10 Historical Parallels to “Game of Thrones”

10 Historical Parallels to “Game of Thrones”

Alexander Meddings - September 15, 2017

In 2015, during an interview with the New York Post, Snoop Dogg was caught with his tail between his legs when he admitted he enjoyed watching Game of Thrones for “historic reasons”. “I watch it to try to understand what this world was based on before I got here. I like to know how we got from there, to here, and the similarities between then and now.”

Snoop regrettably wasn’t hounded for any more information, and his failure to clarify whether he realized dragons were imaginary or not left it looking like he was barking up entirely the wrong tree. Instead of using what he said to illustrate the harmful effects of long-term substance abuse, however, we should give Snoop Dogg credit for recognizing how George R.R. Martin’s creation does in fact touch on real, historically prevalent themes.

One historical theme that makes the Game of Thrones so enthralling is the vicissitudinous nature of power: how it corrupts, how it’s no more than a mirage, and how, ultimately, it is fleeting. Tying in with this, and drawing us back every week, is its trademark unpredictability. Like history, Game of Thrones is full of deserving people who die before their time; of people who never realize their potential but are beaten by those who are unfit or unworthy. Game of Thrones is addictive in this sense because it’s history in real-time; not our history of hindsight.

This article deals with 10 instances where the show touches on historical themes, people or events. Before we start though, two quick caveats: the storylines I’ll be looking at come from the TV show rather than the books, partly because I think more people are familiar with the show, and partly because I haven’t read them all. Secondly, it goes without saying that this article contains a Dothraki horde of spoilers. So if you’re not completely up to date, read on at your peril.

Lyanna’s Abduction and the Rape of Lucretia

Before Rome was an empire it was a republic, and before it was a republic it was a kingdom. What brought about the Roman Kingdom was a mythological event we know as the rape of Lucretia. In roughly 510 BC, Lucretia was assaulted by Sextus Superbus, the son of Rome’s last king Tarquin the Proud, while he was staying with Lucretia’s husband, Collatinus, on a military campaign. Abusing his hospitality, he entered her chambers and forced himself on her, saying that if she didn’t acquiesce he would kill her and one of her slaves, laying their naked bodies next to each other and making it seem like they’d committed adultery.

The next day, dressed in black, Lucretia told her father what had happened, asking for revenge before pulling out a knife and stabbing herself to death. Vengeance came swiftly; her husband, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, and her uncle, Lucius Junius Brutus drove out the Tarquins and established a democratic republic. And it was poetically appropriate that a Brutus was responsible for driving the last king out of Rome, as it was Marcus Junius Brutus, his distant descendent, who delivered the mortal wound to the would-be dictator Julius Caesar in 44 BC.

There are many similarities to the story of Lyanna Stark. Just as Lucretia’s immediate family became the standard-bearers of the revolution and did away with the king, so too did Lyanna’s after her (supposed) abduction by Rhaegar Targaryen. It was her brother Ned Stark and her betrothed Robert Baratheon who led the armies against the Mad King, resulting in his removal from power and the end of his dynasty (or at least so they think).

As well as similarities of story, the rape of Lucretia and the abduction of Lyanna also share similarities of form. Both events have become part of the mythology of the worlds we first enter, whether that’s the early Roman Empire (pretty much where our literary evidence starts) or the immediate aftermath of John Arryn’s assassination during Robert’s reign. They’re also stories that have been told and retold to such an extent that reality has become separated from history, and fact from fiction.

Take the abduction of Lyanna, for example. As Brann’s visions make clear, she was not forcefully abducted by Rhaegar Targaryen, but fled with him willingly from her betrothed, Robert Baratheon, and married him in secret, legitimising a certain bastard. But, as “Game of Thrones” likes to drill home, history is written by the winners, and because Robert’s rebellion was a success and the Targaryens were all but annihilated, the truth behind the revolt—which, we must remember, was vital to conceal as it gives Robert his legitimacy—was buried with them.

The Mad King

In the annals of history, there’s no shortage of mad kings. The Book of Daniel describes the fall of the 6th century BC King Nebuchadnezzar who, heuristically believing himself superior on account of his achievements, was humbled by God by being made to go and live among the animals and feed on grass. In late 14th and early 15th Century France, there was Charles VI “the Mad’ who, as his name might suggest, was prone to sporadic outbursts of insanity, and spent a large part of his reign believing he was made of glass and could shatter at any moment.

Aerys II Targaryen, the king who started out with so much promise only to turn paranoid, unhinged, and murderous finds parallel with monarchs all across history. One of the most obvious is Ivan the Terrible of Russia. Like Aerys, Ivan also started brightly before succumbing to destructive paranoia brought on by constant court intrigues and perceived threats from those around him. By the end of his reign, he was routinely and brutally executing members of other boyar (noble) families, removing their ribs with red-hot irons, boiling, and skinning them alive.

Ivan’s cruelty may well have inspired Aerys II’s murder of Lord Rickon and Brandon Stark, who had come to negotiate the release of Lyanna Stark. Rickon, Lyanna’s father, was suspended from the rafters and roasted alive in his armor, while his son Brandon had a strangulation device attached to his neck. Brandon was told that if he could reach his father, he could use the sword placed under him to cut him down. But it was an impossible task: Brandon, in his efforts, strangled himself.

Aerys’s pyromaniac tendencies also find parallels all across history. In the first century AD there was the unhinged Emperor Nero who, we’re told, rather liked to burn things, including the vast majority of his own capital, and the Christian groups he scapegoated for doing so. Aerys’s fall from virtue and descent into murderous madness also evokes another early emperor: Caligula.

Like Aerys, Caligula was killed by those who had sworn to protect him but had witnessed (and endured) too much. For Aerys it was Jaimie Lannister, the man who should have been Tywin’s heir but who Aerys had politically vasectomized by bringing him into his knightly circle. For Caligula it was Cassius Longinus, a praetorian whose high-pitched voice and effeminate characteristics the emperor mocked so mercilessly that one day he snapped, stabbing him to death as he left the theatre.

The Unhappy Marriage of Edward II and Isabella of France

The turbulent history of the late 13th and early 14th century King Edward II of England and Isabella of France throws up many parallels with monarchical Game of Thrones characters. Isabella was renowned for her incredible beauty: “the most beautiful in the kingdom and the empire” in the words of the French chronicler Godefroy de Paris. Behind her beauty, however, lay a wrathful temperament. She married her husband, the handsome King Edward II, at the tender age of 14. But while husband in name, Edward’s affections were directed less towards her and more towards his male courtiers.

The most obvious plotline Isabella’s embittered relationship with Edward ties into is the relationship between Cersei Lannister and Robert Baratheon. Cersei is constantly vying for Robert’s attention but is powerless to hold him back from having numerous affairs. Just as Isabella had to compete for first place with her husband’s “favorite”, Piers Gaveston, even at her own coronation, Cersei is also condemned to being second best to the memory of Robert’s one true love, Lyanna Stark. After all, in Westeros what’s dead may never die.

Then there’s the fact that, along with her lover (though not, as in Cersei’s case, her brother) Isabella ultimately orchestrated the removal of her husband and the coronation of her ungrateful wretch of a son, the 14-year-old Edward of Windsor. Rather than getting her husband drunk and impaled by a boar, however, Isabella was content merely in having Edward arrested and imprisoned. What goes around comes around though, and before her son had even turned 18 he launched a coup of his own, putting his mother under house arrest and having her lover, Roger Mortimer, hanged. Shame.

Westeros has another queen who’s forced to play second fiddle to an unfaithful king: Margaery Tyrell. She has a pragmatic but passionless marriage to Renly Baratheon, a man who gets infinitely more sexual stimulation from her brother than he does from her. And here again, the parallels between Edward and Isabella are clear. Piers Gaveston wasn’t the only male courtier that caught Edward’s eye. The king had what seems to have been a sexual relationship with Hugh le Despenser, who met his end shortly after Edward fell from power in 1326. His death, described by Froissart, was brutal: raised up on a ladder before a jeering crowd, he was castrated and disemboweled while fully conscious, before finally being beheaded and quartered, his body strewn across London.

10 Historical Parallels to “Game of Thrones”
The ruins of the Roman Forum; the epicentre of Empire. The Áed – WordPress

Valyria and the Shadow of Rome

Just as medieval Europe sprung up among the ruins of the Roman Empire, Westeros too stands in the shadows of an ancient yet incredibly advanced civilization: the Valyrian Freehold. A lot connects the two: both conquered vast swathes of territory through their military and technological superiority; both created the conditions for peace and prosperity (though run off the back of slave economies), and both ultimately crumbled, the only remnants of their greatness living on in name alone.

Upon arriving in Valyria, Tyrion asks Jorah Mormont: “How many centuries before we learn how to build cities like this again?” We have evidence of people feeling similarly awestruck looking back on Roman architecture during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. While gazing upon the magnificent, apparently freestanding dome of the Roman Pantheon in the early 1500s, Michelangelo commented that it seemed of “angelic and not human design.” And wasn’t just for the architecture people that felt nostalgic. Valyrian steel, something the Westerosi haven’t learned to forge since the civilization’s fall, remains unparalleled in terms of weaponry, and Valryia’s language—like Latin in the Middle Ages—continued to be taught as part of the education of the Westerosi nobility.

For all the influence Valyria exerted over Westeros, it’s interesting that they never attempted to conquer it. This is because they saw it as an unprofitable backwater; an interesting parallel because that’s just how the Romans saw Britain. True, Caesar conquered Britain in 55/4 BC, but he did so because he feared a British-Gallic confederacy, not because he wanted Britain per se. Britain was conquered under Claudius in 43 AD, but this was more for propagandistic purposes than anything else. For Claudius was a weak, uncharismatic ruler in need of military conquest to bolster his position, and Britain made easy pickings—more so than Parthia or Germany.

For all the Roman Empire contributed in terms of laws, language, markets, roads, architecture, and infrastructure—what did the Romans ever do for us?—that wasn’t enough to prevent its ultimate ruin. A series of factors, including political incompetence at the center of government and the gross mismanagement of mass migration, led to Rome falling to the Goths in 410. This wasn’t the case for Valyria, which was obliterated through natural, rather than manmade, causes. But in making the Doom of Valyria a catastrophic volcanic eruption, we see Martin drawing on the story of two other great civilizations: historically, the Minoans; mythologically, the city of Atlantis.

10 Historical Parallels to “Game of Thrones”
Giovanni de’ Medici and his son, Cosimo: the two men most responsible for the bank’s astronomical rise. Pinterest

The Medici and the Iron Bank

Two truisms govern the financial world of Westeros: 1) A Lannister always pays his debts, and 2) The Iron Bank will have its due. The Iron Bank lurks behind the scenes from the very first season. Ned arrives to find that the Throne is in considerable debt, owing half to the Lannisters and half to the Iron Bank. Even Tywin, the all-powerful paterfamilias of House Lannister, fears the Iron Bank, acknowledging its power as a monolithic entity that can neither be evaded, lied to, or avoided.

Institutional money lending stretches back well into antiquity, with interest rates required on gold deposits in Ancient Mesopotamia (2,000 BC) and examples of pawnbroking attested in Classical Greece. But we don’t see anything quite as formidable as the Iron Bank until the Medici, in 15th century Italy. Combining sound financial investments with political cunning and pure luck, the Medici family went on to finance (and indeed produce) popes, and bankroll kings. The money they used, however, they poured back into their city, Florence, partly to keep up the façade that the city was still a Republic and there was no all-powerful ruling family.

The Iron Bank of Braavos makes a strong appearance in the seventh season, represented by Mycroft Holmes (in disguise as Tycho Nestoris). One way they make their fortunes is by financially investing in those they think will ultimately win or, as Mycroft Holmes puts it, investing in “endeavors we deem likely to be successful.” But, as the show makes clear, the vicissitudes of war are the biggest enemy of certainty. After being persuaded by Ser Davos, the Iron Bank invested considerably in Stannis Baratheon. But his decapitation led to him defaulting on his debt.

We have parallels between the Iron Bank and the Medici during the War of the Roses. The Medici’s London branch got into serious trouble after lending to the usurper Edward IV, who owed the Medici 10,500 pounds. He ultimately defaulted, as did his enemies, the Lancastrian Rebels, who also owed the Medici a considerable amount but never saw to their debt being repaid. This failure brought business at the London Branch to a close and marked the beginning of the end for the Medici’s monopoly over European banking.

10 Historical Parallels to “Game of Thrones”
Henry Tudor and Daenerys Targaryen. Screenprism

The Heir Across the Narrow Sea

It’s well known that George R.R. Martin based much of “A Song of Ice and Fire” on the War of the Roses, even admitting it himself during an interview in 2000. The three-decade struggle was fought between the houses of York and Lancaster from the mid-to-late-15th Century and arose from the mental infirmity of the monarch Henry VI (think Aerys Targaryen) two and feuding houses, each with claims to the throne.

The War of the Roses was a civil war, but as with all conflicts of this kind, civil is a staggering misnomer. Whether due to geographical proximity or diverging ideologies, civil wars are often the bloodiest and most devoid of mercy. The Battle of Towton in 1461, which saw the Yorkist Edward IV take the throne from the Lancastrian Henry VI, was perhaps the bloodiest in English history; a staggering 28,000 on both sides staining the snowstorm coated battlefield red with their blood.

The extent to which Martin borrowed from the War of the Roses means there’s something to say about almost every character. Ned Stark finds parallels with Richard of York; King Joffrey with Edward of Westminster. But because there isn’t enough space to write about each one (and besides, it’s been done already), I’m going to focus on one comparison: Daenerys Targaryen and Henry Tudor.

Both Daenerys and Henry were raised in exile because their claim to the throne, as direct descendants of the previous monarch, put their lives in danger. But their legitimacy was largely overlooked until the deaths of the heirs apparent—in Dany’s case Viserys; in Henry’s, Henry VI and his son Edward. Sensing his opportunity, Henry crossed the channel from France to Wales in 1485, not with a Dothraki horde but with an army of 2,000 French mercenaries.

From there he went on to defeat the Yorkists at the Battle of Bosworth Field, becoming the last English monarch to win the throne in battle. King Richard III was killed during the battle, his supposed last words “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” immortalized by Shakespeare in his eponymous play. Lost for centuries, Richard’s corpse was recently discovered under a car park in Leicester, exhumed and then buried again at the slightly nobler site of Leicester Cathedral. We’re going to have to wait and see how much of Henry’s reigning years find echoes in Daenerys. But knowing Martin, one thing’s for sure: it’s unlikely to be plain sailing.

10 Historical Parallels to “Game of Thrones”
“The Massacre of Glencoe” by James Hamilton (1884). Art UK

The Red Wedding and Horror in the Highlands

Martin revealed that two events inspired his “Red Wedding”. The first was the execution of the 16-year-old Earl William Douglas and his younger brother in 1440 at an event known as the “Black Dinner.” The powerful earl had accepted an invitation from the 10-year-old King James II to dine at Edinburgh Castle. During the feast, however, Douglas heard the beating of a single drum, at which point a platter was brought to his table. When lifted, the platter revealed the head of a black boar, a symbol of death. Being alerted to his fate did nothing to save him, and the Earl and his brother were immediately dragged to the courtyard, given a short mock trial, and beheaded.

The second, more prescient event took place at Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands: a place of tranquil natural beauty that masks a macabre history. What transpired was essentially a massacre, the murder of 38 MacDonald clan members at the hands of the Campbells who, for nearly two weeks, had been their guests. As in Game of Thrones, the reality behind the conspiracy was more complicated. Just as it was actually Tywin Lannister who organized the Stark’s massacre, and the skin-stripping Boltons who helped carry it out, the order at Glencoe was given by the Scottish Secretary of State, John Dalrymple.

Dalrymple had a personal vendetta against the Highland Clans in general as he saw them as obstructive towards a union with England, but he particularly hated Maclain and his MacDonald’s of Glencoe. Maclain’s failure to sign his oath of allegiance to William by the deadline of January 1 gave him the excuse he needed to destroy them.

Robert Campbell’s soldiers arrived at the MacDonald’s fort at Glencoe on February 1. They took shelter from the elements outside and were treated to all the hospitality they were entitled to under the Highland hospitality code. Then on the night of February 13, 1692, as a blizzard raged outside and everyone was sleeping, the Campbells set about murdering every MacDonald they could find. Thirty-eight lay dead inside the fort the next morning, including the clan leader, Alasdair MacDonald (known as Maclain). Around 40 others, mainly women and children, had fled the fort, including Maclain’s wife, but ultimately died from exposure on the mountainside.

The massacre at Glencoe sent shockwaves through Scotland. Even among the participants, there were those who tried to warn the victims, giving them and their families enough time to layer up and try to make an escape. And its effects are still being felt today. Despite the successes of various historical Campbells, the name still bears the weight of ancestral responsibility. Visit Glencoe’s Clachaig Inn, and you’ll still see a sign on the door that reads: “No Campbells”.

10 Historical Parallels to “Game of Thrones”
Stained glass depicting a Knight of the Order of the Temple. Classroom

The Night’s Watch and Medieval Holy Orders

Medieval Europe saw its fair share of harsh winters. In 1258 temperatures plummeted to such an extent that an estimated 20,000 people starved to death in London alone, with people in such desperation that they gnawed bark from the trees. In 1357, starving wolves prowled through England’s Sherwood Forest, hunting humans and livestock alike. But compared to those Westerosi who suffered a Long Night lasting generations, 8,000 years before the Targayren Conquest, the Europeans were summer children.

The Night’s Watch was established in the wake of the Long Winter. They were established as a military order charged with defending the realm of men against the horrors, or as they’re called “Others”, beyond the wall. No such parallel existed in European history, unless we look to the Roman legionaries posted on Hadrian’s Wall. But if we look to the peripheries of Medieval Europe—specifically the Holy Land at the time of the Crusades—we can see patterns into which the men of the Night’s Watch fit.

One was the Knights Templar, a military holy order whose job was to protect pilgrims passing through the Holy Land. Another was the Teutonic Order, initially charged with caring for the sick in the same vein as the Knights Hospitaller, but militarised at the end of the 12th century. Both Templars and Teutons took vows of celibacy, renouncing female contact of any sort, including kissing their mothers; and this embracement of chastity finds echoes in the vow of the Night’s Watch’s: “I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.”

We don’t know the wording of the vow sworn by knights of the Teutonic Order. It’s safe to say, however, that rather than harkening on about night gathering and one’s watch beginning, it centered around defending the Holy Land from the infidel and helping take it back for Christianity. But we know there were many similarities: encouraging poverty, chastity, and obedience to God’s will.

There are also a number of similarities regarding the hierarchical structures of the fictional and historical orders. Just as men of the Night’s Watch are answerable entirely to their elected Lord Commander, the Templars and Teutons were utterly obedient to their elected Grand Master. Both the historical and the fictional orders were also completely autonomous; they weren’t answerable to individual individuals, kings or countries or individuals outside their order as they were seen as serving a higher purpose.

10 Historical Parallels to “Game of Thrones”
Hadrian’s Wall at Walltown Crags. English Heritage

The Wall

While planning out his debut novel, George R.R. Martin visited Hadrian’s Wall. There, looking out over the plains to the north and imagining what it would have been like for a fur-covered Roman of Mediterranean or North African origin, he got inspiration for his own creation: a 300-mile long, 700-foot-tall Wall that would span the two coastlines of Westeros. Scientifically, Martin’s Wall would never stand, even in the sub-zero temperatures of his fictionalized North. But the Wall he based his icy structure on didn’t fare too badly.

After its completion in the late 120s AD, Hadrian’s Wall marked the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. It stretched 80 miles from coast to coast, comprehensively shutting out Rome’s enemies, the Picts, Scots, and Celts, to the north. But it wasn’t the Empire’s northernmost wall. Another was built by Hadrian’s adoptive son, Antoninus Pius, a “good emperor” whose historical record is so unremarkable that if you can tell me five interesting facts about him, you can have my job. Pius began construction on his Antonine Wall in 142 AD, and it was finished 12 years later. But despite being well fortified, within eight years the legions decided to drop back to Hadrian’s Wall.

It wasn’t the undead army of the Night King the Romans were trying to keep out, but British tribes and Caledonians (though to the Latin-speakers they were probably just as incomprehensible). There is something that connects the two, however. While the army of the Night king represents the antithesis to the people of Westeros (undead, unrelenting, unable to be negotiated with), barbarian tribes too were seen as “Other” in Roman thought. We see this particularly with the Britons but also with Germanic tribes around the same time: used as people against whom the Romans defined themselves culturally.

The Wall was more a show of force, of the most powerful man at the head of the most powerful empire imposing himself on nature, than of holding back waves of barbarian tribes. This isn’t to say, however, that there wasn’t any fighting. In around 180 AD a confederacy of British tribes launched attacks along the Wall, overrunning several sectors and killing a Roman general. The same happened in 197 AD. But the thing about walls—Trump, take note here—is that they eventually fall, and with the Romans’ withdrawal from Britain at the beginning of the fifth century large portions of the Wall were dismantled as the border opened up.

10 Historical Parallels to “Game of Thrones”
Viking raiding ship. Pinterest

The Ironborn and the Vikings

One of the most obvious comparisons between the people of Westeros is the Ironborn and the Vikings. And the cultural and political disparities between the feudal system on the “green lands” and the strength-orientated militarism of Pyke and the Iron Islands are constantly highlighted in the show through Theon. As Ned Stark’s hostage, he’s exposed to a much different way of life at Winterfell, which softens him to the barbarity of his ancestors. But, unfortunately for him, his exposure to this culture alienates him from his own people, and he ultimately returns a stranger.

In Theon’s father, Balon Greyjoy, we see traces of the Viking King Ceolwulf. The Vikings installed him on the Mercian throne, replacing the old king Burgred of Mercia. But he was little more than a puppet; impotent of power and answerable to those he derived it from. Another problem Balon has is that there’s no heir apparent, opening up the possibility of a power struggle which, of course, comes along. It’s ultimately his younger brother, Euron Greyjoy, who exploits both this weakness and the fact that Balon has to cross a treacherous causeway on his way to and from work every day.

The extreme violence of their lifestyle goes right down to their bartering system. On several occasions, they refer to paying “the iron price” for something, which generally involves bloodily beating your enemies to death until—quite literally by process of elimination—that thing becomes yours. Euron Greyjoy is, for all intents an purposes, phenomenally talented at bludgeoning his enemies with his axe. And this choice of weapon does fit him within a Viking context as they were instrumental in developing the axe to break shield walls or fight cavalry.

There are, however, a number of important differences between the Ironborn and the Norsemen. While George R.R. Martin would have it that the Ironborn are an almost totalitarian warrior society, in reality, the Viking class system was a lot more stratified. Even among the Vikings, it could be roughly divided into those who fought, those who prayed and those who toiled. The Ironborn are also fiercely resistant to change, which was never a characteristic among successful civilizations like the Vikings who, in a pre-Darwinian sense, were forced either to adapt or die. With winter’s arrival, it remains to be seen whether the Ironborn will be able to do so, or whether they will be ultimately be counted among the Westerosi civilizations lost to time.


Sources For Further Reading:

Rolling Stone – ‘Game of Thrones’ Mixtape Recruits Snoop Dogg, Method Man, Anthrax

Ranker – History All of The Real Historical Parallels To ‘Game of Thrones’

Mental Floss – 7 Historical Parallels to Game of Thrones

ThoughtCo – The Legend of Lucretia in Roman History

Daily Art Magazine – ANCIENT ROMEA Woman with A Knife – The Story of Lucretia

Museum Facts – Lucretia- The Woman Who Ended the Roman Monarchy

Highland Titles – Glencoe Massacre: Truth or Spin?

Radio Times – What Will Game of Thrones’ Targaryen Spin-Off House of The Dragon Be About?

BBC News – Game of Thrones bid to boost Hadrian’s Wall visits

English Heritage – It May Be Spring, But Winter Is Coming to Hadrian’s Wall

The Verge – English Heritage Is Posting Watchers on Hadrian’s Wall Before Game Of Thrones Returns