In 2015, during an interview with the New York Post, Snoop Dogg was caught with his tail between his legs when he admitted he enjoyed watching Game of Thrones for “historic reasons”. “I watch it to try to understand what this world was based on before I got here. I like to know how we got from there, to here, and the similarities between then and now.”
Snoop regrettably wasn’t hounded for any more information, and his failure to clarify whether he realised dragons were imaginary or not left it looking like he was barking up entirely the wrong tree. Instead of using what he said to illustrate the harmful effects of long-term substance abuse, however, we should give Snoop Dogg credit for recognising how George R.R. Martin’s creation does in fact touch on real, historically prevalent themes.
One historical theme that makes the Game of Thrones so enthralling is the vicissitudinous nature of power: how it corrupts, how it’s no more than a mirage, and how, ultimately, it is fleeting. Tying in with this, and drawing us back every week, is its trademark unpredictability. Like history, Game of Thrones is full of deserving people who die before their time; of people who never realise their potential but are beaten by those who are unfit or unworthy. Game of Thrones is addictive in this sense because it’s history in real time; not our history of hindsight.
This article deals with 10 instances where the show touches on historical themes, people or events. Before we start though, two quick caveats: the storylines I’ll be looking at come from the TV show rather than the books, partly because I think more people are familiar with the show, and partly because I haven’t read them all. Secondly, it goes without saying that this article contains a Dothraki horde of spoilers. So if you’re not completely up to date, read on at your peril.
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 about the Roman Kingdom was a mythological event we know as the rape of Lucretia. In roughly 510 BC, Lucretia was assaulted by Sextus Superbus, the son of Rome’s last king Tarquin the Proud, while he was staying with Lucretia’s husband, Collatinus, on a military campaign. Abusing his hospitality, he entered her chambers and forced himself on her, saying that if she didn’t acquiesce he would kill her and one of her slaves, laying their naked bodies next to each other and making it seem like they’d committed adultery.
The next day, dressed in black, Lucretia told her father what had happened, asking for revenge before pulling out a knife and stabbing herself to death. Vengeance came swiftly; her husband, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, and her uncle, Lucius Junius Brutus drove out the Tarquins and established a democratic republic. And it was poetically appropriate that a Brutus was responsible for driving the last king out or Rome, as it was Marcus Junius Brutus, his distant descendent, who delivered the mortal wound to the would-be dictator Julius Caesar in 44 BC.
There are many similarities to the story of Lyanna Stark. Just as Lucretia’s immediate family became the standard bearers of the revolution and did away with the king, so too did Lyanna’s after her (supposed) abduction by Rhaegar Targaryen. It was her brother Ned Stark and her betrothed Robert Baratheon who led the armies against the Mad King, resulting in his removal from power and the end of his dynasty (or at least so they think).
As well as similarities of story, the rape of Lucretia and the abduction of Lyanna also share similarities of form. Both events have become part of the mythology of the worlds we first enter, whether that’s the early Roman Empire (pretty much where our literary evidence starts) or the immediate aftermath of John Arryn’s assassination during Robert’s reign. They’re also stories that have been told and retold to such an extent that reality has become separated from history, and fact from fiction.
Take the abduction of Lyanna, for example. As Brann’s visions make clear, she was not forcefully abducted by Rhaegar Targaryen, but fled with him willingly from her betrothed, Robert Baratheon, and married him in secret, legitimising a certain bastard. But, as “Game of Thrones” likes to drill home, history is written by the winners, and because Robert’s rebellion was a success and the Targaryens were all but annihilated, the truth behind the revolt—which, we must remember, was vital to conceal as it gives Robert his legitimacy—was buried with them.