Power plays and scheming queens: the ancient history behind Game of Thrones
From the 'Wall' which separates the fictional continent of Westeros from the icy 'North' to the gladiatorial arenas of combat, there are many historical references to be found in George RR Martin's hit fantasy saga. Here, classical historian and author Ayelet Haimson Lushkov explores how the ancients may have inspired the stories behind the TV drama Game of Thrones
The Wall: a vast icy barricade marking the end of the Seven Kingdoms, it is probably the most famous structure in George RR Martin's fictional kingdom of Westeros and the one most definitively associated with the ancient Romans. Martin himself has said that he modelled it on Hadrian’s Wall, which bisects northern England between the Tyne and the Solway Firth. There, a Roman soldier might stare into the dense forest beyond and wonder what dangers rustled among the trees. There he might protect his fellow soldiers and the citizens of Britain from the threat of marauding Picts, and there too, in stations along the wall and places like the fort Vindolanda, he might live out his life. On its south side lay civilisation and safety, while to the north was wilderness and anarchy.
But even the Romans acknowledged that one could take a different view. The Roman historian Tacitus, writing shortly before the building of the wall, imagines the Caledonian chief Calgacus defending the freedom of the north against imperial enslavement by Rome.
“Robbery, slaughter, plunder – these by false names they call empire,” declares Calgacus in one of the most famous speeches from Roman literature, “and where they make desolation, they call it peace.” The tension between the Caledonian tribes and Roman empire bears a clear resemblance to that between the Free Folk and the Seven Kingdoms in Martin’s books. The leader of the wildings, Mance Rayder, even dies a gruesome death rather than betray his commitment to freedom.
But the Wall and its political connotations aren’t the only thing Game of Thrones borrows from antiquity. Here are a few more:
The War of the Five Kings
Power politics are as old as humanity itself, but Martin’s fictional War of the Five Kings has a tantalisingly close parallel in the momentous year 69 CE. This was a year when four claimants to the position of Roman emperor – Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and the ultimate victor, Vespasian – waged a brutal civil war across the empire and in the very capital itself. But why go for ‘five kings’ when there were only four emperors? The tag ‘Year of the Four Emperors’ traditionally omits the emperor Nero, who committed suicide in late 68 CE, abandoned by his armies and hated (so the story goes) by his own people.
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Tacitus gives us a chilling description of the horrors of civil war and its corrosive effect on human behaviour, but he also claims that the war revealed an important truth about political power in the empire: whereas previously the centre of power had been Rome, now the armies out in the provinces determined who would be the emperor. The fictional continent Westeros is also being pulled apart both from the inside, in the capital city King’s Landing where the Lannister family struggles to hold on to power, and from the outside, where Targaryens from the east and invaders from beyond the Wall threaten to expose how fragile the Seven Kingdoms actually are. And much like the fate of most Roman emperors, in the memorable words of Tywin Lannister, you win or you die…
Architecture across Martin’s Essos has striking ancient resemblances. Gladiatorial arenas – like the one Tyrion sees in Meereen – take their cue from the Colosseum, the gigantic arena built by the Flavian dynasty to host lavish and cruel entertainments for the masses.
The Titan of Braavos, an enormous statue bestriding the port, comes to us from the Colossus of Rhodes, a bronze figure depicting the sun god Helios, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Unlike the Titan of Braavos however, the Colossus was known as a famous ruin already in antiquity. Dedicated by the Rhodians after a great military victory in the third century BC, and taking 12 years to complete, it stood by the harbour entrance (not bestriding it, as the medieval chroniclers thought) until it collapsed in an earthquake almost 60 years later. The Rhodians, told that they had offended the god, declined to rebuild the statue, and the ruins remained in place for another 800 years, and during this time tourists like Pliny the Elder could marvel at their size and artistry.
Perhaps the most lavish feast in Game of Thrones is the wedding of Joffrey Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell, an event that came to be dubbed by fans as the ‘Purple Wedding’. The Purple Wedding is distinguished by its massive scale of excess. At a time when the city of King’s Landing is starving, the feast serves up 77 courses, including the wedding pie which the bride and groom break together, releasing a host of live pigeons hidden within – a dish straight out of a fantastical Roman menu.
A similar dish is served in Petronius’ work of fiction, the Satyricon, during a feast held by the fabulously wealthy Trimalchio, a former slave now in possession of vast swathes of southern Italy (according to Trimalchio, at least). Keen to impress, Trimalchio wheels out a series of dishes each more extravagant than the last. One of the dishes is a huge boar, which the butcher stabs in the side with a hunting knife (the Romans liked a bit of scene-setting with their food). When the knife lands, a flock of thrushes bursts out of the roast, flying about the heads of the company. The guests, of course, are all atwitter, but the conspicuous consumption doesn’t really reflect well on anyone: Trimalchio comes across as a buffoon with new money, and those of his guests who mock him as snobs and hypocrites. Behind the spectacular gastronomy is a biting social satire about class attitudes and behaviour – just as George RR Martin’s saliva-inducing lists of food highlight the deprivation just around the corner.
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Old Valyria, deep in Westeros’ past, was an empire that resembled Rome’s influence and reach. High Valyrian, for instance, survived after ‘the Doom’ as the language of culture and refinement and was taught to well-educated young people, just as Latin thrives to the present day in schools, universities, and institutional settings like the Catholic Church.
Language isn’t the only thing left from Old Valyria; Valyrian roads still run across the length and breadth of Martin’s Essos. Straight, true, and long lasting, they are the equivalent of one of Rome’s proudest achievements, its network of roads. These roads spread from the city of Rome itself and reached nearly every corner of the empire. They carried her armies, as well as trade, customs, language, architecture, laws, coin, grain and tax-collectors. Roads were not only the arteries of the empire, they were also one of its most durable legacies, and many survive either in their original form, or provide the track and primary foundations for modern roads. The history of Valyria recalls Rome too: just as the Romans apocryphally did to Carthage, their old nemesis, so too the Valyrians razed to the ground the capital of their longstanding rivals, the Ghiscari, and sowed the ground with salt.
Every story needs a villain, and Game of Thrones’s Cersei Lannister is a grande dame in the best tradition of the genre: a mother fiercely protective of her children, a wife scorned, and a woman consumed by ambition. She is also a woman who often wishes she were a man: as a girl, she failed to understand why she and her twin brother Jaime were taught different things when they could pass for each other in appearance, and she wishes that she’d been taught to fight, and he to sing and dance.
In this, she has much in common with many women of antiquity, especially the Byzantine princess Anna Comnena, who wished, according to the chronicler Choniates, that she could swap genders with her ineffectual husband, the better to depose her brother, the king. The story of Anna’s treason is almost certainly not true, but it does conform to various stories also told of the great ladies of the Roman imperial court. For instance, the story of the empress Livia, wife of Rome’s first emperor Augustus, who was suspected (though it was never proven) of arranging the death of the emperor’s beloved grandchildren, Gaius and Lucius, in order to clear the way for the succession of her own son. She was even blamed, according to some, for poisoning the emperor himself.
In Westeros proper, slavery and the slave-trade is forbidden, and when the character Daenerys Targaryen arrives in Slaver’s Bay, she begins a methodical campaign of liberation. Both Greece and Rome were both true slave societies, and both fed the slave-trade and profited from it. The enslavement of whole populations was a regular consequence of defeat in war from as early as the tales from Homer’s Iliad, in which Hector imagines his own wife, the princess Andromache, serving as a slave after his own death and the fall of Troy. But while not nearly as democratic as Dany, the Romans did have a mechanism for the liberation of a small number of their slaves, though without the dramatics made possible by having a dragon breathing fire on the scene. That process was called manumission: the transition from a slave to a freed man (‘freed’ and not ‘free’ because the Romans recognised a real difference between being a former slave and being born free, although both could enjoy the same Roman citizenship). Roman masters often manumitted slaves in their wills, as a reward for faithful service during the owner’s lifetime. Much more rarely, a slave might save enough of his or her meagre allowance to buy their freedom. Manumission conferred on the former slave Roman citizenship, which allowed them to do business in Rome, enjoy the protections of Roman law, vote in elections, and bequeath their citizenship and accumulated wealth to their children.
Ayelet Haimson Lushkov is associate professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of You Win or You Die: The Ancient World of Game of Thrones (I. B. Tauris, 2017). You can follow her on Twitter: @Dr_AHL
This article was first published by History Extra in July 2017.