In Anthem, Fort Tarsis is a frontier city used by the game’s Freelancers as a base of operations. While the gargantuan structure called “The Wall” protects the city itself, Freelancers are tasked with venturing out into the world on missions to get supplies, scout nearby areas, and ensure that no hostile forces are plotting against the people they love.
Although Anthem only features this particular fort, the game notes that it isn’t the only one of its kind. Other cities with thriving economies and cultures of their own are scattered across the universe. So what’s so special about this particular fort, other than the fact it’s the one the game takes place in?
Borrowing From History
The name “Fort Tarsis” isn’t just a BioWare original in the vein of Dragon Age’s Thedas (“The Dragon Age Setting”). It’s almost identical to Tarsus, the name of a Turkish city that’s over 6,000 years old. Tarsus is steeped in history and culture, to the extent that the city has played important roles in the area in almost every major historical era since the Neolithic period. Civilizations like the Persian, Roman, and Ottoman Empires have held the city at various times, and evidence of this history can be seen in a number of ancient structures that are still standing to this day.
While not as immediately recognizable as names like Rome and Constantinople, it is said that the ancient city became an epicenter of commerce after it was Hellenized — influenced by Ancient Greek culture — in the 2nd Century BCE. Due to its positioning as a junction between sea and land connecting several coveted territories, Tarsus was an essential point to control for whatever power governed the surrounding area at any given point in time.
Fort Tarsis is also a center of commerce, and its bazaar testifies to its position as a focal point within the world of Anthem. Also, the fact that this is the historic base of the Freelancers ties into the idea of a connected city. Tasked with defending Bastion, Freelancers jet off from the raised launch pad adjacent to Fort Tarsis’ iconic Forge, where their exosuits, or Javelins, are displayed as a centerpiece — the city’s pride and joy.
As a result of Tarsus’ economic prosperity, the city entered a golden era of art and academia. In fact, the school of Tarsus was comparable to those of Athens and Alexandria — its library was home to over 200,000 books, and was a sanctuary for scholars.
Anthem’s Arcanist’s Rotunda pays homage to this illustrious part of Tarsus’ history. Filled with mysterious relics and lined with books and scrolls, it’s an area invested in scholarship, celebrating intellectual pursuits. The Cyphers, too, perform an essential role, transmitting messages between Freelancers on the job. While it may be the heroes we play as that defend the city on the front lines, doing so would be impossible without the help of the workers at home in Fort Tarsis.
A Rise Begets a Fall
However, in the real-world Tarsus, this period of enlightenment and erudition didn’t last long. As the course of history pressed onward, control of Tarsus was passed between different powers, again and again until Turkey became a republic in 1923. For example, when it was temporarily captured by the conquest of the Roman Empire, it was renamed to “Juliopolis” (seriously) in honor of Julius Caesar, the Holy Roman Emperor.
Although still seen as a valuable strategic hold, Tarsus was no longer celebrated for its own progress; instead, it became a position on a military map, marked for its port and junctions as opposed to the pursuits of its inhabitants. In Anthem, Fort Tarsis is much the same. Once celebrated as heroes, the mighty Freelancers are now a dying breed. With empty job boards and barely enough Javelins to defend the city, the Golden Age of heroes like General Helena Tarsis seems to be coming to a close.
However, by examining the real world Tarsus, we can see how it managed to regain its strength after even the darkest of days. The Turkish city was known by many names throughout the course of its long history—one of which is referred to in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra.
Near the play’s end, Cleopatra says: “Go fetch / My best attires: I am again for Cydnus, / To meet Mark Antony.” In this case, “Cydnus” refers to Tarsus, which at the time of the eponymous duo’s meeting was named after the river that ran through it. The that fact this is where the Egyptian Queen met the infamous Roman general for the first time is a testament to just how significant the city was in terms of connecting several parts of the Empire to each other.
In a passage from the Bible, Saint Paul calls Tarsus — his birthplace — “no mean city.” While this may seem like a relatively minor claim, it was written as a litote, an archaic form of rhetoric designed to use a double-negative to affirm an accentuated positive. When Paul called Tarsus no mean city, he meant it as a grandiose statement drawing attention to its significance to the world; the fact that Fort Tarsis is the one fort you see in Anthem automatically foregrounds it in relation to the other forts that we don’t encounter in the game. It is, like its inspiration, “no mean city.”
The Two Forts
In 1671, the famous Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi described Tarsus in one of his travelogues, calling it “a city on the plain, an hour from the sea, surrounded by strong walls two-storeys high, moated on all sides, with three distinct neighbourhoods inside the walls.”
This resembles Fort Tarsis in many ways, especially in relation to the strong walls — which you can liken to Tarsis’ “Wall” megastructure — and the three distinct areas, which in the case of Anthem’s fort are the Forge, the bazaar, and the more archaic area separating the marketplace from the Hall of Freelancers.
The Forge is the most important part of Fort Tarsis. It’s where the Javelins launch from, and where the Freelancers’ famed exosuits are tended to. The bazaar is central to the city’s economy, and resembles those of Tarsus’ Golden Age. And the Hall of Freelancers is Fort Tarsis’ pride and joy, the thing that distinguishes it from all of the other forts that we don’t see in Anthem. It’s the homage to Tarsis’ pride and glory that marks it as an epicenter of culture and learning, and even in its darkest days, it attests to the fact that Fort Tarsis is indeed no mean city.
Anthem’s narrative may not be as rich as those of Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but it still draws from a wealth of history and culture outside of itself. The parallels between Fort Tarsis and Tarsus give fascinating context to the game’s world, giving perhaps even more character to the setting itself than to the relatively unremarkable Javelins. There’s a different kind of storytelling in Anthem, and while it may not be the kind Bioware fans would prefer, it nonetheless shows a commitment to creating interesting worlds — even in a genre as far from RPGs as the looter shooter.