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The (Roman) Roads of Skyrim

Through its expansion across Mediterranean Sea and into northern Europe, the Roman Empire left its indelible mark on Western civilization.  The domination of other cultures, beliefs systems, and the spread of technology through colonization meant that all cultures who came after were touched, even in a small way, by the ruins that were behind after it collapsed. More than any other impression, the Roman roads that were made to link each of their settlements remain, even now, the basis for modern commerce and transportation. The paths that were forged in ancient days are still in use.

It was these roads that sparked the interest of the Romantics when they wrote their collections of tales inventing new mythologies and supernatural occurrences among the ruins of the then ancient Roman blocks and paths. As more stories were layered on the old, the greater the superstitious connections to the idea of going deeper into the past became. The ruins took on a sense of holding secrets and powers that, should the adventurer just enter and past a test, they would find and be able to use for their own. It is this theme that holds to this day and is the very basis for much of the fantasy genre that was to come after the Romantics.

Skyrim is fantasy. Not just in its fictional universe sense, but in that it holds to the ideals of the genre. After all, it has dragons, magical powers, and even ancient cities that litter the realm. The adventuring that compose the game is in exploring these places, recovering the items and tales that they hold, and coming back to the more modern cities to sell, offer, or return what was found. The secrets that are hidden are used to empower the adventurer and the use of magic — magicka — fuels much of the lore. Everything is based in the supernatural promise of a greater present through using the past.

Yet, more than anything else, it is the very roads themselves that show how much Skyrim owes to the Romantics and the history that was invented to explain how the ancient paths were still used. The gloried achievements of, within the lore of the universe, Ayleids (“Ancient Ones”) were these same roads that the player must walk down to get from place to place. These first colonizers of Tamriel established many of the same paving methods, technologies, and connections between locations that the characters in Skyrim use thousands of years later. In other words, they are the Romans only dressed up in Elder Scrolls mythology.

It’s a very common theme of many mythologies that the past was greater than the present. The ancient people held power, presence, or even were gods themselves. They craved up the world and it is only now, in the current period of the story, that the adventurer goes back into the cities or other places of ancient history to gain these same gifts. This is what happens in any number of fantasy stories and is the backbone of Skyrim too. The player goes into lost storage areas and reclaims what was lost in order to resurrect whatever might have been there to get.  They walk the roads built by other civilizations, both fictional and those in reality in whom it is based.

Even more than their actual positions, the paved paths in Skyrim represent an architecture that reinforces the culture of the society that started it. They serve as the circulatory system of an economy. The carriages that ferry items for trade travel down them and messages are sent using the same way between stations. Which cities are important, and thus are prosperous, include those that are along the main thoroughfare from one ancient place to another. Those that created the roads did so for that very reason: they wanted to travel easily and prized their own places over that of any others.

Omnes viae Romam ducunt. All roads lead to Rome. While it might have been done just because they preferred their own paved roads to that of the other civilizations around them, the unforeseen side effect is that, because they built from their city-state outwards, they provided a backbone for commerce and exchange that other people used more often too. The Romans sought to extend their own grasp to more locations, yet indoctrinated other cultures in the various process of connecting their settlements and cementing economic standing for themselves; the more other people used the roads, the greater the likelihood that they came across Roman settlements and traded with them. The infusion of ideas ideas followed and the reinforcing of certain ways of going from place to place over others began to form.

Many of the cities in Skyrim sit on the sites of ancient locations. The present of the game is built on the foundations of those that came before them. Mer, the race of humanoids that first crossed Tamriel, created settlements. They built their cities and created the roads to link one to another. Thus, as other civilizations expanded into these territories and commerce started, the paved roads were privileged over any dirt paths that might have existed: the more they were used, the greater their importance. Over time, these same roads established conduits that, as they were used, reinforced themselves.

In copying the Romantics that mixed the supernatural with the ruins around them and blended Gnosticism with reality, they gave way to the fantasy genre that prizes a perfect past over a flawed present. Skyrim, in copying these tropes, provides a reflection into what might have gone into a culture that did the same actions that our own did too. From Romans to Romantics, the roads that were traveled the most traced an anatomy that is still being built on in our world. The body that arose from roads became part of the underlining structure of future civilizations and even later cities used in their creation and maintenance. Settlements led to towns that eventually became cities; we are always using the ideas and pieces of the past to build our present, as the future will do as well.