The Real History Behind Game of Thrones

Author George R. R. Martin is routinely praised for his vast, intricate world and the richly-imagined history, culture, religions and mythology of Westeros. But for a fantasy series, a shocking number of events, settings, and characters in Game of Thrones have real-life historical counterparts. (Not the dragons, though. Sorry.) Season 6 of the show premieres April 24: while you’re waiting, celebrate its return by exploring some of the real-world events that inspired the the World of Ice and Fire.

 

A Crown of Gold: Crassus and the Parthians

Most fans remember the gory scene in Season One where Khal Drogo “crowns” Daenerys’ arrogant and scheming brother with a cauldron of molten gold. How did Martin come up with such a characteristically brutal, yet perfectly ironic death for Viserys? Turns out, he didn’t: the Parthians killed the Roman general Crassus in exactly the same way. In 54 BC, Crassus’ desire for military glory led the Roman statesman and military leader to invade the Parthian Empire: a big mistake, as it turns out. Overwhelmed by the Parthian forces and surrounded by 10,000 highly skilled mounted archers (Dothraki, anyone?), Crassus was forced to surrender. Crassus was enormously wealthy– sometimes accounted  the richest man in Rome– and his reputation for greed preceded him. The Parthians decided that the best way to satisfy his unquenchable thirst for gold was to pour it over his head (or down his throat, stories differ).

 

The Wall and Hadrian’s Wall

In 122 AD, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a massive wall, spanning 73 miles across northern Britain to divide Roman-held territory from unconquered Scotland, home to the barbarian “wildlings” of the day. To a Roman soldier, the terrain might have seemed as alien and threatening as the land beyond the Wall is to the Night’s Watch. Martin himself visited Hadrian’s Wall before writing the series, and recalls: “I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a Roman soldier… to gaze off into the distance, not knowing what might emerge from the forest.” The answer is ice-zombies, obviously.

 

Geography: Westeros and Britain

If you look carefully at a map of the continent of Westeros, it looks suspiciously similar to a map of England with an upside-down Ireland beneath it. And the similarities don’t end there: the seven kingdoms of Westeros bear an eerie resemblance to the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon Britain: East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex. Perhaps it’s appropriate then, that many of the characters and political upheavals in Westeros have their roots in English, Scottish, and Irish history, especially the War of the Roses (more on that later).

 

Stark and Lannister, York and Lancaster: The War of the Roses

The War of the Roses was a series of conflicts over the British throne between two branches of the ruling House of Plantagenet: the northern Yorks and the obscenely-wealthy Lancasters. After years of fighting, which threw Britain into social and financial turmoil, King Henry VII ousted his rival Richard III and consolidated his claim by marrying Elizabeth of York.

Henry the VII, incidentally, bears a striking resemblance to Daenerys Targaryen. Both were royal heirs forced to flee across a “narrow sea” (the English Channel) into exile, biding their time while their kingdoms descended into chaos. Henry even flew a dragon flag; he eventually returned with a foreign army at his back to reclaim the throne. Spoiler? You decide.

 

Direwolves

Guys, direwolves actually existed! These extinct canines, which roamed ancient North and South America, were about five feet long and could weigh as much as 240 pounds, making them significantly bigger than today’s gray wolves. They were also stockier and more heavily-built. Maybe there’s hope for dragons after all.

 

Winter is Coming: The Long Summer and the Little Ice Age

Decades-long summers and winters might seem like pure imagination, but early medieval Europe actually experienced something quite similar. Evidence from harvest records and tree rings suggests that during early Middle Ages, temperatures were significantly warmer than they are today– so warm that England could grow grapes and produce its own wine. Shortly after this warm spell, temperatures dropped drastically in what is now known as the “little ice age”, from 1300-1850. Winters were brutal, summers were wet, and harvests turned bad. As for the show, winter is (still) coming. . .

 

 

The Red Wedding

It might be better if this particular scene wasn’t quite so close to reality. The infamous Red Wedding is actually a hybrid of a couple of historical massacres– the Massacre of Glencoe and the Black Dinner. The Glencoe Massacre occurred in the tumultuous period after England’s Catholic King James was ousted by the Protestant William of Orange and exiled to France. Many of the Catholic clans of the Scottish Highland had fought for James, and after his exile, King William issued an ultimatum, giving them one year to swear their allegiance to him. The MacDonalds of Glencoe delayed the longest, and their chief actually ended up swearing his oath two days late: he was allowed to swear, however, and returned home thinking he and his clan were safe. British soldiers showed up at Glencoe soon afterward, claiming they only wanted shelter before going about their tax-collecting business with a neighboring clan. The MacDonalds believed them, and treated them as guests– believing that ancient laws of hospitality protected them from any harm. The soldiers stayed with them for two weeks, before murdering their hosts in their beds.

Others have pointed to the half-historical, half-mythical Japanese text called the Kojiki, which relates how the Japanese emperor Jimmu consolidated power by murdering all of his rivals at a feast. This massacre was also started with a song, sung by Jimmu himself.

What other historical parallels have you noticed in Game of Thrones. Share them in the comments below!