This is Part 2 of Rest is History’s “The Real Game of Thrones” – Click Here to check out Part 1 if you have not already done so.
Unless you have been living under a rock in recent years, you will have no doubt heard of the hit television show Game of Thrones, based on the fantasy novel series by author George R.R. Martin. Much of Game of Thrones and it’s source material are taken from history, with Martin’s wondrous fiction woven through them as they blend into one massive incredible tale. The backbone of Martin’s story is lifted straight from the English Wars of the Roses which you can find over in Part 1.
This article will look into seven instances where the show touches on historical themes, people and events. Before we start though, two quick caveats: the story lines that I’ll be looking at come from the television show rather than the books, mostly because I believe more people are familiar with them and partly because I have not read all of them yet. Secondly, it goes without saying that this article contains spoilers, so if you are not fully caught up then read at your own peril!
1 – 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 around the end of the Roman Kingdom was an act so heinous that the people of Rome were horrified and decried that they “would rather die a thousand deaths in defence of their liberty than suffer such outrages to be committed by the tyrants.”
Legend has it that in 510 BCE, Lucretia was assaulted and raped by Sextus Superbus, the son of Rome’s last king Tarquin (Targaryen), while he was staying with Lucretia’s husband, Collatinus, on a military campaign. The next day Lucretia told her father what had happened, asking for vengence before plunging a knife into her heart and dying in his arms. Revenge came swiftly as her husband and uncle led a rebellion that drove out the Tarquins and established a republic.
There are many similarities between this tragic (most likely mythical) tale and the story of Lyanna Stark, sister of Ned Stark, whose immediate family became the standard bearer’s of the revolution (Robert’s Rebellion) that did away with the Mad King. It was her brother Ned Stark and betrothed, Robert Baratheon, who led the armies after her supposed abduction by Rhaegar Targaryen.
We now know, thanks to Brann’s vision that Lyanna was not forcefully taken, but fled willingly and married Rhaegar in secret. But, as Game of Thrones likes to drill home – history is written by the victors, and as Robert’s Rebellion was successful and the Targaryens were all but annihilated, the truth behind the revolt was buried with them.
2 – Valyria and Rome
Just as medieval Europe clawed its way out of the ruins of the Roman Empire, Westeros too stands in the shadow of an older and, yet, superior civilisation: the Valyrian Freehold. Both conquered vast swathes of land through their military and technological superiority; both prospered off the back of slave economies; and both ultimately crumbled.
Upon arriving in Valyria in Season 5, Tyrion Lannister asks Jorah Mormont: “How many centuries before we learn how to build cities like this again?” There is evidence of people being equally awestruck when looking back at Roman architecture during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. While gazing upon the dome of the Pantheon in the early 1500s, Michelangelo opined that it seemed of “angelic and not human design.” The Roman temple was already over 1,350 years old by this point. It was not just the architecture that the people felt nostalgic for. Valyria’s language was taught as part of the education of Westerosi nobility – much like Latin was (and still is) an important part of the Catholic Church and European nobility of later ages.
For all that the Roman Empire contributed to the world in terms of laws, language, markets, technology, architecture, and infrastructure, it was still not enough to prevent it’s downfall. A series of factors, including political incompetence, military defeats and loss of traditional values led to Rome being sacked by the Visigoths in 410 CE. This was not the case for Valyria, which was wiped out through natural, rather than man-made, causes. In making the “Doom of Valyria” a catastrophic volcanic eruption, Martin draws inspiration from two other civilisations: one historic, the Minoans; and one mythical, the city of Atlantis.
3 – The Wall
In northern England there stands the remnants of an ancient Roman wall that stretches 117 kilometers (73 miles) from coast to coast. Although little more than a ruin nowadays, in its heyday this wall stood at a formidable 6 metres (20 foot) high. This is the famous Hadrian’s Wall and inspired the 300-mile long, 700-foot-tall Wall that spans the two coastlines of Westeros in the frozen north. Scientifically, Martin’s Wall would never stand, even in the sub-zero temperatures of his fictionalised North, had it not been for the magic that bound it together. However, the 8,000-year old structure did not fair too badly… until it came up against an Ice Dragon!
Back to reality. After its completion in the late 120s CE, Hadrian’s Wall marked the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire, shutting out Rome’s enemies. It was not the undead army of the Night King that the Romans were trying to keep out, but the northern British tribes and Caledonians. While the army of the Night King represents the antithesis of the people of Westeros, non-Roman tribes too were seen as “other” and considered barbarian in Roman thinking. This is evident in not just the Britons north of Hadrian’s Wall but also with the Germanic and Gallic tribes – the Romans used these peoples against whom the Romans could differentiate themselves with culturally.
4 – The Iron Bank of Braavos and the Medici
The Iron Bank of Braavos lurks behind the scenes of Westerosi finance from the first season. Ned Stark arrives in King’s Landing to find that the Iron Throne is in considerable debt, owing half to the Lannisters and half to the Iron Bank. Even Tywin, the powerful head of the Lannister family fears the Iron Bank, acknowledging its power as an inflexible operation that can not be evaded, lied to, or avoided.
Institutional money lending stretches back well into antiquity, with interest rates being set in law codes such as the Hammurabi Code (1754 BCE) in Ancient Mesopotamia and examples of pawnbroking in Classical Greece. It is not until 15th century Italy, however, that we see anything as formidable as the Iron Bank. Combining sound financial investment with political scheming, the Medici family went on to finance (and produce) popes and fund European kings. The money that their investments returned, however, they poured back into their city, Florence, partly to keep up the façade that it was still a republic and that there was no all-powerful family ruling over the citizens.
One way that the Iron Bank makes its fortune is by financially backing those that they believe will win. But as both the show and history has made clear, the uncertain nature of war proves to be the greatest enemy of certainty – the Bank invested considerably in Stannis Baratheon but lost it all when he was killed by Brienne of Tarth.
We also have parallels between the Iron Bank of Braavos and the Medici family during England’s Wars of the Roses. The Medici’s London branch got itself into serious trouble after lending to King Edward IV who defaulted, as did his enemies, the House of Lancaster, who also owed the Medici a considerable amount. This failure brought business in the London branch to a close and marked the beginning of the end for the Medici’s dominance over European banking.
5 – The Ironborn and the Vikings
Aside from the Dothraki hordes being inspired by the Mongol hordes, one of the most obvious comparisons between the people of Westeros is the Ironborn and the Vikings. The cultural disparities between the feudal system on the main land and the militarism of the Iron Islands are highlighted in the show through Theon Greyjoy. As Ned Stark’s hostage, he is exposed to a different, more softer, way of life at Winterfell than that of his fellow Ironborn.
In Theon’s father, Balon Greyjoy, we see indications of the Viking King Ceolwulf, who was installed on the Mercian throne, replacing the previous king. Ceolwulf was little more than a puppet, answerable to those he derived power from.
The extreme violence of the Ironborn’s liestyle boils all the way down to their bartering system – the “iron price” generally being beating one’s enemies to death until the desired possession becomes yours. King Balon’s brother, Euron Greyjoy, proves very talented at bludgeoning his opponents with his axe. This choice of weapon fits him within a Viking context as they were the most commonly used weapon of the Norsemen.
There are, however, a number of important differences between the Ironborn and the Vikings. While Martin would have the Ironborn as an almost totalitarian warrior society, the real Norsemen were a lot more socially stratified. There was so much more to Viking society than the brutish raping and pillaging that is, too often, associated with them. Vikings such as Leif Erikson and Erik the Red led voyages of exploration and the culture relied heavily on trade, both things that the Ironborn are against. The men from the Iron Islands represent the absolute worst of the Vikings and their culture.
6 – The Red Wedding and Scotland’s Bloody Past
George R.R. Martin revealed that two events from Scottish history inspired his infamous “Red Wedding” scene. The first was the execution of the 16-year-old William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother, David, in 1440 at an incident known as the “Black Dinner”.
The brothers had been invited, in the name of 10-year-old King James II, to visit the king at Edinburgh Castle in November. They were entertained at the royal table, where King James was charmed by them. During the feast, a platter was brought to the table and placed in front of Douglas. When lifted, the platter revealed the head of a black boar – a symbol of death. The brothers were dragged to the courtyard, given a short mock trial over trumped-up charges, and beheaded, over the protests of the young king.
In a showing of family disunity worthy of Game of Thrones, historians tend to agree that the boys’ great-uncle, James Douglas, was the main perpetrator of this shocking event. He became the 7th Earl of Douglas, and gained most from the executions. History remembers him as “James the Gross”.
The second event took place at Glencoe in the Highlands of Scotland. The massacre of thirty-eight members of the MacDonald Clan took place here in February 1692. For nearly two weeks the members of the Campbell Clan had been staying as the guests of the MacDonalds in Glencoe, but just as in Game of Thrones, the reality behind the massacre was more convoluted. Just as it was actually Tywin Lannister who organised the Stark’s massacre with the help of the Boltons, the order at Glencoe was given by the Scottish Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair.
Dalrymple was no fan of the Highland Clans in general as he viewed them as an obstruction towards a political union with England. After the first Jacobite uprising in 1689 failed to restore the Stuart monarchy, a Royal Proclamation was offered to those who swore allegiance to King William of Orange by January 1st 1692. Alisdair MacIain’s (head of the MacDonalds in Glencoe) failure to sign the oath of allegiance provided Dalrymple with the excuse he needed to eradicate the MacDonalds and send a message to the other clan heads who had failed to swear fealty to the new king.
Robert Campbell’s soldiers arrived at the MacDonald’s stronghold in Glencoe on 1 February and took shelter from the harsh winter conditions whilst being treated to the hospitality that they were entitled to under the Highland hospitality code. On the night of 13 February 1692, as a blizzard raged outside, the Campbells set about murdering every sleeping MacDonald they could find. Thirty-eight lay dead inside the fort the next morning and around forty others, mainly women and children, who had fled, ended up dying of exposure in the winter storms.
To this day the Glencoe Massacre still brews feelings of bad blood: visit the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe and you’ll read a sign declaring: “NO HAWKERS OR CAMPBELLS”.
7 – The Night’s Watch and Medieval Catholic Military Orders
The Night’s Watch was established as a military order tasked with defending the realm of men from the “Others“, beyond the Wall, shortly after the end of the Long Winter. The men of the Night’s Watch share many similarities with some of the Catholic Military Orders of knights throughout Medieval Europe and the Middle-East.
One such group was the Knights Templar who were a military Holy Order charged with protecting pilgrims passing through the Holy Land. Another was the Teutonic Order, originally set up in 1190 to care for the sick and wounded during the Siege of Acre, similar to the Knights Hospitaller, but soon began to militarise in 1198. Both Templars and Teutons took vows of celibacy, renouncing all female contact; and this observation of chastity rings echoes in the vow of the Night’s Watch: “I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.“
We do not know the wording of the original vow sworn by the knights of the Teutonic Order or the Knights Templar, but its safe to assume that it centered around defending the Holy Land and the Christians who sought to visit the lands of Christ. We do know that there were many similarities with the Night’s Watch vow, including encouraging poverty and chastity.
Additionally, there are a number of similarities regarding the hierarchical structures of the fictional and historical orders. Just as men of the Night’s Watch are entirely loyal to their elected Lord Commander, the Templars and Teutons were utterly obedient to their elected Grand Master. Both the fictional and real military orders were autonomous: they were not answerable to kings or countries as they swore allegiance to their order which they viewed as serving a higher purpose.
The Rest is History