Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Similarities You Never Saw Coming

The popular book and television series, Game of Thrones, portrays a world rich with magic, adventure, romance, and history. While most fans of the series thoroughly enjoy the refreshing originality of the series; others would say that Game of Thrones is simply a fantastical interpretation of actual historic events and themes. In this post, I will attempt to analyze some of these historic references that may be obvious or not so obvious. While it is known that a majority of the history that Game of Thrones is based on is much earlier than Ancient Rome (1400's-1600's); I would argue that there are several examples from Ancient Rome that relate to this series.

DISCLAIMER: If you are new to the series and are not up to date on the HBO series' episodes, I should warn you that there are spoilers ahead! I will not be discussing any events that lie beyond the current HBO series (OathKeeper; Episode S4E4) as I do not wish to deter those who have not read the books from this post. Any quote from the books will not reveal any spoilers or new information.

1) The Wall vs. Hadrian's Wall
The author, George R.R. Martin, has acknowledged openly his inspiration of The Wall from Hadrian's Wall:
Certainly the Wall comes from Hadrian's Wall, which I saw while visiting Scotland. I stood on Hadrian's Wall and tried to imagine what it would be like to be a Roman soldier sent here from Italy or Antioch.  To stand here, to gaze off into the distance, not knowing what might emerge from the forest.  Of course fantasy is the stuff of bright colours and being larger than real life, so my Wall is bigger and considerably longer and more magical.  And, of course, what lies beyond it has to be more than just Scots. (SF Site Interview; found here.)
Hadrian's Wall or Vallum Aelium.

Hadrian's Wall was begun in 122 CE by Emperor Hadrian. The suggested origins for its purpose vary from military defense, to protection from immigration, smuggling, or simply a demonstration of power. Perhaps it was built for all these reason (or none of them).One text, Scriptores Historiae Augustae: Vita Hadriani, claims:
"(Hadrian) was the first to build a wall 80 miles long to separate the Romans from the barbarians"
Location of Hadrian's Wall
In the series, one of the main characters (Jon Snow) gives his account upon seeing The Wall for the first time:
Almost seven hundred feet high it stood, three times the height of the tallest tower in the stronghold it sheltered. His uncle said the top was wide enough for a dozen armored knights to ride abreast. The gaunt outlines of huge catapults and monstrous wooden cranes stood sentry up there, like the skeletons of great birds, and among them walked men in black as small as ants. - Jon Snow's first impression of  " The Wall."
The following video is of Jon Snow seeing The Wall for the first time (please excuse any add-ons; this was the only video available):

2) Daenerys  Targaryen vs. Boudicca
In Game of Thrones, the once proper and submissive princess is transformed through the series into a barbaric queen, a destitute widow, a mother of dragons, a sacker of cities, and a mother of freed slaves. Daenerys Targaryen is interesting character that evolves quite rapidly and adapts to each of her roles. She is one of the strongest female characters within the series. Here is a perfect quote concerning her character:
I know that she spent her childhood in exile, impoverished, living on dreams and schemes, running from one city to the next, always fearful, never safe, friendless but for a brother who was by all accounts half-mad...a brother who sold her maidenhood to the Dothraki  for the promise of an army.  I know that somewhere upon the grass, her  dragons hatched, and so did she.  I know she is proud. How not?  What else was left her but pride? I know she is strong.  How not? The Dothraki despise weakness. If Daenerys had been weak, she would have perished with Viserys. I know she is fierce. She has survived assassins and conspiracies and  fell sorceries, grieved for a brother and a husband and a son, trod the cities of the slavers to dust beneath her dainty sandalled feet.
Here is an example of her strength and wit from season 3:

Daenerys Targaryen is highly reminiscent of the strong barbarian queen Boudicca. According to historians,  Boudicca was a capable military leader whose hair is often remarked upon (not unlike Daenerys' white hair):
 She was "possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women", that she was tall and had hair described as red, reddish-brown, or tawny hanging below her waist. Dio also says she had a harsh voice and piercing glare, and habitually wore a large golden necklace (perhaps a torc), a many-coloured tunic, and a thick cloak fastened by a brooch.
Boadicea by Thomas Thornycroft, standing near Westminster Pier, London
Boadicea by Thomas Thornycroft, standing near Westminster Pier, London

Similarly, both women find that the death of their husband (in Boudicca's case) and/or father (in Daenerys') lead to their doom and exile. However, these deaths do not defeat their spirits, but invigorate them to become warriors. For example, Boudicca leads an uprising against the Romans just as Daenerys plans to lead an uprising against those in Westeros. They both seek to take revenge upon those that have wronged (Westeros and Rome) their people/loved ones whilst avenging the injustices inflicted upon themselves. On a side note, it would seem that Boudicca's fashion was a point of inspiration for Daenerys as both Khaleesi and the Mother of Dragons  (large necklace, multi-colored tunic, etc.)
For another look at Daenerys and historic figures; check out her comparison to Henry VII: here.
3) Weddings
Wedding are known for being a joyous event in which man and woman become one family and their families in turn recognize and honor the union. However, this would seem not to be the case for weddings in Game of Thrones. They are political advancements, bring short-lived joy, and bloody.  First there was the Red Wedding and now just this week: the Purple Wedding.  In the series, weddings appear to be an event in which people die and the story's plot takes an unprecedented turn.
In Ancient Rome, there are various accounts historic and mythological that portray the setting of a wedding, but produce death and havoc.
  • Messalina's marriage to Sentaor Gaius Silius; although she was already married to the emperor. This action resulted in their deaths.
  • Wedding feast of Pirithous, which resulted in the battle of Centaurs and Lapiths (here).
  • Medea's poisoned wedding gifts to Jason's new soon-to-be wife Glauce, which killed Glauce and Medea's children.
  • Dido, who believes her and Aeneas are married due to their sexual union, kills herself on their "wedding night" because he leaves her.
  • And while it is not ancient, to anyone who didn't know that the Red Wedding was based on the Black Dinner; here.
 4) The Seven and Lord of Light vs. Roman Pantheon and Christianity
 In Game of Thrones, religion is a topic that sparks (literally in some cases) controversy, allies, and enemies. The Faith of Seven (shown as a seven pointed star) includes seven deities, the Iron Islands have the Drowned God, the North has the Old Gods, and the newest addition- the Lord of Light. The similarities between theses deities and ancient gods can be seen in every region, but within ancient Rome they are as follows:
  • The Father (JUPITER) represents divine justice, and judges the souls of the dead.
  • The Mother (JUNO) represents mercy, peace, fertility, and childbirth. She is sometimes referred to as "the strength of women".
  • The Maiden (DIANA) represents purity, love, and beauty.
  • The Crone: (CERES) represents wisdom and foresight. She is represented carrying a lantern.
  • The Warrior:  (MARS) represents strength and courage in battle.
  • The Smith: (VULCAN) represents creation and craftsmanship.
  • The Stranger: (PLUTO)represents death and the unknown. It is rarely prayed to.
These seven deities which are the most popular in Westeros and reflect (as I have implied) the Roman pantheon. The other two gods are as followed:
  • The Drowned God:  (NEPTUNE) represent maritime skills and seafaring ability.
  • The Old Gods of the Forest:  (TITANS)  represent a personal and less structured deity/religion than other religions, though some basic social violations are proscribed by it, such as kinslaying, incest, and bastardy. It also upholds the laws of hospitality.
The Old Gods seem reminiscent to the idea of "the natural order" of things. This is why I say they are symbolic for the nature and primordial titans: Cronus , Rhea, Oceanus, Themis, Hyperion (and I would include Uranus and Gaia).
All of these deities being old and ancient, but within the series become undermined by the upcoming religion of R'hllor:

  • R'hllor: The Lord of Light: (CHRISTIANITY) is a centered belief in the existence of a single, all-powerful god. R'hllor  or The Lord of Light (Judeo-Christian God) is the god of fire, which provides light, heat, and life, and struggles against darkness, cold, and death, represented by an opposing deity, the Great Other (Devil, Satan, Evil). He is often referred to as the "one true god."
The following was said of The Lord of Light by George R.R. Martin:
The R'hllor religion is strongly influenced by the real-life religion of Zoroastrianism. The central element it borrows is that it is a ditheistic religion: there is one true, "Good" God, locked in eternal combat with an evil deity. As part of this dualism R'hllor, who embodies light, fire, and heat, is opposed on the level of primordial forces by the "Great Other" who embodies cold and darkness.
 5) Wild Fire vs. Greek Fire
In Game of Thrones, wildfire is a dangerous liquid which can explode with tremendous force and burns with a fire that water cannot extinguish( only large quantities of sand can put it out). Wildfire is identifiable through the distinctive green hue of its flames. Even in its stored liquid state, it gives off a green color.

In reality, George R.R. Martin most likely took inspiration from Greek Fire:
Greek fire in use against another ship.
Greek fire in use against another ship.

Greek fire was an incendiary weapon used by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. It was typically used it in naval battles to great effect as it could continue burning while floating on water. It provided a technological advantage, and was responsible for many key military victories. Although the term "Greek fire" has been general in English and most other languages since the Crusades, in the original Byzantine sources it is called by a variety of names, such as "sea fire," "Roman fire," "war fire," "liquid fire," or "manufactured fire."


Tyrion Lannister vs. Emperor Claudius
(As always, please excuse any language- it is after all Game of Thrones)

These two figures represent the black sheep of their families. Both Tyrion and Claudius are born into prestigious families of power, and both are ridiculed and belittled for their physical abnormalities. However, none of their physical traits interfere with their witty minds and capability to lead (in Tyrion’s case: into battle a few times and in Claudius’ case: ruling Rome and into Britain).  I, of course, refer to the Emperor Claudius that many people know from Robert Grave’s series “I, Claudius.” In which, Claudius has the good sense to “play the fool” in order to be overlooked in the chaos and murders of those wishing to be emperor. Tyrion unfortunately does not have this reticent talent.  From the “I, Claudius” series:
Livia: Tiberius wants to be loved, at least after his death if not before. And the best way to insure that… [in reference to Caligula becoming emperor]
Claudius: …is to have someone worse to follow him. Yes, naturally. He’s certainly no fool.
Livia: He’s the biggest fool in my family. I’ve always thought that that was you. But I think now… I was wrong.
Claudius: [Claudius pauses, crafting a response] Grandmother, after all these years you didn’t invite me to dinner just to tell me this.
Livia: Wine has made you bold, hasn’t it.
Claudius: You said you kept in with Caligula because he was to be the next emperor.
Livia: Lost your stutter too I see.
Claudius: But if by then you’re dead, what difference can it make to you?
Livia: Oh, it makes a lot of difference. And that’s really why you’re here.
Livia: I want to be a goddess, Claudius.
Kingsguard  vs. Praetorian Guard
These two guards of the highest degree and class are sworn to protect their king and/or emperor. They are usually loyal, but are loyal (more so) to those with the large coffer. While the Kingsguard swear their lives to their king and forsake women and children; the Roman praetorian guards are body guards who were allowed to have a family. Furthermore, the Kingsguard is used as a political tool by various characters to promote their allies and give power. While the praetorian guard is both a political tool, but at the same time it becomes its own political body. They were even able to claim Claudius as emperor of Rome.
Proclaiming Claudius Emperor, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, oil on canvas, c. 1867. According to one version of the story of Claudius' ascension to the role of Emperor, members of the Praetorian Guard found him hiding behind a curtain in the aftermath of the murder of Caligula in 41, and proclaimed him emperor.
Proclaiming Claudius Emperor, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, oil on canvas, c. 1867. According to one version of the story of Claudius’ ascension to the role of Emperor, members of the Praetorian Guard found him hiding behind a curtain in the aftermath of the murder of Caligula in 41, and proclaimed him emperor.

Joffrey Baratheon vs. Caligula
Courtesy of Flickr
Caligula on the Left and Joffrey on the Right. Courtesy of Flickr

Perhaps it is madness or cruelty that is the common thread between these two individuals. In regards to Caligula: “Some scholars have suggested that an illness made him come unhinged—possibly temporal lobe epilepsy, hyperthyroidism or Wilson’s disease, an inherited disorder that can cause mental instability.” (Cohen; History Lists) If you are unfamiliar with all the crazy and “mad” actions of this Roman Emperor; read on:
He went out of his way to humiliate the senate (Suetonius says that he intended to make his horse consul), and encouraged treason trials for his own financial benefit. He also insisted on being treated as a god (in contrast to the wiser policy of Augustus). Excavations in the Roman forum in the summer of 2003 confirmed that he incorporated the ancient Temple of Castor and Pollux within his palace – a sacrilege reversed by his successor Claudius I.
Gaius had three sisters, with whom he was alleged to have committed incest, and they were given unprecedented public honors, being included in the soldiers’ oath of allegiance.
Joffrey’s cruelty and madness can be accredited to his parent’s incestuous relationship and thus producing his abnormal genetics (i.e. mind). However, George R.R. Martin neither mentions nor confirms this hypothesis. However, it should be noted that George R.R. Martin is familiar with Emperor Caligula’s exploits, because he named one of his personal deviant cats: Caligula.

*** “EUREKA” MOMENT: I say that Tyrion is like Claudius and Joffrey is like Caligula; just as Claudius and Caligula were Uncle and Nephew-so are Tyrion and Joffrey.

War of the Five Kings vs. Year of the Five Emperors
In both cases, kings and emperors claim power when they have none or seek to take power where they see weakness. But unlike the War of the Five Kings, the Year of the Five Emperors features the succession and death (assassination) of five different emperors within a year.  The War of the Five Kings is the fight and struggle of five men fighting each other within several years.
The Seven Kingdoms are at war with one another… false kings destroying the country… the Usurper is dead. The Starks fight the Lannisters, the Baratheons fight each other.                                                                      ―Daenerys Targaryen to Ser Jorah Mormont
The Year of the Five Emperors refers to the year 193, in which there were five claimants for the title of Roman Emperor. The five were Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus. All these “emperors” fought, plotted, and bribed their way to power.  You can read about the crazy year of 193; here.

In Game of Thrones, the War of the Five Kings includes Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, and Balon Greyjoy; all of whom are contending for the Iron Throne after Robert Baratheon’s death.

The following video is from the episode “The Lion and the Rose” in which Joffrey has a performance of the War of the Five Kings shown to his guest:

The Mad King vs. Emperor Nero
Robert Baratheon: “What about Aerys Targaryen? What did the Mad King say when you stabbed him in the back? I never asked. Did he call you a traitor? Did he plead for a reprieve?
Jaime Lannister: “He said the same thing he’d been saying for hours… “Burn them all.”
— The Mad King’s last words.
The Mad King, also known as Aerys II Targaryen, was known for his madness and his obsession with fire and burning people alive. His madness is often attributed to the incestual relationships his family, the Targaryens, were known for having. Jaime Lannister, also known as the King Slayer, reveals exactly how mad the Mad King was (WARNING-there may be some language):

The reason I pair the Mad King to Nero is due to the infamous phrase “Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned.” This phrase that portrays this emperor as uncaring and slightly delusional. First, I should state that the phrase itself is anachronism. There were no fiddles during the Great of Fire ( 64 CE). Nero thus played a fiddle-like instrument known as the lyre. Suetonius records Nero’s singing and playing in his “Life of the Twelve Caesars:”
"For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs…Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and exulting, as he said, in “the beauty of the flames,” he sang the whole of the “Sack of Ilium,” in his regular stage costume."
Artwork depicting the Great Fire of Rome
Artwork depicting the Great Fire of Rome

Thus, I feel as if their love for fire and "mad" attitude render them worthy comparisons.

Roman Empire vs. Map of Westeros
 My final point is to illustrate the remarkable resemblance between Westeros and the Ancient Roman empire in maps. Here is Westeros:
A cleaner more precise map; can be found here in an interactive map (like google maps).
Ancient Rome

Roman Empire by Trajan.
Roman Empire
As you can see, the capital (Rome or King’s Landing) is in the southern realm of the map, the Wall (Hadrian or Night’s Watch) is north, the East is exotic and unfamiliar (like Egypt, Ancient Near East, etc.) and so on. The climates are quite similar to the ancient world with northern being colder and southern being more Mediterranean. Here is a behind-the-scenes look on how the HBO production staff handled the realms, worlds, and sets. And you will be able to see how the makers of Game of Thrones pulled from history (and the real world) to create the HBO series.


  1. Brittany, I **love** this article. It is fantastic! I'm going to add it to the sidebar of my website for a while. (BTW, I'm going to be doing more articles about the Romans and GoT, so if you are interested in doing a guest post, I'd love it. Please let me know. )

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  2. Whoops, I shouldn't assume you know that I'm History Behind Game of Thrones is my website. I guess I'm not fully awake yet!

    1. Jaime, THANK YOU for compliments. I am so honored to have this article added to your page. I would love to guest post- and I am willing to write/research on any topic, character, or theme that would like to see explored. Also, thank you for letting me know your website. Awesome, page!

  3. Aw, thanks! I just saw this now reply now. Please email me at jamie dot adair at historygot dot com and let's arrange something.
    In the meantime, I'm mentioning your article again in the post I'm writing for tomorrow. I absolutely love it - in fact, I'm a little jealous that I didn't come up with these great ideas myself. :) Oh well. lol.

    For tomorrow's post, I'm mentioning your comparison to the gods. Of course, I've got my own take on it - which is probably wrong actually since I don't know very much about Rome. (But, I don't like copying people -- I don't think it is fair -- so I wanted to at least put my own twist on it if I could. However, mangled...) Anyway, drop me a line - I'd love it if you did a guest post! This is a truly amazing article and I can't get over that photo of Joffrey/Caligula. Great stuff! Well chosen indeed.

  4. I enjoy your blog but can you please change the colour scheme: I mean the light font and sometimes black font on a brown background. It's hard to read. Violates the first rule of web design. Why don't you use a larger, more readable font (Times New Roman or Georgia etc.) on a lighter or white background?

  5. A very nice read with many interesting points I hadn't thought about (especially Caligola and Claudius). Still, I'd say that the faith of the Seven has too many similirarities with Christianity: its universalism and religious intolerance (which is completly at odds with Roman state religion) ; its.hierarchical structure, with a Pope at the top; the fact that the current 'Pope' preaches poverty and is trying to revolutionize Westeros, as many clerics tried to do in the middle ages (Francis, Fra Dulcino, Celestino V...); its seven-being-one is the same as the catholic dogma of trinity; its being an eastern religion (Andalos is in Essos), whose sacre book is, among other things, a semi-mythical recounting of the wanderings of the Andals (=bible)... I feel the old gods faith is like the celtic religions in the British Isles before 1000 AD: not yet wiped out (especially in Ireland) but on their way to extinction.

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