Game of Thrones and History

Everything George R. R. Martin (or whoever makes that show) have stolen from the ancient world:* 

Game of Thrones is a great show. Yes, I said show—to me, it is and always will be a show. Don’t bring your book knowledge here, folks!** I don’t care how good your imagination is, you have to want to see how that world—our world but old with dragons?—actually looks and feels.  But as much as I like this show, it seems that every plot device this season has been ripped straight from antiquity—specifically the exciting time period known to scholars as “late antiquity,” as the Roman Empire fell and the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ began.

Spoilers, obviously.

Moving the Wildlings to the ‘good’ side of the wall.

In 376 CE, the Roman Empire faced a crisis. Outside its borders, an entire nation—that of the Goths—waited to be let inside. Hot on their heels were the Huns—a fierce people, reportedly scarcely human, recently arrived to tilt the balance of power along the frontier. The Goths asked to be let inside—the Romans said yes, and promised them food and farmland. But the food never arrived, and the Goths revolted. You would too if you had to sell your child into slavery so that you could afford to buy a dog for the rest of your family to eat. What will happen when Jon Snow brings the wildlings south of the Wall? I don’t know, but if they promise them food they better give it.

Da’ario McBuffdude offers to marry Daenerys.

Bold move man, we’ve all been there, sorry it didn’t work. It worked better for many mercenary generals near the end of the Roman Empire, around whom were strung the armies of the state and a healthy helping of barbarian federate troops. I’m thinking particularly of the half-Vandal Stilicho, who became generalissimo of the West before being murdered. What’s interesting is that Da’ario is not threatening to take his troops with him and leave Khaleesi with the overmatched Unsullied—yet. Although you have significantly fewer bartering chips when you’re dealing with a Queen who has her own army and her own dragons.

The fighting pits—open or closed?

The reopening of the fighting pits of Mereen—such an exciting day for the kids! They will get to follow their favorite gladiator as he moves from match to match, hoping he gets to rematch in the finals with—oh wait, there are no rematches in Mereenean fighting pits? That’s a pity—and not how the Romans did it. In fact, the vast majority of Roman gladiators lived to fight another day. I’m not sure how much Jorah cost his owner in terms of labor value (twelve gold somethings? is that a lot?), but Roman gladiators were a significant investment. You don’t kill off your investment.  One of the reasons that the fighting pits closed in Mereen is that Khaleesi isn’t fond of slavery. In the Roman world, it took a religious movement—and the hot new sport of chariot racing—to get rid of gladiators. 

Those crazy monks in King’s Landing.

That new religion was Christianity. Christianity as we know it today is the descendent of a convoluted sea of loosely affiliated spiritual movements, and one of the forms that the late antique Church took were radical monks who seized control of entire cities and dished out rough justice to those in violation of the faith.  In 415, a Christian mob killed the learned philosophess Hypatia on the streets of Alexandria—rougher justice than the Sparrows, but then again we haven’t seen how their trials go. The Sparrows in King’s landing seem to have a rather unprecedented control over the city, however—and while the implied threat of urban violence is going to have some weight with the king, at a certain point he will have to use his monopoly on force.  The question is—will the people of the city rise up to defend their beloved Queen (remember all that chanting of her name a season back>), or have they given in to superstition?

Stannis’ choice & Iphigenia.

It’s not just ancient history that Game of Thrones is riffing on—there’s ancient mythology. In the prelude to the Trojan War, the Greek King Agamemnon had summoned all the might of Greece to help avenge his family’s honor. But when the fleet was ready, there was no wind, and finally the priests told Agamemnon that the gods required the sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia. He tied her to the altar, but as the blade struck her she was turned into a sacred deer and escaped. Stannis faces a similar choice, but a grimmer one. The Greek fleet could have stayed in Mycenae forever, and many would have lived. But if Stannis lets his daughter live, his men will die in the Snow. What will he choose? I don’t know, but there will be death either way.

*I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Someone just needed to write the footnotes.

**Plus, if I want to read about kinky dynastic politics while wading through turgid prose, I’d read the Historia Augusta

© Henry Gruber 2013