What really sets Game of Thrones, or A Song of Ice and Fire (the actual name of the book series) apart from other fantasy fiction is its apparent historic realism. It has magical elements, but that tends to be pushed to the fringes of the overall story. And as most great authors often do, they borrow heavily from the real world. As Mark Twain once famously said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” So, George R.R. Martin tap into history as a seemingly endless source of material to draw inspiration from.
This means that many characters, locations, and events in the books have one and possibly even more historical inspirations. And if we come to think about it, even magic was real to the people from our own past, who sometimes believed without a shadow of a doubt that giants, zombies, or even dragons existed. But for the purpose of this article, we’ll focus our attention on proven historical fact. You should be warned that there may be some spoilers here and there. If you’re not caught up with the story, you should tread carefully.
10. The Map and Ancient History of Westeros
If we take a look at a map of Westeros (the fictional continent on which most of the story takes place), we’ll see a striking resemblance to the British Isles. Maybe not at first glance, no, but if we are to take Ireland and move it under England. Then flip it upside-down, expand it, and join them together. Now the two look more or less the same, right? A seemingly obvious reference point would be the southwest of Ireland, which in Westeros is the area known as The Fingers, part of The Vale.
Furthermore, when we take a look at Westeros’ own history, of how people got there in the first place, we can draw some parallels with what happened to England during our own timeline. The first ever modern humans to set foot onto the British Isles were Stone Age people who crossed over, even before the islands became separated from the rest of Europe after the last Ice Age. In GOT, we can consider these people to be the Children of the Forest (a mysterious non-human race that were reportedly the original inhabitants of the continent of Westeros).
Back on Earth around 1200 BC, a new group of peoples, loosely called Celts, began moving onto the British Isles. These people brought with them iron tools and weapons, which weren’t found in England prior to their arrival. In Westeros, these so called Celts are represented by the First Men, who came over from Essos (the Eurasian Continent in real life), 12,000 years before GOT begins. Six thousand years later, a new group of people cross over into Westeros, the Andals, and invade the land, overthrowing the First Men and establishing a sort of coexistence with them.
The Andals are the ones who established the Seven Kingdoms that we know of in the story. In our own timeline, the Angles and Saxons invaded England around 400 AD, and settled much of the island. The area the Anglo-Saxons conquered was divided into seven petty kingdoms, known as the Heptarchy.
Then there are the Vikings who made frequent raids into the British Isles for centuries. For a time, they even ruled over much of them. In GOT, these Norsemen are represented by the Ironborn. Lastly, we have the Targaryens, who invaded atop their dragons and subdued all seven kingdoms under their control, bringing peace to the continent. The Normans are their real-life equivalents, as they are the ones who successfully conquered England and united the island under William the Conqueror in 1066 AD. Aegon the Conqueror is his GOT counterpart.
9. The Seven Kingdoms and their European Counterparts
The story of Westeros in GOT resembles the European High Middle Ages, even though many things can’t be construed as accurate historical fact. In any case, the Seven Kingdoms from the story more closely resemble different nations in Europe, than the seven kingdoms in England during the Heptarchy. For starters, Dorne, the southernmost kingdom in Westeros, closely resembles Spain around the time of the Reconquista, when a large part was under Moorish rule. Dorne’s climate, much like Spain’s, is a lot hotter. Its landscape is much drier and rockier, and the culture is the most different from all the other Kingdoms in the story.
Next there’s The Reach, located just north of Dorne and separated by the Red Mountains. These mountains can be called the Pyrenees in real life, and The Reach would be France. Like France, the Reach has a much more pleasant climate than the rest of Westeros, and has a vast fertile land. The oldest and most culturally advanced city on the fictional continent is Oldtown, much like Paris was during the Middle-Ages. The Stormlands resemble Wales in that the kingdom is relatively small, rainy, and evergreen. The Westerlands best coincide with England itself, on the basis that both have risen to power based on their economies. Moreover, the rivalry between the Westerlands and The Reach is similar to that of the English and the French. Not to mention that both the English coat of arms and the Lannister one show lions.
The North is obviously Scotland, both because of its conflict with the Westerlands (England), and its Celtic/Pictish ancestry (First Men), not to mention its geographical location. The Iron Islands are Scandinavia, in that seafaring marauders live there, who have their own separate religion. The Vale can be considered Switzerland because of their mountainous terrain and relative neutrality during the War of the Five Kings. The Riverlands are Germany during Medieval times. Both share a history of numerous conflicts taking place over their lands. Moreover, Germany began to have a national identity of its own only after its unification under Otto von Bismarck in the 19th century. Similarly, the Riverands weren’t part of the Seven Kingdoms prior to the Targaryen conquest.
8. The War of the Five Kings and the Wars of the Roses
As far as we’re aware, Medieval England never had dragons or ice zombies. But what truly makes GOT amazing to watch, namely its political intrigue, did happen in real-life. The main plot of the books revolves around the War of the Five Kings and the utter chaos it left behind in Westeros. The shifting loyalties, conspiracies, personal interests, and the ever-growing intricacy are what draw people to the watch the show season after season. Although boobs, blood, and dragons certainly help. Interestingly enough, a similar power struggle, no less enthralling than GOT, happened in Medieval England. These series of civil conflicts are known as the Wars of the Roses, and took place over a period of 30 years (1455-1485).
The story is so convoluted and complex that it’s extremely hard to explain in just a few words. Everything started with the death of the King Edward III in 1377. He had a total of five sons, whose descendants would fight each other over the throne for generations, culminating with the Wars of the Roses. Two major houses, the Lancasters and the Yorks, were represented by a red and white rose respectively, and fought each other over the course of several generations to near annihilation. In the show, these two “power-players” would be loosely represented by the Lannisters and the Starks. The events following the king’s death are filled with wars, uneasy alliances, deception, intrigue, overthrows and assassinations worthy of a real “game of thrones.”
7. The Wall
The Wall in GOT is a colossal fortification built over 8,000 years ago by the First Men using both magic and conventional means. Its purpose is to keep the Seven Kingdoms safe from the Wildlings who live north beyond the wall, as well as other, less than ordinary, threats. It spans for 300 miles from coast to coast, is 700 feet tall, and is made entirely of solid ice. It’s defended by a group of sworn men, known as the Night’s Watch, an honorable institution which has since fallen on hard times during the War of the Five Kings.
The remnants of a somewhat similar wall exist even to this day in England. It’s less extraordinary by comparison, but a marvel of engineering nonetheless. It was built in 122 AD by the Romans who, after a few tries, managed to conquer most of England and Wales, but were unable to subdue present-day Scotland. Hadrian’s Wall, called that after Emperor Hadrian (who commissioned it), stretches for 73 miles from Wallsend (Segedunum) on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness on the Solway Firth in the west.
Unlike the magical wall in GOT, this one only towers between 10 to 20 feet high and is made out of stone. Its purpose was to keep the barbarian Picts and Caledonians living farther north at bay. While the senior Roman military commanders did have wives, the lower ranks were forbidden to marry (similar to the Night’s Watch vow of celibacy) so as to not have any ties to the area, in the event that they would be needed elsewhere.
6. Qarth, the Free Cities, the Dothraki and Yi Ti
Now on to Essos (Eurasia) and the similarities this fictional continent has with real history. First there’s Qarth, “the Greatest City that Ever Was or Will Be,” located on the southern coast of Essos and linking the Summer and Jade Seas. It’s among the most powerful and wealthiest cities in the GOT universe, is defended by huge walls, has never been conquered, and lies between the continent’s western shores and the Far East. In real-life, Qarth is the equivalent of Constantinople in almost every way.
The Free Cities are nine powerful and independent city-states located on or around the shores of the Narrow Sea, and which engage in heavy trade with Westeros. With the exception of Braavos, all the other cities were semi-independent colonies and part of the Valaryan Freehold. After the Valaryan destruction, these cities managed to survive, get their independence and even flourish. The Free Cities offered a bit more of social mobility for its citizens than Westeros. Their historical counterparts, and with a somewhat similar story, are the Italian city-states that slowly emerged after the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire.
The Dothraki are best associated with the Mongols from our own timeline, since both peoples followed a nomadic lifestyle, in comparison with the feudal system prevalent in both worlds at the time. Both are horse-mounted warriors who inhabit vast plains in central Essos and Eurasia respectively. They make a living mostly by plundering other, more sedentary, people. The Yi Ti, on the other hand, is an ancient civilization located in the easternmost fringes of the known world. Not much is known about them from a Westerosi perspective, similar to how little Western Europeans knew about the Ancient Chinese. They knew they existed, they knew they were advanced and that they lived in the Far East, but nothing much beyond that.
5. Wildfire and Greek Fire
Wildfire is a bright green, extremely flammable, and volatile liquid created by the Alchemist’s Guild, an ancient Westerosi order with advanced knowledge of magic and the arcane. Present in large underground caches all throughout King’s Landing, Wildfire is among the most powerful weapons in the ruler’s arsenal. The Pyromancers (members of the Alchemist’s Guid) refer to it as “The Substance,” while the lower classes sometimes call it “Pyromancer’s piss”.
It was used on several occasions by members of the Targaryen ruling family, some worshipers of the Lord of Light, and by Thoros of Myr, who used to coat his sword with it and set it ablaze in order to scare his enemies in battle. During the events happening in the GOT story, Wildfire was used as a deus ex machina on more than one occasion. But while in the story Wildfire is regarded as a magical substance, its real life counterpart is not.
Just like Wildfire, Greek Fire was a closely guarded secret whose recipe was known by only a handful of people. Greek Fire was invented in the Byzantine Empire, by Kallinikos from Heliopolis in 673 AD. With the exception of its color, this medieval weapon is similar to Wildfire in almost every other way. It was highly flammable, it burned on water, and could only be extinguished with large amounts of sand. Like Westeros, the Byzantine Empire used it on its enemies on numerous occasions, with some truly devastating and terrifying consequences.
4. The Titan of Braavos and the Colossus of Rhodes
During ancient times in our own history, the small island of Rhodes was an important economic center in the Mediterranean. Built in 408 BC, Rhodes was specifically designed to take advantage of the island’s natural harbor, becoming a leading trade hub and a power player in the Aegean Sea. After surviving a siege in 305 BC, led by Demetrius I of Macedon, its citizens decided to build a tremendous monument to mark their survival and freedom from the Macedonians.
By melting down the many bronze war machines left behind by Demetrius, they began construction of a 98 feet high statue of the sun-god and patron of the city, Helios. Located at the entrance of the harbor, the Colossus of Rhodes was the tallest statue in the world at the time. In 225 BC the Colossus was partially destroyed by an earthquake and in 653 AD, what remained of the statue was sold off to a Jewish merchant by an Arab expedition. Nevertheless, the Colossus is regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
In the GOT universe, a similar statue exists, guarding Braavos, one of the nine Free Cities. The Titan of Braavos, as it is called, stands at 400 feet tall, is made out of stone and bronze, and acts as a primary defense for the city and its harbor. Moreover, the Titan is listed as one of the Nine Wonders Made by Man.
3. The Hightower and Alexandria in Egypt
While on the subject of World Wonders, in both GOT and the real world, one can’t help but notice a striking resemblance between the Hightower in Oldtown, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt. Besides the fact that both look almost the same, both had the purpose of being lighthouses and among the tallest buildings in the world.
While Hightower stands at 800 feet tall (100 feet taller than the Wall itself), its Egyptian counterpart was at 440 feet, only surpassed by the pyramid at Giza. But while the Lighthouse in Alexandria was built at the beginning of the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy Soter, Hightower’s beginnings are shrouded in mystery. It is assumed that its architect was the legendary Bran the Builder some 8,000 years ago.
Another striking resemblance between Hightower and Alexandria is their world renowned libraries. While in the TV show, the huge library is within the tower itself, in the books the Citadel is described as a university-like complex of buildings spread throughout the city of Oldtown. In any case, the Library in Alexandria and the Citadel are the largest collections of knowledge in both the real world and GOT.
2. The Characters and their historical “Doppelgängers”
By what we’ve seen so far, it’s no wonder that G.R.R Martin also relied on history when it came to writing his characters. While we already mentioned Aegon the Conqueror as being William of Normandy in real life, many of the others are also based on England’s historical figures, mainly from the time of the Wars of the Roses. For starters, let’s take King Robert I Baratheon.
His character is most likely based on several historical figures, such as King Edward III, whose death led to the Wars of the Roses. There’s also some Henry VI, an inept ruler who married Margaret of Anjou, and who was friends with Richard of York. Margaret of Anjou was beautiful and a prime driver of the Wars of the Roses. She distrusted her husband’s friend, Richard of York, and had a son, Edward of Westminster, who was rumored to be a bastard. Margaret clearly has a striking similarity to Cersei Lannister in GOT. Edward of Westminster is Joffrey in the show, both for being Margaret’s son, as well as for being reportedly cruel.
Richard of York was Edward III’s close advisor and loyal general, but was increasingly sidelined by the Queen, Margaret of Anjou. He was later appointed as Lord Protector, a sort of Regent, or “Hand of the King,” when Edward suffered a mental breakdown. In 1460 Richard was decapitated after suffering a defeat at the hands of Margaret’s loyalists. He has “Ned Stark” written all over him. Richard’s son, Edward IV (Robb Stark) became king of England after his father’s death, and enjoyed numerous military victories against the Lancasters. He even backed out of an arranged marriage with a French princess to secretly marry the widow of a minor noble.
Richard III, Edward’s younger brother, became Regent after the king’s death. He quickly declared his nephews illegitimate on the basis of their parents’ secret marriage, thus taking the throne for himself. He can loosely be associated with Stannis Baratheon. He would be deposed, not two years later, by Henry Tudor (Daenerys Targaryen), a descendant of the first Duke of Lancaster. Henry Tudor grew up in exile, after his father’s death in a previous rebellion.
Theon Greyjoy plays the role of George Plantagenet in real life, as the younger brother of Edward IV and Richard III who turned on Edward during the war, defecting to the Lancasters. After Edward won, George was drowned in a butt of wine for his treason; a far better fate than what Theon had to endure. And lastly there’s Tywin Lannister, who is considered the richest man in Westeros. Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, was also known for his wealth during the Wars of the Roses.
1. The Red Wedding
All of us who’ve watched the show or read the books know all about the Red Wedding, and it’s quite pointless to discuss it here even further. But we would like to point to a similar event that took place about the same time as the Wars of the Roses, but this time in Scotland. The Chancellor of Scotland at that time, Sir William Crichton, invited both the 16-year-old Earl of Douglas and his younger brother to dinner at Edinburgh Castle, on behalf of James II, the 10-year-old King of Scotland. After everyone had their fill, and people were enjoying themselves, the severed head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Douglas clan. The boys were then taken outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. This event was later known as the “Black Dinner.”
Another such gruesome incident happened in February 1692, when 120 soldiers were seeking shelter in Glen Coe, Scotland. The MacDonald clan happily offered their hospitality, as was customary in the Highlands. For the next two weeks, the soldiers lived in their houses. Then, on the night of the 13th of February, the soldiers received orders to kill as many of their hosts as they could. Thirty-eight men lay dead after the onslaught that ensued and another 40 women and children died of exposure, trying to escape into a blizzard raging outside.
The massacre was considered especially atrocious since it was “Slaughter under Trust.” This is similar to how Walder Frey betrayed promise of protection for those who break bread under his roof. The MacDonald clan was butchered for failing to provide an oath of allegiance on time to the new King of Scotland, just as the Starks were targeted for Robb’s continued rebellion against the Lannisters.