who naturally had their own roles to play – and gently explained the origins of particularly fascinating character names to them. High school students chatted with USU professors and alumni, spouting jokes like, “You can’t play Ludi Romani without serving a Caesar salad.”
It became clear that, among the players, studying classics was more than an academic pursuit. Interview after interview, players used the nearly identical phrasing to describe one important aspect of the experience: Classics is a family.
“It’s not like an, ‘Okay, this is an alumni or this is a professor or a former student.’ You get to feel like a family even after you graduate,” said Jacob Zollinger, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering with minors in Latin and history.
None of this family would be possible without the influence of strong, loving parents. For students in classics at USU, those parents are Professor Mark Damen and Distinguished Professor Frances Titchener.
During dinner, the pair – who are married to one another – held a special awards ceremony for graduating students. Before each student was invited to the podium, Damen and Titchener gave heartfelt observations on each student’s progress during their time in classics.
Every student recognized was given a gift chosen specifically for them by the two. Alec Smitten, a classics graduate student, received a complete etymological dictionary of ancient Greek because Damen and Titchener had recognized his interest in it previously, and he was visibly emotional upon having the books placed in his hands. Another student, Samuel Rowles, was gifted a different kind of reference work: a guide to screenwriting, his career post-graduation.
“What we’re really doing is just empowering them to do what they do best. I feel like in almost everything we’ve done in the classics program, we’ve followed the students,” said Damen. “I feel so lucky to have had them in our professional careers and lives.”
Damen and Titchener – who often appear in interviews together – were obviously energized and excited about seeing so many people together and interacting once again.
“We’ve been playing Ludi since the 90s and the last two years when we couldn’t were really difficult. So, there’s a really strong feeling tonight of people being glad to have a chance be back and doing it,” said Titchener.
To participants attending a classics event at USU for the first time, it is obvious how important Damen and Titchener’s influence is. Each of them is indescribably passionate about classics and the people who study them, and it shows in their faces and the lives of their students.
“The understanding of the classical world has been something that has been handed down from one generation to the next. So, to be able to watch the different generations interact with each other is the point of what we’ve been doing,” said Damen.
The classics program at USU is gearing up to begin their Summer Greek program, a unique opportunity to learn a year’s worth of introductory ancient Greek language study in only seven weeks. Please also visit the classics website to get more information about academic programs, events, opportunities and more.