When asked about the inspiration behind his internationally successful fantasy epic series A Song of Ice and Fire, author George R.R. Martin responded that “fantasy and historical novels are twins”. An accurate assessment of the genre, with historical allegories and references aplenty within the works of J.R.R. Tolkien also, Martin’s fictional world bears countless striking similarities to real-world history. Although introducing fantastical elements, and not to detract from Martin’s expert penmanship, much of the core narrative, places, peoples, and events of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, reproduced superbly on television as Game of Thrones, has surprisingly been cribbed from actual human history. As should go without saying: spoiler alert for seasons 1-7 of HBO’s Game of Thrones!
Here are 20 times Game of Thrones “borrowed” details from real history:
20. The Valyrian Freehold, known during the timeline of Game of Thrones as Old Valyria, is a clear historical parallel of the Ancient Roman Empire
Situated on the continent of Essos, the Valyrian Freehold was a once-great empire that ruled a significant portion of the known world. Governed by a grouping of noble families, known collectively as the dragonlords, Valyria established itself by conquering its neighboring rivals, starting with the Old Empire of Ghis before moving on to conquer the Andals and Rhonyar. Constructing legendary wonders using advanced technology that remained lost even four hundred years later, the collapse of the Valyrian Freehold plunged the world into a series of enduring conflicts among its constituent parts and between successor nations.
Albeit with dragons and magic, the parallels between Valyria and Rome are both blatant and numerous. Like Valyria, Rome was nominally a republic for much of its history, governed chiefly by an aristocratic elite known as “patricians”, whom during the formative years of the Roman Republic were the only ones permitted to hold political office. Despite offering its own citizen’s rights, Roman equally practiced the enslavement of its enemies, and, akin to Valyria, Rome imparted technology that would endure long after the destruction of the polity and would take centuries to be replicated. Of particular note, just like Roman roads, Martin included the “Valyrian roads” as one of the seven “Wonders Made By Man”.
19. The long seasons of Game of Thrones are actually reflective of the bizarre weather patterns of the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age which affected much of the known world during the Middle Ages
Despite geographically mirroring our own world, with Westeros evidently a slightly altered British Isles, the weather in Game of Thrones on the surface appears to be purely fantastical. Rather than our own predictable years consisting of four roughly equal seasons, Martin’s world enjoys a noticeably different seasonal cycle. Whilst the northern-most locations of the world are colder than those in the south, reflective of our own weather patterns, rather than lasting for approximately fixed durations the world instead endures seasons of varying lengths. At the beginning of the show, the world has been enjoying a nine-year summer which is coming to its conclusion.
Whilst there remains speculation this cyclical pattern is not natural, but a lasting remnant of the Long Night which allegedly occurred eight thousand years prior to the events of the show, the weather patterns of Game of Thrones, in spite of their fantastical elements, surprisingly mirror those of Medieval Europe. Lasting from roughly 950 to 1250 CE, the Medieval Warm Period saw the hottest prolonged recorded temperatures until the modern era. Following this “long summer”, the world was plunged into the Little Ice Age. Lasting from approximately 1300 to 1850, temperatures dropped precipitously as the world entered into a “long winter”.
18. Perhaps the most blatant appropriation from history, the War of the Five Kings, fought across seasons one through four of Game of Thrones, is a fantasy reproduction of the Wars of the Roses
A core component of the show’s narrative between the closing episodes of season one and lasting into season four, and with the repercussions of the conflict resonating throughout following seasons, the War of the Five Kings is a protracted civil war in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Sparked by the death of King Robert I, the war is fought between three combatants seeking to claim the Iron Throne – Joffrey Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, and Renly Baratheon – as well as encompassing two independence movements led by Robb Stark, King in the North, and Balon Greyjoy, King of the Iron Islands.
Although condensed to only a five-year period by Martin, the War of the Five Kings is patently inspired by the English Wars of the Roses. A generations-long conflict, lasting for a total of thirty-two years from 1455 until 1487, the rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet – the House of Lancaster and the House of York – engaged in a violent struggle for the throne. Ultimately concluding, as in Game of Thrones, with the deaths of the entire male royal line, the throne was ultimately passed to a distant relative, Henry Tudor. Encompassing mothers ruling in their son’s name, claimants growing up exiled in distant lands, and a wealthy non-royal family acting as the true power behind the throne, the parallels are beyond count.
17. Another inspiration drawn from the Roman Era, The Wall is an exaggerated fantasy version of the real-life Hadrian’s Wall built in Roman Britain
A colossal fortification, stretching for three hundred miles along the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, The Wall separates the southern realm from the untamed lands beyond. Reportedly constructed out of solid ice under the direction of Bran the Builder, using means unknown but presumed to include magic, the seven-hundred-foot-high barrier is believed to have been built some eight thousand years prior to the events of the show. Forgotten by most, the original purpose of the wall was to defend the realms of men from the White Walkers, but by the War of the Five Kings had been overshadowed by the fortification’s role in precluding invasion by indigenous inhabitants from beyond the wall: the wildlings.
Although not made of ice or seven hundred feet tall, The Wall bears multiple similarities to Hadrian’s Wall. Built in the Roman province of Britannia, with construction beginning in 122 CE during the reign of the eponymous emperor, Hadrian’s Wall spans the width of northern England between the River Tyne and the Solway Firth. Not the only giant defensive structure, the Antonine Wall, built twenty years after its more famous counterpart, marked the northernmost limits of Roman Britain. Spanning sixty-three miles across the Central Belt of Scotland, the three-meter-high wall was abandoned less than a decade after completion.
16. Mirroring real-world natural disasters of apocalyptic proportions, the “Doom of Valyria” was a cataclysmic event which single-handedly wiped out an entire civilization
Occurring almost four hundred years before the events of Game of Thrones, the “Doom of Valyria” was a catastrophic event which precipitated the collapse of the Valyrian Freehold. Destroying the city of Old Valyria, the devastation caused by “The Doom” shattered the landmass known as the Valyrian Peninsula and sunk much of the ancient civilization beneath the seas. Whilst the precise origin of “The Doom” remains uncertain, with it unclear whether natural misfortune or magic triggered the calamity, it is known that the Fourteen Fires – a chain of volcanoes located near Valyria – simultaneously erupted in a legendary natural disaster of epic proportions.
Within the brief timeline of recorded history, similar instances of natural forces conspiring to devastate human civilizations tell similar stories. Most famously, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, releasing more than one hundred thousand times the thermal energy of the nuclear bombings of 1945, obliterated the surrounding cities including Pompeii. An even closer comparison, however, is the Minoan eruption during the mid-second millennium BCE. Devastating the island of Thera, the eruption triggered the downfall of the Minoan civilization and its destruction upon nearby islands spawned the legend of Atlantis.
15. The story of Aegon the Conqueror borrows heavily from that of William the Conqueror, whilst the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are England although they had already been unified by the time of the Norman invasion in 1066.
The founder of the Targaryen dynasty of Westeros, Aegon I Targaryen, also known as Aegon the Conqueror, was the first Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. Conquering six of the seven constituent parts of the island of Westeros over a period of two years, with Dorne eluding his domination, Aegon established his new capital at the site of his landing on the mainland and instituted a new kingdom under united governance. Long possessing designs for his conquest and retaining a prolonged belief in unifying the country, Aegon the Conqueror, suggested by his given moniker, holds evident parallels with the historical William the Conqueror.
The first Norman King of England, reigning from 1066 until his death in 1087, William, Duke of Normandy, like his fictitious reproduction, led an invasion force of the island he sought to govern. Equally reproduced by Martin in his Westeros, the England desired by William had been historically divided among multiple competing kingdoms. First laying claim on the English crown during the 1050s, following the death of Edward the Confessor the Norman noble challenged Harold Godwinson for the title. Defeating his enemy at the Battle of Hastings, William would endure nine years of recurrent conflict before pacifying the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of England and securing his position.
14. The character of Cersei Lannister – wife to King Robert Baratheon, mother to Kings Joffrey and Tommen, and later ruling in her own name – was, at least in part, inspired by the alleged incest of Anne Boleyn during her marriage to King Henry VIII of England
The wife of King Robert Baratheon, Cersei Lannister became Queen of the Seven Kingdoms at the age of just nineteen after the last-minute alliance of her father, Tywin, with the rebels in the War of the Usurper. Outliving her husband, her three surviving children – Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen – were born of an incestuous and adulterous relationship with her twin brother, Ser Jaime. Living to see all three of her beloved children die, two by murder and one by suicide, Cersei herself claims the vacant Iron Throne. Although deviating from the historical narrative towards the conclusion of Cersei’s story, the “Mad Queen” is highly reminiscent of Anne Boleyn.
The second wife of King Henry VIII, the marriage between the pair marked the start of the English Reformation following Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Wed in 1533, despite pursuing her affections for many years, the couple’s relationship quickly soured. Crowned Queen of England, the birth of the future Elizabeth I in September 1533 greatly disappointed Henry who desired a son. Growing estranged, Henry began courting other women whilst Anne allegedly entered into an incestuous relationship with her brother George. Convicted of this charge, in spite of an absence of corroborating evidence, as well as for treason, Anne was beheaded in May 1536.
13. Although carrying certain differences in backstories, the personality and character of King Robert Baratheon is unquestionably similar to that of King Henry VIII of England
Reigning as the seventeenth ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, Robert I Baratheon was the first monarch of the country to not belong to House Targaryen. Initiating a rebellion against King Aerys II Targaryen, commonly known as the “Mad King”, after his son, Rhaegar, Prince of Dragonstone, allegedly abducted Robert’s betrothed, Lyanna Stark, Robert would suffer only a single defeat in the field. Emerging ultimately victorious, personally killing Rhaegar at the Battle of the Trident, Robert was a great warrior and inspirational leader in his prime. A passionate devotee of hunting, feasting, and womanizing, the character of Robert, if not his path to kingship, heavily mirrors that of King Henry VIII of England.
Known as “one of the most charismatic rulers to sit on the English throne”, Henry VIII inherited his title after the death of his father, Henry VII, in 1509. Whilst known today predominantly for his six marriages, Henry was contemporaneously also known for his lavish expenditures. Using the proceeds from the Dissolution of the Monasteries to finance his lifestyle, although this fortune proved insufficient and the realm was almost bankrupted by debt in a manner similar to Robert. A fan of hunting and jousting in his younger days, Henry grew severely obese as he aged, with Robert’s death whilst hunting an honorable homage to the gluttonous real-life king.
12. Several of the military orders that appear throughout the world of Game of Thrones, including the Night’s Watch and the Unsullied, are based on real historical organizations
A military order, charged with guarding The Wall and holding it against attacks from the lands beyond, the Night’s Watch was founded approximately eight thousand years before the events of Game of Thrones. Swearing an oath renouncing marriage, family, lands, or titles, members of the order, having forsworn prior allegiances, are inducted for life under penalty of death for desertion. Retaining significant parallels, the Knight’s Templar, formally known as the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, was an order of elite fighting men founded in 1119 at the behest of the Pope and existing until disbandment in 1312.
Typically joining for life, members were required to take vows of poverty and chastity so severe that any physical contact with any woman, even a relative, was strictly forbidden. Prominent throughout the Crusades, the order fought for the alleged common good of all peoples of Christendom. Reflecting Martin’s knowledge of archaic military orders, another distinguished grouping in Game of Thrones – the Unsullied – are also drawn from history. Inspired by the Ottoman Janissaries, this elite fighting corps, comprised of enslaved children taken at a young age, were spared the castration inflicted upon their fictional counterparts but were required to remain celibate during their service.
11. Encompassing several tyrannical and maladjusted royal youths, King Joffrey Baratheon is a composite character most resembling Edward of Lancaster and the Roman Emperor Caligula
Becoming the eighteenth inhabitant of the Iron Throne following the death of his supposed father, Robert, Joffrey Baratheon inherited the crown at the age of sixteen. Already displaying immense arrogance and sadistic qualities prior to becoming king, the short-lived ruler of the Seven Kingdoms delighted in displays of cruelty and torment. From physically and psychologically torturing his betrothed, Sansa Stark, to the violent murders of whores, as well as the mutilations and executions of his people for the slightest offenses, Joffrey was an ineffective ruler who was assassinated after less than four years in power.
Retaining notable parallels to Martin’s fictional creation, Edward of Lancaster, the son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou – although Edward, like Joffrey, suffered rumors of illegitimate birth – the young prince was possessed of a tyrannical streak. Obsessed with beheading and torturing people, the would-be king was stabbed to death by Edward IV before he could claim his father’s crown. Warranting comparison also, the Roman Emperor Caligula likewise inherited his throne at a young age, was reputedly an avowed sadist and vicious ruler who grew to be hated by his own people, and whom, after only three years in power, was murdered in an attempt to restore order to the realm.
10. Among the most shocking moments in television history, the Red Wedding was inspired by, among other events, two real-life massacres from Scotland as well as an ancient Japanese semi-historical legend
A critical turning point of the War of the Five Kings, the Red Wedding was a massacre organized by Lord Walder Frey in retribution against King Robb Stark for breaking a marriage pact with his house. Under the guise of a wedding between Lord Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey, the hospitable Freys butchered their approximately 15,000 guests, including the entire leadership of the Northern rebellion, and declared their allegiance for the Lannisters and King Joffrey. Whilst exaggerated in scale, the shocking twist is based upon multiple true events, most prominently the Massacre of Glencoe from 1691.
Failing to deliver their oaths to William of Orange on time, the freshly crowned king dispatched one-hundred-and-twenty men to the MacDonalds. Offered accommodations and respite from the cold, the king’s men murdered thirty-eight of their hosts in their sleep and forced a further forty to die from exposure in a blizzard. Equally brutal, the Black Dinner of 1440 saw the sixteen-year-old Earl of Douglas and his younger brother invited to dine with the ten-year-old James II. Fearing the Black Douglas clan were becoming too powerful, James had the pair dragged outside mid-meal and beheaded. More obscurely, parallels between the Red Wedding and the Japanese semi-historical Kojiki warrant consideration, with Emperor Jimmu ordering the massacre of all his rivals during a feast.
8. Among the most iconic characters in Game of Thrones, the struggle of Tyrion Lannister is inspired by the lives of the Roman Emperor Claudius and King Richard III of England
The youngest child of Tywin Lannister, and younger brother of Cersei and Jaime, Tyrion Lannister, commonly known as “The Imp” due to his dwarfism, suffers the barbs and humiliations Medieval society had to offer those different. Enduring his mistreatment, Tyrion rises to serve as acting Hand of the King under Joffrey Baratheon, defending King’s Landing against Stannis Baratheon, before being framed for his king’s murder. Fleeing to Essos and becoming Hand to the Queen under Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion’s story is clearly inspired by that of the Roman Emperor Claudius.
Overlooked as a potential emperor due to his speech impediment and limp, Claudius, like Tyrion, was looked down upon by the society he inhabited. Resolving to prove his detractors wrong, after decades of struggle Claudius clawed his way to power by using his immense intellect to surpass his physical shortcomings. Less obvious, parallels have been drawn between the character of Tyrion and the historical Richard III. Offering a sympathetic reinterpretation of the maligned King of England, both men suffered physical deformities and both were accused of murdering their nephew. However, whereas history condemned Richard without concrete proof, Martin elects to absolve Tyrion, perhaps suggesting his opinion on the ongoing debate surrounding Richard’s culpability.
7. Introducing core features of the ancient Persian religion, the Red Faith in Game of Thrones strongly mirrors Zoroastrianism whilst its primary acolyte in the show, Melisandre, is a patent imitation of Rasputin
Introduced in Game of Thrones season two, the Red Faith is a foreign religion which advocates worship of the “lord of light”, also known as R’hllor, who appears to his followers in the form of fire. Proselytized by Melisandre, a priestess from Asshai, the Red Faith proclaims an eternal war against the darkness and the abolition of the traditional deities of Westeros. Whilst some have ascribed early Christian motifs to the Red Faith, a far more consistent parallel is the older Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Not only introducing the spiritual concept of a struggle between light and darkness, the existence of demons, as well as many other features later appropriated by Christianity, but Zoroastrianism is also intimately concerned with fire.
In Zoroastrianism, fire serves as a medium for spiritual awareness, with its adherents commonly praying in the presence of fire. Furthermore, important similarities can be noted between Melisandre herself and the Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin. Both rose from nothing to become important figures within a royal household, both won the trust not only of the King but also, and more strongly, the Queen, both remained unpopular and feared by the general public, both are allegedly capable of cheating death, and both ultimately contributed to the destruction and extermination of the royal house they served.
6. Carrying noticeable similarities in their narratives, the character of Theon Greyjoy is closely connected to the life of George Plantagenet during the Wars of the Roses
Taken as a hostage following his father’s failed rebellion, Theon Greyjoy was raised in Winterfell alongside the Stark children. Initially pledging his loyalty to his longtime friend Robb upon his declaration as King in the North, Theon betrays his adopted family and sides with House Grejoy in the War of the Five Kings. Attacking Winterfell, Theon captures the seat of House Stark but is in turn betrayed and captured himself. Tortured and castrated by Ramsay Snow, the core narrative of Theon’s journey is reflected in the life of George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, during the English Wars of the Roses.
The younger brother of Kings Edward IV and Richard III, George initially supported his family, the House of York, in the civil war. Following the split between Warwick and York, George turned his back on his brothers and joined the Lancastrian cause, hoping in turn to advance his own claim to the throne. Following the declining fortunes of the Lancastrians, George then attempted to revert to the Yorkists once more. Tiring of his duplicity and cowardice, George was convicted of treason against his brother and sentenced to death. Whilst not suffering the mutilations of Theon, George was allegedly killed by being drowned in wine.
5. Although seemingly mythical, the flammable liquid “wildfire” in Game of Thrones is inspired by the real-life weapon of “Greek fire” employed by the Byzantines from the 7th century onwards
A flammable liquid created by the Alchemists’ Guild of King’s Landing, wildfire is an immensely dangerous substance capable of igniting and exploding with enormous force. Burning sufficiently hot that water is unable to extinguish the fires, burning bright green, the combustive creation of the Pyromancers has been employed on only two occasions in the show’s history: once during the Battle of Blackwater Bay and secondly to cause the Destruction of the Great Sept of Baelor. However, despite seeming mythical, wildfire is actually based on the real-life but lost incendiary weapon historically known as “Greek fire”.
First developed in or around 672 CE, Greek fire was a flame-throwing weapon employed by the Eastern Roman Empire. Igniting upon contact with water, the Byzantines deployed their combustible compound typically in naval confrontations to great effect, continuing to burn on the surface of water. Becoming feared throughout the known world, the precise formula behind the manufacture of Greek fire was a closely guarded state secret. Despite sustained efforts across the centuries since, the precise combination of ingredients remains a mystery, with all efforts to reverse-engineer the substance unsuccessful even among Arab scientists with access to a captured fireship in the 9th century.
4. Inspired by two soldiers of the late-15th century, the character of Jaime Lannister is based on the lives of Cesare Borgia, as well as the lesser-known Gottfried von Berlichingen
The eldest son of Tywin Lannister, Ser Jaime Lannister became the youngest member of the Kingsguard at the age of sixteen. Murdering Aerys II, the “Kingslayer” continued his position until he was removed as Lord Commander of the order by King Tommen, whereupon he became Lord of Casterly Rock. In the course of the War of the Five Kings, Jaime was captured and lost his right hand. Replacing it with a golden prosthetic in season four, Martin borrows from the real-life historical figure Gottfried von Berlichingen. Berlichingen, a German Imperial Knight active between 1498 and 1544, lost his hand in 1504 during the siege of Landshut, replacing his lost limb with a mechanical replica.
Equally, the character of Jaime Lannister borrows heavily from the life of Cesare Borgia, whose struggle for power was a chief inspiration behind Machiavelli’s The Prince. Born to the immensely powerful Italian family in 1475, Cesare allegedly murdered his brother to escape his duties as a Catholic cardinal, rising to the rank of commander of the papal armies. Enormously successful in battle, Cesare was rumored to have engaged in an incestuous relationship with his sister, Lucrezia, endured horrendous captivity at the hands of his enemies, and ultimately presided over the decline of his family following the death of his father.
3. A more romantic adaptation of the story of the Roman noblewoman Lucretia, whose abduction and rape by the son of an Etruscan king resulted in the nation’s transition from a kingdom to a republic, the character of Lyanna Stark is a clear reimagination of this historical figure
The daughter of Lord Rickard Stark, the supposed abduction of Lyanna Stark by her secret lover and husband Prince Rhaegar Targaryen triggered her betrothed, Robert Baratheon, to rebel against the throne. Resulting in the downfall of House Targaryen, Lyanna’s death at the war’s conclusion, unbeknownst to almost everyone, was caused by complications during childbirth. Offering into the care of her brother, Ned, the royal heir, the secret relationship remained lost until Brandon Stark learns the truth of his half-brother via a vision after becoming the Three-Eyed Raven. Initially a mere retelling of the ancient story of Lucretia, Martin offered a unique twist to grant the story an ultimately happier ending.
In the Roman tradition, Lucretia, a noblewoman of the Roman Kingdom, was abducted by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. Raped and later committing suicide after her ordeal, Lucretia’s treatment by the Roman royal family triggered a rebellion which overthrew the monarchy and instituted the Roman Republic. Mirroring the ancient story, the first consuls of the Roman Republic was the widowed husband of Lucretia, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. Offering a final wink to classicists, the final words of Lyanna – “Promise me, Ned” – copy those of Lucretia according to Roman historian Livy: “Pledge me your solemn word”.
2. The Battle of Blackwater Bay, an iconic moment in the War of the Five Kings, is a thinly disguised and compressed fantasy regurgitation of the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople
The largest battle in the War of the Five Kings, the Battle of Blackwater Bay was an attempt by the forces of Stannis Baratheon to capture the capital city of King’s Landing. Combining a large naval assault, followed by an amphibious landing, the attack was rebuffed by soldiers under the command of Tyrion Lannister. Although reinforcements led by Twin Lannister earned the glory, the victory was due, in no small part, to the use of wildfire by the king’s forces to decimate the Baratheon fleet. Although compressing the events into a single night, the famed battle depicted in Game of Thrones is actually a retelling of the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople.
Lasting for more than a year, from 717 to 718, the forces of the Umayyad Caliphate sought to breach the capital city of the Byzantine Empire. Protected by the massive Theodosian Walls, the attacking forces were unable to penetrate the city and instead opted to encircle and blockade the city into submission. However, their naval blockade was breached by Byzantine ships wielding the aforementioned “Greek fire” and permitted the capital to be resupplied by sea. Attacked by Christian reinforcements from the rear, the Arabs were forced to retreat, suffering the near-total destruction of their fleet and loss of approximately 100,000 men.
1. In addition to Anne Boleyn, the character of Cersei Lannister is equally inspired by the lives and personalities of two French female leaders of the Middle Ages: Catherine de’ Medici and Margaret of Anjou
Bearing noticeable correlations with the character of Cersei Lannister, Margaret of Anjou was similarly forced to marry a king at a young age. Wedding Henry VI of England as part of an ultimately unsuccessful truce between England and France in 1445, her marriage to the feeble monarch was an unhappy one. Bearing only one child, Edward of Lancaster, her son, like the children of Cersei, became the victim of repeated, and plausibly true, rumors concerning his legitimacy. Equally, like Cersei, Margaret outlived her progeny, with Edward of Lancaster killed at the hands of his Yorkist rival Edward VI.
Offering further additions to Martin’s fictional composite character, Catherine de’ Medici was born in 1519 into the prestigious Italian family. Augmenting her wealth and power further, in 1533 the fourteen-year-old Catherine married Henry Valois, the heir apparent, being elevated to the position of Queen of France in 1547. Later serving as the mother of Kings Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III, ruling as regent from 1560 until 1563 during the infancy of her second son, the reigns of her children should historically be regarded at least equally her own. Wielding enormous executive power, Catherine’s ruthlessness strongly mirrors the desperation of Cersei to hold onto her family’s crown.
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